— 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.

Flooded out

Hokusai’s <span class=push-double></span>​<span class=pull-double>“</span>Great Wave off Kanagawa”
Hokusai, Great Wave off Kanagawa”
from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (c. 1830 – 1833)
6 April 2022 | Ollamh

… I’m always interested in where Tolkien’s ideas come from and, although he himself related this to the myth of Atlantis (see the letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 September, 1954, Letters (197−198), If you’ve grown up in the sort of culture, both religious and general, in which Tolkien grew up (and so did I, for that matter) probably your first thought is: Hey — it’s Genesis, Chapters 6 – 8! The story of Noah’s Ark and the flood!” …

I think, however, that we can see two more potential influences upon JRRT which might lie behind this story of a flooded world. First, JRRT began his academic life as an aspiring Classicist, which means that, probably fairly early on in his training, he had encountered Ovid’s (43BC-17AD) story of the only survivors of a Greco-Roman flood, to be found in Book I, lines 163 – 415 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Beyond Classics, … we know that Tolkien had an abiding affection for Welsh, … and there’s a medieval Welsh legend, involving two characters, named Dwyfan and Dwyfach, who survive their own flood, when a lake monster, the Afanc, inundates the world and the two, along with two of each species of animal which they’ve loaded into a boat (the boat being called Nefyd Naf Neifion — Celestial Lord Neptune”?), are the only survivors.…

Latin or Welsh were two languages with which Tolkien had significant experience, but is there yet another possible influence? In 1873, the Assyriologist George Smith (1840−1876) published an essay in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology … which later formed part of book which caused a great deal of controversy at the time. Entitled The Chaldean Account of the Deluge,” …

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Weeping — no, eating? — willow

Old Man Willow”
 — Brothers Hildebrandt
30 March 2022 | Ollamh

… Old Man Willow’s behavior, however, suggests that, rather than being a symbol for mourning, he can become a source of mourning and, as such, he falls into a category of deadly plants like the once ill-famed upas tree.… This is a widespread variety of tree, Antiaris toxicaria, which can be found from Africa all the way across to the western Pacific.… Travelers’ tales reported that the plant gave off a kind of noxious fume which poisoned the landscape for 10 miles around, leaving the vicinity empty save for the bones of unwary animals and people.…

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Character development

Young girl Dorothy chides a shamed Cowardly Lion who has evidently just scared the Scarecrow and Tin Man right off the Yellow Brick Road.
You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
 — ill. by W.W. Denslow for
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
23 March 2022 | Ollamh

… As Tolkien wrote of Aragorn:

So the essential Quest started at once. But I met a lot of things along the way that astonished me. … Strider sitting in the corner of the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea of who he was than had Frodo.” (a wonderfully interesting letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 216)

But even with such a surprise — and the letter goes on to detail more — Tolkien was always working with a deeper purpose, as we know from this familiar passage:

The invention of language is the foundation. The stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows it.” (“To the Houghton Mifflin Co.” nd, but sometime in mid-1955, Letters, 219) …

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Wars of the angels

16 March 2022 | Ollamh

… What isn’t surprising, then, is to see an author who had originally intended to become a Classicist and who was a practicing Christian, when creating his own world and its mythology, depict the same sort of struggles as in Homer and the Bible, if not in the Ramayana. Consider the situation: on the one side, there is a fallen angel, a Maia, Sauron, and, potentially on the other, five more angels, the Maiar Istari, on the other. The five have been sent to counterbalance the one, but, whereas the one builds up fortresses and vast armies of men and others, two of the five disappear before the story begins, one has a connection with the animal world, one leads and counsels but rarely commands,…

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In a name

painting of an armored Rider of Rohan astride a white horse, with a village nestled under a mountain in the background
by JlazarusEB
2 March 2022 | Ollamh

… Many years later, we’ll see Tolkien echo this with the names of some of his horse-people, the Rohirrim. He’s very cleverly taken a hint from JRRT’s use of Old English as the basis of Rohirric to employ the 7th-century AD Sutton Hoo helmet as a model. ) with with such names as Eomer — Famous-for-[his]-horses”— and his sister, Eowyn — Horse-friend”.…

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Mr. Tolkien or Professor Toad?

