A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Network of Fools

Over at her blog, Lee Smith has found something fun to do on a rainy February day.  She’s collected every time somebody insulted somebody else in The Lord of the Rings.  To nobody’s surprise, “fool” is the most common way to insult someone.  There’s more give-and-take than I’d thought, though.  If we define “calling someone a fool” as a relationship, it makes a fairly complex network.

Lee confines her attentions to insulting people to their face. This has an elegant directness, but it misses some things that interest me, like Sam calling himself a fool. I’m going to expand on Lee’s definition for the sake of entertainment and include any time someone calls someone a fool, or a group of up to ten others.

The network looks like this:

Graph of accusations of foolishness

Whom are you calling a fool?

I have omitted two trivial subgraphs, involving Shagrat and Gorbag and Wormtongue and Hàma.  I was expecting the graph to fall into two tight cliques with loose links between them, but that turns out not to be the case.  Saruman’s insults at the end of the book tie everything together neatly into a tightly-bound community of disregard.

Here’s a table of fool-counts, sorted by the fraction of their arrows that point outwards.

Character Speaker Referent Disdain
Grishnakh 4 100%
Witch-King 2 100%
Shagrat 1 100%
Rory Brandybuck 1 100%
Wormtongue 1 100%
Gandalf 14 3 82%
Saruman 6 2 75%
Gollum 2 1 67%
Boromir 1 1 50%
Denethor 1 1 50%
Gimli 1 1 50%
Nameless Orc 1 1 50%
Ugluk 1 1 50%
Pippin 2 5 29%
Frodo 1 4 20%
Sam 1 4 20%
Merry 3 0%
Bilbo 2 0%
Legolas 2 0%
Aragorn 1 0%
Butterbur 1 0%
Eowyn 1 0%
Gorbag 1 0%
Hama 1 0%
Lotho 1 0%
Radagast 1 0%
Nameless Ruffian 1 0%
Sauron 1 0%

And here’s the Queen of Soul, misapprehending the topology:

Through Time and Space with Merry and Pippin

Like Butterbur, I think less than I talk, and slower. This particular case doesn’t count as seeing through a brick wall, though, more like an open window.

The implication of Tom’s comment on my previous post just sank in: J.R.R. Tolkien did finish his time-travel story, after all!

Merry and Pippin Journey through time as well as space

Merry & Pippin’s Journey

The fay places are omitted so the scale would be more visible.  Fourth-Age Gondor is in the 12th Century because I had the Brothers Hildebrandt calendar on my bedroom wall when I was young.

Middle-earth is not very medieval

The article by Cory Grewell in The Inklings & King Arthur begins by reminding me of an old essay by Umberto Eco that takes a swipe at Tolkien’s “neo-medievalism”. Grewell agrees with Eco (and Tom Shippey) that some kind of medievalism is happening here: “Certainly both The Lord of the Rings and The Fall of Arthur are both readily identifiable as instances of ‘devotion to medieval ideals.'” (p.221)

Despite the fact that Grewell is building on the work of some of my favorite scholars, I feel like I need to push back on this.  JRRT is certainly talking about the Middle Ages, but not in isolation. LotR relates the medieval world to many other periods of history. Nowhere in Middle-earth is exactly like a real-earth culture, but we can infer a place’s spot in history by focusing on its role in the story. Let’s take a tour and see who’s where on the real-earth timeline.


