Jun 22 2009 11:27am
LotR re-read: Two Towers III.2, “The Riders of Rohan”

cover of The Two Towers Before we pick up The Two Towers with chapter III.2, “The Riders of Rohan,” a note: I have an highly idiosyncratic list of books related to The Lord of the Rings over on the new store. Unfortunately the list and the store were developed separately, so there are some things on the list that, uh, you can’t actually get there yet (it’s a work in progress); but you may find it interesting all the same. Note: I did say highly idiosyncratic!

And now, the usual spoilers for all of LotR and comments.

What Happens

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli continue to pursue the Orcs. They find several Northern Orcs dead, apparently victims of a quarrel. Later Aragorn sees Pippin’s tracks and concludes that he deliberately ran away from the path and dropped his elven brooch as a sign for pursuers. He reluctantly decides they will rest at night, fearing to miss more such signs. They fall far behind the Orcs and, on the fourth day, meet the Riders of Rohan who are coming back down the trail.

The meeting gets off to a rocky start, with the Riders’ leader Éomer nearly coming to blows with Gimli and Legolas over Galadriel, but Aragorn intervenes and then reveals himself as the heir of Elendil. They trade news: Aragorn tells of coming war and Gandalf’s and Boromir’s deaths, and Éomer tells of the Riders’ destruction of the Orcs (and not finding anyone else), Saruman’s increasing demands, and Gandalf’s angering Théoden when he escaped from Orthanc. Éomer lends them horses, though the law does not permit him to let them go, and asks Aragorn to present himself (with horses) before Théoden so that his judgment may be confirmed.

The three come to the battlefield but find no trace of Merry and Pippin before dark. They camp at the edge of Fangorn, where an old man, possibly Saruman, silently appears and disappears by their fire. As they search, Legolas realizes that their horses have gone. The rest of the night passes without further event.


So, I guess we’ll do the journey first, with some numbers and logistics geeking (because, hey: geek). Google claims that 12 leagues is 41.4 miles or 66.7 kilometers, which is how far they marched from dawn to dusk on the first day of the chase. They did 45 leagues (155 miles, 250 km) from the start to their meeting with the Riders, in less than four days. Which is pretty damn impressive: I could keep up that pace for an hour or two, but not more than that. Especially with Saruman setting his will against me.

(I believe I have seen someone, possibly Jo Walton, say that this is based on some historical thing or another, but Jo is off traveling and I don’t know if she’ll see this.)

* * *

There’s that eagle again! At least according to Legolas. But if he can count riders and see hair color from 5 leagues (17.25 miles, 28 km) away—well, for one thing, we can work out that the hill they’re on must be about 200 feet high for the riders not to be over the horizon (which is high for my conception of “downs,” but as an American I have only the haziest idea), and for another, I guess he can pretty well see any darn thing he pleases.

* * *

Okay, finally for logistics geeking, I’m thinking hobbits weigh about . . . a hundred pounds, maybe? Not very heavy, no shoes, on grass . . . so how awesome a tracker does that make Aragorn, to see Pippin’s trail?

Aragorn says, when it’s time to decide whether to continue through the night, that they “give the choice to an ill chooser.” As we’ve already said, whether or not you call it a choice, he did screw up with regard to Boromir; but his choice to rest at night seems quite reasonable to me, for the reasons given in the text. What do you all think?

(And yet when they meet Éomer, he doesn’t identify himself by lineage the very first thing, but doesn’t hesitate to bring it out pretty soon after, which strikes me as significant. Partly I think it speaks to his familiarity with the Rohirrim and his viewing Éomer as a whippersnapper; but partly I think it’s the relief of having chosen Minas Tirith and aiding Gondor as an ultimate mission, after they do what they can for Merry and Pippin.)

* * *

I think this is the most explicit statement we’ve had yet about Elves having foresight/other perceptions, when Legolas says, “Strange things await us by the eaves of the forest. Good or evil, I do not know; but we are called. Awake!” I take the “called” as a general reference to fate or big events looming, as I don’t recall any textual evidence that they were literally being called by Gandalf. Or Saruman, for that matter.

* * *

And now, the Riders.

Aragorn calls them “wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs,” which strikes me as a bias that the author almost certainly, and rather understandably, shares, but which is nevertheless a bias.

Éomer here is introduced as someone who trusts his own instincts on immediate concrete choices over obedience to authority, but is less certain about the wider picture and how to navigate the changes in the world he knows: “It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. . . . How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” To which Aragorn says, “As he has ever judged. Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear.” Which is true in the context presented, at least, so perhaps we can skip the changing standards of morality discussion?

I doubt his statement here, though: “the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived.” I mean, it may be so, but one does not necessarily follow from the other.

Finally, the whole thing about fighting over Galadriel. Even as a kid I remember finding this weird—even stated ironically, the idea that one might “learn the praise of a fair lady under the loving strokes of a Dwarf’s axe” was just, are you serious? Today, my reaction is pretty much the same—unsurprising, since my reaction to chivalry is, at best, “ugh.”

* * *


Éomer calls Galadriel a “net-weaver,” which I thought was interesting because it brought Shelob to mind and thus reminded me that spiders are a default-female monster, unlike most animals.

