Who Goes There? (4)


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

This post will complete our series on watchmen, sentries, and patrols in The Lord of the Rings and how confrontations with such figures may change the action.

In our last, we’d gotten as far as Edoras and, within, Meduseld, with Hama, its doorwarden.


(This is actually from John Howe’s painting of Heorot, the mead hall in Beowulf, but, as Meduseld is meant to mean “mead hall” in Rohirric—the language of Rohan—we figure that we can justify the substitution.)

From Edoras, we’ll follow Gandalf and Pippin to Minas Tirith,


passing through the Rammas Echor, the old barrier wall protecting the fields of the Pelennor, where Gandalf talks  with Ingold, who appears to be in charge of repairing a section of that wall fallen into disrepair.  (See The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)  We don’t have a illustration of this—although we think that it would make a good one—so, as we think of the Rammas Echor as a cousin of Hadrian’s wall, here’s an illustration of that wall under construction, just to give the idea.


But we said we will follow Gandalf and Pippin.  First, we have to double back to Isengard, where the Ents have wreaked justifiable havoc.


(A T Nasmith we’ve used before)

When Gandalf and crowd come to call upon Saruman, they meet with very different doorwardens from Hama:

“The king and all his company sat silent on their horses, marvelling, perceiving that the power of Saruman was overthrown; but how they could not guess.  And now they turned their eyes towards the archway and the ruined gates.  There they saw close beside them a great rubble heap; and suddenly they were aware of two small figures lying on it at their ease, grey-clad, hardly to be seen among the stones.  There were bottles and bowls and platters laid beside them, as if they had just eaten well, and now rested from their labour.  One seemed asleep, the other, with crossed legs and arms behind his head, leaned back against a broken rock and sent from his mouth long wisps and little rings of thin blue smoke.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)


It’s Merry and Pippin, of course, and, for Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, after their long, grim march across northern Rohan in search of their missing companions, only to have Eomer suggest that they’ve been killed with the orcs, this is certainly a change of mood, as well as a change of plot—not only are the two restored, but Pippin will help to rescue Faramir from his mad father and Merry will save Eowyn from the Nazgul.

Now, however, having picked up Pippin, we’ll continue on to Minas Tirith,


where, at the approach of Shadowfax:

“So Gandalf and Peregrin rode to the Great Gate of the Men of Gondor at the rising of the sun, and its iron doors rolled back before them…Then men fell back before the command of his voice…” (The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

Passing up through the seven levels of the city, they dismounted at the gate of the Citadel, where:

“The Guards of the gate were robed in black, and their helms were of strange shape, high-crowned, with long cheek-guards close-fitting to the face, and above the cheek-guards were set the white wings of sea-birds; but the helms gleamed with a flame of silver, for they were indeed wrought of mithril, heirlooms from the glory of old days.  Upon the black surcoats were embroidered in white a tree blossoming like snow beneath a silver crown and many-pointed stars.”

This was an image surprisingly difficult to find.  Here’s a depiction (sort of) from the Jackson films.


The helmet might be right, but the black surcoat is missing—here’s Pippin, also from the films, wearing one.


We add to this an image by a Russian illustrator, Denis Gordeev.  Here, the helmet may not be quite what we’d expect, but the rest of the ensemble works.


It says much for Gandalf’s influence in Minas Tirith that neither does Ingold, at the Rammas Echor, challenge him, nor the guards at the main gate of Minas Tirith, nor those at the Citadel—as Ingold says:

“Yea, truly we know you, Mithrandir…and you know the pass-words of the Seven Gates and are free to go forward.”

Our next sentries, are not so easily passed however, as Frodo and Sam discover, when:

“Four tall Men stood there.  Two had spears in their hands with broad bright heads.  Two had great bows, almost of their own height, and great quivers of long green-feathered arrows.  All had swords at their sides, and were clad in green and brown of varied hues, as if the better to walk unseen in the glades of Ithilien.  Green gauntlets covered their hands, and their faces were hooded and masked with green, except for their eyes, which were very keen and bright.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)


Their outfits immediately made us think of NC Wyeth’s Robin Hood and his men


from Wyeth’s 1917 Robin-hood.


Their leader, Faramir, questions Frodo and Sam closely before letting them go—and this meeting gives Faramir news of the end of Boromir, a view of Boromir’s character from Frodo, as well as providing us with a view of Faramir, who says of the Ring:

“I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway.  Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory.  No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo son of Drogo.”  (The Two Towers, Book Four,  Chapter 5, “The Window on the West”)

Once he knows their purpose, Faramir lets them go—to much worse sentries.  First, there are orc patrols, like those of Shagrat and Gorbag.

Image13:  shag and bagimage13shagnbag.jpg

There is no conversation here between hobbits and orcs, but we certainly gain a better view of orc loyalty, as one orc leader, Gorbag, says to another, Shagrat:

“What d’you say? –if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”)

Then there are the Watchers at the Tower of Cirith Ungol:

“They were like great figures seated upon thrones.  Each had three joined bodies, and three heads facing outward, and inward, and across the gateway.  The heads had vulture-faces, and on their great knees were laid clawlike hands.  They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware:  some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them.  They knew an enemy.  Visible or invisible none could pass unheeded…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)


And here are the last sentries and perhaps a last sign for Frodo and Sam before their terrible and near-fatal trip across Mordor that there is still power for good in a world grown dark.  Having rescued Frodo from his orcish imprisonment, Sam and Frodo have come up against the Watchers, who seem to block their way until:

“ ‘Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!’ Sam cried…

Aiya elenion ancalima!’ cried Frodo once again behind him.

The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. “

There are no more sentries, although the two hobbits will be passed by a small search party and will then be swept up into an orc marching company before being on their own on the way to Mount Doom, where we will leave them and this set of postings.

As always, thanks for reading and




Who Goes There? (3)


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

We’re in the third installment of a little series about sentries and patrols in Middle-earth.

We had begun in the first installment in the Shire, with the shirriffs, then the watchman in Bree, then the watcher in the lake at the western gates of Moria, then the Elves of Lorien under Haldir, finishing with the Argonath, the biggest sentries of all.