Their role in the story is military. They speak Anglo-Saxon, live in Anglo-Saxon houses, and fight with weapons you can see on the Bayeux Tapestry. Inference: Medieval

Dol Amroth

The only important thing about Dol Amroth is military. Imrahil is wearing the armor of a 15th century knight. Inference: Medieval

Minas Tirith

Minas Tirith has both military and cultural roles in the story. Their fighting style could be from any time between the Marian reforms and the invention of mounted knights.  They have a monumental scale of construction. They wear high-crowned helms. A big part of the city is ostentatious mausoleum facilities. They have legible 3,000-year-old scrolls in the library. (see also Letter #211)  Inference: Roman Egypt

The Shire

Hobbits are in no way medieval. They wear 18th-Century clothing. The Shire is dominated by a civilian aristocracy. It is supported by freehold agriculture. The Shire was easily nudged into a fossil-fuel economy by Saruman, so it couldn’t have been far from one to start with. Michel Delving has a public museum. Their military technology is medieval, but with a couple of individual exceptions, hobbits’ role in the story is anything but military. Inference: 18th Century


We get no explicit textual indications about Bree, but from the descriptions of the Prancing Pony my mental image was a Tudor half-timbered building. This is bolstered by the fact that alehouses with painted signs were a 16th Century invention. Bree is not a mono-ethnic state. Narratively and historio-technologically, it is a transition between the Shire and Arnor. Inference: 16th Century


Arnor contains conspicuous ruins of a civilization far above anything the inhabitants could reconstruct. It is depopulated. If we knew more about plagues hitting Europe in Late Antiquity, we could pin down Arnor’s location in history better. The term “dark ages” is deprecated by modern historians, but it seems appropriate here. Inference: Medieval


Its role in the story is military.  It is a land of metal and wheels. Its armies used artillery at Helm’s Deep. Beechbone was attacked by napalm. Uruk-hai are products of biotechnology. [ETA: via the self-correcting Internet, I am informed that Treebeard was wrong about this – the Uruk were created by Sauron about 500 years earlier.] Inference: 20th-Century Europe


To the denizens of Mordor, the most frightening threat is to be reported to faceless authorities. Though they are militarily advanced, they are technologically backward. They live among wholesale environmental destruction. Mordor has an array of subjugated satellite nations, but it is not an empire. Inference: Mid-20th-Century Soviet bloc


Elves are timeless, and what we see of their societies doesn’t conform well with anything I know of human history. Militarily they’re medieval, and have been since the dawn of time. Socially they’re all over the place. Some elves live under almost-human monarchies, but I’m not sure what to call Rivendell. A certain looseness of organization might be expected when governmental succession is a trivial detail, instead of the most important decision a society has to make. Elves play equally-important roles as healers and craftsmen, though, and they don’t seem very Medieval at all in those respects. Inference: Vaguely Medieval


Dwarves are difficult to place chronologically. They don’t change, either. “Aulë made the Dwarves even as they still are.” (Silm., ch.2.) Metalworking is surrounded with a magical nimbus in human societies, which sent me to this marvelously-titled paper: “The Faerie Smith Meets the Bronze Industry: Magic Versus Science in the Interpretation of Prehistoric Metal-Making”. In essence, the legends whence the Dwarves sprang originated in the technological transition from bronze to iron. The best match seems to be Neolithic Iran. Inference: New Stone Age


Looked at through this lens, the story in LotR is that an exemplar of the 20th Century is so awful that every other period of history needs to marshal its unique virtues and combine forces to eradicate it. The “return of the king” subplot could be seen as how the medieval societies (Rohan, Rivendell, and Arnor) bring a classical civilization (Gondor) into the medieval period.  That’s a fairly weak “devotion to medieval ideals and usages”, if it counts at all. So, from the technological perspective, I think LotR is a neo-medievalist work only at the most superficial (i.e. cinematic) level.

Oral and Written Culture in Middle-earth

Dawn Walls-Thumma has an excellent essay up on her Tumblr blog.  “Excellent” in this case means “gave me the answer to something I’d puzzled about for a long time, and also something to argue about”.

The Wise

All through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we get references to “the Wise”. We are told who they are, but what about them makes people think they’re so wise? [1] The wisest thing they do is sign on to Gandalf’s confessedly-foolish plan to win the War of the Ring.