Elvish sleep: not only with their eyes open, but while walking too. My permanently-sleep-deprived self is jealous.

Word looked up this chapter: “rede” (oft is found at the rising of the Sun): advice or counsel.

* * *

The structure so far of this book:

We know, or can reasonably rely on Aragorn’s conclusion, that Pippin at least was alive and mobile and quick-thinking a couple days ago. But we don’t know where they are now—the Riders’ news is not good—and we have the mystery of the old man and the horses. So we end on a still pause with cliffhanger: “The night passed slowly. Legolas followed Aragorn, and Gimli followed Legolas, and their watches wore away. But nothing happened. The old man did not appear again, and the horses did not return.”

Next time, we’ll get confirmation of Aragorn’s guesses but also action that he didn’t know, which should keep us from feeling that things are too repetitive while still maintaining suspense about and interest in the other thread. I often have a hard time with narratives that are split like this, in terms of keeping a constant level of interest and attention, so I’ll definitely be paying attention to this structure.

(The worst for that is when there are two parallel stories that go a long time without meeting or giving an indication that they will meet. I’m almost guaranteed to lose interest in one in this situation—the one that always comes to mind is Dave Duncan’s Past Imperative, the first book in what I always think of as his grammar trilogy (actually The Great Game); I don’t remember which thread I stopped reading now, but I never bothered with the rest of the series. It’s been keeping me from reading Peg Kerr’s Emerald House Rising, too.)

« Two Towers III.1 | Index | Two Towers III.3 »

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
Re: Legolas seeing the Riders: I have since been advised by the resident physicist that the size of a pupil is a limiting factor on the resolution possible--if I understood properly, basically it boils down to how much light can come in--and under the laws of physics as we know them, it is not actually physically possible for Legolas to have resolved that level of detail at 5 leagues, regardless of how good his brain is at decoding images or whatnot.
Miriam Uhlig
2. MKUhlig
Reading through this time, I was struck by the emphasis on Aragorn and his self doubts. The remark here where he calls himself an "ill-chooser" seems to be a bad quality in one who is going to be King. He certainly has had experience as a leader in all his long years with the Dunadan, but Tolkien seldom (if ever?) gives us any samples of his leadership qualities. He seems to just want us to believe Aragorn exudes a high noble kingly "quality".

I also thought it was interesting that Legolas asks Aragorn for what he knows of Fangorn. One would have thought that with his much longer life span and being a silvan elf that he would know more than Aragorn. He also seemed to never have come to Lorien before (if I remember rightly). It makes me wonder about what the elves are like and what they do. We are told that Arwen visited between Rivendell and Lorien, but are the other elves all homebodies?

Other thoughts -

In addition to Legolas's super sight, there is Aragorn's super hearing where he can put his ear to the ground and determine what is going on for miles around.

I noticed that Eomer refers to Boromer that he was "likely to prove a great captain of his people when his time came" (not a great "leader")

Always thought is was a bit too convenient that the Rohirrim have exactly three horses extra (although they only end up taking two)
3. DBratman
1) Yes, the tracking ability of Aragorn and the stamina of all three Walkers are intended to excite wonder and admiration; they do in Eomer.

2) Legolas's sight is better than even he thinks, as at the end of chapter 5 he sees from a distance signs of a battle that doesn't take place until the following day. This isn't foresight, but the result of the author not correcting for a change in chronology.

3) You may have, unknowingly, seen the word "rede" before in the name of the English king Ethelred the Unready; the epithet is actually "unrede", meaning ill-advised.

3) Later the Walkers ask Gandalf about the old man in chapter 3, and he says, "You certainly did not see me, therefore I must guess that you saw Saruman." I don't think it's stated explicitly in the text, but it's clear from the drafts that they did. Saruman had been following his orcs to keep an eye on them.

4) Why should it be biased to call the Rohirrim "wise but unlearned"? They are in fact an oral culture with no written language, and while very different from the Numenoreans in that regard, Aragorn respects them.

5) Readers tend to think of the Rohirrim as Anglo-Saxons because Tolkien borrowed their language (the Mercian dialect, in fact, rather than standard Wessex Anglo-Saxon). But their resonances are far more eclectic than that. The Anglo-Saxons were literate and were not horsemen. Eomer's helmet is Prussian. And when the Rohirrim circle silently around the Walkers with their spears pointing at them, the sort of thing you should be reminded of is the Indians in old Western movies.
4. Chris Eagle
@1: your physicist wasn't thinking hard enough. Legolas is clearly using his eyes in tandem as an interferometer.

Re the riders: Shippey points out that Tolkien uses a number of parallel scenes to contrast them with the men of Gondor. Aragorn et al's meeting with Eomer here should be read alongside Faramir's dealings with Frodo and Sam.
Kate Nepveu
5. katenepveu
MKUhlig @ #2, I'm not sure that Aragorn doesn't show leadership later. Or even now--I'd prefer my leaders to be aware that they've screwed up so they can avoid it! But a whole lot of Aragorn's character is newly-revealed to me, this re-read, so I'll have to wait and see.

DBratman @ #3, because it equates writing with learning, and that's a very specific definition of learning.

