A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: fantasy (Page 1 of 4)

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.

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.

Commentary on “Particle Physics of Middle-Earth”

Santa Claus brought me a copy of Verlyn Flieger’s latest book There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale. I have spent the last week reading it, and wondering if I should go back and fix my old posts wherever she addressed a topic about which I’ve blogged. For example, the essay “Re-creating Reality” starts with, “Let us begin by acknowledging the obvious: fiction by its very nature is escapist.” and continues from there to make clearer observations than I did in “Maslow’s Hierarchy”.

But then I got to the essay entitled “Words and World-Making: the Particle Physics of Middle-earth”. Oh, dear. She starts by citing John Wheeler, and that is all to the good. Unfortunately, Fritjof Capra makes an appearance as well. The Tao of Physics shouldn’t be used for anything of consequence. (Optional rant below.) But the thing I’d like to get out into the blogosphere is a better conception about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Prof. Flieger writes, “If we measure position, we will disrupt momentum; if we measure momentum, we must forego position. The measurement of either forecloses the measurement of the other.” I’m fine with this, up to the word “forego”. The rest is not what Heisenberg (or Wheeler) said.

Momentum and position are “complementary”. You can measure them both, but the more precision you demand about one, the less you can have in the other. That’s all. Nothing is foreclosed. In fact, you can turn it to your advantage.

Telescope Glamor Shot

Part of the Very Large Array

The Very Large Array (apparently there are hobbits naming things at NRAO) is an extreme example. They want to detect radio photons, of which they want to know both the position (i.e., they want the photon to hit the telescope) and the momentum (in the lateral dimension). They use a telescope 22 miles across so they deliberately measure the photon’s position very badly, which means they can measure its direction of travel (related to its lateral momentum) with exquisite precision.

Thing is, the essay doesn’t need either Wheeler’s general relativity or Capra’s hippies. Prof. Flieger proposed an analogy: that words to Tolkien are the measuring devices of nature, and the speakers of those words are the observers. This is perfect, and it leads to another comment by Heisenberg, less famous but much more relevant:

This again emphasizes a subjective element in the description of atomic events, since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer, and we have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess, and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.
Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, Lecture 3.

Less Germanically phrased: to look at something in the world, we have to have a question in mind. Those questions are written in a language. The language determines what we observe.

This is exactly where Prof. Flieger’s essay ends up. Gimli’s speech about the mountains of Moria is a beautiful example of how using three different observational devices – the senses of elves, dwarves, and men – leads to different ideas of the world, and therefore each race carries with them ideas about the observed phenomena “in the language that they possess”.

Coda: Heisenberg vs. Celebrimbor

Another pair of complementary variables under the Uncertainty Principle are energy and time. The more precisely the energy of a quantum state is constrained, the longer it can last without decaying. The Elves wanted “to preserve all things unstained,” said Elrond (II,ii), but to do that means the energy of each body would have to be fixed, and life would be impossible. Eru knew what he was about.

Optional Rant

The Tao of Physics makes a big deal out of the fact that English translations of texts from Eastern religions use a lot of the same words that quantum physicists use. This is a fundamental logical error – we are using those words as metaphors for the mathematics, and the Eastern mystics are not. Worse, the physics Capra uses is out of date. He uses a bootstrap model of the S-matrix that isn’t borne out by experiment any longer. I would cut him some slack on this, since his book was already at the printers when the J/ψ particle was discovered and S-matrix theory became an academic curiosity, useful mostly to morons. However, if you want to keep the mantle of Science on your shoulders, you have to change your theories when new evidence arrives. Later editions of TToP didn’t change. The Standard Model is, well, the standard now, and it doesn’t sound much like TToP anymore.

A Faërie Addendum

It’s Rev. Robert Kirk Week in the Tolkien blogosphere. David Russell Mosley, of “Letters from the Edge of Elfland”, announces that he now owns a copy of The Secret Common-wealth, and has written an excellent essay about what good it does one to believe in fairies. He also knows where to find better fairy illustrations than I have.

Another item for the list of dangers that mortals face in Faërie is dancing to the point of exhaustion or, if they’re feeling particularly brutal, until your feet are worn down to stubs.

