Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Ever since we heard the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in childhood, we’ve been interested in doors and passwords.
Near the story’s beginning, Ali Baba, a poor woodcutter, happens to observe a group of bandits returning to their cave from a raid. As he watches, the head of the bandits uses a secret phrase, “Open, sesame!” which opens the cave’s secret door.
[We include a LINK here to the whole story, if you don’t know it.]
Since then, we believe that we’ve had three major examples of the pattern: door as barrier passed with difficulty.
The first was on a very different level altogether from “Ali Baba”.
After the US passed a law against alcohol just after the Great War, the tumultuous era called Prohibition began.
(The date is 1919 on the newspaper, but the law came into force in 1920.)
For all that the legislatures of various states approved it (“ratified” is the formal word), there were many who did not approve of it.
Because it was national law, however, police everywhere were required to enforce it.
To get around the law, secret bars began to appear. These received the nickname “speakeasy” because it was a place to relax and drink in (what was hoped would be) safety and privacy.
Such places were made anonymous as possible: a blank door—with a peephole.
To get in, a potential drinker had to be known—or know the secret password.
This went on until 1933, when the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, worked to have the law repealed.
In 1932, the comedy team of the Marx Brothers
included a speakeasy scene in their latest film, Horse Feathers.
This is an almost indescribable scene in which one of the Marx Brothers (Chico—said “CHIK-o”) is on the inside and another (Groucho) is on the outside and then the fun begins—here’s a LINK so you can watch it for yourself.
The upshot (sorry for the spoiler!)—as you’ll see—is that both end up on the outside. (We told you that this was on a different level!)
Our next example had no secret password, but, instead, it had a door guard and a very silly one, too!
In 1939, MGM released The Wizard of Oz,
based upon L. Frank Baum’s 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
We doubt that we have to explain the plot to anyone who would read our blog, so we’ll just remind you of the moment when Dorothy and her friends—Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Lion—and Toto, too—have reached the Emerald City and have come to the door of the Wizard.
The guard (who bears a suspicious resemblance to certain other characters in the film) at first refuses them entry, saying the now-famous line that the Wizard won’t see: “Not nobody! Not nohow!” but eventually crumbles when Dorothy explains her quest and he begins to sympathize with her, finally allowing her and her friends to enter—although what they learn there is not the best news.
Finally, there is this door.
And, with this door, we are back to “Ali Baba”, it seems (if not to Horse Feathers). When Gandalf and the Fellowship arrive, however, there appears to be no door there at all, just a pair of immense holly trees (probably English holly, ilex aquifolium), overshadowing a blank wall.
As the narrator describes them:
“But close under the cliff there stood, still strong and living, two tall trees, larger than any trees of hilly that Frodo had ever seen or imagined. Their great roots spread from the wall to the water. Under the looming cliffs they had looked like mere bushes, when seen far off from the top of the Stair; but now they towered overhead, stiff, dark, and silent, throwing deep night-shadows about their feet, standing like sentinel pillars at the end of the road.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)
It is only when Gandalf puts his hands on the rock face and murmurs what appears to be some sort of summoning spell that the doors appear:
“The Moon now shone upon the grey face of the rock; but they could see nothing else for a while. Then slowly on the surface, where the wizard’s hands had passed, faint lines appeared, like slender veins of silver running in the stone. At first, they were no more than pale gossamer-threads, so fine that they only twinkled fitfully where the Moon caught them, but steadily they grew broader and clearer, until their design could be guessed.”
As the pattern becomes more visible, so, too, becomes an inscription which reads, in part:
“The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter.”
And trying to make sense of what it means now turns into a very awkward scene in which Gandalf struggles to find the password he believes is requested in that inscription, while the rest of the company gradually becomes more and more impatient (and it doesn’t help that wolves begin to howl in the distance and that there is something about a pool standing opposite the gate which makes them increasingly uneasy).
Finally, Gandalf realizes that what has stopped him depends upon his understanding of a single word in Elvish, a word which clearly has two meanings—and a little more punctuation might have helped!
As it’s inscribed, the vital part of the wording is:
Pedo Mellon a Minno.
As Gandalf originally translated this, it was “Speak, friend, and enter.” After a good deal of frustration, Gandalf realizes that he has not only mistranslated—slightly—but mispunctuated—or, rather, overpunctuated– as well. “Speak” and “say” in English are closely related, but there is a difference—for instance, one can “speak English”, but, idiomatically, one would never “say English”. Thus, no one would ever give the command to someone else, “Say English”, but, rather would say to someone “Speak English”. The same must be true in Elvish, where, in fact, it appears that “speak/say” is potentially one verb, whose singular imperative (command) is pedo. At first, Gandalf thought that he was being directed to “speak”—but what he was being told to speak he thought was somehow lost or forgotten. This caused him to overpunctuate: “Speak, friend, and enter”, where what he was actually being told was “Say [the word] ‘friend’ and enter”. He finally does so, and the gates open.
In the case of Ali Baba, inside the thieves’ cave are riches, with some of which he quietly makes off. Groucho and Chico eventually get into the speakeasy and Dorothy and her friends see the Wizard, all of them leaving the problematic entryway behind. In the case of the doors to Moria, however, what is left behind refuses to stay that way:
“Frodo felt something seize him by the ankle, and he fell with a cry…Out from the water a long, sinuous tentacle had crawled; it was pale-green and luminous and wet…Twenty other arms came rippling out. The dark water boiled, and there was a hideous stench.”
And this reminded us of something and made us wonder if JRRT had once read the same book we had (there’s nothing in the Letters, unfortunately). In 1873, the first English translation of a novel by the French science fiction author, Jules Verne (1828-1905),
appeared, slightly mistitled Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Like the title, the rest of the book was filled with mistranslations (it should be Seas) and big cuts. We hope, in fact, that, if Tolkien read the book (and we would be surprised if he hadn’t, it being the typical Victorian “boys’ adventure tale” of the period), we hope that he read the 1892 version, which cleaned up the errors.
If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of a French scientist who is invited by the US government to investigate a sea monster who is attacking world shipping in the later 1860s. As the professor discovers, this isn’t a monster at all, but an early submarine, the Nautilus, invented and piloted by a man who calls himself “Captain Nemo” (nemo being Latin for “no one”) and who has a grudge against the imperialist nations of the world, against which he uses his submarine. The professor, his assistant, and a third man, a harpooner, Ned Land, are taken aboard the Nautilus and, at one point, are involved in a combat against a pack of giant squid—each with 8 arms and two longer tentacles, one of which almost drags Nemo to his death until he’s saved by Ned. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Our favorite version of the story is that done by Disney in 1954.
There is only one squid here, but, as the poster shows, that seems plenty! It’s a well-told version (simplified, but not too much so) and has a really splendid Nautilus in a high-Victorian design (steampunk long before steampunk?).
As we began this post with an opening, it seems appropriate to end with a closing:
“Gandalf turned and paused. If he was considering what word would close the gate again from within, there was no need. 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.”
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Can you, our readers, think of other doors and passwords? We’ve intentionally left one out here, although, when the thrush knocks…