What the Well-Dressed Hobbit Will Be Wearing Next Season: A Study in Textiles in Fantasy Settings

What the Well-Dressed Hobbit Will Be Wearing Next Season: A Study in Textiles in Fantasy Settings

Essay by Katy Colby

He took off his party clothes, folded up and wrapped in tissue paper his embroidered silk waistcoat, and put it away.  Then he put on quickly some old untidy garments, and fastened round his waist a worn leather belt.  On it he hung a short sword in a battered black-leather scabbard.  From a locked drawer, smelling of moth-balls, he took out an old cloak and hood.  They had been locked up as if they were very precious, but they were so patched and weatherstained that their original colour could hardly be guessed:  it might have been dark green.

                                   A Long Expected Party, The Fellowship Of The Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit, Warner Bros./New Line Cinema 2012

Why should we care about the clothing worn by characters in fantasy stories?  For the purposes of enjoyment and appreciation of the author’s vision, does it matter what our heroes and their adversaries are adventuring in?  I say yes.  Clothing can help us understand people who live in cultures and climates that are very different from anything we have experienced.  Beyond that, clothing is a clear advertisement of the character’s place in his or her society.  Clothing is more than just pretty scenery, although it is also an important part of the setting that must be seen if we want to enjoy the full experience of the story the author is setting for us.

Sadly, the fabrics used by our characters are often overlooked in authors’ descriptions of the worlds they create.  This is hardly surprising.  In our modern world, textiles are so ever-present that, unless the cloth is particularly nice or unusually nasty, we rarely spare them a thought.  Clothing, blankets, towels, bedding, drapes; all these are available cheaply and easily at our favorite stores.  There is rarely a question over what we will wear at any given moment, and, if we need something new, we don’t have to spend more than half an hour before it’s ours.  Familiarity has bred contempt for our clothing. When we couple our lack of intrinsic knowledge with the authors’ dearth of description, we end up with characters that could be running around in nothing but their own skins.  Assuming we don’t care to picture all our characters naked, (and let’s not even get into Orcs, please!) this means our mental pictures are somewhat lacking.

I don’t suggest that authors intentionally give us an unsatisfying reading experience; I believe they just do not think about this part of the world they create.  You rarely read a description of the way a door opens, either, because in our world most doors open the same way and we do not have to think about it.

Here ends my muse on modern life and begins a study on the realities of fabric in the pre-modern world. Have I put you to sleep yet?

Since the Fantasy genre is so large that I cannot think to include every author, I am concentrating on the works of two particular favorites for this series of essays.  J.R.R. Tolkien is widely considered to be the father of High Fantasy as we know it today, and George R.R. Martin is sometimes titled the “modern Tolkien.”[1]  Both authors give us worlds that are realistic enough we could find ourselves stepping into them and feeling perfectly at home, minus a few odd elements like dragons and direwolves.  Thus, I will focus our study of fabrics in fantasy novels on the worlds of Arda and Planetos, as these authors have described them.  Both settings give us pre-modern technology; Middle-earth dances between the dark ages culture of the Orcs and the Victorian world of the Shire, while Planetos wanders through the early Renaissance period, with its beginning steps into the use of mechanics in place of human muscle.  The primitive cultures beyond the Wall and on the Dothraki Sea would fit cleanly into this period also, as these disparities of technology and social setting existed in our world up through the early twentieth century.

There is one more issue to cover before we get into the meat of this topic. How do we handle the various races our authors people their worlds with?  No scientists have, as yet, made any effort to include Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Hobbits, or Children of the Forest in any studies of the values of clothing in survival situations.  No doubt this lack will eventually be addressed, but, for now, we will have to make do with the information we have.  To help us along, we will consider any race of mammals that walk upright, have opposable thumbs, and are not covered in a thick pelt of hair, as if they were humans.  I realize that Elves, Dwarves, and Children of the Forest have some physical tolerances that differ from ours.  For simplicity, close will have to be good enough.  We will not look at non-mammal races like Balrogs and The Others, however.  They are a little too far outside reasonable parameters, and should have their own paper entirely to themselves.

The study of fabrics and clothing could easily fill several large textbooks.  To help keep this manageable, our study will be broken into several small parts.  The first will cover what we can learn about cultures from the clothing they wear, and, at the same time, what we can deduce about the clothing worn based on what we already know about the environment and culture.  Later, we will explore the fibers available to the various cultures.  Finally, we will put our knowledge to work with a look at the specific roles played by the characters’ clothing that altered the story in their favor (or not!)  Now that we know where we’re going, let’s start on our path.

Why do we wear clothes?  This is not as silly a question as it might seem.  Throughout human history there have been cultures that accepted nudity as normal.  Sometimes, as with the Celtic tribes of northern Europe, clothing was optional when doing messy work, when the weather was warm, for young children who would outgrow their clothing quickly, or, notoriously, when going to war.[2]  Before contact with Europeans, many Pacific Island tribes wore little or no clothing due to their warm climate and the lack of comfortable materials to make clothing from.[3]

Any textile, whether made from synthetic fibers or natural materials, is not simple to produce.  The fibers must first be cleaned and carded, and then spun, woven, knitted, and/or felted.  Skins must be softened and preserved; a process that even today involves hot, heavy work in foul smelling conditions.  Then the pieces of the garment must be cut from the fabric, stitched together, fitted, finished, and usually decorated.  Less than a century ago, much of the clothing worn by all but the wealthiest people was produced in the home and sewing was an expected skill for a housewife.  I get tired just thinking about the added work.  The fact that people went to the trouble to produce textiles and sew the lengths of woven fabric into something wearable tells us that clothing is not just a convenience, but a necessity.