23 February 2022 | Ollamh

… What happened next seems rather surprising, as Humphrey Carpenter tells it:

After learning to drive he took the entire family by car to visit his brother Hilary at his Evesham fruit farm. At various times during the journey Jo’ [the car’s name, after the first two letters on the license plate] sustained two punctures and knocked down part of a dry-stone wall near Chipping Norton with the result that Edith refused to travel in the car again until some months later… (Carpenter, Tolkien, 177)

And it only gets worse:

…Tolkien’s driving was daring rather than skilful. When accelerating headlong across a busy main road in Oxford in order to get into a side-street, he would ignore all other vehicles and cry Charge em and they scatter!’—and scatter they did. (Carpenter, Tolkien, 177)

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Roman in Middle-earth

photo of J.R.R. Tolkien (with pipe) reading in a library
16 February 2022 | Ollamh

In late 1951, I imagine that Tolkien must have been a man with very ambivalent feelings. He was parting from Allen & Unwin, who had been his publisher since The Hobbit, in 1937, over the matter of The Silmarillion, which Tolkien wanted to be published with The Lord of the Rings. When Allen & Unwin rejected that combination, Tolkien tried his luck with a new publisher, Collins. To provide an idea of what he had created, and why the two should be published together, he sent, at the publisher’s suggestion, a letter with a very extensive description of his work to them and, in it, was this:

In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Numenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.

— (to Milton Waldman, probably written late in 1951”, Letters, 157)

Byzantium had originally been a Greek colony on the European side of the Bosphorus.…

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2 February 2022 | Ollamh

… Who is this creature? Where does he come from? We’re not told, but we know one thing: he’s out there, like Pennywise”, the It” in the Stephen King novel, … and he’s out to get you — at least if you’re a nervous child. Beyond that fact, the menace in this song is that, like being boggled, it’s what you don’t see which frightens you — maybe he’s hiding behind the chair” — and here I’ve been thinking about something which Grishnakh says to Ugluk: …

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Up in smoke

painting of Gandalf lighting a long-stemmed pipe
Gandalf: A light in the dark”
 — Matthew Stewart
26 January 2022 | Ollamh

… We know that Tolkien was a life-long pipe smoker — and so it would be natural that at least some of his characters might have a similar habit. After all, the first time we see Bilbo — and Gandalf — Bilbo

… was standing in his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his woolly toes… (The Hobbit, Chapter One, An Unexpected Party”)

Such a long pipe … is probably what is called in our era of Middle-earth a churchwarden”. This has a very long stem which, smokers say, helps to cool the smoke.

  1. it’s a member of the tobacco family (Nicotiana)
  2. it comes from the Longbottom area of the Shire …
  3. it may be one of the best home-grown … varieties now known as Longbottom Leaf, Old Toby, and Southern Star”
  4. the custom of smoking it is, in hobbit terms, extremely old and a hobbit-invention

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Ring composition

19 January 2022 | Ollamh

… I said that Tolkien’s surprise remark, that Black Speech nazg was derived from Irish nasc, was part of the initial inspiration for this posting, and that nasc made me think of an Old Irish story in which such a nasc — and a fish — played an important role. There is another story with a ring and a fish, however: …

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Marching into Mordor

12 January 2022 | Ollamh

In this posting, I intend to walk briefly into the place, not to drop off a Ring, but to try to understand something beyond its geography. Is there something more which adds menace to the place beyond that geography? It’s not as if the geography isn’t menacing, of course. From the Ered Lithui across the plateau of Gorgoroth to the Ephel Duath, this is depicted as a kind of volcanic landscape, with, in fact, an active volcano, Orodruin, which seems to be smoking most of the time, like a Middle-earth Etna, set just above the center of that plateau, its northern entrance blocked by elaborate gates, the Morannon, its western entrance by Minas Morgul and the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and, rising just below the volcano, the capital of the place, the Barad-dur, the Dark Tower.