Fairy Perils in the Mundane World

Since mortals are beset by perils in Faërie , a decent respect for symmetry requires that fairies be threatened in our world as well. What perils might a fairy face? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a convenient list of reasons people end up in the emergency room, which seems like a good place to start. See Table I on the last page.

Probably Not Perils:


Falls are out of the question when one has wings. (Unless you’re a balrog.)

by Pirates vs. Ninjas (you can buy these!)

Automobile accident

The next most common fate for mortals, but I don’t think fairies need to worry about being smashed on a windshield. Cars these days only have cold iron in the drive train and chassis. Fairies will probably just bounce off other parts of modern automobiles.

Besides, Sanderson reports that the Rev. Robert Kirk, in his seminal tome The Secret Common-wealth, “says the fairies’ bodies are invulnerable, unlike the earthly bodies of witches and were-wolves, which can be destroyed when their assumed astral bodies are elsewhere.” So we can rule out gunshots, drowning, poisoning, and all the other things on the CDC list. We shall have to look elsewhere.

Possible Perils:

Adult-onset diabetes

Have you seen what fairies eat? My teeth ache just from looking at the pictures. Sanderson also discusses the problem of fairy dietetics, and shows us that Rev. Kirk thinks they either live on corn (the high-fructose syrup, naturally) or they attach themselves to a human and parasitically obtain nutrients from their digestion. Their human partners are recognizable because they eat as much as they want all the time and never gain weight. (There’s a business opportunity here for an entrepreneurially-inclined Fairy King.) In Middle-earth, as in Sir Orfeo, Elves are near-exclusive carnivores. A diet of animal products and refined sugar means diabetes will be a constant threat.

This is a good place to talk about the exceptions that prove the rule. Galadriel (après Melian) is the only Fairy-Queen who ever gave anyone a vegetable to eat. I feel sure that the Wise were careful to avoid getting her started on the importance of eating whole grains and other complex carbohydrates. Goldberry, on the other hand, is the epitome of a cliché fairy vegetarian, but her status as a Queen is disputable.


“For in becoming the consort of a nature myth connected with the Moon Jurgen had of course exposed himself to the danger of being converted into a solar legend by the Philologists…” – J. B. Cabell, Jurgen.

A fairy who enters this world exposes itself to humanities scholarship. If it’s lucky, it ends up in a DeviantArt gallery that exposes it to countless contortions of form, aspect, and surroundings. These are the lucky fairies, because the fay-folk are nothing if not protean. They can take all of that in stride. Alas, a fairy who is unlucky becomes the subject of a treatise by a folklorist or philologist who proves that it’s something other than what it thought it was. Note that the term “humanities”, which seems so benevolent in most contexts, is explicitly exclusionary with regard to any fay thing.

Enrollment in a randomized, placebo-controlled, statistical study

This one is certainly every fairy’s worst nightmare. A meta-nightmare, if you like. What if all the mischief Robin Goodfellow could bring about wasn’t enough to produce a p-value greater than 0.05? Could any worse fate befall a fairy than to be declared “indistinguishable from random chance”?

But here I find an intriguing conjunction. Submitted for your consideration: Rev. Robert Kirk (1644-1692) was a Presbyterian minister and folklorist. He died under mysterious circumstances, consistent with being abducted by fairies. Rev. Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) was a Presbyterian minister and statistician. Bayes’s work is the foundation of Bayesian statistics, which renders obsolete p-values and hypothesis testing. Could these be related? Did the Presbyterian Church receive a ransom demand? That’s exactly the sort of thing fairies would try. Seeing no way to coexist with their most fearsome mundane-world menace, their only recourse was to overthrow that entire branch of mathematics. Unfortunately, Bayesian statistics are tremendously difficult to formulate and use. Only now, with the computational resources we have today, can it be used in practical applications. Three centuries later, the ransom finally paid, we can get Rev. Kirk back. Somebody go look in his church. If you see a ghostly figure near the baptismal font, throw an iron dirk over its head. That will break the imprisonment, and we can finally ask him all those questions his book raised.

Works Cited

I assure you, I didn’t make up nearly as much of this essay as you think I did.

Briggs, Katherine M. “The English Fairies.” Folklore68.1 (1957): 270-287.