Now, as we move south, we encounter our first patrol.  From his experience in the Great War,


JRRT would have been very familiar with groups of armed men spreading out across the countryside, either slipping into enemy territory or simply guarding the edges of their own.


And patrols could be on horseback, as well as on foot—and not necessarily friendly, either.


As Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli cross northern Rohan in their attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin, they run into one of these patrols:  Eomer and his Rohirrim.



As we mentioned in our second installment, when it comes to The Lord of the Rings, encounters with watchers of any sort often lead to developments in the plot and this is certainly true when the three meet with Eomer.  They have pursued the Orcs for days in hopes of rescuing Merry and Pippin, only to be told that the band in which the two hobbits were being kept prisoner has been destroyed completely:

“ ‘Did you search the slain?’” Aragorn asks, explaining, “ ‘Were there no bodies other than those of orc-kind?  They would be small, only children to your eyes, unshod but clad in grey.’

‘There were no dwarves nor children,’ said Eomer.  ‘We counted all the slain and despoiled them, and then we piled the carcasses and burned them, as is our custom.  The ashes are smoking still.’” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

Aragorn is unshaken in his belief that the two may still be alive, however, and the three will continue their search, but now, as Eomer has loaned them horses, so he has lain an obligation upon Aragorn:

“ ‘You may go; and what is more, I will lend you horses.  This only I ask:  when your quest is achieved, or is proved vain, return with the horses over the Entwade to Meduseld, the high house in Edoras where Theoden now sits.  Thus you shall prove to him that I have not misjudged.  In this I place myself, and maybe my very life, in the keeping of your good faith.  Do not fail.’ “

And so, rather than to continue to Minas Tirith, as Aragorn had planned, he and his two companions are to be diverted to the capital of Rohan, instead.  Meeting Gandalf in their search,


they fulfill Aragorn’s promise and are met by two separate sets of watchmen.  First, at the gates of Edoras:

“There sat many men in bright mail, who sprang at once to their feet and barred the way with spears. ‘Stay, strangers here unknown!’ they cried in the tongue of the Riddermark, demanding the names and errand of the strangers.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)

In his reply, Gandalf speaks in the language of Rohan, but wonders “Why do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?”

To which one of the guards replies:  “It is the will of Theoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends.”

[This use of language as a screening test, by the way, reminds us of a well-known story from the Hebrew Bible, in which, when the Ephraimites were defeated in battle and attempted to escape over the Jordan River, their opponents, the men of Gilead, stood at the crossings and, whenever a strange man tried to ford  the river, the Gileadites would demand that he pronounce the word “shibboleth” (which means “a stalk of grain”, among other things).  In the Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew, the consonant combination “sh” was said “s”, and so, at least as the story goes, every Ephraimite warrior who slipped and said “shibboleth” was immediately revealed to be an enemy soldier and was captured and killed.  (See The Book of Judges, Chapter 12)]

Aragorn has already been warned by Eomer that all is not well in Edoras, as he has said about Saruman, who has become an enemy of Rohan, “His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky.  I do not know how it will all end, and my heart misgives me; for it seems to me that his friends do not all dwell in Isengard.”

This confrontation between guards and Gandalf immediately makes Gandalf wary, especially when he hears from one of the sentries that:

“It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Theoden no stranger should pass these gates.”

Knowing from this that Wormtongue is inserting himself into Theoden’s actions prepares Gandalf to deal with the next sentry, the Doorward Hama.

“Then one of the guards stepped forward and spoke in the Common Speech.

‘I am the Doorward of Theoden…Hama is my name.  Here I must bid you lay aside your weapons before you enter.’ “

[If you read us regularly, you’ll recognize this figure from Beowulf.  There he is named Wulfgar, and he is the herald of King Hrothgar.  See Beowulf, 330-355.]

Although Legolas easily puts aside his weapons, Aragorn is a bit stiff-necked, refusing, at first, to put down Anduril until Gandalf offers his sword, Glamdring, followed by Gimli, who places his axe with the other weapons.  Hama hasn’t finished, however:

“The guard still hesitated.  ‘Your staff,’ he said to Gandalf.  ‘Forgive me, but that too must be left at the doors.’ “

Gandalf appears to object, on the grounds of his age:

“Foolishness!…Prudence is one thing, but discourtesy is another.  I am old.  If I may not lean on my stick as I go, then I will sit out here, until it pleases Theoden to hobble out himself to speak with me.”

Hama has a moment of proper doubt—“  ‘The staff in the hand of a wizard may be more than a prop for age.’ “—but he still allows Gandalf to carry his staff, which he then uses to disarm Grima Wormtongue and break the spell which has prematurely aged Theoden.

We have now added three more watchmen or groups to our growing list, all from Rohan and each meeting having had an effect upon those involved.  In the final installment of our series, we’ll leave the grassy plains of the Riddermark for Gondor, then cross the Anduin into a very different world.

Till then, thanks, as ever, for reading and



Who Goes There? (2)


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we had begun discussion of the use of watchmen/sentries in The Lord of the Rings.  In our last, in fact, we had stopped with what is well-known to have been a strong influence—especially in The Hobbit—upon JRRT:  Beowulf, and its two such figures.  Here’s Beowulf with the first.


What particularly interests us is that, often when such a figure—or figures—is encountered, it slows the action, but, interestingly, may cause further action at the same time:  the protagonist can be challenged, questioned, or even forced to act—all part of what we call “no fiction without friction”—and we’ll see what this does for the characters now as we’re off on our journey through Middle-earth, beginning  where The Lord of the Rings begins, in the Shire.