(How likely is Tolkien to have seen Western movies before writing?)

Chris Eagle @ #4, I grant it's not my field, but I somehow doubt that an interferometer with a baseline of a couple of inches is going to give you that much improvement on your resolution . . . =>

And I will keep the potential Faramir parallels in mind for when we get there.
6. Chris Eagle
@5: A couple of inches baseline would give you a resolution of about a foot at five leagues; just about enough to count riders (though not enough to see a day into the future). That's assuming he's using visible light, of course: perhaps elves can detect UV?
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
Unless you can tell that someone is blond from UV, I think he had to be using visible light . . .
Brian Kaul
8. bkaul
Re: leagues - the unit is classically time-based, much like the way we might say that Chicago is "5 hours" (driving time) from St. Louis instead of the actual "300 miles." A league is the distance a person can typically walk in an hour - in England, at least, this typically converted to around 3 miles; Google's 3.45233834 miles is far too precise. Somewhere between 3 and 3.5 miles is probably reasonable, though. 3 is convenient for quick conversions, and is close enough to what the English would've used back when people thought of distances in "leagues" anyway.
9. Chris Eagle
@8: I don't have the book to hand, but I think Tolkien gives the three-miles-to-the-league figure in the appendices somewhere.
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
Searching the e-book's appendices for league & mile doesn't turn me up anything.

(Dropping it to 3 miles gets a height of 150 feet when Legolas sees the Riders. Just in case anyone cares.)
11. DBratman
It's on p. 285-6 of Unfinished Tales. The Numenorean equivalent is "very nearly three of our miles." Even before that, a league was traditionally considered 3 or about 3 miles, though it was not then confirmed in Tolkien's own words.
Jason Ramboz
12. jramboz
It's been ages since I last read LotR, and I remember the marching across Rohan as being interminable. I was actually somewhat surprised to see that it was all contained in one chapter. I remember it as being around 50 or so pages of walking... and walking... and walking. But that's probably more a reflection of how I felt about those pages than the actual page count itself.
13. EmmaPease
I've always used the 3 miles to the league. The distance is possible (anyone want to calculate how much daylight for that time and area?) and I've know people who have done 40 miles walking in a day.

The South Downs have several points over 700 feet. The difference between Ditchling (a village on the low land below the South Downs) and Ditchling Beacon (the nearby high point) is about 90 meters (according to Wikipedia) which would certainly give the 150 feet needed.
Hugh Arai
14. HArai
katenepveu@1: Isn't the Ring's one-way invisibilty the more usual complaint for physicists? Or have they cracked that one since the last time I discussed fantasy physics with people?

On the "ill-choser" thing: I alway read it as Aragorn's equivalent of "well, I've been having one of those days but.."

On the "Men of the Mark do not lie" thing: It seems to be coming from the same frame of mind as "you can't cheat an honest man".

On Eomer and Gimli: Well, maybe I'm ugh too, but if a stranger insulted someone (male or female) who had affected me as strongly as Galadriel affected Gimli, it would likely come to harsh words as well.
15. Maltheos
Annother possible point, but it is possible that the World is flat. Which reduces the horizon quibles.
Brian Kaul
16. bkaul
@15: Not in the Third Age. Before Valinor became inaccessible by normal means, it apparently was, but then the world was reformed into a globe, if I remember the Silmarillion correctly.
17. legionseagle
No particular order, but random thoughts:

This is one chapter where you get the impression that the three remaining members of the Fellowship almost go "Phew! Now we've lost the short-houses, let's open up the throttle and show what we can do in the heroeing stakes."

One area where I think it loses is that the impressive but humanly possible achievement of 45 leagues in less than four days (when I say "humanly achievable" I mean achievable by the likes of humans like Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham Fiennes rather than humans like, say, me) is then eroded by the "standard epic poetry exaggerations" about eyesight and hearing. The race across Rohan would be so much more impressive if it were the only impressive thing the three do in this chapter.

If there weren't any other reasons why Human/Elf unions can be numbered on the fingers of one hand (even if you include the hobbit/elf union surmised - in the Shire - to be at the root of the Took family tree) the business about sleeping while walking and with eyes open is sufficient explanation in itself, given how many human relationships have foundered on snoring and teeth grinding, which I would say were minor irritations in a spouse compared to how elves sleep.

The highest point on the North Downs is about 265 metres high, so I don't have too much of a concern about the elevation, and as for the physics - well,
it's an elf, innit? Though I bet that sort of eyesight puts a bit of a crimp in human/elf relationships, too: "Darling, do you think I've got a spot coming?" "There are five million, seven hundred and fifty thousand two hundred and seventeen individual bacteria in that hair follicle - no, given binary fission, make that six million-"

Three miles to a league is a traditional fairy-tale assumption. Terry Pratchett has pointed out the likely consequences in terms of groin injuries of the use of "seven league boots".

Given the situation back at Edoras, where Grima is lying through his teeth and Theoden is swallowing it whole, Eomer's comment regarding lying and detecting lying appears to be somewhat close to whistling in the dark. Entirely understandable and even admirable, given morale and his suspicions of the strangers at the time, of course; I liked Eomer the first time I read this scene and have gone on liking him ever since.