Cabell, James Branch. Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1922)

Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore 75.1 (1964): 1-18.

Faërie: What could go wrong?

Fairies By Ashtea

I tried to find a list of the perils of Faërie on line, and failed. It’s a tricky thing, to search for fairies on the world-wide web. All the traditional uses of the term get drowned out by gamers and manga artists. Staying on Google Scholar is highly recommended, unless I should ever decide to write about the contemporary cultural reception of the old legends.

So I decided to make one myself. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Please suggest additions.

1. Abduction

This could be the most common misfortune that Faërie can bring. It comes in two varieties: those in which the victim knows she’s been abducted (e.g. Sir Orfeo, changelings); and those in which he does not know, but finds out when they leave Faërie and discover that a long time has passed. (e.g. Samwise in Lothlorien)

2. Preposterous disfigurement

An encounter with fairies might lead to one’s head being replaced with that of an ass (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or being adorned with antlers.

3. Theft

Fairies steal small things from around the house. They also steal less tangible things, such as your shadow, or your voice, or your eye color.

4. Unrequitable passion

Fairy glamor can leave the victim overwhelmed, whether by love for a fay him/her/itself, or for the taste of fairy wine or food, or the beauty of fairy-lands forlorn. Possibly the most traumatic of the perils of Faërie, because if left untreated it can cause Romanticism. (Ode to a Nightingale)

5. Swindling

Many fairy-curses can land on their victim for no reason at all, but swindling usually comes to people who were asking for it. A bag of fairy-gold that turns into sand the next morning is not only a fair reward for greed, it’s a metaphor we can use every election season.

6. Murphy’s Law-Enforcement

When mortals doesn’t reward their domestic fairies (brownies, silkies) for their service, they’ll turn into boggarts. Then the cow gives buttermilk, the hens won’t lay, objects go missing, machines go haywire, and poltergeists run loose in the house.

My source for the not-otherwise-attributed parts above is one of the most delightful papers I’ve ever read in a scholarly journal.

Sanderson, Stewart. “A Prospect of Fairyland.” Folklore 75.1 (1964): 1-18.

What the One Ring Does

If you believe Peter Jackson, the Ring doesn’t do much of anything. It’s just a MacGuffin. With the Ring, someone who’s a hundred feet tall can knock down dozens of soldiers with one sweep of a thirty-foot mace, but I’m pretty sure I could do that without a Ring. (It’s all in the wrists.) The Ring blurs your vision and fills your ears with voices, which seems counterproductive when you’re trying to rule an evil empire. It enables you to see Ringwraiths, but who would want to?

The cost of Ringlessness

So what does the Ring actually do? We can try to figure that out by looking for things that only happened because Sauron didn’t have it. Here are a few:

The Nazgûl aren’t very effective, without their Lord

When the Black Riders split up they can scare people, but they can’t accomplish much useful. Granted, there is power working against them in the Shire, but it would have to be stronger than the military of Gondor to neutralize the Nazgûl to that extent, and I don’t think it is. Besides, the Riders seem kind of disorganized. The One Ring may be the only channel of control that works on all nine of their rings.

Saruman attacked Rohan too soon

Time to take another swipe at Peter Jackson. Saruman in his movie is a willing slave of Sauron, which makes his attack on Rohan ridiculous. If he’d held off a week,  until about March 8, the Rohirrim would have still been pinned down in Helm’s Deep as the gates of Minas Tirith were shattered. War over.

In the book, this makes perfect sense. Saruman thinks he’s an independent agent, pursuing his own ends. I can’t find any evidence that he knows Sauron’s timetable for the attack on Gondor. Sauron can’t give him a direct order without revealing his dominance, which would provoke some kind of resistance. Considering the distance and Saruman’s considerable power, resistance could have done quite a bit of damage to Sauron’s plans. All this is because Sauron doesn’t have his Ring. With the Ring, Saruman’s own ring would have bound him to Sauron’s will, with no need to keep up a pretense, and the synchronized attacks on Gondor and Rohan would have been devastating.

