Posts Tagged With: J. R. R. Tolkien

The Eagle That Saw Everything

The Nature of Curtius
Book Three Chapter 2 & 3
For the other posts in this series, click here

Chapter Two
A field outside Babylon
At the start of The Lord of the Rings there is a scene when a fox comes across the hobbits as they rest in the woodland of the Shire.

“‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.

Let us imagine a fox taking a walk down a country road just outside Babylon in 333 B.C. It is a mild November morning in Mesopotamia*, perfect hunting weather. Suddenly, the fox halts. He has heard a distant thud thud thud. He doesn’t round and run away, though. For one thing, the noise is mesmerising in its consistency; for another, he knows what it portends. The fox walks forward before stopping at the top of a slope.

Thud thud thud.

The noise grows louder. And then, after what seems an age, a column of men led by a cavalry officer appears from round a corner at the far end of the road. They don’t approach the fox, though; instead, they take another turn to his left.

For reasons best known to himself, the fox decides to follow the column. He wriggles his way underneath the hedgerow at the side of the road (It’s true, I may be making Mesopotamia sound like England here) and trots along the top of the hill for what seems an age.

As he walks, the breeze picks up and the fox hears shouting, trumpets blowing, feet marching and picks up the scent of many strange bodies.

Finally, the animal comes to the opposite end of the hill from where he started. And after emerging from underneath another hedgerow, he sees in the near distance a plain. And that plain is brim full of men gleaming with ‘purple and gold’.

‘The Great King’s army,’ he said to himself. ‘I have seen it before, but not this size. All his men must be here. And there is the Great King himself, standing on his chariot, reviewing his soldiers before they set off to battle. He is holding himself very proudly. But who is he about to fight? It must be a mighty foe, indeed.’ It was, but the fox had breakfast to catch, so never found out who this powerful enemy was.

As for the army – Curtius reports that Darius reviewed a quarter of a million infantry and sixty-two thousand cavalry on that plain. Although they came from many parts of his empire, not all regions were represented. The eastern provinces, Bactria and Sogdia, for example, had not had enough time to send men there.

I am assuming that the field used by Darius in the same way that the Romans used the Campus Martius – for pasturage and military exercises. It would be very rum the Great King used someone’s estate. Especially since he damaged it by digging a ditch to delineate the border of the area he was using for the review. Farmer Maggot would not have stood for that.

During the review, Darius asked his Athenian commander, Charidemus, if he thought that this army was enough to defeat Alexander’s. Charidemus replied bluntly that it was not. Insulted, Darius had him executed only to regret his decision immediately afterwards.

* I am basing this statement on the weather and climate for Baghdad as described here. I know that over time our climate changes; hopefully, in the case of Mesopotamia, it has not done so by too much in the last 2,300 years.

Chapter Three
Sacred Animals
A number of animals ‘accompanied’ Darius as he marched north to confront Alexander. There were the white horses that drew the ‘chariot consecrated to Jupiter’ (i.e Ahura Mazda) and behind them ‘a horse of extraordinary size’, which the Persians called ‘the sun’s horse’. They were driven by men wearing white robes and wielding golden whips. I’m sure the sting just felt the same, though.

Curtius describes Darius’ chariot as being mounted with images of two gods – Ninus and Belus. Between them ‘was a consecrated eagle made of gold and represented with wings outstretched’. I have to admit I was a little surprised when I read this as I am more used to thinking of eagles as Roman and Greek symbols.

Wikipedia says that some Greek writers wrote that the Achaemenes, the founder of the Archaemenid empire (c. 700 B.C.), was raised by an eagle. Perhaps Darius was referencing this? Or maybe Curtius added the detail in order to build up the architecture of his his narrative.

The eagle was not the only bird-of-prey on display. Darius wore a cloak that ‘bore a gilded motif of hawks attacking each other’. It sounds terribly impressive. But there’s no chance Curtius will leave us with that image of the Great King. Immediately afterwards he says that Darius wore his belt ‘in the style of a woman’. Can who ever is last out please clean up the sarcasm behind them.

Categories: Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

To paraphrase the Patient, today was a good day – I finally arrived in Constantinople
No, I have not left home. Rather, three months after starting the book, I finally came to the end of The Broken Road – the third part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his walk across interwar Europe, from the Hook of Holland to the former capital of of the Byzantine Empire.
Just as Leigh Fermor ‘novelised’ parts of his account I have also embellished the truth a little. The Broken Road doesn’t actually end with PLF arriving in the city we now call Istanbul. It ends mid-sentence some fifty miles away. This is because Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 without finishing the last book in his trilogy. Sadly, he suffered very severe writer’s block in his later years. So much so that The Broken Road is based on an account of his journey that PLF wrote in the 60s.
To round the book off, its editors – Artemis Cooper (who has also just written a biography of PLF) and Colin Thubron – have included excerpts from Leigh Fermor’s diary, written while he was in Constantinople. Unfortunately, they are very brief and do not do justice to the city he spent two years walking towards. Perhaps with that in mind, Cooper and Thubron end the book with Leigh Fermor’s much fuller diary entries from his visit to Mount Athos, which he sailed to after leaving Asia Minor.
So far as The Broken Road is concerned – you can tell that the work is unfinished. By Leigh Fermor’s standards it is very unpolished. He is such a good writer, though, that even the rough work is still very good. As with the Road’s predecessors, A Time of Gifts and Between the Wood and the Water, I oscillated between marvelling at the now lost world that PLF describes and feeling great sadness over the sad fate that befell any number of the  wonderful people he met. What I think I will remember the book for most, however, is the final section on Mount Athos.
Leigh Fermor’s Holy Mountain has its sinners as well as saints, men poor in spirit as well as those who are rich but it also comes across as a place of peace and serenity. Like his book A Time to Keep Silence – which is also about visits to various monasteries – the Mount Athos is definitely a segment worth reading on a rainy day.