The reference to Boromir being "a great captain" is equivalent to me to "a great leader" - I suspect it's being used in the sense of "Captain of my soul" or, as later turns up "the captains of the West". But, to me, it also evokes the final lines of Fortinbras about Hamlet, also a tale of wasted promise.

And finally - there is every likelihood Tolkien had seen Westerns. He had four children, after all, and they must have dragged him to the pictures sometimes. Authors such as Monica Dickens and Noel Streatfield talking about the 1920s and 1930s talk about a full cinema programme as including 'a newsreel, a Western and a Mickey Mouse" along with the main feature and Tom Mix was a huge star of the day.
Del C
18. del
It doesn't matter that the world is "supposed" to be the current spherical size and shape in that era: Tolkien seems either to have been still undecided about that, or simply wasn't accounting for curvature. Several feats of sight in the book only work if you assume that there is no distance, no matter how far, in Middle Earth that is "below" a horizon, only distances so lost in the blue that it takes a supernatural keenness of vision to pick out contrast and colour.

I don't think it's useful to try calculating about this sort of thing.
19. Firefly
Re telescopic vision in elves, it's odd that those superlative mariners the Númenóreans never got round to inventing telescopes, especially as they envied elvish qualities. In fact, no-one in the last 6,000 years has apparently noticed that glass refracts light, though Middle Earth must have a sophisticated glass industry. Even the rustic Shire has glass windows, drinking glasses, wine bottles &c.

The only people in LotR who seem to have any notion of optics are Saruman and Gandalf in their 'white light can be broken' exchange. So wizards, and therefore Maiar and Valar, know about refraction but never let on to anyone? Is there some obscure moral objection to bending light? But Morgoth and Sauron and Evil-Saruman wouldn't care about that, so why aren't their minions toting prismatics? (Cue cartoon of Nazgûl peering myopically through binoculars.)

@16: Query - how do you navigate at sea on a flat Earth?

Re leagues, they're common in C19-20 fiction and poetry, and I doubt if many of the authors troubled themselves about how many yards a laden serf could cover in an hour; three miles was understood. Isn't the 3.45 miles thing a nautical league?
20. legionseagle
firefly@19 Surely a nautical league is equal to three minutes of latitude or, roughly speaking, 6000 yards or 30 cables? Incidentally, with regard to navigating at sea, did the Ban vary according to the weather forecast? I've never been able to understand a sailing restriction which depends on visibility at sea: "And for sea areas North Tol Eressea, South Tol Eressea, West Numenor; visibility less than two miles and falling. Valar intervention imminent ...."
Agnes Kormendi
21. tapsi
Re Eomer and Gimli: I didn't find it strange at all, not even at first reading; it was the chivalrous thing to do. A knight would always be prepared to fight for a lady they admire, after all... even if it's hard to picture a dwarf as a knight!

Enter old Anglo-Saxon England with Eomer and the Rohirrim ... perhaps the only thing markedly un-AS is that theirs is still an oral culture; in spite iof hundreds of years of contact with Gondor. The Anglo-Saxons embraced literacy with a zeal; but perhaps Tolkien saw this as a state of innocence and purity (and definitely a pre-Christian one).

I wonder if it is actually feasible that the leaders of a country do not adopt such a hugely useful administrative tool once it is available and they have given up their no,adic lifestyle (and the fact that the Rohirrim have farms and castles suggests that). I don't know, but it seems slightly odd to me - but history can be more than slightly odd.
Hugh Arai
22. HArai
Firefly@19: Is there something about navigating by the stars that requires the world to be spherical? I'm actually curious here, not being sarcastic.

Legionseagle@20: I thought the Numenoreans were allowed to _see_, they just weren't allowed to _go_.
Kate Nepveu
23. katenepveu
jramboz @ #12, I always have that reaction to the slogging across Mordor. Seems to take forever, really not that many pages . . .

HArai @ #14, I think the difference is between explicit magic and not.

legionseagle @ #17: the impressive but humanly possible achievement of 45 leagues in less than four days . . . is then eroded by the "standard epic poetry exaggerations" about eyesight and hearing

Interesting. Since I hadn't bothered to look up a league before now, I admit I'd just shoved it all in the "supernaturally good" category, so I think you have a point.

And thanks for the cinematic history context.

Firefly @ #19, I've heard people say that the technological levels in _LotR_ are somewhat uneven, but my history isn't good enough to say. (Reading the Wikipedia article on the subject is fascinating--apparently everything necessary was known for a long time before working models are recorded.)

Also thanks to everyone who engaged in logistics geeking with me!
Brian Kaul
24. bkaul
HArai@22: Well, the stars wouldn't necessarily change as you moved around, so it could be easier to determine direction, but it would also be nearly impossible to determine one's location.

Think of it as being a little bit like navigating in the woods with a compass but no maps. You know which way is which, but not where you actually are relative to any fixed points.
Tudza White
25. tudzax1
League - typically how far a human can walk in an hour. So the distance in leagues for the same distance can be different depending on whether you are going up the hill or down the hill ( or underhill ).

Right minded people in other situations, places, and times have actually defined a league for their own purposes so you know definitely how far a league is at sea or on a Roman road, but I don't think this league is one of those sort.