Before we go farther, however, we would like to expand our definition of watchman/sentry just a little to include the mobile equivalent of sentries, patrols:

“The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed…There were in the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work.  A rather larger body, varying at need, was employed to ‘beat the bounds’, and to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.”  (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 3, “Of the Ordering of the Shire”)

Tolkien says of these shirriffs that “they were in practice rather haywards then policemen”, and “hay” here doesn’t  mean horse and cattle feed  but, rather, it’s an old word for “hedge”(from Old English “haga”) and we see our next sentry at the hedge which surrounds Bree.  Initially, this is “old Harry”, who seems, when the hobbits arrive, a bit too inquisitive:

“They came to the West-gate and found it shut; but at the door of the lodge beyond it, there was a man sitting.  He jumped up and fetched a lantern and looked over the gate at them in surprise.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)

It says, perhaps, something about the confidence of the Elves that, at Rivendell, there are neither sentries nor patrols—although perhaps the River Bruinen might be considered at least a defense, considering that it sweeps away the Nazgul when they try to cross.

At the Ford, by Ted Nasmith

(Image by one of our favorite Tolkien illustrators, Ted Nasmith)

This idea of a natural force as sentry appears again before the Fellowship enters Moria—although, this time, as they climb along the mountains on the way south, it is decidedly not on their side:

“They heard eerie noises in the darkness round them.  It may have been only a trick of the wind in the cracks and gullies of the rocky wall, but the sounds were those of shrill cries, and wild howls of laughter.  Stones began to fall from the mountain-side, whistling over their heads, or crashing on the path beside them.  Every now and again they heard a dull rumble, as a great boulder rolled down from hidden heights above.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

The combination of rock and snow forces the Fellowship to make what seems at the time a fatal decision:  to go not south, but east, into the Mines of Moria, with the disappearance of Gandalf as the consequence.

At the western doors of Moria, however, they encounter another negative force, something in the manmade lake in front of those doors.  It is a watcher, if not an active sentry, although what it really is, even Gandalf doesn’t know:

“Something has crept or has been driven out of dark waters under the mountains.  There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep places of the world.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)


Whatever this creature may be (and it has lots of tentacles, which makes us think immediately of the squid with which the crew of the submarine Nautilus has to contend in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)


their encounter with it insures that their choice of traveling through Moria can’t be revoked:

“Many coiling arms seized the doors on either side, and with horrible strength, swung them round.  With a shattering echo they slammed, and all light was lost.  A noise of rending and crashing came dully through the ponderous stone…They heard Gandalf go back down the steps and thrust his staff against the doors.  There was a quiver in the stone and the stairs trembled, but the doors did not open.”

On the far side of Moria, at the edge of Lorien, the company meets its next watcher—or watchers, rather, a listening post of Elves set on a platform in a tree, where:

“…[Frodo] found Legolas seated with three other Elves.  They were clad in shadowy-grey, and could not be seen among the tree-stems, unless they moved suddenly.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 6, “Lothlorien”)

And here we see an interesting development brought on by contact with the Elves at this sentry-post.  Because the Elves are mistrustful of Gimli, there is an awkward moment:  he is to be led blindfolded into the center of Lorien, something he resists until Aragorn proposes that all be blindfolded, to which Gimli makes a counterproposal that only Legolas need be blindfolded, which Legolas resists, and all are back to Aragorn’s proposal, but the leader of the Elves, Haldir, draws a moral from the situation:

“Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

Our last sentries for this posting are more a symbol in that they are inanimate, but full of warning all the same:

“  ‘Behold the Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings!’ cried Aragorn…

As Frodo was borne towards them the great pillars rose like towers to meet him.  Giants they seemed to him, vast grey figures silent but threatening.  Then he saw that they were indeed shaped and fashioned…Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone:  still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North.  The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning; in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown.  Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom. “  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Great River”)

argonath hildebrandt

But, for all their forbidding look, they spark something in Aragorn—

“ ‘Fear not!’ said a strange voice behind him.  Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weatherworn Ranger was no longer there.  In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skilful strokes; his hood was cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes:  a king returning from exile to his own land.”

And, on that inspiring note, we’ll pause for this posting, saving the rest of the sentries, watchers, and patrols for Part 3.

In the meantime, thanks, as always, for reading.



Who’s There? (1)


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

We have always been Shakespeare fans, our favorite plays being Macbeth, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, Henry V—and we guess we’d add a few more, too, as we think about it.  Our first love was Hamlet.


It opens with a nervous sentry on the battlements of Elsinore castle.  (Actually Kronborg—the local town is Helsingor—here’s the castle today), in the kingdom of Denmark.


Something uncanny appears to be happening and, when his replacement comes, we have the idea that it’s made the watchmen jumpy:

The Tragicall Historie of

HAMLETPrince of Denmarke.

Enter Two Centinels.

  1. STand: who is that?
  2. Tis I.
  3. O you come most carefully vpon your watch,
  4. And if you meete Marcellus and Horatio,

The partners of my watch, bid them make haste.

  1. I will: See who goes there.

Enter Horatio and Marcellus.

Hor. Friends to this ground.

Mar. And leegemen to the Dane,

O farewell honest souldier, who hath releeued you?

  1. Barnardo hath my place, giue you good night.

Mar. Holla, Barnardo.

  1. Say, is Horatio there?

Hor. A peece of him.

  1. Welcome Horatio, welcome good Marcellus.

Mar. What hath this thing appear’d againe to night.

  1. I haue seene nothing.

Mar. Horatio sayes tis but our fantasie,

And wil not let beliefe take hold of him,

Touching this dreaded sight twice seene by vs,

Therefore I haue intreated him a long with vs

To watch the minutes of this night,

That if againe this apparition come,

He may approoue our eyes, and speake to it.

(The Tragicall History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, from its first publication, the First Folio, 1603)

We love the way Shakespeare begins with two minor characters discussing “this thing”—and we won’t learn till deeper in the scene that what they’ve seen was the ghost of Hamlet’s father:  a wonderful, spooky—and intriguing—opening.

This isn’t a Shakepeare posting, however.  What really interested us recently was, in fact, that it’s with two sentries that the play commences. Their job is to watch for anyone who might try to enter the castle for nefarious purposes (and, try as they might, they can’t do that with a ghost) and it got us to thinking about sentries in The Lord of the Rings and just how many there actually are.

From his experience in the Great War, Tolkien would have been very experienced with such people


and even from simply visiting London.