Singer Sewing Manual 1949

Clothing does, of course, protect us from temperature, moisture, and physical damage.  Without the protection of fabrics, humans are able to survive within a narrow range of temperatures, between 25 C (77 F) and approximately 37.778 C (100 F.).[4] One degree above this range and our vital organs begin to overheat.  One degree below it and hypothermia sets in.  The farther the air temperature is from our zone of safety, the more quickly the damage becomes unrecoverable.

Exposure to moisture for as little as 13 continuous hours can leave our skin blistered, with open sores and flaking layers.[5]  Parasites and bacteria that live in standing water can easily infect the damaged skin.  If the moisture is caused by our own sweat, the salts and waste products it carries will irritate the skin still further.[6]  If you want pictures, and have a very strong stomach, Google images of ‘trench foot’.  Don’t blame me; I did warn.

The ravages of temperature and moisture are only the beginning of the dangers our bodies are prey to.  Our skin is our armor against infection and disease.  Any puncture, cut, tear, burn, or scratch opens the defense and lets in trouble if trouble is there.  Think for a moment about what stones, thorns, sharp rocks, sand, and ice will do to unprotected skin.  Then, there are the bites, claws, and stings from the animals our ancestors faced in their attempts to get food and avoid becoming dinner themselves.  No wonder clothing became the norm for most of the cultures in our world.

Our clothing also protects us from many things not encountered in nature.  The occupational hazards of everyday life may differ from person to person, but the necessity of protective clothing is a common theme through all cultures and most practical professions.  A blacksmith wears a heavy leather apron, thick gloves, and leather boots to guard himself from heat, sparks, and the wear of swinging hammers and gripping tongs.  Carpenters also wear gloves, and usually broad hats to protect their faces from flying splinters and sun.  The cap and apron worn by homemakers and maids served to keep vermin that lived in the mattresses and wall covering out of their hair, and guarded hands from burns when necessary.  Today, soldiers, police, and fire fighters all wear protective covering, of course.  Besides guarding their lives, this clothing helps the rest of us spot them quickly in an emergency. This brings us to the second reason we wear clothing – to advertise our status.

image005   image006

Clothing broadcasts our position to all around us.  The crown upon a king’s head, the robes of a judge, the baggy denims worn by a street tough, all serve the same purpose; to declare the wearer’s place and authority to society at large.  Clothing has a code we learn when young, without ever being formally taught to decipher it.  Besides the accessories that mark our leaders, the fabric and cut of garments signal the position of the person they are on.  Color can indicate both wealth and leadership position; royal purple was once so expensive that only kings could afford it, and white fabric was a luxury out of the reach of most middle-class families.  Decorated fabrics, whether they are dyed, embroidered, or embellished with beads and buttons, reveal that someone has both spare cash to waste some on useless pleasure and spare time to devote to the art.  If the person does not do the work themselves, they have to pay to have it done, which indicates even more wealth expended on the item.

The cut of the clothes, regardless of their fabric or trim, tells us more about the position of the person wearing them than any other factor.  In general, the more fashionable and expensive a garment is the more useless it makes the wearer.  This has been true as long as people have been wearing clothes.  The toga worn by Roman patricians was nothing more than nine yards of wool, held together by their left arm.  This effectively immobilized the arm, and made the slave that followed them a necessity.[7]   The stiff, boned corsets worn by women wealthy enough to have servants made it impossible for them to bend at the waist or breathe properly, effectively crippling them.  In today’s world, the pencil skirt and pumps worn by female executives, and the jacket and smooth soled shoes worn by gentlemen, serve the same purpose.  The people so attired cannot run, bend, lift any weight, or reach above their shoulders without embarrassing themselves.

Finally, clothing indicates the social condition of the events around us.  We all know what it means when our immediate supervisor puts on his jacket and straightens his tie before he goes to a meeting, even if we don’t see the corporate executives enter the building.  If a dinner invitation specifies “black tie”, we expect a formal setting, with at least two extra pieces of silver and glasses.  On the other hand, most of us would feel very uncomfortable wearing a business suit to a company picnic and we would make those around us equally uncomfortable if they were in casual clothing.  The formality of our attire broadcasts the mood of an event.

There is one more reason we wear clothing, although it speaks more to the type of garment than to the existence of the clothing.  We wear what feels good.  Fabrics that are uncomfortable last only as long as there is no effective replacement.  How many of us remember the polyesters of the 1970s?  Right!

To be fair, pride or necessity can override our liking for comfort.  If raw wool is all you can get, and the climate is too warm or cold for you to survive without clothing, then you wear raw wool.  Samite taffeta (fine silk woven with metallic threads) is shimmery, beautiful, and feels like a steel wool pad.  Still, when the cost of a yard of this fabric would cover a week’s grocery bill for a family of four, people who can afford it will wear it and with pride.

As we look at a fantasy culture with little clothing description, we can work out what they are wearing by considering the climate and geography where they live and how they live in their society.  The more extreme the climate and the rougher the geography, the more work will be put into clothing construction.  It does not take much imagination to see that people who live in rocky landscape will take the time to put padding and thick soles on their shoes, while people who live in soft grass or dense woods may wear soft shoes or even go barefoot, temperatures permitting.  Growing seasons and moisture dictate what fibers can be harvested in specific places.  Cotton and silk, for example, need warmer climates than linen does.