Actually, in this case it seems a good measure to use since basically you want to say, "Dude, you know that stretch it took you a day to travel, I did it in half a day. Then I got up and did that again for three days running." "Wooh, you are mighty indeed."
26. EmmaPease
On the 'wise but unlearned' I suspect people like Theoden and Eomer and probably Eowyn could read and write and probably people who kept tallies but they did not write histories or treatises on this or that matter of lore. I suspect unlearned means unlearned in the old lore such as Faramir loved and even Boromir had drummed into him. I wonder if Eowyn picked up a taste for it when she married Faramir?

We could contrast the Shire and Rohan. The Shire has a sizable percentage that are unlettered (Sam appears to be unusual for his class in knowing how to write) but the lettered write extensively and some write books (e.g., Bilbo and Merry). Rohan has an unknown percentage who are lettered; however, even the lettered don't write books or use writing much.
27. legionseagle
HArai@22: I understood the Ban was that they were not allowed to sail out of sight of Numenor, which obviously prohibited night sailing or sailing in fog, and, of course, could retroactively produce a breach were night or rain to close in.
Hugh Arai
28. HArai
legionseagle@27: You are correct. That does seem to be the wording of the Ban. With the "retroactive" risks you point out, I guess the "we really really don't want you any farther West" part is very plain.
I think I was misremembering seeing Tol Eressa from Numenor as sailing in sight of Aman.
Clark Myers
29. ClarkEMyers
#22 The local sun is a star unless it isn't #24 -

Complex question almost certainly easy enough on a flat earth given a telescope a chronometer and records at the Nautical Almanac level of history and detail.

Natural time keeping alternatives equivalent to that offered by the moons of Jupiter at our point in the timeline would make things easier as well. For some stellar/solar/planetary distances the value of c might help or confuse or really confuse if not constant in any given medium - assume ether and wind in the ether and temperature in the ether creating something like mirage and a general solution gets tricky but a numerical solution might still be possible. Then too a lot can be done with our current moon especially moon shadows. Some analog(s) is(are) likely to exist in the third age.

Methods would depend on the next question:

Given a flat earth, a variable length but repetitive and consistent annual day night cycle and seasons then settle the question of stellar (other planetary?) movements and distances including especially the local sun. For most of the possible assumptions that occur to me in connection with the givens it follows that unnless things are deliberately obscured and made haphazard the observing qualities and lifespan of an Elven observer/recorder would soon make it easy at least for Elven eyesight.

For a simple FREX assume a flat earth with a stationary local sun at some local distance - then for primitive technology imagine working with a standard stick and its shadow length and direction compared to the shadow of a stick directly under the sun (Greeks did that in this age of the world). Then a backstaff with one eyed navigators who trade their eyes for wisdom then .....
30. MKUhlig
Firefly @19

The subject of technology in Middle earth intrigues me. Were the dwarves the only engineers or inventors? Was all the Numenorean building done by dwarves or by magic? Is the culture in Gondor basically unchanged for at least 3000 years (since Isildur’s time)? That seems an awfully long time to be stuck at the bow and sword stage, especially if you are a country obsessed with and pressured by war. Is this what happened in a world where the elves are considered the peak of perfection, and they due to their immortality are extremely static and non-productive?

I guess I can’t picture the inventor/scientist class. I can see the landed gentry/warrior elite and the farmers, but I can’t fit into Middle Earth people creative in a way that does not involve poetry and song.
31. Steve Morrison
I don't think it matters whether Tolkien had seen Western movies; he had read books about Indians as a child, as he recalled in On Fairy-stories:
I had very little desire to look for buried treasure or fight pirates, and Treasure Island left me cool. Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and above all, forests in such stories. But the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable.
(This excerpt can be found on the Tolkien Estate's website at where Christopher Tolkien quotes it.) Tom Shippey speculated that chapters such as "The Great River" and "The Riders of Rohan" were influenced by James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels.
32. Fledgist
Western films were shown in Britain as soon as cinemas opened, and most certainly in the 1920s. More importantly, aside from Steve Morrison's most apt citation regarding Tolkien's reading, even before the rise of cinema as a mass entertainment there were "wild west" shows such as the famous Buffalo Bill Cody's, which were very popular in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.
33. Siberian
Re: sight and hearing

Elves usually have better eyesight and other senses than humans (how is it possible doesn't matter, since this is not SciFi), hence, I guess, they're also better marksmen.

As for Aragorn, Dunedain's senses are, again, more keen (I think it was mentioned in the Strider chapter in FOTR). Aragorn, especially, is almost a superhero being descendant from Melian and Luthien.
Kate Nepveu
34. katenepveu
Thanks for the discussion about Indians-in-Westerns, all. I try not to be one of those annoying Americans who assumes everyone has access to her culture.

(But I should've remembered the traveling shows, since it's part of a Caroline Stevermer book).

* * *

Meanwhile, Chad (the aforementioned resident physicist) has explained the physics and done the math on Legolas's vision, if you want to *really* geek out in inappropriate ways. =>
Clark Myers
35. ClarkEMyers
#34 - Access I think always but the use can be surprising - for a Germanic view consider Karl May and cactus forests though I doubt Tolkien did.