(The Queen has five regiments of foot guards, by the way.  The buttons in twos on his tunic—as well as the red plume on his fur cap—tell us that he belongs to the second regiment, the Coldstream Guards—here’s a chart so that you, too, can be able to tell them apart.)


His scholarly experience would have added to this, particularly in his long-time study of Beowulf,


in which two such folk appear.  First, Beowulf and his companions encounter a kind of coast guard, when they cross from what is now southern Sweden to Denmark.


On the shore, a Danish watchman


challenges them:

“From rocks up above them
Hrothgar’s sentinel,
whose task was to guard
and patrol the sea-cliffs,
saw strangers who bore
stout battle-gear
and sturdy war-shields
striding down the gangplank;
he needed to know
who these newcomers were.
Mounting his horse
he made for the beach,
brandished his spear
and bluntly challenged
the foreign sailors
with formal words:
‘Who are you, you unknown
ironclad men,
alien troops
armed in mailcoats,
bringing your boat
from abroad, crossing
the sounding sea?’ “

(This is from Section III of  Dick Ringler’s 2005 translation, intentionally designed for recitation aloud.  Here’s the LINK to the full text.  If this is your first experience of the poem, we very much recommend that you visit the site and have a look—our students like the translation and the introductory material is very helpful.)

Beowulf’s response and the look of him and his men so impresses the coastguard that he not only lets them pass, but even says that he will detach someone to keep an eye on their boat while they’re moving inland to visit the king, Hrothgar.

At Hrothgar’s palace, however, they meet with a second guard:

“An eagle-eyed sentry
who stood in the doorway
studied them closely.
‘What country do you come from
with your curved shields,
your meshed war-shirts
and mask-helmets,
your iron spears?
I am the herald
of noble Hrothgar.
I have never seen
so bold or brave
a band of foreigners,
so it is less likely
that you are landless strays
than valiant adventurers
visiting my king.’ “

(from section V of the Ringler)

Again, the look of Beowulf and his men and Beowulf’s humble address persuades Wulfgar, the herald, to agree to take a message about them to Hrothgar—and Hrothgar tells us that he has had dealings long before with Beowulf’s father and remembers Beowulf, as well.

There are no coastguards in The Lord of the Rings, but Wulfgar bears a strong family resemblance to Hama, the Doorward of Theoden, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come to Meduseld, but we’ll see more of him in the second part of our look at sentries in our next posting.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, as ever.





Thrones or Dominions (2)


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we began to discuss what we called the governments of Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring, making a kind of Grand Tour using the plot movement of The Lord of the Rings to loosely shape our itinerary.  (And here we’re borrowing from a witty idea, on a site called brilliantmaps.com, where we found “If Frodo and Sam had Google Maps of Middle-earth”.)


Our first stop was the Shire, where we proposed that this was a “government by the few”:  that is, an oligarchy, a certain number of old and established families controlling the state.  From there, we moved on to Bree, where there was so little information that our best guess was that it, too, was probably an oligarchy, some sort of loose-knit one among—or perhaps uniting—the four villages which made up the general area.

Next, we grouped together what we suggested were two Elf kingdoms, Rivendell and Lorien, where Elrond and Galadriel (along with the nearly-invisible Celeborn), clearly were in charge, although neither would claim the title of monarch.

At our next stop, Isengard, Saruman,


who had begun as one of the five Maiar sent to oppose the annoyingly-persistent Sauron, had moved from being what Gandalf called “the chief of my order” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”), to being a kind of dictator—but one in the shadow of Sauron, just as Mussolini (1883-1945), who, from 1922, had been a model for such figures,


had fallen, by the later 1930s, into being the shadow of another, more powerful, dictator.


Like Elrond and Galadriel, he carries no title, but his captain, Ugluk, calls him “the Wise, the White Hand:  the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat”, which probably tells us more than we want to know about his rule. (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

We believe that this shadow may have been created by Saruman’s growing arrogance (which Gandalf points out to Frodo in “The Shadow of the Past”) combined with his overconfidence in using a palantir he has found in Orthanc and which puts him into communication with Sauron—and Sauron’s ability to seduce.


Sauron himself seems like the primal dictator, but a dictator before the 20th century, when dictators began to have a growing media world to employ to make themselves omnipresent in the lives of their citizens.



Instead, he’s  remote—sitting in the Barad dur, yet


(and we can’t resist this image by “Rackthejipper”)


represented as being like 1984’s Big Brother, always watching.


Or, as it is crudely represented in the Jackson films, literally a giant eye on a tower.


When one thinks of modern dictators, however, one imagines them backed by huge bureaucracies, like the ministries in 1984:

“The Ministry of Truth–Minitrue, in Newspeak [Newspeak was the official

language of Oceania. For an account of its structure and etymology see

Appendix.]–was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It

was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring

up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston

stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in

elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:






The Ministry of Truth contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above

ground level, and corresponding ramifications below. Scattered about London

there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So

completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof

of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously. They

were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus

of government was divided. The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself

with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of

Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which

maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible

for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv,

and Miniplenty. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)


Instead, what we can see of Sauron’s government is much more medieval, beginning with the Nazgul, who were once human kings,


who would be like the barons, the chief feudal deputies  of a king in a feudal world of the sort medieval England was and upon which much of Middle-earth, as we’ve suggested in many earlier postings, was based.  The chief of these was then the commander of Sauron’s main attack on Minas Tirith.


To which we would add “the Voice of Sauron” (reminding us, of course, that he is only the spokesperson and Sauron would be presumed to have his eye on him, as well).  If you look for images of him, you will commonly find this:


But, like certain other depictions in the Jackson films (that eye, for example), it is a very literal interpretation for someone JRRT described as:

“The rider was robed all in black, and black was his lofty helm; yet this was no Ringwraith but a living man…it is told that he was a renegade, who came of the race of those that are named the Black Numenoreans…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”)

Here’s an image possibility which comes a bit closer to the text, in our opinion.


From dictators, we make a final stop at two actual feudal  kings, the first, the ruler of Rohan, Theoden,


is clearly the descendant of earlier kings, as we are told in Appendix A, of The Lord of the Rings, “The Kings of the Mark”, where the line begins with Eorl the Young and continues for about five hundred years.