Although I called the Barad-dur a capital”, it might be better termed a command center, as the northern part of Mordor isn’t really a land with farms and villages, as we see in Gondor and even in Rohan, but a vast military installation, agriculture being located to the south — great slave-worked farms away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen”. Instead, as Tolkien describes it through the eyes of Frodo and Sam: …

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What you eat

5 January 2022 | Ollamh

… Such behavior turns up in more recent literature in two places extremely familiar here. In the first of these, the protagonist finds himself deep under a mountain, facing a peculiar character who speaks his language and even recognizes certain of his customs, but who has plans to eat said protagonist, even while promising to maintain the social norms understood in his agreement to abide by the rules of a riddling game: …

And then there’s this from The Lord of the Rings:

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.” LRC §3.03.025

It’s no wonder, then, that, even though starving, Pippin has this reaction:

An Orc stooped over him, and flung him some bread and a strip of raw dried flesh. He ate the stale grey bread hungrily, but not the meat. He was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung to him by an Orc…” LRC §3.03.067

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Ding-dong the witch isn’t dead?

29 December 2021 | Ollamh

… This idea of persistent evil forms a major feature in the work of Lewis’ friend and fellow Inkling, Tolkien, rather as it does in the 1939 MGM film [The Wizard of Oz]. First, there is Melkor (later Morgoth, a kind of nickname), the rebel Vala, perhaps a kind of archangel, close kin to Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, with his explanation of why he rebelled against God: … After his ultimate defeat by his fellow Valar and his exile through the Door of Night, Melkor/Morgoth’s place is taken by one of what we might think of a lesser angel, a Maia, named, initially, Gorthaur, Melkor/Morgoth’s chief lieutenant. As Annatar, and later as Sauron, he appears and reappears in the Second and Third Ages until, with his Ring destroyed, he vanishes from Middle-earth.…

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In the third chapter

22 December 2021 | Ollamh

… Most adapters have made what might appear to be an easy decision: they’ve cut [Bombadil] out entirely. I say appear” because, in the process, they also remove that loaded pistol, … Merry’s sword. After Tom and Frodo carry Sam, Merry, and Pippin out of the barrow, Tom goes back in and brings out all sorts of treasures, including:

For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.

Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,’ he said. Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.’ Then he told them that these blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse: they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dûm in the Land of Angmar.’ LRC §1.08.069LRC §1.08.070

It’s important to understand that last fact: the evil king of Carn Dum” is, in fact, the Witch King of Angmar, aka The Lord of the Nazgul. Merry’s sword, then, was fashioned long before for a distinct purpose: to deal with the forces of an ancient evil. And, unlike its original owner, it has survived the final fall of the kingdom of Arnor.…

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A picture is worth...

15 December 2021 | Ollamh

… Illustrations of Tolkien’s work interest me in particular. There’s a huge amount of it — rather like fan fiction — with everything on-line from amateur drawings inspired by the Jackson films, some very skillfully done, to professional art. Using last week’s posting, where I talked about two possible influences from earlier literary works on the scene between Eowyn and the chief Nazgul, as a basis, I thought that I would examine a few such depictions, thinking out loud about the artists’ choices of focus and elements to include in their presentation.

We should begin, as those artists did, with the scene as painted by the author. There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll try to stick to the most important points, as I see them, from the standpoint of illustration. So that I don’t need to repeat the references, with the exception of the depiction of the original lighting (from the end of LRC §5.05), all the rest of the detail is from LRC §5.06.…

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8 December 2021 | Ollamh

… but somehow these goblins were especially troubling because, unlike those other creatures, who all had a distinctive look, these had no shape, being described as just two great Black Things.” I forgot all about them, however — except for that warning at the end of the stanza — And the Gobble-uns’ll git ef you don’t watch out!” (always good to be watchful about the supernatural), until I was in grad school and I met this in Milton’s Paradise Lost:

The other shape,
If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
For each seem’d either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on. 

(Paradise Lost, Book II, 666 – 673)

It was a description of Death and there was that shapelessness again. But there was another shapeless something in my life by then — and, I suspect for you, dear readers, as well:

Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening. A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes: the Lord of the Nazgul. LRC §5.06.007

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Where the goblins go

1 December 2021 | Ollamh

… Now this was a real below” — and, just as in the song, the place was full of goblins.

