309 – Flotsam and Jetsam

Flotsam and Jetsam

I could quibble with the title: the strict meaning of ‘jetsam’ is items intentionally thrown overboard from a ship in distress in order to lighten the vessel.  But when I checked the Oxford English Dictionary, I found that using the phrase figuratively has a long history.  It became a legal phrase for discarded goods, but anyone salvaging could not know if an item was thrown or came from a wreck, so the distinction was mostly lost.

It is also a very neat phrase for what the people who fought desperately at Helm’s Deep have found at Isengard.

Most of them go on to meet Treebeard.  But Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas see it as more important to re-unite with the two long-separated members of the Fellowship.  The lost hobbits they have been seeking ever since the last chapter of Book Two, when Aragorn decided that his first duty was to help them.  He also removed himself from the temptation of the One Ring.  And Frodo and Sam were then in no immediate peril.

There is much news to exchange, but also good food to hand.  One might have expected hobbits to take care of guests whom Gandalf earlier mentioned as not having eaten recently.  But there are distractions, and the idea of eating while they talk is left to Gimli:

“’And now that the great ones have gone to discuss high matters,’ said Legolas, ‘the hunters can perhaps learn the answers to their own small riddles. We tracked you as far as the forest, but there are still many things that I should like to know the truth of.’

“’And there is a great deal, too, that we want to know about you ‘ said Merry. ‘We have learnt a few things through Treebeard, the Old Ent, but that is not nearly enough.’

“’All in good time,’ said Legolas. ‘We were the hunters, and you should give an account of yourselves to us first.’

“’Or second,’ said Gimli. ‘It would go better after a meal. I have a sore head; and it is past mid-day. You truants might make amends by finding us some of the plunder that you spoke of. Food and drink would pay off some of my score against you.’

“’Then you shall have it,’ said Pippin. ‘Will you have it here, or in more comfort in what’s left of Saruman’s guard-house – over there under the arch? We had to picnic out here, so as to keep an eye on the road.’

“’Less than an eye!’ said Gimli. ‘But I will not go into any orc-house nor touch Orcs’ meat or anything that they have mauled.’

“’We wouldn’t ask you to,’ said Merry. ‘We have had enough of Orcs ourselves to last a life-time. But there were many other folk in Isengard. Saruman kept enough wisdom not to trust his Orcs. He had Men to guard his gates: some of his most faithful servants, I suppose. Anyway they were favoured and got good provisions.’”

You also get details of the food – rather a nice selection.  This probably reflects Tolkien wartime experience: the value of such things after hardships.

Naturally they exchange news.  But rather than give the reader more than is needed of the two series of adventures that the book has already told of, we get an extra detail:

“[Gimli says] ‘Why, your hair is twice as thick and curly as when we parted; and I would swear that you have both grown somewhat, if that is possible for hobbits of your age. This Treebeard at any rate has not starved you.’

“’He has not,’ said Merry. ‘But Ents only drink, and drink is not enough for content. Treebeard’s draughts may be nourishing, but one feels the need of something solid. And even lembas is none the worse for a change.’

“’You have drunk of the waters of the Ents, have you?’ said Legolas. ‘Ah, then I think it is likely that Gimli’s eyes do not deceive him. Strange songs have been sung of the draughts of Fangorn.’

“’Many strange tales have been told about that land,’ said Aragorn. ‘I have never entered it.”

I suspect it will be otherwise in the Amazon series, assuming it is ‘Young Aragorn’ as we mostly suppose.  But some people have looked at the maps Amazon have put up and wondered if it might be more wide-ranging.  Myself, I’d suppose these are wider plans, supposing the first effort gets a return to justify the vast amounts being spent.  ‘Young Aragorn’ is much the best bet, and a natural starting-point for an ‘Extended Universe’.  But given success, they might then branch out into earlier times.

One universe can have more than one series, as Star Trek did for a time.  Star Trek: The Next Generation overlapped with Deep Space Nine in 1993 and 1994, and it in turn overlapped with Star Trek: Voyager for 1995 to 1999.  But neither of those were hugely successful commercially, despite each having seven seasons.  Star Trek: Enterprise was gloomy flop, ending after its 4th series.  Losing a planned importation of Larry Niven’s monstrous cat-like Kzinti, who had appeared in one episode of the mediocre Animated Series that ran from 1973 to 1974 with cartoon versions of Kirk and Co.  The chopping of Enterprise, set much earlier, also lost the opening of the Romulan War that the original series referenced.  There was then a lapse until the films, and now the excellent Star Trek: Discovery.  That’s currently only on Netflix, or DVD for Season 1.  And an independent series featuring the later adventures of Captain Picard is promised.