In the case of our other monarchy, Gondor, the kings who ruled for so many centuries (from SA3320 to TA 2050), have disappeared and, though the fiction is maintained that they will someday return, the actual ruler is their deputy, the Steward, and his role as lieutenant is symbolized literally by his position in the old throne room:

“At the far end, upon a dais [a kind of raised platform] of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm; behind it was carved upon the wall and set with gems an image of a tree in flower.  But the throne was empty.  At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith)image17throne.jpg

At the same time, Denethor, and all of the previous Stewards, were kings in all but name, having ruled Gondor for twenty-five generations (see Appendix A, “The Stewards” for details).

So, in sum we have:

  1. 2 possible oligarchies (the Shire, Bree)
  2. 4 kingdoms (or at least sort of, in the case of the Elves—Rivendell, Lorien, plus Rohan and Gondor)
  3. 2 dictatorships (eastern Rohan, extending from Isengard, Mordor)

And, just when we were summarizing, the thought came to us:  what about the dwarves?  We can imagine that, considering Thorin’s family, there have been the equivalent of kings among the dwarves, but that’s a posting for another day!

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Thrones or Dominions, Principalities or Powers (1)


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

In a letter to his son, Christopher, of 29 November, 1943, Tolkien wrote:

“Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses;  and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.  And so on down the line.  But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that—after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world—is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way.” (Letters, 64)

Monarchs, of course, are all that he had known, when it came to heads of state.  Born during the last years of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837-1901),


he lived under King Edward VII (reigned 1901-1910),


George V (ruled 1910-1936),


Edward VIII (ruled 1936—abdicated in favor of his younger brother),


George VI (ruled 1936-1952),


and died in 1973 during the reign of Elizabeth II (1952—the present).


It’s not that he was very enthusiastic about monarchies—in the same letter he says “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)…”

but even there he couldn’t escape the structure he was a subject of, adding “or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.”

This made us consider how this conditioning might be reflected in Middle-earth—after all, the title of the third volume of The Lord of the Rings is The Return of the King.  What were the governments of Middle-earth at, roughly, the time of the War of the Ring?  How many were monarchies and what other forms might there be?

Recently, we had looked at the governing structure of the Shire,


about which, as JRRT has told us:

“The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’.  (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 3. “Of the Ordering of the Shire”)

This depends, of course, upon what is meant by “government”.  There is an elected Mayor, the “only real official in the Shire”, and whose job appears, at first, to be only ceremonial, until we are informed  that “the offices of Postmaster and First Shirriff were attached to the mayoralty.”  At the same time, there was an hereditary position of leader, the Thain, controlled by the Took family, and, the more Tolkien explains, the more it appears that what really governs the Shire is an oligarchy—that is, a small group of families who, together, quietly run things.   (There may also be tension just below the surface about which families this oligarchy includes.  When Saruman (aka “Sharkey”) takes over the Shire, he favors not the Tooks, but the Bagginses, suggesting that he is aware of this tension and may be exploiting it.)

As we move across Middle-earth with the Fellowship,


the next settlement we come to is Bree.  The government of this is completely unclear.  All that we’re told is that:

“The Big Folk and the Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk…The Bree-folk, Big and Little, did not themselves travel much, and the affairs of the four villages were their chief concern.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)

Their only defense appears to have been “a deep dike [ditch] with a thick hedge on the inner side”, but who maintains it is not mentioned, although there is a gate guard—the evil Bill Ferny, when the hobbits first approach the gate.  Unlike the Shirriffs of the Shire, however, we have no idea what structure might lie behind this position.

As we travel farther eastward, we come to Rivendell.


Here, Elrond is clearly in charge, but seems to have no distinct title—unlike Thranduil, who is called “the King of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”).   The same lack of title seems to be true of Galadriel.


Although Gimli calls her “Queen Galadriel” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”), and she, along with Celeborn, rules Lorien, she does not bear that title—in fact she may be a little anxious about it, as seen when Frodo offers her the ring:

“You will give me the Ring freely?  In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

Along with Frodo’s frightening vision of her, this seems more like a warning than a statement.

We’ve seen that monarchy seems to be linked with inheritance:  the thainship in the Shire is passed down through the Tooks.  Even Elrond and Galadriel appear to hold their positions through seniority.  In our next government, it is self-assumed, as Saruman, once referred to by Gandalf as “the chief of my order” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”), begins to have grander plans.


In contrast to other monarchs in The Lord of the Rings, Saruman, we would suggest,  is not so much a medieval king, as others in Middle-earth  are, but an avatar for modern (1930s-1940s) dictators,


with, as Treebeard says, “a mind of metal and wheels” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”).  In fact, Saruman is a relative newcomer to the business, “setting up on his own with his filthy white badges”, as Grishnakh describes him (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”), in contrast with Sauron, who, although intermittent in his attempts at control, has been involved in the process in Middle-earth for many centuries.

In his role of metal and wheels dictator, Saruman turns Isengard into a factory/fortress, manufacturing everything from orcs to swords within its precinct.  His orc captain, Ugluk, calls him “Saruman the Wise, the White Hand”, but we see him later in his real form, as he works to destroy the Shire, as “Sharkey”—a name he says “All my people used to call me that in Isengard, I believe.  A sign of affection, possibly.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)  This is hardly “His Majesty”.  Rather, it’s more like the kind of nickname a gang-leader in the US in the 1920s-30s might have had, like “Scarface” Al Capone.


“Sharkey” may be derived, as JRRT suggests, from “Orkish…sharku, ‘old man’,” but it also suggests a fishy predator—a very appropriate image for a would-be dictator.

In our next, we’ll answer Grishnakh’s question:  “Is Saruman the master or the Great Eye?” as we continue our exploration of government in Middle-earth.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Class, Order, Family…(2)


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

In our last posting, we began with JRRT stipulating, when selling the rights to The Lord of the Rings, that Merry and Pippin were not to be “rustics”.  The word “rustics” caught our attention and, from its origin—an  adjective from Latin rus, ruris, n., “country” (as in “countryside”)—we began some exploration of how, in The Lord of the Rings, it was possible to distinguish between “gentlehobbits” and “rustics” by their grammar,  word choices,  and speech patterns.  We also talked about the speech of Saruman (don’t listen too long!) in contrast to his Uruk-hai.