Dawn, though, has put her finger on it.  Northern Middle-earth has an oral culture. The upper classes can read, also some of the wealthier peasants like Butterbur, but as she shows, writing is ancillary to the spoken word.  Elves don’t have a written culture at all.  (Why would anyone write a history, when you could just go ask the guy who was there?)  I’ve often thought this is why the Elves of Rivendell liked Bilbo so much: his offer to write down all their stories was a novelty to them, and they were as flattered as an old Appalachian who gets a visit from a Smithsonian researcher.

So, then, the Wise are those who are best at remembering stories verbatim, so the old knowledge base doesn’t get corrupted. The techniques for doing this are well known, even today when we no longer need them.  (Can you imagine the size of Elrond’s memory palace?) You get a reputation for being Wise when the information you retrieve from the immense stores in your head is always correct, and you can act on it in confidence.

Incidentally, I think this exonerates Gandalf from Dawn’s charge that he’s not being square with Frodo when he says “If I were to tell you all that tale, we should still be sitting here when Spring had passed into Winter.”  We’ve been spoiled by the random-access data storage all around us. Remembering used to be hard work, especially if the needed facts are stashed among thousands of years’ worth of memories.  Extracting information from a memory palace isn’t fast. Gandalf would have to start at the front door and walk through all the corridors to get to the things Frodo wanted to know. [2]  It’s not like opening a book to the right page.  Which brings me to the thing I want to argue about.

Written-word vs. Oral-culture Infosec

Dawn says,

There is little control of information in the oral tradition. It exists among the people, and anyone present to hear it can possess it. Written tradition, though, can be controlled and its audiences limited, creating authority in a way that doesn’t exist in the oral tradition.

Not keeping a secret

I think this is backward.  Oral cultures strictly control who gets to know what. There are initiation rituals, rites of passage, etc. that one must pass through before one is permitted to hear. Speakers can usually arrange to see everyone in earshot. But when authors write something down, they have no control over where the paper will end up.

Tolkien certainly uses the two media this way.  Isildur didn’t tell people about the inscription on the Ring, he wrote it down “lest it fade beyond recall”.  He had no idea who would need to know it, so he couldn’t have guessed whom to tell. (The obvious answer to the latter is Elrond, but that would have been an awkward conversation.) In the immediate context of “The Shadow of the Past”, Sam eavesdropped on the oral communications between Gandalf and Frodo, but was immediately busted.  On the other hand, Merry got to read a page or two of Bilbo’s book with no one the wiser.  Altogether, writing things down is much better for disseminating them than telling people.

[1] Apart from Celeborn, of course. He’s obviously wise.  Shutting up and letting your wife do all the talking is the highest degree of sagacity, here at Idiosophy Labs.

[2] Note that when Gandalf is trying to remember the correct path in Moria, he sits there for six hours to make his decision. He can’t be collecting new information, so what’s he doing? He’s traversing his memory palace, over and over, looking for rooms he ought to have visited.

The Ultimate Question

Since the Mythgard Academy has just wound up its class on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I think it’s a good time to tell you all what the Question really is. Several characters in the book got themselves all worked up because they know the Answer is 42, and there’s no way that such a big question can have such a simple answer. Idiosophy is here to help.

You know that the universe is really just a simulation, right? Well, most computer simulations have a pseudo-random number generator in them. The randomness does two things for us: it lets us account for unpredictable things like wind, and it lets us explore the whole range of things that can happen. For example, I might be trying to figure out how many checkout lines they need at the supermarket, and I might want to know how long the wait would be in the worst-case scenario, even though nobody can describe for me exactly what that is. I can randomize arrival times, number of items purchased, etc., and see which combination causes the worst (or best) result.

We can’t use real random numbers in simulations (assuming that such things aren’t a mere mathematical fiction) because we’d never be able to make sure the software was working correctly. We have to be able to run the program, fix problems, and then run again with all the same inputs to test that our repair job didn’t cause new problems in some other part of the system we’re studying. We use a pseudo-random number generator because it has a “seed” that we can set, which makes the numbers come out the same every time. When the time comes to really learn something, you change the seed to lots of different values.