The effects of economy on clothing are more complex.  Archeologists love to study clothing, since it reveals so much about the culture of the people who wore it and the circumstances they lived in.  The more tailored and complex the garment, the longer it takes to make.  Also, the more advanced a culture is the more innovation will be put into clothing construction.  Since innovation takes time, and the time spent to alter traditional styles and decorate garments cannot be spent doing anything else, tailored and decorated clothing means that a society had spare work hours to put into non-essential activities.  Technology and organization in a culture usually mean that there are human work hours to spare, since machines do much of the essential work with little human help.

Of course, excess work hours can also come from an excess of available labor instead of improved technology.  The Dothraki, and their horses, wear intricately painted, jeweled, and stitched clothing, but they have an unlimited supply of human labor in the form of slaves.  The Elves of Middle-earth would also have a virtually unlimited supply of human (Elven?) labor, since they are virtually immortal.  We must keep what we know of the culture in mind as we consider the clothing they wear.

Thus, we can safely conclude that if Hobbits have mantle clocks[8] they have the ability to create treadle sewing machines and large floor looms.  The large communities we see Hobbits living in, complete with extended family groups, tell us that they can assemble community work easily and probably enjoy it.  It seems likely that Hobbits would have large weaving sheds in their villages, where people gathered to weave together and even work on flying-shuttle looms that can create wider fabrics than would be possible if a single weaver had to shift the shuttle alone.[9]  If we follow our line of reason, we deduce that Hobbits wardrobes would consist of fitted clothing, with each garment made up of several pieces, all cut from a large section of cloth to fit a specific person or body type.  Thanks to the relative ease with which Hobbits make clothing, it is likely that their fashions changed frequently, although the changes were probably small.  This could look something like the lapels on a jacket being a bit larger or smaller from one year to the next, or sleeves being cut with more or less fullness.  Over time, the combination of the many little changes would mean that useful clothing would be out of style after a few years so the fashion-conscious Hobbit would need to replace his or her wardrobe regularly.  No doubt the outdated garments would be passed down to neighbors who were not as well off, so the style of clothing worn would mark the social place of any Hobbit clearly to any observer.


For an alternate example from the same fictional world, we can look at the Elves.  Elves seem to be artistic, but we do not see labor-saving devices in the glimpses we get of their home life.  This tells us that Elves have little interest in making domestic tasks easier, thus they probably do not have either sewing machines or flying-shuttle looms.  If their looms can be no wider than the arm span of a single person, their fabrics are narrower.  We also know that Elves are an artistic people, and probably not inclined to spend much time repairing stress tears in their clothing when that mundane task would rob time from more stimulating projects.  Thus, it is sensible to picture Elves in loose, flowing robes with few seams, since clothing wears out most quickly at the seams and sewing seams is tedious work.  On the other hand, we know that some Elves spend a lot of time in forests, on horseback, or in armor.  They would need more fitted, hardier clothing for multiple reasons, chafing not the least of them.  Elves might well have had various ideas of fashion, depending on what they were doing and where they were going.  Finally, Elves are immortal and do not welcome change in their surroundings, as we know from what we see in Lothlorien, Rivendell, and Doriath.  From this, we can guess that Elf fashions do not change much if at all from one century to the next.  Well-stitched garments made of durable fibers like silk and linen, could last for decades, leaving time for more of what Elves might consider “the good stuff.”


As we look at fashion and fiber construction in various groups, we must consider the needs of the society we are studying.  Obviously, the Night’s Watch in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series would have different requirements for warmth and protection than the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but the worlds both stories take us to have very similar natural laws.  Heat burns, cold freezes, water soaks, impact bruises or cuts, and all of these cause discomfort.  We can assume that whatever clothing our characters wear is constructed to protect them from the damage they regularly encounter.  In practical terms, this will mean that the Night’s Watch would be equipped with thick wools from the skin out, probably topped by waxed leather to better shed water and shield from wind.  Sturdy boots, made large so as not to squeeze feet covered by a double layer of thick wool socks, and waterproofed with tallow or beeswax, would be essential.  Hats or hoods of wool or fur would also be a necessity, probably inside as well as outside due to the cold.  Exposed skin, even so much as fingertips, ears, or noses, would soon be painfully frozen, useless, and no doubt amputated.[10]

J.R.R. Tolkien does not give us much description of what the characters in his books are wearing, so we are left to our own devices.  Tolkien tells us that Dwarves are between four and five feet tall, immensely strong, but inclined to grow fat in old age if their circumstances permit it.[11]  Given basic knowledge of mammal biology in our world, this tells us that Dwarves have a very high muscle-to-body-size ratio, and probably dense, hard bones that can withstand shock well.  We also know that Dwarves have a high tolerance for heat, but they are not immune to burns.  With lots of muscle, Dwarves will have a higher body temperature but little natural padding unless they get fat.  This means their joints are going to suffer damage with every step they take, and the shock may run to the top of their spines.  The solution: thick, well cushioned socks that are probably double-knit on the sole and possibly even padded inserts in their shoes.  Wool is an excellent insulator, as we know because it keeps us warm in cold weather.  The same properties make it highly desirable when working with forges and fire, because it will keep the wearer cool just as it keeps the wearer warm.  We would be safe in guessing that Dwarves wear wool from the skin out when at home, as they live underground and spend much time mining or working with metals; the eternal coolness of a mine would sap even their abilities to maintain temperature.  We can also assume that they wear sturdy shoes while working, probably with reinforced toes.  These would be necessary to protect them from impact and accidental burns should whatever they are forging fall, and to provide solid footing in mines where the tunnels can be slippery.  Their heads would not necessarily need a heavy covering, given the thickness of their hair and the lack of severe cold in their environment, but they probably wore leather gloves to protect their hands from abrasion and heat while working.  When not working, Dwarves might well wear comfortable, embellished fabrics but they would probably not go long without the padding on their feet.