In this posting, we want to do a little more exploring to see what else we might find, first in the speech of the  principal representative of “the rustics” in The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee.  Then we’ll add a bit more on the speech of the orcs.

We begin this time with the home of Sam, the Shire.


Tolkien says of it that it “had hardly any ‘government’, but that “Families for the most part managed their own affairs.”  Thus, although there was an actual Shire official “the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire), who was elected every seven years…As mayor almost his only duty was to preside at banquets given on the Shire-holidays…”(The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, 3, “Of the Ordering of the Shire”),  at the same time, this was not a democracy (JRRT doesn’t appear very comfortable with them—see Letters, 64, among several other references), but, rather, an oligarchy, in which certain families appear to have held all the power—“The Shire was divided into four quarters…and these again into a number of folklands, which still bore the names of some of the old leading families…It is true that the Took family had long been pre-eminent; for the office of Thain had passed to them (from the Oldbucks) some centuries before, and the chief Took had borne that title ever since…The Took family was still, indeed, accorded a special respect, for it remained both numerous and exceedingly wealthy…”

In contrast to the Tooks, it would appear that the Gamgees were not accorded such respect and, from Sam’s speech, it’s clear that he is well aware of the fact.  The first time we meet Sam, he immediately shows both his “rusticity” and his social status.  Gandalf has caught him eavesdropping outside Frodo’s window and demands to know what he’s doing.  Sam replies:

“ Lor bless you, Mr. Gandalf, sir!…Nothing!  Leastways  I was just trimming the grass-border under the window, if you follow me.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Here we see pronunciation—“Lor” for “Lord” in “Lor bless you” (which is a Christian exclamation and makes us wonder what it was doing in Sam’s speech to begin with), word choice—“leastways”—and method of expression—“if you follow me”, all of which suggest the nature of Sam’s social class (certainly neither Frodo nor Merry nor Pippin speaks in such a way).  A second marker of class is that both Gandalf and then Frodo are called “sir” along with “Mr.”—“Mr. Gandalf, sir”, and, soon after, “Mr. Frodo, sir”.  Such honorifics are never used when anyone addresses Sam.  He’s always just “Sam”.  And this social distinction is even more marked when Sam believes that Frodo has been killed by Shelob and he addresses Frodo as “Master, dear master” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”—and we note here the irony of calling Sam “Master Samwise”—Sam may, briefly, be the master of the Ring, but it’s not a choice he really wants or relishes.  Sam is most comfortable “knowing his place”, even as he shows that he has a sticktoittiveness without which both he and Frodo would not only have not reached  Mount Doom, but would have died in its wilderness long before.)

When you hear Sam in the P Jackson movies, the actor, Sean Astin, uses the standard “rural British accent” sometimes referred to as “Mummershire”.  This is based to a large extent on the distinctive accents of Southwest England.  We imagine that JRRT, who was himself from the Midlands however, would have heard Sam sound rather more like people from Cheshire.  Here’s Cheshire on a map of England’s shires.


And here’s a brief YouTube LINK to an elderly native speaker (to provide something a little more like that which Tolkien would have heard—the accent, like all accents under the influence of radio, television, and the internet, seems to be changing pretty rapidly).  Notice those Rs—“shap” for “sharp”, for example.

When we think of accents and orcs (a John Howe illustration),


we always imagine their leaders as sounding like classic British drill sergeants—here’s an early nineteenth century example, but we believe that the breed hasn’t changed.  Here’s a LINK to a modern example—with a SILLY WARNING because it’s Michael Palin of Monty Python as the drill sergeant.


Put together the sound of that sergeant—who is speaking in a London-area accent—with this quotation and perhaps you’ll see—hear—what we mean:

“ ‘Put up your weapons!’ shouted Ugluk.  ‘And let’s have no more nonsense!  We go straight west from here, and down the stair.  From there straight to the downs, along the river to the forest.  And we march day and night.  That clear?’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

Add that to the whips used by such folk in Mordor and our view, both of Merry and Pippin’s captivity, as well as Frodo and Sam’s being swept up in an orc column, becomes all that much grimmer!

Thanks, as ever, for reading (AT EASE!).



Class, Order, Family… (Part 1)


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady (1956),


based upon George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion (1913), one major character is Professor Henry Higgins, who studies English dialects.  He is given to musical rants and, in his first, he laments “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” with the couplet:

“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,

The moment he talks he makes some other

Englishman despise him.”

Somewhere—we’ve temporarily lost the quotation—Tolkien, in signing over his rights to The Lord of the Rings to someone, stipulated that Merry and Pippin weren’t to be “rustics”.

This word “rustic” entered English in the mid-15th century, being derived from the Latin rus, ruris, n., “country/farm” and its adjective, rusticus/a/um, “rural/of the countryside”, the adjective then meaning “a country person”—like these Romans


or these, in the medieval world


or these, from JRRT’s childhood.


To JRRT, the linguist, what made the rustic was clearly not so much the look or even the activities which country people did so much as how they spoke. In Chapter One of the first book of The Lord of the Rings, we overhear a group of older hobbits discussing Bilbo and Frodo and Daddy Twofoot says:

“And no wonder they’re queer…if they live on the wrong side of the Brandywine River, and right agin the Old Forest.  That’s a dark bad place, if half the tales be true.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Here, we see “agin” for “again”, “dark bad place”, which is more a rhythmic pattern of dialect than the words themselves (although we wonder about the placement of those adjectives together), and the use of the old subjunctive “if half the tales be true”.  And, in the next paragraph, Gaffer Gamgee then uses a dialect form of “drowned”—“drownded”.  The content of this dialogue is gossip, but the sound of it is meant to provide a quick aural sketch of rural people with perhaps the faint suggestion that such gossip is based upon few facts and much “folk wisdom”, such as the idea that, because one lives on the far side of a river, one is “queer”, leading to the conclusion that rustics are, at best, ill-informed, and, at worst, ignorant and potentially bigoted.