The original lapse might not have happened has streaming services existed back then.  They have kept alive series that the networks rejected. Both The Last Kingdom and The Expanse were saved that way: series I’d expect to be remembered when many more popular programs are forgotten.  It is a pity that Babylon 5 was too early for such help: it was always at risk and some story-telling was spoiled as a result.  Likewise its sequel Crusade, chopped after one season, though I found it very inferior.

Amazon might spin off several more modest Tolkienian series, if the main effort succeeds.  I could imagine them doing small relatively cheap stories like the defeat of goblins by hobbits mentioned half-comically in The Hobbit.  And there are many other wars and intrigues in Gondor – perhaps we will in time see Queen Beruthiel, maybe played by Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones).

If they then get rights to The Silmarillion, I hope they will not attempt to cram in the entire Silmarillion into one project.  The Three Great Tales could each be a series.  Likewise the whole drama of Feanor from his making of the Silmarils through the kin-slaying; and on to his death and his eldest son making peace with his half-brothers.

To get back to the chapter, they dine on the excellent food and drink that Saruman had left for his human servants, who would all have fled.  And the hobbits report a lucky discovery.  But also a discovery that should have alarmed them:

“[Merry] produced a small leather bag full of tobacco. ‘We have heaps of it,’ he said; ‘and you can all pack as much as you wish, when we go. We did some salvage-work this morning, Pippin and I. There are lots of things floating about. It was Pippin who found two small barrels, washed up out of some cellar or store-house, I suppose. When we opened them, we found they were filled with this: as fine a pipe-weed as you could wish for, and quite unspoilt.’

“Gimli took some and rubbed it in his palms and sniffed it. ‘It feels good, and it smells good,’ he said.

“’It is good!’ said Merry. ‘My dear Gimli, it is Longbottom Leaf! There were the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels, as plain as plain. How it came here, I can’t imagine. For Saruman’s private use. I fancy. I never knew that it went so far abroad. But it comes in handy now?’”

Both hobbits smoke, as to Aragorn and Gimli, with Merry giving him a spare pipe since he lost his in Moria.  All very friendly, but though Tolkien was ahead of his time on some ‘Green’ issues, he seems unaware of the dangers of tobacco.

Within the book, at the end of the chapter, Aragorn talks of the sinister significance of the hobbits’ lucky find of tobacco from The Shire:

“’Leaf from the Southfarthing in Isengard. The more I consider it, the more curious I find it. I have never been in Isengard, but I have journeyed in this land, and I know well the empty countries that lie between Rohan and the Shire. Neither goods nor folk have passed that way for many a long year, not openly. Saruman had secret dealings with someone in the Shire, I guess. Wormtongues may be found in other houses than King Theoden’s. Was there a date on the barrels?’

“’Yes,’ said Pippin. ‘It was the 1417 crop, that is last year’s; no, the year before, of course, now: a good year.’

“’Ah well, whatever evil was afoot is over now, I hope; or else it is beyond our reach at present,’ said Aragorn. ‘Yet I think I shall mention it to Gandalf, small matter though it may seem among his great affairs.’”

If you’ve only seen the films, you’ll need to get to nearly the end of the book to find out what it really does mean.

Back when they were smoking contentedly, they tell each other the two sides of the story that the reader knows already.

“’Well, my tale begins with waking up in the dark and finding myself all strung-up in an orc-camp,’ said Pippin. ‘Let me see, what is today?’

“’The fifth of March in the Shire-reckoning,’ said Aragorn. Pippin made some calculations on his fingers. ‘Only nine days ago!’ he said.1 ‘It seems a year since we were caught. Well, though half of it was like a bad dream, I reckon that three very horrible days followed. Merry will correct me, if I forget anything important: I am not going into details: the whips and the filth and stench and all that; it does not bear remembering.’ With that he plunged into an account of Boromir’s last fight and the orc-march from Emyn Muil to the Forest. The others nodded as the various points were fitted in with their guesses.

