15th-century hat, 15th-century sallet, Across the Doubtful Sea, Bag End, bevor, Bilbo, British Navy uniforms, Caribbean sugar mill, Christopher Columbus, clone helmet, costuming, Darth Vader, Death Star Gunners, French Navy uniforms, hogsheads, honey, John Mollo, Middle-earth, Samurai, science fiction, Star Wars, sugar, sugar cane, sugar loaf, Taters, Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, The Illiad, Tobacco
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
As we continue to explore Bilbo’s entryway, we feel a little like Bilbo himself watching as all of those dwarves gradually pile in until they almost overwhelm their surprised host.
Unlike our earlier postings on barometers and clocks, which are really on the walls, in this posting, we confess to what is called in literary criticism a “creative misread”. Take a look at the far left of the illustration.
There is a kind of entryway table, with a mirror and hooks—probably for hats—and those should have tipped us off—but a preconceived notion overwhelmed us, inspired (well, we suppose you could call it that) by how we initially interpreted the object on the right hand corner.
It’s a hat—you can just make out the brim. It’s a kind of 15th-century hat called a “sugarloaf”, however, because of the crown.
(There is a 13th-14th century helmet given that nickname, as well.
In fact, perhaps there’s a certain similarity with the phase 1 clone helmet, if you add a sort of flange to the lower edge—and a ridge piece?
If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the only medieval-influenced helmet in Star Wars—just look at the Death Star gunners
and compare it with a 15th-century sallet with its bevor
Although Darth Vader’s helmet is a bit more samurai-ish.
All of these came to the screen through the work of uniform historian and costume designer John Mollo,
who died on 25 October, 2017, at the age of 86. His work included not only science fiction costuming
but also the text for works on the history of uniforms. For our first novel, Across the Doubtful Sea, he and his illustrator for Uniforms of the American Revolution in Color (1975),
provided us with an accurate view of the uniforms of the British and French navies of the period.
But—as we began to say—the crown of that hat bears that nickname because it looks like sugar as it used to be formed, shipped, and sold.
Today, we see sugar in bags
or in little packets in fast food restaurants
or even in cubes.
In earlier centuries, sugar came in a very different form:
and, to use it, you had special tools to snip off or scrape off pieces when you needed them.
Sugar came like this because of the process by which sugar was extracted from a very tall plant,
the sugar being inside the plant.
The first step was to cut the plant down.
This and some of the following illustrations are drawn from a series of colored engravings published in 1823 and entitled Ten Views in the Island of Antigua.
And, as you can see from the subtitle, the collection is devoted to the sugar-production industry, which was an extremely profitable one. (And it should always be remembered that the great majority of the workers in these images are slaves.)
Cutting, however, is just the first stage in the process. In the next step, the cane has to be crushed to get the pulp out.
(We note the mistake in the caption—this isn’t a painting, but a colored engraving.)
The pulp then has to be boiled and sieved until it’s a pure liquid.
Then—initially—it was dried, forming a coarse brown powder, as you can see on the right hand side of this illustration.
This was then packed into huge barrels, called “hogsheads”,
When it reached its final destination, it was turned back into a liquid and further refined until poured into molds, which is how it was commonly sold, even into the 20th century, apparently.
It is estimated that the average person consumes 53 pounds (24kg) of sugar a year, partly because sugar is mixed in with a huge variety of products where you would have to read the label before you realized that it was even an ingredient.
But what about Bilbo? So far, as there is no concordance to the complete works of JRRT, as there is for something like the Iliad.
(A concordance is a complete collection of all the words, in their various forms, in a work, listed alphabetically, with reference to where they may be found.)
Our research, then, is completely casual—we paged through The Hobbit and, although we found no mention of the word “sugar” per se, we did find, particularly in Chapter One, a number of references to baked goods (“cake”, “seed cake”, and “tarts”). We might suppose that, as in our medieval times, Bilbo employed honey in his recipes,
but, for the sake of our sugar loaf misread, we’re going to imagine that sugar is the ingredient. (After all, there are “taters” and tobacco/pipeweed and, in the first edition of The Hobbit, even tomatoes mentioned, so why not?)
The next question, of course, is where this sugar came from. Sugar is native to Southeast Asia, growing in tropical regions. As far as we understand it, the Shire appears to be rather like southern England for climate, which means grains and things like hops, for beer, and perhaps even tobacco (in the United States, tobacco is grown as far north as Massachusetts), but nothing which requires a warmer, moister climate.
Europe first began to receive its sugar (after tiny and very expensive exotic imports) in the 16th century from plants descended from cuttings from the Canary Islands and planted in the Caribbean by the agents of Christopher Columbus. (The Portuguese did something similar in Brazil.)
Looking south on the map of Middle-earth, where would the climate allow for the growth of such plants?
Our best guess is to look as far south as we can—which is why, in our next posting, we want visit Harad and chat with those Corsairs of Umbar…
Thanks, as ever, for reading.