And so, we would presume that what JRRT wanted was that Frodo’s cousins should sound like Frodo, who speaks, in Middle-earth, what Tolkien calls “the Westron or ‘Common Speech’ of the West-lands of Middle-earth” and what is in Modern-earth called “Received Standard English”.  Here’s a brief example of that from that same chapter, when Gandalf and Frodo are discussing Bilbo and the Ring:

“If you mean , inventing all that about a ‘present’, well, I thought the true story much more likely and I couldn’t see the point of altering it at all.  It was very unlike Bilbo to do so, anyway; and I thought it rather odd.”

Vocabulary  choice plays a strong part here, with a Latinate element—“altering”—and the use of “odd”, where the Gaffer had earlier used “queer”, plus what we might think of as “higher class” words, like “likely” and “unlike” and “rather” as adjectives.

The Bagginses and their relatives, after all, are looked upon as well-to-do–“a decent respectable hobbit” the Gaffer says of Frodo’ father, Drogo, and calls Bilbo, “a very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit”.  In Middle-earth, dialect—especially here meaning that spoken by what appear to be meant to be “rustics”—can make the difference between gentlehobbits and people like the Gaffer.   As the Henry Higgins mentioned above says to Colonel Pickering, whom he regards as a social equal, of Liza Doolittle, a Cockney (inner London, lower-class girl):

“If you spoke as she does, sir,

Instead of the way you do,

Why, you might be selling flowers, too.”


It’s not just among hobbits that we see what Henry Higgins calls a “verbal class distinction”, however.  Here’s Saruman


speaking to Gandalf:

“I did not expect you to show wisdom, even in your own behalf; but I gave you the chance of aiding me willingly, and so saving yourself much trouble and pain.  The third choice is to remain here until the end.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

We notice here the long compound sentence (long sentence made up of clauses which depend upon each other), from “I” to “pain”.  This is clearly the equivalent of “gentlehobbit” talk.

And here is one of Saruman’s orcs:

“…We are the fighting Uruk-hai!  We slew the great warrior.  We took the prisoners.  We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand, the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat  We came out of Isengard, and led you here, and we shall lead you back by the way we choose.  I am Ugluk.  I have spoken.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)


Here, we have a series of simple, declarative sentences (sentences with only one subject and verb)—three in a row– followed by a longer sentence which is built upon a simple sentence, “We are the servants of Saruman the Wise…”, followed by an example of what is called “polysyndeton”—that is, several shorter sentences joined together by a conjunction (a word like “and” or “or”).  All of this is followed by two more simple declarative sentences.

This is clearly not “rustic” speech—just compare it with that of Daddy Twofoot, above.  Instead, it reminds  us of translations of Native American speeches, like this, from the brave and wise Chief Joseph (1840-1904—Native American name in translation, “Thunder Traveling to Higher Areas”),


of the Nez Perce:

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Ta Hool Hool Shute is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

How might we characterize this?  It’s clearly very different from the speech of the orc’s master, who tends to speak in longer, more complex sentences, indicating more sophistication in the use of language (we remember the danger of listening too long to him, as demonstrated in The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”).   We would say that, where the “rustic” dialect—pronunciation (“agin”), odd forms (“drownded”), old verb forms (“be true”)–differentiates the Gaffer and Daddy Twofoot from Frodo (and Merry and Pippin), for the orcs—or Ugluk, at least– it is sentence structure which differentiates the Isengard equivalent of “gentlehobbit” speech from that of the “rustic” orcs.

It isn’t only sentence structure which we would suggest makes orcs sound different, however, and we’ll talk more about this—and about another “rustic”—a real one—in Part 2 of this posting, next week.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Name, Rank, and…


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In George Orwell’s (1903-1950)


1949 horrific political novel 1984,


the protagonist, Winston Smith, is attempting to do what are called “physical jerks”, meaning calisthenics, in front of a “telescreen”.  This is, in fact, a two-way device, but it’s impossible to know when, as you are watching it, it can be watching you, until:

‘Smith!’ screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. ‘6079 Smith W.!

Yes, YOU! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You’re not

trying. Lower, please! THAT’S better, comrade. Now stand at ease, the

whole squad, and watch me.’ (1984, Chapter 3)

And so we see just how militarized “Oceania”, Smith’s homeland, has become.  You are not a citizen, but a member of a “squad”, and your name has a serial number attached.

The same is true of Sauron’s Mordor, as Sam and Frodo overhear, desperately trying to conceal themselves behind a “brown and stunted bush”.  Two scouts appear:

“One was clad in ragged brown and was armed with a bow of horn; it was of a small breed, black-skinned, with wide and snuffling nostrils…The other was a big fighting-orc, like those of Shagrat’s company, bearing the token of the Eye.”

(Here’s Alan Lee’s illustration of the two, by the way.)



They are soon quarreling and, when the small one tries to escape, the larger fighting-orc shouts:

“You come back…or I’ll report you!”

To which the smaller replies:

“Who to?  Not to your precious Shagrat.  He won’t be captain any more.”

And the larger answers that with:

“I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgul.”  A threat which soon gets him killed.


When we think about Tolkien in the Great War,


we can see at once where the idea of the “name and number” came from.  Although there had been attempts at serial numbers as far back as 1857,


in 1881, units in the British Army adopted a regimental serial system.


Thus, in JRRT’s army, he would have seen a man in his battalion of his regiment (the Lancashire Fusiliers) identified as “189, Smith, W” (although officers like Tolkien were not issued such numbers).




There is, of course, another identifying mark for the soldiers both of Sauron and Saruman, the heraldic device on helmets or shields, the red eye for Sauron, the white hand for Saruman



When we say “heraldic device”, we mean, as you can see, a decoration on cloth or metal, clothing, armor, and flags, which indicates, in some way, who the wearer is, or to whom he belongs.  On a medieval battlefield, before men wore uniforms, this would help those in charge to understand, at a glance, who was fighting whom.


