Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hic sunt raptores

Dear Dr. Malcolm,

I thought you'd be entertained by a case-in-point, maybe one of your accolytes could make a good study of it.

A couple months ago, I noticed that some recent acquaintances of mine particularly enjoyed talking about houses; and so the principal instigator decided to say something like "let's do that deliberately!" setting a time and place(ish) for the discussion, and then at the last-ish minute, switched the theme to family homes. I don't quite recall how that worked out, but anyways, as my intended presentation was about a house which wasn't a family home, some scrambling ensued --- I still haven't quite got 'round to that, either... and of course, quite notably, there are plenty of family homes that aren't quite houses either.

The grass under their feet was smooth and short, as if it had been mown or shaven. The eaves of the Forest behind were clipped, and trim as a hedge. The path was now plain before them, well-tended and bordered with stone. It wound up on to the top of a grassy knoll, now grey under the pale starry night; and there, still high above them on a further slope, the saw the twinkling lights of a house
They were in a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams of the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.
He opened the door, and they followed him down a short passage and round a sharp turn. They came to a low room with a sloping roof (a penthouse, it seemed, built on to the north end of the house). Its walls were of clean stone, but they were mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains. The floor was flagged, and strewn with fresh green rushes.
[...]The guests were commanded to sit quiet, and were set in chairs, each with a footstool to his tired feet. There was a fire in the wide heath before them, and it was burning with a sweet smell, as if it were built of apple wood.
Frodo stood near the open door and watched the white chalky path turn into a little river of milk and go bubbling away down into the valley.

Ahah! Yes, this is (in case you don't recognize it yet) from the Lord of the Rings, describing one of the most quietly magical places in all Middle Earth, the house of Tom Bombadil. And it clearly won't do for the present weekend theme, but I thought it would make an interesting comparison to the camel-breaking straw I'll describe next...

Things went on, and some houses crept in again, one of the latest just after the next thematic conference was announced on Nature Settings, this particular house underground, which I remarked on, and then mentioned another it reminded me of; and I wrote also (silly me), pointing-out the fitting nature-ness of my recollection, whereat our flighty captain decided "that's it! Not nature settings, underground settings!" and here we are, again.

He shuffled on in front of them, carrying the light, and they followed him, nudging each other in an anticipating sort of way, down a long, gloomy, and, to tell the truth, decidedly shabby passage, into a sort of a central hall; out of which they could dimly see other long tunnel-like passages branching, passages mysterious and without apparent end. But there were doors in the hall as well—stout oaken comfortable-looking doors. One of these the Badger flung open, and at once they found themselves in all the glow and warmth of a large fire-lit kitchen.

This is the Badger's home. Some marked differences from Bombadil's: the one is old and shabby, dark, and winding, and the other has an almost eternal freshness to it, is comfortably compact, and well-lit inside (until it's time for sleeping).

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught. A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger's plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

Again, though, we find within the branching warren a cozy and welcoming place. It is significant that both of these homes are found by our protagonists as places of refuge; and both our authors have clearly done their best to make them fitting as such. (Of course, the four wandering heroes at Bombadil's will encounter a great many more such places, offering varying degrees of comfort; one of the ways we see them grow is in how readily they finally will make-do with much less.) And so we have many common elements between them: the places themselves have a solidly-built quality (flag-stone and brick flooring), they are filled with comforts (deep settles/soft chairs with footstools), good food --- simple and yet copious --- and both feature a warm fireplace.

Now, about subteraneanity --- it is a Hobbit's preference, but Bombadil's isn't; it's also much to the liking of a Mole or a Badger:
... 'Once well underground,' [Mole] said, 'you know exactly where you are. Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. You're entirely your own master, and you don't have to consult anybody or mind what they say. Things go on all the same overhead, and you let 'em, and don't bother about 'em. When you want to, up you go, and there the things are, waiting for you.'

The Badger simply beamed on him. 'That's exactly what I say,' he replied. 'There's no security, or peace and tranquillity, except underground. And then, if your ideas get larger and you want to expand—why, a dig and a scrape, and there you are! If you feel your house is a bit too big, you stop up a hole or two, and there you are again! No builders, no tradesmen, no remarks passed on you by fellows looking over your wall, and, above all, no WEATHER.

and Badger does go on a length about that. There is a curious thing, though, about Badger's place, in that it hasn't always been underground. But I suggest reading the book, about that.


I suppose it isn't really a question of strange attractors or unstable dynamics, but I suppose I will have to be careful what I suggest, if I'm to be flitting about with this sort of crowd, won't I?

Anyways, here's to your eventual recovery. Take care of that leg, now!

a paleophile


Belfry Bat said...

While writing this, I was reminded of an essay arguing that Tolkien was at various points trying to nine-up Shakespeare's story Macbeth --- that he thought the mythic hints there were juicy and ripe for story telling, but seemed to think that Will had, so to speak, done a George Lucas and made a drab tale of it (I don't know, it seemed a thriller to me). And so there's the Witch King who cannot be killed by man's hand, there's the forrest that actually marches out to battle (never mind cutting down birnham wood), and the second-longest arc of story is in fact about restoring the ancient royal linneage to its office...

I find myself now wondering whether Tolkien was at all drawing on/challenging Grahames' woodland refuge when he wrote of Bombadil's house at the west edge of the Old Forest...

Paul Stilwell said...

I was wondering if someone was going to cover one of the underground settings in The Lord of the Rings. Then I'm reading your post here, and I'm thinking you're going to work your way there, then you do something completely different: The Wind in the Willows. And it's remarkable how simliar those two passages are - yet quite different of course. I haven't read The Wind in the Willows.

Belfry Bat said...

Well, you see, Tom Bombadil's House has been stuck in my mind almost since the word "house" appeared outside a Locus Focus Pocus... er... Post... and between lassitude and the shifting themes I've kept putting it off. Today the parallel element clicked, and I just ran with "compare/contrast". (C/C was very big in the IB litterature sequence, and it has rather insinuated itself into my reading ever since.)

But yes, there would be so many to choose from in Tolkien, from Angband to Nargothrond and Menegroth, or even the small-ish delving under Amon Rudh, and all that just in the First Age of the Sun...

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, poor Bat! I seem to run you ragged without even trying! =P

If I had to choose between Tom Bombadill's house and Mr. Badger's (since I'm still in smackdown mode and all), I think I'd pick the Badger's. Its welcoming hearth fire just seems warmer because Mole and Ratty stumble upon it in the dead of winter. I always found the whole concept itself very magical and lovely: coming in from the cold and wet into a perfectly warm and dry place that seems to cry out, "Oh, there you are! I've been waiting for you! Please do get comfortable now that we're together at last . . ."

PS--"School Settings" will never change! Okay? ;-)

Sullivan McPig said...

Great post!
I've always loved Badger's house. There's a graphic novel series made from Wind in the willows and the illustrator Michel Plessix captures the cozyness from Badger's house perfectly in my opinion.
Not the clearesr picture, but the best i could find online

Belfry Bat said...

O Enbrethiliel, don't fret, I just like writing stories about complaining. Must be my inner Arther Dent...

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, a graphic novel! Thanks for letting us know, Sully. Is it only available in Dutch, though?

Belfry Bat said...

oh, where it says "heath", read "hearth". A roaring fire on the heath would be quite a different thing; not cozy at all...

Enbrethiliel said...


No, not cozy. But certainly dramatic and full of passion!

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