“’Here are some treasures that you let fall,’ said Aragorn. ‘You will be glad to have them back.’ He loosened his belt from under his cloak and took from it the two sheathed knives.

“’Well!’ said Merry. ‘I never expected to see those again! I marked a few orcs with mine; but Ugluk took them from us. How he glared! At first I thought he was going to stab me, but he threw the things away as if they burned him.’

“’And here also is your brooch, Pippin,’ said Aragorn. ‘I have kept it safe, for it is a very precious thing.’

“’I know,’ said Pippin. ‘It was a wrench to let it go; but what else could I do?’

“’Nothing else,’ answered Aragorn. ‘One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters. You did rightly.’”

A very sensible point – and one of the things that make Tolkien attractive to many left-wing people.  Possessions and treasures are not the main thing that life is about.

This is also where Frodo will eventually fail – but after much greater hardship and pressures than Pippin had been through.  But we do get reminded that the joking of the hobbits is laid over a very real ordeal that they still feel:

“’The cutting of the bands on your wrists, that was smart work!’ said Gimli. ‘Luck served you there; but you seized your chance with both hands, one might say.’

“’And set us a pretty riddle,’ said Legolas. ‘I wondered if you had grown wings!’

“’Unfortunately not,’ said Pippin. ‘But you did not know about Grishnakh.’ He shuddered and said no more, leaving Merry to tell of those last horrible moments: the pawing hands, the hot breath, and the dreadful strength of Grishnakh’s hairy arms.

“’All this about the Orcs of Barad-dur, Lugburz as they call it, makes me uneasy,’ said Aragorn. ‘The Dark Lord already knew too much and his servants also; and Grishnakh evidently sent some message across the River after the quarrel. The Red Eye will be looking towards Isengard. But Saruman at any rate is in a cleft stick of his own cutting.’

“’Yes, whichever side wins, his outlook is poor,’ said Merry. ‘Things began to go all wrong for him from the moment his Orcs set foot in Rohan.’”

Went wrong, in part because Eomer disobeyed orders to concentrate on the immediate threat of an invading army.  Orders given by Theoden at Wormtongue’s advice, and which would have been disastrous.

The hobbits then tell of how the Ents were able to lay waste Saruman’s stronghold.  Helped by his main forces being away, but also they are formidable.  We had already learned how the Ents had set out, singing a determined song, two lines of which are repeated.  But there is more.

“[Merry] had the feeling that the Forest itself was moving behind us. I thought I was dreaming an entish dream, but Pippin had noticed it too. We were both frightened; but we did not find out more about it until later.

“’It was the Huorns, or so the Ents call them in ‘short language’. Treebeard won’t say much about them, but I think they are Ents that have become almost like trees, at least to look at. They stand here and there in the wood or under its eaves, silent, watching endlessly over the trees; but deep in the darkest dales there are hundreds and hundreds of them, I believe.

“’There is a great power in them, and they seem able to wrap themselves in shadow: it is difficult to see them moving. But they do. They can move very quickly, if they are angry. You stand still looking at the weather, maybe, or listening to the rustling of the wind, and then suddenly you find that you are in the middle of a wood with great groping trees all around you. They still have voices, and can speak with the Ents – that is why they are called Huorns, Treebeard says – but they have become queer and wild. Dangerous. I should be terrified of meeting them, if there were no true Ents about to look after them.”

From Tolkien’s letters, we learn that Tolkien as a schoolboy had hoped that Shakespeare’s Macbeth would have an actual march of trees.[1]  This had seemingly been promised:

“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until
“Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
“Shall come against him.

Tolkien was disappointed when it turned out to be men carrying branches.  It is the third of three accurate but unhelpful prophecies Macbeth gets from demons after seeking help from witches.  Whatever Shakespeare himself believed, he wrote in line with standard Christian belief, which held that help from demons will always be useless, and often malicious.

In Henry 6th, a magic prophecy is accurate but useless.

For Macbeth, the warning ‘Beware Macduff’ causes him to make an enemy who might otherwise have stood aside, or at least been less bitter.  And it is Macduff who voids the protection of the promise ‘none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth’: he was born by his mother’s belly being cut open.  The apparition also subtle mocked Macbeth by appearing as a bloody child, just as the apparition who spoke of the wood carries a branch.  Those are Shakespeare’s original stage directions.