Clothing is a necessity for human survival and, since we see fantasy races coming into the stories fully dressed, we can assume it is necessary for their survival as well.  The lack of clear description of the clothing worn by characters will not stop us from forming a clear picture of their wardrobe, since we know enough about the climate the characters live in and how their societies operate.  In my next section, I will look at the advantages and disadvantages of the four most common natural fibers used for clothing; specifically wool, silk, linen, and cotton.  I hope I’ve given you enough to think about until then.

[1] Grossman, Lev.  “George R.R. Martin’s Dance with Dragons:  A Masterpiece Worthy of Tolkien.  Time Magazine.  July 07, 2011.  Time, Inc. New York.  http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081774,00.html

[2] Ross, David, Celtic Britain (The Iron Age – 600 BC – 50 AD), Britain Express, accessed 2/17/15. http://www.britainexpress.com/History/Celtic_Britain.htm

[3] Arthur, Linda B., Southeastern Islands and the Pacific Asia:  History of Dress, lovetoknow, accessed 2/17/15.  http://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-around-world/southeastern-islands-pacific-asia-history-dress

[4] Dennis O’Neil, Adapting to Climate Extremes, Human Biological Adaptability:  An Introduction to Human Responses to Common Environmental Stresses, 2012, accessed 3/12/15, http://anthro.palomar.edu/adapt/adapt_2.htm

[5] Trench Foot or Immersion Foot, Disaster Recovery Fact Sheet, Natural Disasters and Severe Weather, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2014, accessed 3/12/15.  http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/trenchfoot.asp

[6] Kelly Tweeddale, The Good (and Not So Good) Effects of Sweat on Your Skin, Stack Fitness, Fox Sports Digital, August 2013, accessed 20 March 2015.  http://www.stack.com/2013/08/27/effects-of-sweat-on-skin/

[7] Roman Dress, Illustrated History Of The Roman Empire, June 2008, accessed 22 March 2015.  http://www.roman-empire.net/society/soc-dress.html

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Roast Mutton”, The Hobbit, Ballantine, 1971, pg. 41.

[9] “Flying shuttle”, Wikipedia, March 2015, accessed 23 March, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_shuttle

[10] “Extreme Cold Weather Clothing”, Field Manual, United States Antarctic Deployment, 2009, accessed 3/27/15.  http://www.usap.gov/travelAndDeployment/documents/FieldManual-Chapt1ExtremeColdWeatherClothing.pdf

[11] J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), “The Making of Appendix A”; (iv) ‘Durin’s Folk”, The Peoples of Middle-earth.




Tolkien and Tuor

Tolkien and Tuor

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

On Thursday, May 25 the Tolkien Reading Circle gathered to discuss “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” in Unfinished Tales.  We delved into Tolkien’s process of invention, the versions of the story, and where Tuor fits in the sprawling fantasy legendarium of the First Age of Middle-earth.  We agreed that it is interesting to glimpse the inner secrets of Tolkien’s artistry, studying the texts issued by Christopher Tolkien in his multivolume The History of Middle-earth.


The Tolkien Reading Circle gathers to discuss Tuor, May 25, 2017

The making of Middle-earth occupied Tolkien’s imagination for almost six decades.  That world is made of stories that never stopped evolving, and even his two published novels underwent various revisions after first appearing in print.  It seems arguable to see all of his fictional Middle-earth stories more as unfolding narratives than as finished projects.  This is a particularly useful lens to set on Tuor and the tale of Gondolin.

Tolkien first invented Tuor sometime during 1917, setting the character in an embattled version of what would later become Middle-earth, a realm of cataclysm and cosmic conflict.  Tolkien sent Tuor into one of the legends of The Book of Lost Tales (volume 2, p. 144-220).  He enters “The Fall of Gondolin” as a minstrel led by fate into lonely journeying full of rainbows, secret rivers, the cries of white gulls, and sable seashores.  The opening scenes of this story are rich with poetic landscapes.  Here we find the Land of Willows with waterlilies and butterflies – the likely prototype of the later realm of Tom Bombadil.  This idyllic journey leads to the hidden city of the Gondothlim, “the dwellers in stone.”  Guided by the will of Ulmo, a divinity of the world, the story brings Tuor to marriage with the daughter of the king of Gondolin, and then to war and the fall of the city in a great battle.

It was perhaps ten years later during the final years of the 1920s when Tolkien revisited this story, producing a much condensed version – a version that appeared in The Silmarillion as Chapter 23, “Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin” (p. 238-245).  Tolkien dropped much of the poetic drama of the original journeying – deleting the first occurrence of the Land of Willows and retaining only a brief respite there at the end of the tale.

