— a blog by Ollamh

doubtfulsea is intended to be the literary equivalent of a backstage, to give readers an inside view on research, historical context, and what it’s like to write a fantasy/​adventure novel.

  Marcho and Hengist and … Romulus?

8 September 2021 | Ollamh

… Vortigern, Hengist, and Horsa are from a very murky period in early British history and may be nothing more than a way to explain the explosion of Germanic colonization of southern Britain in the next couple of centuries.

In Tolkien commentaries, Hengist and Horsa and their part in Germanicizing Britain are often equated with this:

About this time legend among the Hobbits first becomes history with a reckoning of years. For it was in the one thousand six hundred and first year of the Third Age that the Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco, set out from Bree; and having obtained permission from the high king at Fornost, they crossed the brown river Baranduin with a great following of Hobbits. They passed over the Bridge of Stonebows…and they took all the land beyond to dwell in, between the river and the Far Downs.” (LR0.4.14)

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  Ringing false (3)

1 September 2021 | Ollamh

…It’s interesting that Saruman has already so strongly identified himself with Sauron that he’s called himself Ring-maker” and, as Gandalf has noticed, He wore a ring on his finger.” What Saruman hasn’t realized, however, is that Sauron is well aware of Saruman’s thoughts on the subject of becoming the new Sauron, even without the Ring, as is evident in the speech of Sauron’s Orc captain, Grishnakh.…

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  Ringing false (2)

25 August 2021 | Ollamh

You might say that it all started not with:

He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.” (LR1.02.088)

but really with:

His head was swimming, and he was far from certain even of the direction they had been going in when he had his fall. He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, Riddles in the Dark”)

The author goes on to add, It was a turning point in his career, but he did not know it…” but, in fact, this — although the author himself didn’t know it in 1937 — was a tremendous understatement, that finding being a turning point in more than the career of one small Hobbit. Suppose, however, that, in the dark and in his confusion — he had just recently bumped his head on hard rock, and remembered nothing more” after all — the he” in that passage had missed that tiny ring of cold metal”? .…

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  Ringing false (1)

18 August 2021 | Ollamh

… But what would have happened, had Bilbo kept the Ring? Would that earlier act of mercy have continued to save him? Two possibilities, perhaps stages of the same fate, might occur, Gollum being our example. In the first stage, as Gandalf tells Frodo:

But still the thing was eating up his mind, of course, and the torment had become almost unbearable…He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.” (LR1.02.113)

That this was already happening to Bilbo is suggested by his remark to Gandalf:

“…And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it any more. It has been so growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket. I don’t know why…” (LR1.01.105)

The second and final stage for Bilbo might be:

A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo. It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it. At most he plays with the idea of handing it on to someone else’s care — and that only at an early stage, when it first begins to grip.” (LR1.02.117)

That Ring’s eventual escape from Bilbo might appear simply as a loss — Gollum had no idea that it had slipped from his finger in The Hobbit — but it might be much worse, as happened to Isildur: The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Deagol, and he was murdered.” (LR1.02.120) as Gandalf explains to Frodo.…

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  The staff of life

11 August 2021 | Ollamh

As they are driven on by the orcs, there are occasional pauses for breath and, at one point, Pippin is handed a meal.… The grey bread, in fact, may not necessarily have been grey from age — rye flour when baked into loaves can have a natural grey look. As for the dried meat, I always think of something like South African biltong.… As much as they often seem more like hordes of goblins … than drilled troops, the Orcs, however, at least Saruman’s Uruk-hai, are actually war-bands of soldiers with some discipline (as Ugluk says, when some of Sauron’s Orcs complain about his plans: By the White Hand! What’s the use of sending out mountain-maggots on a trip, only half trained.” LR3.03.052) We can imagine then that what is tossed to Pippin is actually a typical Orc military ration, containing the sorts of things which possess some nourishment, are portable, and which can keep for a long time.

Since the days of the Romans, a major issue for standing armies has been how to feed soldiers on campaign. The Romans issued their soldiers with some basics, including grains of various sorts, which the soldiers would grind into flour in portable hand-mills and bake into various basic forms of bread, sometimes being something like modern pita or even so-called campfire bread” — dough wrapped around a stick. (For a good introduction to Roman military eating, see: Roman military bread making.) Such large, organized, and permanent armies wouldn’t appear again in Europe until the 17th century.…

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  In mint condition

4 August 2021 | Ollamh

… Coins are mentioned a few times in The Lord of the Rings, including the price of Bill, the pony — twelve silver pennies” (LR1.11.032) — but I’m not aware that these coins are ever described in any detail — and whose coins are they and where do they come from?