And yet there was always the lingering question, even if below” could be answered — or at least imagined — why below” at all? Why didn’t goblins live in villages, or trees, or on beaches? James Whitcomb Riley, after all, could suggest that some at least used a house’s upper floor (and my small person fear easily agreed with that).

But I suppose that the answer is really a very basic one. What was behind those little doors upstairs and what lay in the corners of the cellar was darkness. As Tolkien described the goblins:

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted…”

to which Treebeard adds:

It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun…” LRC §3.04.102

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24 November 2021 | Ollamh

… I can never look at such artwork without thinking just how much at least of the English variety Tolkien must have seen. It’s clear that, although he would have been 21 and over in 1914, [Tolkien] wasn’t one to rush to a recruiting station as so many did, so that I can imagine he would have had a skeptical reaction to such stuff, at best.

But, in a what if” moment, I imagine a Gondor much more like 1914 Britain, where the feudal system has gone and there is general literacy: can we imagine the posters Denethor’s administration would have turned out? Orcs looting Osgiliath, Orcs burning the Pelennor, a mounted Nazgul in the ruined gateway of Minas Tirith with the words, will you wait till you see this?

And, of course, there would be the other side’s propaganda, too — big red, staring eyes everywhere, …

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Thirty days hath...

Treebeard holding Merry and Pippin; Alan Lee
17 November 2021 | Ollamh

What are you saying, Gandalf?’ asked Pippin.

I was just running over some of the Rhymes of Lore in my mind,’ answered the wizard. Hobbits, I suppose, have forgotten them, even those that they ever knew.’

No, not all,’ said Pippin. And we have many of our own, which wouldn’t interest you, perhaps.’

(The Lord of the Rings LRC §3.11.092LRC §3.11.094)

It’s not only wizards and hobbits who have such lore, however. Treebeard also has a stock, as we can see in his conversation with Merry and Pippin:

What are you, I wonder? I cannot place you. You do not seem to come in the old lists that I learned when I was young. But that was a long, long time ago, and they may have made new lists. Let me see! Let me see! How did it go? … (LRC §3.04.026)

It’s interesting to note that both Gandalf and Treebeard’s lore is patterned in verse forms, Gandalf’s in a 6‑line stanza of a/​b/​c/​b/​d/​b and Treebeard’s, which has the suggestion of the common Old English four-stress, alliterative line which we see in poems like Beowulf.

Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum
Theodcyninga thrym gefrunon… 

Silence! We Spear-Danes in the so-long past time
Heard of the heroics of high kings of the people… 

(My translation — not strictly accurate, but I want to give the feel of the form. For the original, as well as a more literal translation, please see one of my favorite Old English sites: https://​heo​rot​.dk/​b​e​o​w​u​l​f​-​r​e​d​e​-​t​e​x​t​.html For more on the form, see: http://​oe​.langes​lag​.org/​d​o​c​s​/​s​0​1​c​_​v​e​r​s​e.pdf )

There’s a telling detail, by the way, in Treebeard’s Room tum, room tum, roomty toom tum”. If we emphasize certain syllables, we can see that he’s trying to stir his memory of the next lines by doing the stresses of the poem: ROOM tum ROOM tum ROOM-ty TOOM tum, as in DWARF the DEL-ver DARK are his HOUS-es.

Keeping things in your memory is an ancient concern in Western culture, going back to the Greco-Roman world, particularly for public speakers — politicians and lawyers — and the Greeks even had a goddess for memory, Mnemosyne.…

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Take his medicine

10 November 2021 | Ollamh

… If we continue with the idea that behind the Orcs is the British Army of 1916, then we might imagine that what Sergeant Ugluk has just done is what was done on a daily basis: he’s issued a rum ration, which came in large ceramic containers, like this one — … (SRD stood for Supply Reserve Depot”, but soldiers had more creative — and sometimes bitter — translations, like Service Rum-Diluted” or Seldom Reaches Destination.”)