So here’s the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything: “What seed should we use to start the simulation we live in, to make everything come out all right?

For what it’s worth, I ran this idea past the smartest engineer I know. He told me he never delivers a simulation without testing it with “42” first.

That Hideous Graph

Brenton Dickieson has been doing some meticulous numerical work on C.S. Lewis’s  career and publishing updates on his blog.  He’s identified seven distinct periods of Lewis’s writing career. He’s nailed down the times at which Lewis was actually writing each book, as opposed to when they were published.

I always read new posts on “A Pilgrim in Narnia” as they come out, so when I had to learn a new computer-graphics package today, those tables were at the back of my mind.  Here’s a timeline of C.S. Lewis’s annual writing productivity.  The vertical axis is the sum of the number of works Lewis had in progress that year, each divided by the number of years in which he was working on it.

graph of literary production over time

Literary productivity metric, annual

World War II was a great thing for Lewis fans: a big spike upwards in writing, perhaps due to less time spent grading papers?  I see certain resonances with the Pevensie children at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe here, but maybe that’s just me.

Of course, once we’ve defined a literary productivity metric, we can set production goals, optimize our schedules, create Gantt charts, and generally bring about a world that Lewis would not approve of at all.

Mea Culpa

If the ground in Holy Trinity Churchyard shows some unevenness tomorrow morning, blame neither frost-heave nor seismic activity.  It’s my fault.

Comment on “The Forests and the Trees”

winter stream with trees and snow

Silver Maples, after the willows

J.R.R. Tolkien said in Letter 339, “In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies….” In her essay “The Forests and the Trees” (2017) and her earlier essay “Taking the Part of Trees” (2000), Verlyn Flieger suggests that Old Man Willow, the first evil character the hobbits encounter in The Lord of the Rings, shows that JRRT was not being exactly truthful there.  “Fine words, but the reality is somewhat different. … Never does he explicitly take the part of the Old Forest against the hobbits.”

The Old Forest is definitely a dark and evil place.  But why?  Bombadil lays out the history:

It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords. The countless years had filled them with pride and rooted wisdom, and with malice. But none were more dangerous than the Great Willow: his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning, and a master of winds, and his song and thought ran through the woods on both sides of the river. His grey thirst spirit drew power out of the earth and spread like fine root-threads in the ground, and invisible twig-fingers in the air, till it had under its dominion nearly all the trees of the Forest from the Hedge to the Downs. (I, vii)

The ecologists and foresters have a fact to add here, which puts a very different face on Old Man Willow and the Old Forest:  Willows are not forest trees! They can’t handle shade.  Willows are what ecologists call a “pioneer species”.  That is, when a place is cleared by fire, bulldozers, or other calamities, willow trees are the first to re-sprout along the stream banks.  They send out “fine root-threads in the ground” and stabilize the soil.  That gives sturdier but slower-growing trees a chance to survive rainstorms and flooding.  But once the maples and ashes get established, they overgrow the willows, which then die out.  (And after a while, oaks do the same thing to the maples. C’est la vie.)  In a mature ecosystem, willow trees are just annoying weeds. (Pollan, pp. 106-7)  Old Man Willow shouldn’t be there.  He’s twisting nature out of its habit, trying to preserve his own status beyond his due.

Old Man Willow is a familiar character. We’ve seen his kind elsewhere in the Legendarium.  When the Old Forest was young, he was “lord”, but when his time was past, he wouldn’t let go and accept his natural fate. He used his magic (singing, as Bombadil describes it) to enslave the other plants of the forest so he wouldn’t have to die.  Willow-Man’s heart is rotten exactly the same way as the hearts of the Kings of Númenór.

At Isengard, Gandalf gently points out that Treebeard doesn’t really understand evil beings, because “you have not plotted to cover all the world with your trees and choke all other living things,” as someone evil would. (III, x) Old Man Willow is exactly the type Gandalf means.  His trees “attacked the Hedge: they came and planted themselves right by it.” (I,vi)  Contrary to Prof. Flieger’s expectation, Tolkien can’t “take the part” of the Old Forest trees any more than he can take the part of the Haradrim.  They’re the slaves of an evil master, and their own hearts have been filled with pride and malice thereby.  Here’s another Númenór parallel: “proud” or “pride” is used about the Númenóreans 12 times in the 13 pages of Akallabêth.  I think we’re supposed to see them the same way, with Old Man Willow fighting for unnatural immortality with wood and song as Ar-Pharazôn did with gold and iron.

In her 2000 essay, Prof. Flieger quotes Jane Chance’s Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England, saying “‘Old Man Willow and his malice represent the living embodiment of the parent Tree of Death’, presumably in Eden.”  Flieger calls this “overstated”, but I don’t think it is.  JRRT knew a lot about trees; it’s no stretch to think he knew that a willow in the heart of a dense forest would be a perversion of nature.  And Old Man Willow’s evil nature sprouts from exactly the same root as the great evil among Men, the central theme of LotR.  Jane Chance nailed it.  I’m going to have to read that book.

So, in conclusion, I think I’m willing to accept JRRT’s letter at face value.  He takes the part of the trees in the same way a feminist takes the part of women: supporting those who have historically been abused and exploited, but with no obligation to defend Messalina or Elizabeth Báthory.  To the Old Forest, “all their enemies” includes at least one tree.  The Old Forest was “hostile to two-legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries”, but not all those injuries were caused by the two-legged creatures.  A monster among their own kind inflicted the worst.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey , ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1981).

Flieger, Verlyn “The Forests and the Trees”, in There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale, KSU Press (2017): 129-144.

Flieger, Verlyn. “Taking the Part of Trees: Eco-Conflict in Middle-earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle Earth. Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 89 (2000): 147-158.

Plants for a Future. Database., accessed 20 Jan 2018.

Pollan, Michael.  Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Grove Press, 1991.

United States Department of Agriculture. PLANTS database. Accessed 20 Jan 2018.

The Story of Half-Cock

I went looking for Kabyle fairy-tales on line, and found a collection at the National Library of France. This is the weirdest story from that volume. It’s not a tale from my wife’s village; it’s from a coastal town about 80 miles to the west.


Once upon a time, a man had two wives. One was intelligent, the other stupid. They shared ownership of a rooster. One day they got into an argument over it, which they resolved by cutting it down the middle. Each wife took half. The stupid wife cooked her half; the intelligent wife let her half live. It walked on one leg, and had one wing. After several days had passed, Half-Cock said to his mistress: “Pack me some provisions so I can go on a pilgrimage.” She gave him what he needed for his voyage.

Half-Cock woke up early the next morning and took the pilgrim’s road. Around mid-day, he felt tired and went down to a little brook to rest. At that same moment, a jackal came down to the brook to drink. Half-Cock jumped onto the jackal’s back, pulled out a hair, stuck it under his wing, and went back to the road. He kept going until nightfall, and climbed up in a tree to spend the night.

Before Half-Cock could get completely settled in, he saw a lion pass by his tree. As soon as he saw that, he jumped on the lion’s back and stole a hair, which he tucked under his wing with the jackal’s hair. The next morning, he got up early and got back on the road. When the road passed through the middle of a forest, he met a boar and said to him, “Give me a hair from your back, as the King of the Beasts and the most cunning of jackals have done!” The boar replied, “Since these two important Persons have done so, I also shall give you what you ask.” He pulled a hair from his back and gave it to Half-Cock.

Half-Cock resumed his journey and arrived at the great house of a king. He started to sing, and his song said, “Tomorrow the King will die, and I will take his wife.” When he heard these worlds, the King ordered his guards to seize Half-Cock and throw him in the pen with the sheep and the goats, so they would tread him into the dirt and kill him under their feet and the King would be rid of his song. The guards took him prisoner and threw him into the pen to perish.

But when he was in the pen, Half-Cock took the jackal’s hair from under his wing and burned it in a fire. As soon as he had put the hair near the flames, the jackal appeared, asking, “Why are you burning my hair? The moment I felt it, I came running!” Half-Cock replied, “You see my situation; get me out of here!”

“Easy enough,” said the jackal, and he gave a yelp to summon all his brothers. The whole pack joined him, and he ordered them, “My brothers, save this Half-Cock for me, because he has a hair from my back that he’s put in the fire. I don’t want to burn; pull him out of this stable full of the King’s beasts, and get my hair out of his hands.” As soon as he had spoken, the jackals ran into the pen, throttled all the sheep and goats, and rescued Half-Cock. in

The next morning, the King found the pen deserted and his livestock dead. He looked for Half-Cock, but without success. That evening, though, at dinner time, Half-Cock started singing as he had the previous night. The King called his guards and said, “Seize him and throw him in the stable with the oxen, so he shall be crushed beneath their hooves.” The guards took him prisoner again, and threw him into the middle of the stable. But once he landed in the stable, Half-Cock took the lion’s hair from under his wing and held it in the fire. Immediately the lion arrived and roared, “Why are you burning my hair? From my cave, I smelled the odor of burning hair. I came running to find out why you’re doing it.”

Half-Cock replied, “You see my situation; get me out of here.” The lion roared to summon his brothers. His brothers arrived quickly and asked, “Why did you call us?”

“Get Half-Cock out of the stable, because he has one of my hairs that he can put in the fire. If you don’t rescue him, he’ll burn it, and I don’t want to smell my hair burning as long as I live.” His brothers obeyed him, and they soon had killed all the cattle.

The next morning, the King saw that his cattle were all dead, and he was so angry that he almost choked on his fury. He went looking for Half-Cock to kill him with his own hands. The King searched a long time without finding him, and eventually went back home to rest.

At sundown, Half-Cock returned to his usual place and sang the same song as before. The King called his guards and commanded them, “This time, put him in the most secure room you can find, lock all the doors up tight, and leave him there all night. I will kill him myself in the morning.” The guards captured Half-Cock again and locked him in the King’s Treasury. When Half-Cock landed in the room, he saw all the money under his feet. He waited until the master of the treasury was asleep, took the boar’s hair from under his wing, lit a fire, and put the hair in it. Immediately the boar came running, and the earth shook beneath his feet. He shoved his head straight through the wall, halfway collapsing it, until he saw Half-Cock and demanded, “Why are you burning my hair?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but you see my situation. The King wants me dead, and tomorrow he will kill me with his own hands if you don’t get me out of this prison.”

The boar replied, “That’s easy. Don’t worry, I’ll open the door for you. But you’ve been here long enough. Get up, and grab enough money to keep you and your children.”

Half-Cock obeyed; he rolled around in the gold so the pieces got stuck in his wings and his feet and swallowed as much as he could until he was filled up. Then he went back along the road that he’d traveled the first day, and when he got home, he crawled underneath the mat. He called to his mistress and said, “Hit me now, don’t be afraid of hurting me.” His mistress set herself to striking him with a stick until he said, “That’s enough. Now roll up the mat.” She did as he said, and saw the floor underneath gleaming with gold.

At the time when Half-Cock returned from his pilgrimage, the two wives also had a dog, a female, that they owned together. The stupid wife, seeing that her sister wife had come into a lot of money, said to her, “We need to split up the dog, too.” The intelligent wife replied, “We can’t make anything of her; let her live. I give the half that I own to you.” The stupid wife said to the dog, “Go on a pilgrimage like Half-Cock did, and bring me back some money.”

The dog got up to obey her mistress. She set out on the road in the morning, and arrived at a fountain. She was thirsty, so she wanted to drink. When she lowered her head, she saw a yellow rock in the middle of the fountain. She picked it up in her mouth, and ran back home. When she got back to her mistress, the dog said, “Get the floor-mat and some sticks — I’m back from my pilgrimage.” The stupid wife lifted up the floor mat. The dog crawled underneath, and said, “Hit me, but not too hard.” The stupid wife grabbed the sticks and beat the dog as hard as she could. The dog cried a long time to make her stop, but she didn’t stop until the cries stopped. She lifted up the mat, and found the dog dead, with a worthless yellow stone in her mouth.

Translation notes

In answer to the obvious question, “WTF?”, Prof. Basset notes that there is a very similar Albanian folktale. The Albanian version begins with a husband and wife who have a pair of chickens. They divorce, and in the process one takes the cock and the other the hen. I suspect that somewhere along the line, a Kabyle storyteller couldn’t resist lofting a crude joke over the heads of the listening children.

The title of this story in French is “Moitié de Coq”. Although cocks are as masculine as it gets, “moitié” is feminine, so the pronouns used for the protagonist are all female. There’s an obvious temptation to read this story through a gender lens (as Sørina Higgins puts it); I’ll have to keep this fact in mind if I try that.

The word in the French that I have translated “guard” is “nègre”. I get the feeling from other stories in the volume that the reader is supposed to think of giant elite warriors from far away, like Varangians. But I’m a southerner from the USA, and as I wrote this down I unavoidably kept using Uncle-Remus locutions because to me that’s what folktales should sound like. In our kind of folktale, though, a Negro would be a trickster not a power-figure, and the stunt with the Treasury would have had a completely different meaning. So I seized on a piece of 19th-Century French military slang, in which “nègre” was the name for the best soldier among the cadets (like “honcho” for us) and just used “guards”.

Works Cited

Basset, René, Contes Populaires Berbères. Paris, E. Leroux, (1887). #42, pp. 83-89.  PDF page 121.

Goldberry’s kind gets around

Since my wife is a nutritionist, I got her to look at my “fairy perils” post to make sure I had everything in the diabetes section right. She corrected one point, and then asked, “Who is Goldberry?”

Biographical interruption: English is my wife’s fourth language, so it’s OK that she’s not a Tolkien fan. She comes from a village in the mountains of Algeria; by ethnicity, she’s one of the original inhabitants. They call themselves “Kabyle”, and they’re part of the Amazigh (Berber) people.  (Reading Roman history is weird now that I actually know Numidians, including someone named “Jugurtha”.)  Her grandmother was a sort of village wise-woman. I never got to meet her, alas, but from all the stories, she was basically a short Granny Weatherwax.

I answered that Goldberry was the River-woman’s daughter, and I told the story of  how she and Tom Bombadil met.  Madame replied, “Oh, that happened to my grandfather!  He was walking to the orchard one day, and a blonde-haired, green-eyed woman came up out of the creek.  She had lots of gold and silver jewelry in her hair and around her neck.  She said she wanted my grandfather to marry her. My grandfather turned and ran back home as fast as he could.  My grandmother told him to go to bed and go to sleep.  When he woke up the next day, he had dozens of tiny bleeding wounds all over his face.  They took a week to heal.”

When I started studying fairy-stories, it was with the explicit intention of doing something that had no practical application in everyday life.  I hope that still holds, and that susceptibility to attacks by rusalki is territorial and not transmitted in families.

Rusalka, her prey ensnared

Rusalka, by Mikhail Vrubel

King Arthur Has Returned

Sørina Higgins, who more or less talked me into starting this blog, has just published a collection of works by 20 eminent scholars in the field of Inklings research.  She has the table of contents up on Charles Williams’s blogsite, as well as all the compliments and endorsements from the book jacket  (An Archbishop of Canterbury?!). Out it ought to be checked:

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