Because all such information is lacking, I imagine that the Nazgul, if telling the truth, has, somewhere, a sack of coins from Mordor itself — gold coins, at that. Western Mordor, at least the part we see in Sam and Frodo’s travels, seems utterly barren, but Sauron has armies to feed and the myriad horses and mules and oxen needed to carry such armies beyond his gates, and that food and those beasts have to come from somewhere. Even if we presume that much can be produced from green lands beyond the Sea of Nurnen, Sauron has allies farther south in Harad, suggesting that he has commerce of some sort with them and, as we know from those twelve silver pennies, Middle-earth appears not to be based upon a barter-system.

So what would such coins look like? …

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  Placing a name, naming a place

28 July 2021 | Ollamh

For me, one of the many pleasures of The Lord of the Rings is its landscape — not just that map which caused Tolkien so many hours of worry, but all of the places on it with all of their names, each clearly made with care and attention to linguistic detail, beginning with the creation of the Shire and all it contains, but moving beyond it to encompass the whole of Middle-earth. As he explained in a letter to Rayner Unwin:

Yet actually in an imaginary country and period, as this one, coherently made, the nomenclature is a more important element than in an historical’ novel.

— Letter to Rayner Unwin, 3 July, 1956, Letters, 250

And yet, for all of that care, Tolkien the story-teller never draws attention to that naming. As in any country, especially a very old one, as the Shire and, in turn, Middle-earth, are meant to be, the names are just that and, like the land itself, they have become worn-down natural features. As JRRT himself writes in that same letter to Rayner Unwin:

Actually the Shire Map plays a very small part in the narrative, and most of its purpose is a descriptive build-up.

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  La Belle Dame

22 July 2021 | Ollamh

Unlike The Hobbit, which is written in a chatty modern style, much of The Lord of the Rings is written in what we now might see as an elevated tone, with lines like

Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’ (LR3.06.110)

As one who weighed practically every word of the many drafts of the book, Tolkien replied to criticism of the lines above by writing:

For a king who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual archaic’ English that I have used.

(draft of unsent letter to Hugh Brogan, September, 1955 — Letters, 226)

We can accept his reasoning or not, but JRRT’s literary medievalism already had a relatively long history.

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  Sticks and stones

7 July 2021 | Ollamh

I imagine that you, like me, read something, then have a bit of it pop up in your mind when you least expect it. Here’s what recently popped up in mine:

They shot well with the bow, for they were keen-eyed and sure at the mark. Not only with bows and arrows. If any Hobbit stooped for a stone, it was well to get quickly under cover, as all trespassing beasts knew very well.

The Lord of the Rings (LR0.4.18)

When I thought further about this, it seemed like an odd detail: Hobbit archers turn up in the Prologue (LR0.4.15) when it is said that: To the last battle at Fornost with the Witch-lord of Angmar they sent some bowmen to the aid of the king, or so they maintained…” and, in The Scouring of the Shire”, there are definitely bows at work: after Grima murders Saruman, Before Frodo could recover or speak a word, three hobbit bows twanged and Wormtongue fell dead.” (LR6.08.238). But does any Hobbit ever prove his prowess with a stone in the novel? I thought not — until I was reminded by a friend that, if not a stone, someone expertly used the missile to hand —

Sam turned quickly. And you, Ferny,’ he said, put your ugly face out of sight, or it will get hurt.’ With a sudden flick, quick as lightning, an apple left his hand and hit Bill square on the nose. He ducked too late, and curses came from behind the hedge. Waste of a good apple,’ said Sam regretfully, and strode on.

The Lord of the Rings (LR1.11.045) …

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16 June 2021 | Ollamh

… One of the most remarkable elements in Tolkien’s work is the depth of Middle-earth’s history, although often recorded only in the form of either annalistic or chronicalistic entries. Derived from the Latin word annus, year,” annals are lists of events, year after year, rather like a kind of basic timeline. Chronicles, ultimately from the Greek word, chronos, time”, may be seen as a kind of more developed annal, in which the events can be described in greater detail.

I find these definitions a bit fuzzy, and JRRT himself uses the word annals” in the title of Section A of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, although there is so much description that Chronicles” might be more appropriate. Annals or Chronicles, the first entry for Umbar appears in Appendix B, The Tale of Years” under The Second Age:

[SA]2280 Umbar is made into a great fortress of Númenor — LRB.SA.2280

It is clear, however, from a reference in Appendix F, I, The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”, that Umbar is, in fact, older than this fortifying: …

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9 June 2021 | Ollamh

“‘Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!’ he scoffed. For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.’” — LR2.02.15

Because I’m assuming that we’ve all read beyond this, we know what Saruman is up to, but, if, for a moment, we can forget what we know, let’s see if we can try to understand both his tactics — that is, his immediate actions — and his strategy — his overall plan.

First, Saruman begins by emphasizing part of Gandalf’s common title which, we know from Christopher Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales means more than just the plain color.…

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