After completing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien returned in 1951 to the tale of Tuor, setting down a new account of the journeying of Tuor, “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin” (Unfinished Tales, p. 17-56).  It is also evident that as he prepared the story he had in hand the old manuscript of “The Fall of Gondolin,” borrowing and reshaping elements of the original story.  This final version was both new and never finished.

In The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion the legend of Tuor opened at the close of the story of Túrin.  Christopher Tolkien took the 1951 version of the tale of Tuor and presented it as if it could be read as a free-standing story, but it is more clearly intended to serve as a kind of counterpoint to the dark doom of Túrin.  Tuor’s fate is guided by the will of Ulmo, who seeks to help the Elves and humankind; while Túrin suffers from the ill-wishing of a different divinity, Morgoth.  The tales are not isolated stories, but are meant to help unfold together a cosmic vision of the First Age of Middle-earth.

“Tuor and Voronwë” by Steamey

Readers of The Children of Húrin who wonder at the absence of any sense of eucatastrophe should keep in mind that Tolkien intended to set that tale in the midst of the legend of Beren and Lúthien, the tale of Tuor, and other stories.  Despite its editorial presentation as a stand-alone novel, it should not be read that way.

The poetic nature of the tale of Tuor makes it a kind of visionary journey.  It is arguable that the unfinished 1951 version was crafted at the height of Tolkien’s literary powers – a story into which he poured his most refined poetic essences.  This craftwork must be understood as the outcome of a long-term creative process.  It was not birthed purely in a moment of free-standing genius.

We can trace in its pages various trajectories of inventive magic.  In The Book of Lost Tales version of the Tuor story, for example, the Noldoli come to Tuor and guide him “by their blue lanterns” down a riverside to beautiful regions of that ancient world.  The lanterns vanish from the version in The Silmarillion.  But they return in the circa 1951 Tuor story: “And then Gelmir brought forth one of those lamps for which the Noldor were renowned; for they were made of old in Valinor, and neither wind nor water could quench them, and when they were unhooded they sent forth a clear blue light from a flame imprisoned in white crystal.”  These lamps materialize again in the later telling of the tale of Túrin in The Children of Húrin (p. 152): “These Noldor possessed many of the Fëanorian lamps, which were crystals hung in a fine chain net, the crystals being ever-shining with an inner blue radiance marvellous for finding the way in the darkness of night or in tunnels; of these lamps they themselves did not know the secret.”

The accretion of poetic invention gave Tolkien’s detailing a special sense of glimmering depth.  And so his lyrical prose holds the power to enchant.  And his vast epic project to populate Middle-earth with places and people and events kept emerging onward as a labor of love that never came to an end.  He went on inventing, creating, remaking – a long journey of re-envisioning the magic of that world.  When we turn those pages, we must keep in mind the illuminating backcloth of these evolving truths.

The Tolkien Reading Circle, May 25, 2017: Charles reads Christopher Tolkien’s notes on “The Fall of Gondolin”

The Dark Enchantment of Túrin and Niënor

The Dark Enchantment of Túrin and Niënor

Essay by Linda Echo-Hawk and Roger Echo-Hawk

In June of 2016 we held the premiere meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle.  We sat down together in our Hobbit Hole and pondered how The Children of Húrin encircles Tolkien’s entire legendarium.  This was his last major creative project, and it is rooted in his first creative project, “The Story of Kullervo.”

Moving into the narrative at our next meeting, Ivan observed how a story is like a dream and readers need to be drawn in.  Feeling that the first chapter of The Children of Húrin was more of a chronicle than a story, we wondered how Tolkien would have transformed it had he lived to finish it.

Over the next ten months we traversed Tolkien’s unfinished vision of the impassioned ambitions and hopes and defeats of Elves and Men in Middle-earth.  We sat down on a mountaintop with Morgoth; we mulled the malice of Anglachel; we pondered the Elvish conquest of Beleriand; and we felt wise to make friends with fairy-like Nellas.  Then we took a break under a cheerful autumnal equinox to celebrate our Hundredweight Harvest Holiday.

When the Tolkien Reading Circle returned to Beleriand, we joined for a time with Túrin’s outlaw biker gang; we visited Mîm’s home on Amon Rûdh; we held aloft magic Fëanorian lamps to admire crystal fountains; at the great dwarrow-delving of Nargothrond we became mesmerized by Glaurung’s dark gaze; we trekked with lonely Túrin through snowy passes into Dor-lómin; we followed Túrin’s men as they carried Niënor up the Rainy Stair to the Shuddering Water… All these adventures and more we found in the pages of The Children of Húrin, as can be seen in our meeting reports from those days.

April 13, 2017 Tolkien Reading Circle

At our April 13, 2017 meeting, we focused on the last three chapters of The Children of Húrin, giving thought to how this book compares to Tolkien’s other visits to Middle-earth.  The story does not culminate in what Tolkien described as “eucatastrophe.”  It is instead a more purified exploration of moral doom – a dark story best read with friends, we decided.  It is also a good story to read slowly, a couple chapters at a time. This brings out the strength of the succinct poetic imagery, the deft character portrayals, and the wonderfully wrought dialogues in the narrative.

It is possible to savor the powerful writing without being overwhelmed by the story.  But the story is grim, darkly textured.  The final chapters unfold gloomy suicidal realizations, not happy heroic endings.  We pondered the degree to which Tolkien intentionally took aim at portraying the solemn poetics of a doomed world – was he exploring his own inner experience in some way… a forbidding depressive state of mind?