What I do take as a given is a professional awareness of language and tribal movements ("strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life") as an area of study similar to Tolkien's own though an entirely different geographical area of concentration.
36. firkin
kate: the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived.” I mean, it may be so, but one does not necessarily follow from the other.

i think HArai@14 is right about the logic behind this -- you can't cheat an honest man in Middle Earth. In the morality of ME it seems that those who are evil, given to treachery, or are corrupted in some way are also fairly easily deceived (Grishnakh, orcs of the tower of Cirith Ungol, the latter-day Numenoreans). I guess this has much to do with greed, and the whole evil containing the seeds of it's own destruction that has come up before in comments. The flip side would be that honest creatures who are morally uncompromised may be endowed (rewarded?) with the ability to perceive dishonest motives and see through deceptions (Sam is the poster boy here, but Bombadil might count as well; Faramir). I don't personally think this holds up in real life, but it does seem to follow from what i've gathered of Tolkien's moral system, though probably not without exception (especially where other moral forces come into play, such as pity).
37. cofax
He also seemed to never have come to Lorien before (if I remember rightly).

No, he hadn't. Legolas was the son of Thranduil, the elf-king in Mirkwood. Those are, IIRC, Sindarin elves, not very closely related to the elves of Lorien, of whom some at least were Eldar. I believe the royal family of Mirkwood had some intermarriage with Eldarin elves, but in general they seemed quite separate from Elrond's crowd or the elves of Lorien. So I didn't find it a surprise that Legolas hadn't been there before.

If you recall in the Hobbit, the elves of Mirkwood are really very different (and much less pleasant) than the elves of Rivendell. However by the time of LotR, Gandalf and Aragorn at least had good relations with all the various elf-kingdoms, possibly more so than those kingdoms had between themselves, I suspect.
Michael Ikeda
38. mikeda

Actually the elves of Lorien and Mirkwood are both mostly Silvan elves (Appendix F).

Now the royal house of the Woodland realm in Mirkwood was Sindarin, while Galadriel was Noldor (her husband Celeborn, however, was Sindarin).

There probably wasn't much travel between the Woodland realm and Lorien, for several reasons (e.g. distance, Dol Guldur, the orcs of the Misty Mountains).
39. DavidT
Re: "Wise but unlearned..."

I think this is one of those definitional problems. In early 20th-C English, 'unlearned' meant "not learned"; 'learned' meant (specifically) having book-learning. You can say that's unfair on the part of the English language, but I think it's a stretch to say that indicates a bias on Tolkien's part.

(Although I'm tempted to go on about how reading is the only really effective mechanism for the mass transfer of information, which is pretty good grounds for calling any non-reading society 'unlearned'.)

We can skip the "changing standards of morality" discussion if you like, but it's pretty clear that Tolkien thought issues of Good and Evil to be timeless and invariant. I'm pretty sure I agree with him.
Tony Zbaraschuk
40. tonyz
The other thing to note is that Eomer admires Boromir. This is probably not unusual (though it's a bit jarring to the reader, whose last impression of Boromir was "Good death for a traitor"), but it should be tied in with Faramir's later comment about how the Men of Numenor have sunk (or been driven in desperation) to the quality of Middle Men, of ranking warriors higher than other occupations.
Soon Lee
41. SoonLee
The worst for that is when there are two parallel stories that go a long time without meeting or giving an indication that they will meet.

This happens a lot in LotR, where the Fellowship splits into different threads then (eventually) re-joins. For me, the secret is to have the reader (i.e. me) care enough & equally about the characters in the different threads.

The first time I read it, I cared for Frodo & Sam much more than for the others in the Fellowship, to the extent of reading the Merry & Pippin, and Aragorn, Gimli & Legolas chapters quickly just to get back to Frodo & Sam sooner.
42. legionseagle
The scene where they find the dead Orcs foreshadows the role which lethal intra-orc quarrelling plays in LOTR and how far the enemy's disunity contributes to the success of the quest. While, for me, it works in this chapter and as we see it playing out in Pippin and Merry's escape into Fangorn, since we do have two actively opposed factions of orcs, with different priorities and orders, and the conflict occurs between the factions and (later on) with regard to individual opportunism, the believability of the "when two orcs are together the stronger/faster orc will inevitably kill the weaker/slower orc unless a non-orc enemy crosses their path" structure is something which has always bugged me about later chapters (specifically the escape from Cirith Ungol, which we'll discuss in due course).

The goblins of The Hobbit have, apparently, a reasonably developed social structure and the ability to act co-operatively, at least in a military sense, sending out large and well-organised armies across considerable distances. The orcs of LOTR seem, effectively, to fall apart except when very narrowly focussed on a short-term objective and/or when the Eye of Sauron or the will of Saruman is directly focussed upon them. It's difficult to reconcile the fearsome orc armies we're supposed to see with the micro-level anarchy of individual orc interactions.
Kate Nepveu
43. katenepveu
firkin @ #36, if you can't deceive an honest man in Middle-earth, what about Theoden? Or Denethor?