In this painting of the large and confused battle between English and Scots soldiers at Flodden (1513), a late-medieval, early-Renaissance struggle, you can see how confusing things could be, but some order could be made out of the English standard to the left, and two Scottish flags to the right, the far one being generic Scots, but the near one being the banner of the Scottish king himself, James IV.

Up close, the one of the heraldic badges of the Stanley family (on the English side), the claw, marks this archer.


The science of heraldry is large and complicated, but may be seen at its simplest  in The Lord of the Rings, not only among orcs, but also among the forces of the West—

the white horse of Rohan,


the swan and ship of Dol Amroth,


and the tree and seven stars of Gondor.



Where there is a strong contrast between the two sides, however, and we can only speculate as to JRRT’s intent, was the assignment of numbers to the orcs of Mordor  and not to the soldiers of the West a quiet comment on the facelessness of modern warfare, where a soldier is a number first, before he is ever a name and perhaps all men are reduced to orcs?


Thanks, as ever, for reading.





Orc Arsenal.2


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So, dear readers, welcome, as always.  In this posting, we want to finish our brief overview of orc weaponry which we began in our last.

A famous military illustrator, Angus McBride, (1931-2007)


once said in an interview that there was one thing which he hated about doing such illustrations:  painting chain mail, which he said was the most tedious part of his work.  Considering that he painted it on early Celts


and Renaissance Irish,


and Republican Romans


and medieval Russians,


McBride must have suffered many hours of boredom!  It didn’t stop him, however, as we see in these illustrations for The Lord of the Rings,




from putting armor on Rohirrim and orcs alike.

Chain mail—or simply mail—is made by linking together a series of metal rings.



This is, as you can imagine, a very time-consuming process, especially if you have to make the rings first.  (Here’s a LINK on mail manufacturing, in case you’d like to try it yourself.)

We have seen the number of rings used in a full mail hauberk to be over 20,000, so it’s also metal-consuming, as well as time-consuming.  It also appears to have been expensive.  We once heard an expert say something about the “same price as a two-bedroom house”, but that seems a little excessive.  The always-useful Regia Anglorum website gives the price of a mail shirt in Anglo-Saxon times at 529d (that’s 529 pence), or 10,580 pounds in modern UK money ($13,785.18 US at today’s current exchange rate).  Here’s a LINK to their web page to see the author’s reasoning for his equivalences.

McBride shows orcs wearing mail—does JRRT?   In fact, in the first scene in which we see orcs, we read:

“…a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”

And, late in the story, when Sam and Frodo are in Mordor and Sam provides clothes for Frodo:

“There were long hairy breeches of some unclean beast-fell, and a tunic of dirty leather.  He drew them on.  Over the tunic went a coat of stout ring-mail, short for a full-sized orc, too long for Frodo and heavy.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)

(We can attest to the weight of such a coat, by the way, having a modern reproduction ourselves.  It weighs 25 pounds or more—that’s 11.34 kilograms.  When it’s on your shoulders, the weight is displaced, so it doesn’t feel quite so heavy, but, if you have it piled in a box, you really feel the heft.  We would also add that, because of the cost, armor wasn’t commonly left on the battlefield.  This segment of the Bayeux Tapestry shows what must normally have happened.)


McBride, in his illustrations, depicts two other types of body armor.  In these first two depictions, we see the kind of armor the Romans called lorica segmentata.



This is a system based upon a series of broad, overlapping iron strips.



As far as we can tell, this is never mentioned in the text. There may be one mention of our third type:


This is armor made up of a series of small plates, called lamellae, sewn in an overlapping fashion, rather like fish scales.


There may be one mention of this:

“The orcs hindered by the mires that lay before the hills halted and poured their arrows into the defending ranks.  But through them came striding up, roaring like beasts, a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth.  Taller and broader than Men they were, and they were clad only in close-fitting mesh of horny scale, or maybe that was their hideous hide…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”)

But what about helmets?

McBride depicts most of his orcs in something which might be described as wild variations on the later medieval helmet called a sallet.



You can see John Mollo, a costume designer for Star Wars, having fun with this pattern, too.



In the text, in that first scene in which we see orcs, there is a mention of Aragorn’s sword, Anduril, which “came down upon [an orc’s] helm”, but nothing more specific—and that’s true for the second mention, when Aragorn examines the orcs killed by by Boromir:

“…on the front of their iron helms was set an S-rune, wrought of some white metal.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

There is a bit more detail in this description:

“Sam brought several orc-helmets.  One of them fitted Frodo well enough, a black cap with iron rim, and iron hoops covered with leather upon which the Evil Eye was painted in red above the beaklike nose-guard.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)

To us, this sounds like a kind of spangenhelm, the sort of thing the Normans wear in the Bayeux Tapestry.



To which we can add a couple of types of shields.  The first we see—it’s that same “orc-chieftain”—carries “a huge hide shield” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”).  There is no further description.  If it’s only made of hide, this could resemble anything from a Mycenaean “figure-of-eight” shield



to a Mycenaean “tower” shield


to a Zulu shield.


The hill-trolls of Gorgoroth, mentioned above for their possible lamellar armor, are said to carry “round bucklers huge and black” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”).

A huge buckler, however, is a contradiction in terms, as bucklers are, by definition, small—more a kind of one-on-one fencing defense, as we see in this illustration.


Like their helmets, orc shields commonly carry the sign of their master, Saruman or Sauron—“Upon their shields they bore a strange device” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”).  (Some of Saruman’s followers, however, seem to have unmarked shields, as the attackers of Helm’s Deep are described as “some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields”—The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)  This can also be useful if you’re the authorities and you want to catch deserters, as Sam and Frodo find out when they’re trapped by a column of orcs on the road in Mordor:

“Then suddenly one of the slave-drivers spied the two figures by the road-side…He took a step towards them, and even in the gloom he recognized the devices on their shields.  ‘Deserting, eh?’ he snarled.” ( The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)


This i.d.-ing leads us towards our next posting:  Heraldry and Serial Numbers, where we’ll see more of orcs and others, too.

Thanks, as always, for reading.