Nicole reminded us that the wider literary context of this work must be relevant to understanding Tolkien’s creative energies.  To what degree is Túrin like Beowulf, she wondered.  Beyond the Kalevala, the tragic events of The Iliad and the aura of Ophelia could well have added some of the dark tones that we encounter in The Children of Húrin.

April 13, 2017 Tolkien Reading Circle

Some members of our group also pondered the quality of Tolkien’s portrayals of women in this book.  If this was his final major journey into Middle-earth, why do so many women characters give in to sorrow and suicide?  The excellent – and all too brief – renderings of Melian and Nellas left us wishing that Tolkien had done more with them, giving them more to do, bestowing more narrative weight on their shoulders.

Andrea felt that the power of Tolkien’s writing redeems the bleak themes of the book and its final plunge into an unforgiving chasm.  Tolkien’s mythic tales of the First Age can prove difficult for some readers.  Several members of the Tolkien Reading Circle reported negative initial responses to The Silmarillion and to the tale of Túrin in particular – these unfinished writings provide the background mythic history for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

In the pages of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s nuance at detailing this historical backcloth imparts a sense of depth that is notable even when readers skip over the poetry where it often appears.  Readers inevitably compare the differing tonal and thematic essences of his three novels, and this range of qualities makes them difficult to compare.

Tolkien did not keep writing the same kind of book in his lifelong labors as a novelist.  The power of his magic may inspire in many readers the wish for more of the same, but when we set foot in Middle-earth, our journeys become unexpected.  And that makes the experience multi-dimensional, full of glimpsed vistas, fragmentary and mysterious.  Ultimately, to a notable degree, the richness of Middle-earth as an invented world flows from the diversity of its narrative texturing.

Presenting this tale as an independent project is a debatable choice by Christopher Tolkien.  His father evolved the Silmarillion legends together as a coherent project, and although The Children of Húrin stands alone as a novel, the absence of any quality of “eucatastrophe” is notable.  The great denouement of the cycle of legends – the happy ending – was always designed to occur later in the scheme.

It is evident that The Children of Húrin is important because it establishes the dark magic that is merely referenced in The Lord of the Rings.  We experience first-hand the doom uttered by Morgoth.  We get entangled in an anguished narrative uttered by a desolate cosmic sorcerer who bends the world to his sullen will.  This kind of tale is difficult and unpleasant, just as we find in the weary trek of Sam and Frodo across the wastes of Mordor.

“Túrin and Niënor” by Steamey

The tragic fate of Túrin and Niënor leaves us in the midst of an unrelieved catastrophe.  This is merely an epic moment that Tolkien designed to help perfect the coming eucatastrophe that he crafted in all his fantasy writings.  And this crucial element is missing from Christopher Tolkien’s presentation of the story.  We leap off the final edge of this story and no eagle seems willing to save us.  It is proper to sense a narrative truncation here, bereft of the dreamlike bittersweet magic of Middle-earth that we treasure, an enchantment of the imagination where despair gives way to a glimpse of fabled realms of hope.

With the forthcoming issuing of an “independent” presentation of the legend of Beren and Lúthien in June 2017, we close the pages of The Children of Húrin and make ready to open the pages of a concurrent tale that will reveal more of JRR Tolkien’s intended vision for his legendarium of the First Age.  This will hopefully provide some of the light that is missing from the dark matter of the tale of the doom of Túrin and Niënor.  The Tolkien Reading Circle looks forward to continuing this journey!


Tolkien Reading Day 2017

Tolkien Reading Day 2017

On March 23 we gathered to enjoy a magical evening in the Hobbit Hole, celebrating the Tolkien Reading Circle’s first observance of International Tolkien Reading Day.  We shared the warmth of friendship as we read some of our favorite poems and readings in honor of JRR Tolkien.  A relaxing aura of companionship settled around us as we laughed and sang and offered our deep thoughts and appreciation.  Thanks, friends, for bringing your warm energy to this special Middle-earth celebration!


In the Rivendell Hall of Fire Charles peered over Frodo’s shoulder, and “the enchantment became more and more dreamlike…”


And Dan’s voice passed from a dream of music to “Eärendil was a mariner…”


Roger read a musical version of “Errantry” that was on its way to becoming Bilbo’s Eärendil poem.


Linda joined the hobbits on their way to the house of Bombadil, and everyone sang Goldberry’s greeting.


Andrea shared a Game of Thrones song, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” and she took us to a dell in the wild to recite Aragorn’s song of Tinúviel.


Elanor shares her book with Charlie.


Elisha read her story about Elanor Gardner, and she shared with us little Elanor’s favorite book, All the World.


Katy gave us “The Duel” by Eugene Field… a spat between a gingham dog and a calico cat.


Dyhrddrdh visited the moonless Merlock Mountains, and there we found “The Mewlips.”


Charles held us spellbound with his reading of Neil Gaiman’s “The Treasures of the Gods” from Norse Mythology – an introduction to a new book that we have heard so much about.


Elanor’s adventure!

Keeping It Real: Mundane Facts in Fantasy Settings

Keeping It Real: Mundane Facts in Fantasy Settings

Essay by Katy Colby

Fantasy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible things.”  This may be why we can enjoy Fantasy so easily; it is, by definition, impossible.  Wile E. Coyote paints a cave on a solid rock wall.  Road Runner speeds through the painted hole.  The coyote follows, and, predictably, splatters himself on solid rock.  We laugh, turn off the TV, and get on with the day.  Nothing in this story touches us.