Rations were handed out in very small portions — 1/​16th of a pint — in the older system an ounce — roughly 30ml.…

This is Orc first aid and it made me think about the medical system which JRRT would have encountered in those bloody days at the Somme, in the summer of 1916.…

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Ugluk Orckins

3 November 2021 | Ollamh

It has been discussed, both elsewhere in print and on this blog, what an Orc is. Treebeard’s definition is often cited,.… When asked about Orcs, JRRT offered several clues, saying:

  1. Also the Orcs (goblins) and other monsters bred by the First Enemy…” (letter to Milton Waldman, late 1951? Letters, 151) — so, somehow created by Morgoth, Sauron’s master 2. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be corruptions’.” (letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April, 1951, Letters, 178)
  2. Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord created’ Trolls and Orcs. He says he made’ them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements…It is not true actually of the Orcs — who are fundamentally a race of rational incarnate’ creatures, though horribly corrupted…” (draft of letter to Peter Hastings, September, 1954, Letters, 190) — in this same letter, he also quotes Frodo: “‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.’“ (LRC §6.01.109)
  3. I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodeling and corrupting them, not making them.” (from the same draft to Peter Hastings)
  4. Elves may turn into Orcs, and if this required the special pervasive malice of Morgoth, still Elves themselves could do evil deeds.” (continuation of draft of letter sent to Rhona Beare, 14 October, 1958, Letters, 287)

As these are remarks by the creator (well, sub-creator”, as JRRT would say), then they must be true, but I would offer another detail — not as to who or what Orcs are, but on whom they might be based.…

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27 October 2021 | Ollamh

… Each of these two, Saruman and Sauron, is determined to obtain the Ring for himself, but also very cautious about the kind of thinking expressed by one of the anonymous Orc voices quoted above: 

Is that all you know? Why don’t we search them and find out? We might find something that we could use ourselves’ LRC §3.03.016.

Grishnakh’s orders, as he states them, reflect Sauron’s caution: The prisoners are NOT to be searched or plundered…” (LRC §3.03.017). And Ugluk’s are, basically, the same: Alive and as captured; no spoiling” (LRC §3.03.018).

With such lack of specificity even for those in charge of the operation, it’s not surprising that mostly what the ordinary Orc soldiers know can be summed up in the title of this posting, scuttlebutt, originally a naval term, for the gossip which sailors spread when they spent time around the ship’s water barrel, a butt being an old name for a big wooden container for liquids.

It’s a given that JRRT’s reading influenced his writing (we only have to think about how much of Beowulf appears in The Hobbit). It’s also true that his life on the Western Front, brief as it was (June to October, 1916), also had its influence and here, in this Orcish scuttlebutt, we have a good example, which is really as much derived from his experience of the War in general as from his overseas service. 

Those in charge of waging the War were, from early on — and this was true for both sides — very aware of the influence of the media upon people’s opinions. Although there was no internet yet, or television, or radio, there was still the press – books, magazines, and, most of all, newspapers – as well as film, though still in its infancy. A hit movie of 1916, in fact, was the documentary” (the British War Office was behind it, so it was hardly likely to be impartial) The Battle of the Somme.…

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20 October 2021 | Ollamh

… Although he hasn’t been asleep or away from home for twenty years, Aragorn would appear to have a similar problem of identification, but with a twist. Unlike Rip van Winkle, who is a nobody, and more like Odysseus, who is the headman of Ithaka, if he is really who he says he is, he has a claim to the throne of Gondor, which has been vacant for 969 years. But how to prove that?

He has Gandalf’s backing, of course, who knows his — and his people’s — history.… Gandalf’s word alone would never be enough, however, as the bitter words of Denethor much later in the story — though clearly poisoned by Sauron through the palantir — show us…

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No (Gondorian) Man’s Land

13 October 2021 | Ollamh

More than once, people have likened Mordor to the Black Country of central England, or perhaps even to the blighted landscape of the Western Front, but could we extend that even farther west, to the long approach by which Frodo and Sam, led by Gollum, make their way towards Minas Morgul? Faramir, who has captured Frodo and Sam while setting an ambush for a column of Sauron’s allies, including their oliphaunts, is now trying to warn Frodo both from traveling with Gollum and from going that route to Mordor as Gollum has proposed, saying,

The valley of Minas Morgul passed into evil very long ago, and it was a menace and a dread while the banished Enemy dwelt yet far away, and Ithilien was still for the most part in our keeping. As you know, that city was once a strong place, proud and fair, Minas Ithil, the twin sister of our own city. But it was taken by fell men whom the Enemy in his first strength had dominated, and who wandered homeless and masterless after his fall…After his going they took Minas Ithil and dwelt there, and they filled it, and all the valley about, with decay: it seemed empty and was not so, for a shapeless fear lived within the ruined walls” (LRC §4.06.103).