Not liking Shakespeare’s subtleties, the disappointed Tolkien did what’s always the best thing when an author chooses an option you dislike – rather than moan, do your own version according to your own tastes.  Myself, I think it excellent to have both.

The hobbits explain why the Ents had actually won.  I had thought it was because Saruman had split his forces, but Treebeard does the same:

“All Saruman’s people were marching away… endless lines of marching Orcs; and troops of them mounted on great wolves. And there were battalions of Men, too. Many of them carried torches, and in the flare I could see their faces. Most of them were ordinary men, rather tall and dark-haired, and grim but not particularly evil-looking. But there were some others that were horrible: man-high, but with goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed. Do you know, they reminded me at once of that Southerner at Bree: only he was not so obviously orc-like as most of these were.’…

“I believe that Huorns began to move south, as soon as the gates were shut again. Their business was with Orcs I think.”

These would be the mysterious wood that helps defeat the Orcs at Helm’s Deep, supervised by the Ents seen earlier by the Rohirrim.  The logic to doing this is unclear: perhaps Treebeard hoped the enemy would get trapped between them and the forces of Rohan.  This does happen, but only just.

He may have been concerned not to needlessly kill enemy humans, perhaps inherited from Saruman’s better days.  I had the idea of a story about such a man, and one who gets misled by someone else’s vision of Aragorn crowned by Gandalf the White, whom he supposes to be Saruman.  I’ve not yet tried writing it.  But the men do not deserve to die, and Treebeard respects this.

He had waited, and then breaks into Orthanc:

“’As soon as Saruman had sent off all his army, our turn came. Treebeard put us down, and went up to the gates, and began hammering on the doors, and calling for Saruman. There was no answer, except arrows and stones from the walls. But arrows are no use against Ents. They hurt them, of course, and infuriate them: like stinging flies. But an Ent can be stuck as full of orc-arrows as a pin-cushion, and take no serious harm. They cannot be poisoned, for one thing; and their skin seems to be very thick, and tougher than bark. It takes a very heavy axe-stroke to wound them seriously. They don’t like axes. But there would have to be a great many axe-men to one Ent: a man that hacks once at an Ent never gets a chance of a second blow. A punch from an Ent-fist crumples up iron like thin tin.

“’When Treebeard had got a few arrows in him, he began to warm up, to get positively ‘hasty’, as he would say. He let out a great hoom-hom, and a dozen more Ents came striding up. An angry Ent is terrifying. Their fingers, and their toes, just freeze on to rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”

Merry then shows the limits of his understanding:

“I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.’

“’No,’ said Aragorn. ‘Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvellously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.’

“’The Ents are safe,’ said Pippin. ‘He seems at one time to have got round them, but never again. And anyway he did not understand them; and he made the great mistake of leaving them out of his calculations. He had no plan for them, and there was no time to make any, once they had set to work. As soon as our attack began, the few remaining rats in Isengard started bolting through every hole that the Ents made. The Ents let the Men go, after they had questioned them, two or three dozen only down at this end. I don’t think many orc-folk, of any size, escaped. Not from the Huorns: there was a wood full of them all round Isengard by that time, as well as those that had gone down the valley.”

But Saruman had more defences prepared:

“’When the Ents had reduced a large part of the southern walls to rubbish, and what was left of his people had bolted and deserted him, Saruman fled in a panic. He seems to have been at the gates when we arrived: I expect he came to watch his splendid army march out. When the Ents broke their way in, he left in a hurry. They did not spot him at first. But the night had opened out, and there was a great light of stars, quite enough for Ents to see by, and suddenly Quickbeam gave a cry ‘The tree-killer, the tree-killer!’ Quickbeam is a gentle creature, but he hates Saruman all the more fiercely for that: his people suffered cruelly from orc-axes. He leapt down the path from the inner gate, and he can move like a wind when he is roused. There was a pale figure hurrying away in and out of the shadows of the pillars, and it had nearly reached the stairs to the tower-door. But it was a near thing. Quickbeam was so hot after him, that he was within a step or two of being caught and strangled when he slipped in through the door.