I have said before that Patrick Leigh Fermor had something of Alexander the Great in him. By this I meant his adventurous spirit (though as the Kreipe Affair showed PLF was no mean soldier). I might not have mentioned The Broken Road on this blog had I not read the following on The Stone and the Star blog.

When [Leigh Fermor] wrote about Altdorfer’s famous painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, something swept over me – I had almost forgotten that I owned a small copy of it, from the gallery in Munich where it hangs. It is a remarkable painting and I think the feeling I had (and still have) for it ties into my fascination with certain types of fantasy landscapes – the first edition I owned of The Lord of the Rings featured cover art which now looks very Altdorfer-esque to me.

I encourage you to read the whole post as it is well written and thought provoking. For my part, I shall say this –
– I am very grateful to Clarissa Aykroyd for reminding me that Leigh Fermor mentioned Alexander! It is not beyond the realms of possibility that I have mentioned this before, but I had forgotten if so and it is always nice to be reminded
As a lifelong fan of all Tolkien’s works I appreciated the connection that she made between him and Alexander. Insofar as they thought much and lived/wrote about heroism the two men are quite similar.
Her mention of Alexander gives me a reason here to mention a thought I had after finishing the book: how different Orthodoxy is to ancient Greek religion. Or is it? This kind of question really demands a post but I can immediately think of one point of connection: hospitality. In antiquity, Greeks were morally obliged to be hospitable (see Laura Gill’s Orestes: The Great Lion, which has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, for an example of this). So were the monks of Mt Athos. There is difference between them, though; for the ancients, they had to be hospitable or else. The monks were hospitable to Leigh Fermor for a positive reason – the love of Christ. Humans being humans, though, his passage was eased by a letter of introduction from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
To conclude, here is a wonderful photograph I discovered on Tumblr – posted along with a few others by a user called ‘kyrosk’. It shows Mount Athos from Mount Olympus. So near… yet that road that connects them would not support even the lightest footfall.

Mount Athos from Mount Olympus

Mount Athos from Mount Olympus

Categories: Books, Of The Moment | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Alexander and… Leaf by Niggle

A man spends his life dedicated to a single work. When he dies suddenly, the work remains unfinished. After his death, it is broken up and eventually lost.
This could be a summary of the life of Alexander the Great but is actually the plot of Leaf by Niggle by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Well, I say ‘the plot’; in fact, the story goes much further as we find out what happens to Niggle after his ‘death’. It is, at least on one level, a meditation on purgatory.
The reason I focus on Niggle’s painting, though, is that its fate invites comparison with the fate of Alexander’s empire after 323 BC. It, too, was fragmented; and in time, it too was lost forever.
Admittedly, there are some ways in which Niggle and Alexander are decidedly unalike. After his death, Niggle and his work are forgotten about. No one has forgotten – or ever will – Alexander or his empire.

This leaf comes from the Oxford Inklings blog (link belw)

This leaf comes from the Oxford Inklings blog (link below)

Their differences notwithstanding, it is interesting how two totally different subjects can be connected at all. Indeed, the connection goes further than their life’s work; there is also something to be said about their similarities of character.
One reason why Niggle never finishes his painting is because of the intrusions of daily life. These often come in the form of neighbours-in-need. Niggle doesn’t want to help the annoyingly needy Parish but he does so anyway. When we think of Alexander’s character, his kindness won’t necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind – and no wonder, for he could be very haughty sometimes. But this over proud Alexander was also the man who, unfashionably for his age, had a deep respect for women, loved as much as he was loved by his men, and was always prepared to be clement and reward brave enemies.
I would like, however, to come back to their legacies. The painting and empire. That neither Alexander in reality, nor Niggle in fiction, was able to finish their work makes me wonder if any man can ever achieve his aims in life. If neither the greatest or the most lowly can what hope is there for the rest of us in between? Well, when the last human being dies we’ll know if it really was impossible. Ah.
So, we’ll never know the answer to that question. It doesn’t matter, though, because it is irrelevant. What does matter is that although Alexander’s empire may be lost he lives on in the memory of those who admire and study him. Niggle’s painting was lost, but he (sub) created a new work even after his time in the purgatorial hospital. Death need not be the end. It may, just may, be a new beginning. ‘And that,’ said somebody else of Tolkien’s acquaintance, ‘is an encouraging thought’.

  • To read the Oxford Inklings blog, click here
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