— 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.

  Thirty days hath...

Treebeard holding Merry and Pippin; Alan Lee17 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 §3.11.092–3.11.094)

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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  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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