“Wile E. Coyote” (Chuck Jones, for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes)

Then, there are the other Fantasy stories.  These are the ones that hover at the fringes of our lives like whispering shadows.  They offer insight, pose questions, and brighten what might otherwise be a mundane day by opening a world of color and texture for our enjoyment. They lend strength, treat us to laughter, and begin friendships with characters that share their lives with us, however short those lives may be.  These stories, even if they don’t involve swords or sorcery, are what I like to think of as High Fantasy.  They are the ones that make us think.  They are the ones that last.

What divides common Fantasy from High Fantasy?  I am not a literary scholar, but I have a theory formed from my own observation.  High Fantasy stories are the ones set in a world so real that it seems ordinary to us “normal” people, except for the one or two little magical bits.  Nothing in the telling makes us want to check reality.  We can accept it all and go with the tale, eager to see what happens next.

Let me illustrate this by contrasting two versions of a classic fantasy story.  The first version is the animated short Little Red Riding Hood, as told by Walt Disney.  In this story, a young girl is sent to her grandmother’s house with a basket of treats.   As she walks through the dark woods, she meets a wolf and tells him where she is going.  The wolf races ahead of her, breaks in to her grandmother’s house, eats the grandmother, and dresses in the nightgown and cap his victim was wearing.  The girl arrives, enters the house, and is nearly eaten by the wolf before a woodsman hears the commotion and rescues her.

“Little Red Riding Hood” (Silly Symphony, Walt Disney Pictures, 1934)

This story is easy to enjoy, but hard to take seriously.  For one thing, did Grandmother look enough like a wolf for the ruse to work?  That’s assuming that the wolf could kill and eat Grandmother without damaging her nightgown and cap, of course.  Then again, Red Riding Hood was willing to talk with a wolf in the forest, and the wolf could converse in human language.  Never mind the illogic of a parent sending a small child on an errand through a dangerous forest, all the while assuming that staying on the path would protect the child from danger.  Good grief!  The Reality Check bounced a long time ago.  By the time we see the wolf in Grandmother’s bed, we are so soaked in the unreal that we cannot truly share the experience with the characters.

The second version of the story is given in the film Red Riding Hood (2011).  In this tale, a village somewhere in northern Europe is terrorized by werewolves.  The heroine, at odds with her father over the man she wishes to marry, goes to stay with her grandmother in an isolated cottage.  She discovers that her father is, in fact, a werewolf.  So is her grandmother.  So is her lover, the woodsman who rescues her from her enraged father when he is in the form of a huge wolf.

“Red Riding Hood” (2011 Warner Bros Entertainment)

In the second, more adult, version of the story, everyone in the village knows there is danger in the woods.  The wolves do not talk.  The heroine realizes immediately that something is wrong with her grandmother.  Instead of staying to discuss the size of Grandma’s eyes, she does the sensible thing and runs for her life.

This version of the story is not muddled by a number of contradictions in what we consider normal in the natural world.  In Red Riding Hood, the world shown is so real that the fantastic elements of the story dance at the edges of our sight, half-realized but not entirely real.  That is, until the moment a “normal” character begins to shift into a werewolf and we can only watch, frozen, in shock.  The realistic world the story is set in makes the unreal believable.

Over the next year, with your indulgence, I plan to explore some of the realities exposed in our favorite fantasy worlds.  My essays will look at the real-world necessities our favorite characters need, and fit the real-world facts into the fantasy settings to show how the mundane bends the fantasy into a more believable shape.  My first effort will cover clothing worn in the pre-industrial world, and I hope you’ll stick with me.  Reality can be more fascinating than a dragon’s hoard.

“Little Red Riding Hood” (Vasylina, Deviantart)

Cover image: “Little Red Riding Hood” (Smlshin, Deviantart)

White Witches in Middle-earth

White Witches in Middle-earth

Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk

In the “olden times” of Cornwall, England every village had its own white witch.  A midnight ceremony bestowed upon them the power to heal and to “ill-wish,” as well as the magical ability to ride ragwort stems.  These witches wore rings with blue stones – rings made by snakes breathing on hazel-twigs.  And they could transform themselves into toads and hares.

These interesting details about white witches were set down during the 1880s by a Cornish folklorist named MA Courtney.  Just a few years before, in an 1873 book on the traditions of West Cornwall, William Bottrell discussed the doings of white witches, pellars, charmers, wise women, enchanters, conjurors, and a “white wizzard.”  I get the impression that many of these terms were interchangeable, referring to a general class of tradition keepers with special knowledge of herbs, healing rituals, and esoteric powers of mind.


Throughout the 19th century male and female white witches could be found across the English countryside.  In my 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland, I touch on white witches in writings by Sir Walter Scott, Walter Skeat, and Sabine Baring-Gould.  And I suggest that in 1940-1942 JRR Tolkien made a decision to weave traces of this heritage into the cultural fabric of Middle-earth, conjoining his wizards with folk tradition pertaining to white witches.

Pondering his wizards sometime in late 1940, Tolkien settled on white as Saruman’s special color, electing him to serve as “chief of the White Council” – casual mention of such a council had materialized at the end of The Hobbit.  Now Tolkien gave the group more definition and depth and narrative duties.   And a year later in late 1941 Tolkien invented Galadriel and set her on this White Council.  Not long after inventing Galadriel, Tolkien decided to kill Gandalf the Grey and replace him with Gandalf the White.