The fight among the orcs in the Tower of Cirith Ungol

Sam called it “lucky” that Shagrat’s and Gorbag’s forces wiped each other out, so we should keep an eye out for the hand of Providence. And everything worked out so neatly that it must have been there, but in this case it’s hardly needed. The natural centrifugal instincts of Orcs aren’t held in check by the Ring (even though it’s just a few feet away). A bit of “binding” would have kept the lines of command clear, and made sure that either Shagrat or Gorbag would have known to shut up and obey.

The chaotic orders Shagrat gets from Lugbúrz

Look at this mess:

“Any trespasser found by the guard is to be held at the tower. Prisoner is to be stripped. Full description of every article, garment, weapon, letter, ring, or trinket is to be sent to Lugbúrz at once, and to Lugbúrz only. And the prisoner is to be kept safe and intact, under pain of death for every member of the guard, until He sends or comes Himself.”

VI, i.

Shagrat’s reporting path upwards goes through the bureaucracy of Barad-dûr, but the path back down does not. This is a recipe for disaster: the middle-managers aren’t kept apprised of the actions at the top, so who knows what they’ll screw up, even if they’re following orders to the letter.

Let’s put these together into an Orc Chart. This graphic shows a disaster waiting to happen. Shagrat has three directions from which orders can arrive; that’s the obvious point of failure of this organization.  (JRRT’s military experience shows up again.) The Nazgûl don’t have any lines between their boxes. If I were Lord of the Nazgûl, I’d have designated two deputies, with three wraiths reporting to each one. Put one team at each Bree-gate, and LotR ends in Chapter 11. The green boxes are characters called “lieutenant”. Not very similar roles. The Ring can be thought of as a set of command and control channels among the characters that clear up that disorderly network.

organization chart of forces of Mordor

Organization of Morgul & Cirith Ungol Divisions

Looking for the Ring in our world

From the 1950s through the 1970s, people who were looking for real-world analogues of the Ring usually thought of the atomic bomb. I was never comfortable with that because of one salient feature of the Ring: when it’s destroyed, Sauron will fall. This was a very puzzling thing to a teen-aged first-time reader. What kind of tool or weapon reduces its user to nothingness when it’s taken away? Stephen Winter wrote an essay recently about Sauron’s project, which gets at that important point.

Stephen reminds us that Sauron can not create. He calls Sauron a “false maker” (which seems to be a deliberate counterpoint to the word “sub-creator”). Previously in the history of Middle-Earth, Sauron had worked via the psychology of individuals. He was effective at sowing discord, but it didn’t help him build an empire of evil because it generally led to the destruction of the place he was working in. He needed something more tangible for his attempt to conquer and hold the world. But what tangible thing is available to a false maker? Sauron found the loophole: organizing is not creating. Matter can be rearranged almost indefinitely without overstepping any bounds. In particular, people and things can be arranged into a hierarchy.

A hierarchy is a tremendous tool for multiplying the force of a leader. In the mid-twentieth century, it reached a peak of implementation in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China. In fact, the word “totalitarian” could be defined as a state that allows no interactions among its citizens outside the hierarchy. There’s a pattern here. I am reminded of the comment by a (probably apocryphal) German officer in World War 2: “The reason the Americans do so well in war is that war is chaos, and Americans practice chaos every day.” The forces of the West in Middle Earth are the same way. If there’s any clear path of authority across the races, it’s hard to see. This came up in the comments at Middle-Earth Reflections, a while back. Leadership among Elves and post-Numenoreans is a matter of personal relationships between a commander and the troops. (Éowyn: “They go only because they would not be parted from thee — because they love thee.” V, ii) It’s not a hierarchy, or any kind of structure you can draw on a PowerPoint chart.

To make a hierarchy work, though, the boss has to pay a price. He has to delegate both authority or responsibility. Or, in Ring-terms, “let a great part of his former power pass into it.” (I, ii). The hierarchy can be turned against the boss, or if it’s destroyed the boss finds himself sitting at a desk, with a dead telephone, commanding nothing. Powerless.


Organization was missing in the First Age, so it’s what Sauron added when he set up on his own. Hierarchy is the key, a thing Morgoth never had. Théoden King of Rohan had more levels of structure in a 6,000-man (ok, 5998-man) detachment than you can find mentioned in the entire Silmarillion. For us in the Information Age, the closest thing to the Ring is not a weapon, it’s a hierarchical org chart.

Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén