Beowulf, coastguard, Elsinore, footguards, ghost, Great War, Hama, Hamlet, Helsingor, Kronborg, London, Rohan, sentry, The Lord of the Rings, Theoden, Tolkien, Watchmen, William Shakespeare
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.
- STand: who is that?
- Tis I.
- O you come most carefully vpon your watch,
- And if you meete Marcellus and Horatio,
The partners of my watch, bid them make haste.
- 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?
- Barnardo hath my place, giue you good night.
Mar. Holla, Barnardo.
- Say, is Horatio there?
Hor. A peece of him.
- Welcome Horatio, welcome good Marcellus.
Mar. What hath this thing appear’d againe to night.
- 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
“From rocks up above them
whose task was to guard
and patrol the sea-cliffs,
saw strangers who bore
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
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
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.