DavidT @ #39, re: changing standards of morality, I guess it depends on your level of abstraction. Up high enough, of course it never changes; but the applications may change as we come to understand more about effects and consequences.

SoonLee @ #41, though the plot splits a lot in _LotR_, at least I know how it's tied together overall. But yes, I am sometimes tempted to skip some threads in favor of others.

legionseagle @ #42, I don't disagree with most of your comment, but I think the answer to the orc armies would be discipline through fear?
44. legionseagle
Kate@43: the problem with discipline through fear is that any army based around that principle still needs to have some form of structure and cadre mentality, otherwise whoever is tasked with keeping order simply gets offed the minute they snatch a minute's sleep or turn their back. It's difficult to see how you can send out armies over vast distances if the chance of being done in by your comrades in arms is so great that the odds are inevitably improved by desertion, however bad the penalties are for desertion.
Andrew Foss
45. alfoss1540
Kate - Thanks for the discussion on distance. I have to look it up every time I read this section. I like to hold on to the idea that they made an incredible / studly effort - but possible nonetheless. The other place where the leagues discussion really plays out is from The Shire to Rohan - With Gandalf/Boromir as a gauge for distance based on days required to travel it.

As for the scientific discussion on eyesite - I can suspend that belief - Its elven magic - like the ability to walk softly on snow and all the rest.

Thanks for the notes from Unfinished Tales about whether or not the old man was Saruman. It was always unclear - especially with Gandalf only being half of himself after his fall with the Balrog. Further unclear about whether Saruman released the horses or whether they escaped on their own to meet up with Shadowfax

This first peek into the secret lives of orcs is just a peek. Someone noted 2 bands of orcs - there are 3 - Northerners (Misty Mountains), Uruks, and Mordor - all of whom hate each other and everything else and have obviously different goals.
Terry Lago
46. dulac3
legionseagle @42: I wonder if part of the idea here is that Orcs are so debased that they don't/can't have a truly workable society. They're too dominated by personal self-interest. They only seem to be held together in very large army-sized numbers effectively when a being of sufficient puissance (like Morgoth, Sauron, Saruman, or perhaps one of the Nazgul) is there to keep them in line, or fear of ultimately being brought before said dark power is in the back of their minds. Otherwise I think they only function in smaller groups where the strong control the weak (still through fear, but of a much less supernatural kind). They become much more like bandits who are still very fearful to others and can be effective, esp. when pursuing a common goal or fighting a common adversary, but who may not be able or willing to do anything long term together.

It's quite possible that the orcish armies that existed and ravaged the land between 'dark lord tenures' were actually amalgams of smaller groups, each with their own commander strong enough to keep the others in line who were willing to work with the other captains towards a limited goal (say attacking Moria or the Lonely Mountain), but which would likely be plagued by in-fighting when no longer pursuing that goal (or who broke up and divided territory along tribal lines).

While they certainly seem to be willing to take advantage of any opportunity to better themselves at the expense of another of their kind, I'm not sure if it's quite so bad as "when two orcs are together the stronger/faster orc will inevitably kill the weaker/slower orc unless a non-orc enemy crosses their path"...after all it is often in the interest of the stronger/faster orc to make use of the slower/weaker one instead of simply killing him. I think the point is that all of their interactions are based on greed and self-interest, not that they necessarily go berserk and kill each other at any opportunity. In both cases sited for this there were extenuating circumstances. In the guard for Pippin and Merry the hatred of differing groups with differing orders for each other (as you noted), and in the case of Cirith Ungol their natural greed magnified by the presence of the Ring.

This fact of their disunity and need to have a bigger, more powerful force to keep them in any semblance of true order, also makes the almost immediate disunity of the Orc armies make more sense after the Ring is destroyed. Sauron's direct influence is no longer driving them and their self-interest is kicking in (added to which is the terror I assume they felt when they realized the Dark Lord had somehow just snuffed out, or at least was no longer offering support).
47. firkin
kate@43 -- yeah, i'm not sure, it's a pretty underdeveloped theory. This might not mesh with everyone's idea of "honest" in that phrase, but to the extent that Denethor is morally compromised, he is vulnerable: he has given in to despair and is prideful (both big no-nos), which are instrumental to his falling for the deceptions of the Enemy via the Palanitr. Denethor has lost the ability to honestly assess the world around him, separate facts from his own motivations, rise above his fear and choose rightly -- a linguistic stretch, perhaps, but this is what i sense behind the "can't cheat an honest man" sentiment. Deceiving deceivers is easy because you can play them based on what they want or fear to be true, while an honest man ought to be able to see past that. (I think the reverse is actually more likely, a dishonest person suspects deception because it's what they would do.)

Theoden is another question. Off the top of my head i don't know if we are given enough evidence in the text to understand Wormtongue's rise to power/Theoden's falling under the sway of Saruman, and while there is the Voice of Saruman to account for, Theoden may indeed be an exception. If that is even possible; i'm open to the idea that in a moral universe created by Tolkien there are no exceptions, and the theory is therefore invalid. More evidence against is the failure of basically everybody to see that Saruman was plainly lying about the Ring for how long?
48. DavidT
Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I thought the only real orc-strife that we see is between orcs in different chains of command: Saruman's vs. Saurons, or the orcs of Cirith Ungol vs. the orcs of Barad-Dur.