Rereading this, then, the first image which came to my mind was … this — and what the new Second Lieutenant Tolkien must have seen when he arrived in the trenches as a signals officer in June, 1916.…

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Gondor, Angria, Gondal, and Boxen

6 October 2021 | Ollamh

I suspect that anyone who has spent any time with Tolkien has probably seen this passage:

The stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” (letter to Houghton Mifflin, 30 June, 1955 — with a rather complicated history — see Letters p. 219 for the quotation and 218 for an explanation).

As a rather sceptical person, I’ve always then looked at the extensive appendices to my copy of The Lord of the Rings, which cover pages 1033 – 1138, and then at the many volumes subsequently edited and published by Christopher Tolkien, and thought, That’s an awful lot of story’ for the bits and pieces of Elvish, Dwarfish, and even Black Speech, which are to be found there.”

And so I wondered if JRRT, for all of his language passion, hadn’t also a passion for world-creating and was somehow misrepresenting himself and his creativity. As a young grown-up, he certainly once had large plans, as he explained in this 1951 letter to Milton Waldman:

But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths…” (Letters, 144)

We know that, as a child, he was given those fairy-stories”, from books like Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890), and it’s clear that he once even tried his hand at writing such a story: …

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22 September 2021 | Ollamh

… In a footnote to his comments, JRRT mentions that he particularly enjoyed the historical novels of Mary Renault” (her pen name – she was actually Eileen Mary Challans, 1905 – 1983).

Tolkien began by writing:

I read quite a lot — or more truly, try to read many books.

and then adds in parentheses: “(notably so-called Science Fiction and Fantasy)”, which he footnotes as I enjoy the S.F. of Isaac Azimov.” [sic] (from Letters, 377 — excerpts from all of his comments appear on pages 372 – 378).… I find it a little odd, however, that, when he mentions Science Fiction, JRRT doesn’t include the work of his friend and encourager, C.S. Lewis (1898−1963), who, between 1938 and 1945, produced his own trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945).

As well, although Tolkien wasn’t specific in his mention of Asimov, Lewis has given us a few clues to his Science Fiction reading in an essay, On Science Fiction”, which appears in the posthumous collection Of Other Worlds (1966).… For me, Lewis is the kind of writer with whom you may disagree but, because he never writes anything without quiet wit and deep thoughtfulness, you read because you may disagree and therefore can learn more about what you know — or think you do.

In this essay, Lewis makes distinctions among subgenres,…

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Fan mail

15 September 2021 | Ollamh

In the March 22, 1968 issue of The Daily Telegraph Magazine, you will find an interview with Tolkien. It’s not a very good piece — being very much of its time: surface‑y and obviously desperate to sound hip” — but with a few interesting quotations from JRRT.…

It’s clear from Tolkien’s comments that in 1967, when the interview was conducted, he was not a happy man. As he says, referring to his current home, but easily read as a broader statement:

I am caught here in acute discomfort; but the dislocation of a removal and the rearrangement of my effects cannot be contemplated, until I have completed my contracted work. When and if I do so, if I am still in health, I hope to go away to an address that will appear in no directory or reference book. (Letters, 373)

Among those comments is this:

I read quite a lot — or more truly, try to read many books…But I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention.


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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.” (LRC §0.4.14)

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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.” (LRC §1.02.088)

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.” (LRC §1.02.113)

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…” (LRC §1.01.105)

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.” (LRC §1.02.117)

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.” (LRC §1.02.120) 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.” LRC §3.03.052) 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” (LRC §1.11.032) — 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.’ (LRC §3.06.110)

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 (LRC §0.4.18)

When I thought further about this, it seemed like an odd detail: Hobbit archers turn up in the Prologue (LRC §0.4.15) 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.” (LRC §6.08.238). 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 (LRC §1.11.045) …

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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 — LRC §B.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.’” — LRC §2.02.15

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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