“Galadriel” by Incantata

When we first meet the Elf Queen Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings we find her surrounded with the words “white” and “wise.”  Tolkien probably accepted the idea that “witch” and “wizard” and “wise” had intertwined roots.  Noting the widespread assumed link between “witch” and “wise,” Michael Dilts has more recently questioned that construction, as well as efforts to connect the term with other Old English terms for “divination” and “bend.”  He prefers the suggestion by Calvert Watkins that the old forms of “witch” may refer instead to “the wakeful one, the watcher.”

Dilts makes a fascinating argument.  But it is apparent that Tolkien in his day accepted an association between wizard and wise.  Merging the invisible roots of these words together with vanishing British tradition about white witches, Tolkien elevated his wizards into transcendent figures of otherworldly power and majesty – while reserving the word “witch” for the leader of his Ringwraiths.

It is reasonable to suggest that when Tolkien sat down to write The Lord of the Rings, he was then the foremost academic expert on British folklore.  As I show in Tolkien in Pawneeland (p. 310-318), the white witches of Skeat and Baring-Gould are arguably evident in Middle-earth.  But it is less clear that Tolkien ever encountered the Cornish white witches – we can identify only a few wispy traces of MA Courtney’s witches.

Joan the waxwork witch, Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, Cornwall

It may not be coincidence in The Fellowship of the Ring that Gandalf threatens to turn a too talkative Sam into a toad – one could read this as a subtle reference to Cornish white witchery.  And in The Two Towers when Wormtongue calls Galadriel a sorceress, Tolkien has Gandalf softly sing a poem about her, referring to the color white: “White is the star in your white hand[.]” And in The Return of the King when we notice Elrond’s “ring of gold with a great blue stone,” perhaps we are glimpsing the forgotten Cornish white witches and their magic rings mounted with blue stones.

Investigating the sources that shaped Tolkien’s White Council, others typically make mention of notable literary white witches in the novels of H Rider Haggard and CS Lewis.  But when Tolkien summoned the lords and the lady of his White Council, it is reasonable to sense that he was doing something more than referencing purely literary imagery, and that he was evoking misty British historical tradition.

In the end, it is difficult to weigh with any specificity the influence of any of these sources – a wealth of wizards and witches in European literature complicates such a task.  Even so, we can assume that at least a few white witch echoes came to Tolkien’s hand from the British countryside as he conjured the magic of Middle-earth.

“The Witch” (Baba Yaga) by Ines-ka


At the Corners of the World

At the Corners of the World

A Meeting of the Tolkien Reading Circle, February 23, 2017

Tonight a wintry snowfall descended on Longmont, and the Tolkien Reading Circle hosted a special guest speaker at the Hobbit Hole.  Tiffany Beechy is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, specializing in Anglo-Saxon studies.  She shared with us her perspective on Tolkien’s creative mingling of mythological essences, and how this idea is in fact reflected in Anglo-Saxon England.

Tiffany began by pointing out how Rohirrim names and language are rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture.  Edoras, Théoden, and Éomer are just a few examples of words borrowed from Old English to colorize Rohan.  She also mentioned a touching Peter Jackson film character, the youth “Haleth” in The Two Towers – the Old English version of this name is hæleþ, meaning “hero.”  So in the scene when Aragorn asks his name and gives him a word of encouragement on the eve of battle, the youth is really a young hero.

Tolkien framed the Rohirrim as a horse culture.  He borrowed detail from actual horse cultures, but he also referred to Anglo-Saxon tradition.  Tiffany read a passage from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People about the tradition of Hengest (“Stallion”) and Horsa (“Horse”) arriving on the shores of Celtic Britain and meeting Vortigern.  Scholars today see a more gradual settlement process, but this tradition does make reference to horses.

Hengest and his brother Horsa are met by Vortigern at Ebbsfleet in Kent southern England. Artist: Mark Taylor

Tiffany told how Tolkien is sometimes dismissed in academic English studies as a kind of presumed fascist ideologue for his project of idealizing a glorious nationalistic past.  But this framing of his Middle-earth novels does not do justice to his actual cultural project, which often evokes a cultural blending that conflicts with the fascist project of asserting forms of cultural purity.

This cultural mingling can be seen in the historical storytelling we find in records set down in Anglo-Saxon literature.  Citing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Tiffany reminds us that the merging of Christian ideology with Anglo-Saxon culture was a syncretic process, a hybridization of concepts rather than a replacement.  But this ultimately did bring about an eclipse of tradition.

Everything written about Anglo-Saxons was produced by monks since the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons left no written literature, only rune sticks.  Bede has a passage that has the Chief Priest Coifi requesting King Edwin’s arms and stallion “to destroy the idols” of Northumbria.  The symbolic transition of culture thus involved horse imagery. Tiffany read an excerpt from her translation of “The Dream of the Rood” – we borrowed from it for the title of this blog.  The poem illustrates how the Anglo-Saxons were more likely to accept this new religion if Christ could be treated more like an active hero rather than a passive victim.  Tiffany also touched on the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland, a monument featuring runes, Latin inscriptions, religious imagery, and references to “The Dream of the Rood.”

All enjoyed a lively and enlightening evening.  Errors in this description of the meeting are due to the wandering minds of the Hobbit Hole scribes!

Tiffany Beechy