That, to me, seems much more plausible than "all orcs inevitably fall to squabbling before they can accomplish anything". It only requires them to be clannish, rather than totally anarchic.
Kate Nepveu
49. katenepveu
Re: Orcs and backstabbing: I'm inclined, on further reflection, towards DavidT's explanation (#48), but will keep the issue in mind as we go.

alfoss1540 @ #45, I know Legolas's eyesight has to be magic, but since it's presented with numbers and not in an *overtly* supernatural manner (like the Ring's invisibility), I couldn't resist.

firkin @ #47, I think Theoden didn't meet Saruman until after Gandalf arrives, and I don't recall getting the impression that Wormtongue was invested with supernatural persuasiveness, but again, we'll see in a few chapters.
50. Confutus
I think the idea behind Eomer's comment is that rigorous truthfulness requires being able to spot one's own temptations to lie, or evade, or shade the truth. This practice then gives one an advantage in detecting the track of evasions and inconsistencies that liars leave behind them when their words don't match their deeds. That's not to say that a person can't have peculiar blind spotsm for any number of reasons. "Not easily" rather than "never" was his wording.
The adage you "You can't cheat an honest man" has similar origins. One who has already wrestled with his own temptations to be greedy can recognize an appeal to greed when he sees it.
The inverse is that the habitual liar loses something of the ability to recognize the truth when he (or she) hears it or sees it, hence Wormtongue's (and, later, Saruman's) inordinately suspicious distrust of Gandalf.

Notably, Theoden was practically the only one of the Rohirrim who was completely deceived by Wormtongue. Everyone else could see that his advice was bad.
Denethor...pride did him in. He didn't have any idea how outclassed he was when he wrestled with the enemy in thought, (via the Palantir) or imagine that Sauron was just toying with him.

There's a line in Hamlet.. Ophelia speaks of those who "tread the primrose path of dalliance and reck not their own rede", that is, heed not their own counsel. (Ah, so THAT's what reckless driving means, thought the young high school student).
Agnes Kormendi
51. tapsi
DavidT @ 48

I seem to recall a quarrel Sam and Frodo witnesses in the heartlands of Mordor in Book VI that ends in murder (over some matter that has nothing to do with chains of command), but I'm on a holiday and the only available copy of LotR in this household is in French (a language I, unfortunately, do not speak). Orcs are definitely not anarchic, I would say their society is something of a totalitarian regime, which is very different from anarchy. They're both masters and victims of a marvellously effective bullying system that actually works, and works rather well - even if it is a nightmare to live in.
Kate Nepveu
52. katenepveu
Confutus @ #50, that's an elegant explanation of what Eomer should, at least, have meant, and I thank you for it.
Jason Deshaies
53. darxbane
One point about the wise, but unlearned phrase. I don't really see a bias here, especially when you consider that the strongest influence of this book comes from Tolkien's study of Finnish culture, which also did not write anything down, but instead passed on songs from generation to generation. This fascinated Tolkien, and I believe it is actually a sign of respect, not a bias.

Legolas' sight: Isn't a Cheetah capable of seeing great distance due to the ability to change the shape of the Iris (a natural zoom lens). If Elves had the same ability, then I bet physics would allow for it.
Clark Myers
54. ClarkEMyers
#53 - We're all capable of seeing great distances - from light minutes every morning to light years when the stars come out - and some folks can see brighter stars in day time (selection criteria for e.g. Saburo Sakai as a fighter pilot in Japan) - the issue is resolving power - as e.g. detail on screen is limited by pixel count not by monitor size. Color sensitivity and detector packing can be fiddled - conventional artificial (digital camera) techniques put e.g. RGB side by side but they can be stacked in depth for more detectors per surface area.

For iris may mean cornea - going from round to cats eye or vice versa has other uses as do the reflective layers that make eyes glow in the dark - that is reflect back for a second pass at the detector grid - to see in the dark - but at the expense of resolution. Notice the pinhole lens gives better depth of field - sharper vision in bright light is the norm for humans, try it - and in that sense better resolution but again at the expense of light gathering when the issue is lenses.

Consider that contact lenses don't give people bionic eyes (substitute for binoculars with a larger light gathering objective) any more than the - potentially much cheaper - 10 power by 10mm objective on binoculars will do as much as as a 10 power by 60 mm objective (pupil) - anime elves with Keene eyes.

There are fiddles with the number of pixels, that is the retina, in a being created/evolved for life under the stars before a local star - (terms not clearly defined as I recall and subject to retcon from our current usage) is introduced just as Shelob had an unusual reaction to unusual light. This gets tricky with interspecies breeding though - and still allows no more than achieving theoretical limits not exceeding them.

Might as well say that under a yellow sun Elven eyes had special powers because a yellow sun emits very very very short wavelength radiation that lies outside the normal spectrum and so is unknown to science - requiring Elven eyes for detection.

I'd suppose a teacher and an Inkling would respect the subject of study as much as the student (the Navajo as much as the anthropologist) but still I bet place learning as a high value - Gandalf did not operate by instinct or by revelation but by learning.

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