“’When Saruman was safe back in Orthanc, it was not long before he set some of his precious machinery to work. By that time there were many Ents inside Isengard: some had followed Quickbeam, and others had burst in from the north and east; they were roaming about and doing a great deal of damage. Suddenly up came fires and foul fumes: the vents and shafts all over the plain began to spout and belch. Several of the Ents got scorched and blistered. One of them, Beechbone I think he was called, a very tall handsome Ent, got caught in a spray of some liquid fire and burned like a torch: a horrible sight.

“’That sent them mad. I thought that they had been really roused before; but I was wrong. I saw what it was like at last. It was staggering. They roared and boomed and trumpeted, until stones began to crack and fall at the mere noise of them…

“Treebeard kept his head. He had not had any burns, luckily. He did not want his folk to hurt themselves in their fury, and he did not want Saruman to escape out of some hole in the confusion. Many of the Ents were hurling themselves against the Orthanc-rock; but that defeated them. It is very smooth and hard. Some wizardry is in it, perhaps, older and stronger than Saruman’s. Anyway they could not get a grip on it, or make a crack in it; and they were bruising and wounding themselves against it. So Treebeard went out into the ring and shouted.”

Orthanc is also Old Magic, the work of Gondor at its height.  Beyond the power of Ents.  But Treebeard is clever; he first dams the river and then turns it to flood Saruman’s underground work:

“Ents and Huorns were digging great pits and trenches, and making great pools and dams, gathering all the waters of the Isen and every other spring and stream that they could find…

“[Treebeard warns] ‘Water may come through-and it will be foul water for a while, until all the filth of Saruman is washed away. Then Isen can run clean again.”

This is the pollution that had alarmed the Rohirrim.  Gandalf had already known.  He had previously visited all on his own, and seen that Saruman was already defeated.

Throughout the book, landscapes are beautiful if good creatures live there and ugly if some powerful evil has entered.  Here, Treebeard is reversing the corruption that Saruman caused when he turned to evil.

But even shut up in his tower, Saruman is still dangerous:

“’Hoom! Gandalf!’ said Treebeard. ‘I am glad you have come. Wood and water, stock and stone, I can master; but there is a Wizard to manage here.’

“‘Treebeard,’ said Gandalf. ‘I need your help. You have done much, but I need more. I have about ten thousand Orcs to manage.’”

We don’t get details, but Gandalf would have learned that the Huorns were already following the Orcs attacking Helm’s Deep.  And told Treebeard of the larger Quest, changing his view of the hobbits:

“[Treebeard] looked at us and said: “Hm, well, I find you are not such hasty folk as I thought. You said much less than you might, and no more than you should. Hm, this is a bundle of news and no mistake!”

After all this, Wormtongue arrives, claiming to have been heroic

“Out of the mist there rode a man on an old tired horse; and he looked a queer twisted sort of creature himself. There was no one else. When he came out of the mist and suddenly saw all the ruin and wreckage in front of him, he sat and gaped, and his face went almost green. He was so bewildered that he did not seem to notice us at first. When he did, he gave a cry, and tried to turn his horse round and ride off. But Treebeard took three strides, put out a long arm, and lifted him out of the saddle. His horse bolted in terror, and he grovelled on the ground. He said he was Grima, friend and counsellor of the king, and had been sent with important messages from Theoden to Saruman.

“’‘No one else would dare to ride through the open land, so full of foul Orcs,’ he said, ‘so I was sent. And I have had a perilous journey, and I am hungry and weary. I fled far north out of my way, pursued by wolves.’

“’I caught the sidelong looks he gave to Treebeard, and I said to myself ‘liar’. Treebeard looked at him in his long slow way for several minutes, till the wretched man was squirming on the floor. Then at last he said: ‘Ha, hm, I was expecting you, Master Wormtongue.’ The man started at that name. ‘Gandalf got here first. So I know as much about you as I need, and I know what to do with you. Put all the rats in one trap, said Gandalf; and I will.

This done, Treebeard prepares for Gandalf’s return, and knows who rides with him:

“’We want man-food for twenty-five,’ the Ents said, so you can see that somebody had counted your company carefully before you arrived.”

The chapter concludes with Aragorn’s concern about Saruman having Pipeweed from The Shire, which I mentioned earlier.  The showdown with the trapped wizard is still to come.

Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.

[1] The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: Letter 163 To W. H. Auden.