Wednesday, September 08, 2004

An explosive Tolkien Trivia Time

Well hello people, here I am back from holiday (that's Vacation to you American types). And what is the first thing on my mind? Well, apart from scrolling through all the posts of the past two weeks to sample Gramma's Today In Middle-Earths - boy do I love my BS! - it is of course, our old friend:

Tolkien Trivia Time


(For those of you unfamiliar woth T.T.T. where have you been?! hehe. Don't worry, it's fairly self explanitory. If you get to the end of this post and still have no clue what one is, you are welcome to accost me with a rather large soggy kipper. Fair do's?)

Todays T.T.T is somewhat erm.. controversial. I hope you don't mind, but I am in a mischievous mood today!

The Bridge of Khazad-Dum - and other Classical Nasties

Any of you heard of a wonderful hero called Horatio? No, I'm not talking about the gentle, quiet philosopher friend of Hamlet (he of "Alas poor Yoric, I knew him Horatio" fame). I am talking about someone even more antiquated.. Let me take you on a magical mystery tour back to the yellowed mists of Ancient Rome.

Thomas Babington Macaulay - a 19th Century eccentric - wrote an epic series of poems called Lays of Ancient Rome full of Classical passion and the sort of military campaigns that stirred the blood of every young schoolboy in the 1900s: no doubt inspiring their playground games and, in the case of a certain would-be professor, an aweful lot more!

Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the nine gods he swore,
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrongs no more.
By the nine gods he swore it,
And named a trysting day,
And bade his messangers ride forth,
East and west and south and north
To summon his array.


Very exciting isn't it. Lars Porsena was the evil baddie of early Roman history. He was an Etruscan General who threatened the fledgling Roman city before the empire was more than a wee twinkle in the Senate's eye.. fighting, sacking and plundering his way all the way to the shores of the Tiber (the river beside which Rome was built). His name filled every Roman heart with dread in much the same way that Hannibal would do centuries later, or Hitler or Osama Bin Laden does today. He was the Bogeyman of the 6th Century BC.

Are we feeling suitable shudders and the suchlike? No?

Well let me expand it a little more for you.

This man, this evil wicked Etruscan plunderer may well have been; almost certainly will have been; part of the inspiration for another literary baddie: see if you can guess who.

Back to the battle:

As the Great Prize - the Eternal City itself - lay all but defenceless before them, the battle hardened troops gazed across to the river anticipating more tasty slaughter and ruin. But a quick-thinking Roman Consul had other ideas. He had spied a way to save his people.

The plan was simple. The only bridge over the Tiber was barely wide enough for one man to pass at a time.

So, a handful of men could hold the bridge long enough for it to be cut away beneath them. As these valiant soldiers plunged to a watery death, they would have the consolation of knowing that they had fulfilled every Roman mother's deepest desire for her son: that he would give his life to save his Nation.

However, so tough and frightening was the challenge - remember the Etruscans had already sacked every town and city for miles around - that at first only one man was brave enough to accept it.

Horatio.

And as he ran foreward, in a mirror of a later story we all know so well, two others cried out that he would not stand alone, and ran to add their swords to the flash of his own.

It was this 'dauntless three' who alone faced the Etruscan host as it approached the bridge. It was these three who slew the ablest champions that Lars Porsena could throw at them.

As the bridge started to fall, Horatio's two companions made it back to shore as he covered the retreat. For him, there was no escape. Valiantly out in front, he could do nothing except prepare to meet his end. Exhausted, wounded, and weighed down with armour, Horatio plunged beneath the surface of the Tiber.

A stunned calm fell upon Rome and her enemies:

No sound of joy or sorrow,
Was heard from either bank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
With parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing where he sank;


but wait!

...And when above the surges,
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.


Yes! Horatio lives! Swimming back to the Roman shore, his feat of daring and courage momentarily united the warring sides in admiration and awe.

Who knows how long it was before the invaders' sentimental feelings gave way to bitterness? But what is clear is this:

Horatio's courage saved Rome.

According to Macaulay, to immortalize the event, 'they made a molten image,/ And set it up on high, / And there it stands unto this day / To witness if I lie.'

Woohoo.

Macaulay drew his great poem not from his admittedly fertile imagination, but from the Roman 'Histories' themselves.

But, look around the ruins of Rome today, and you will search in vain for the statue of Horatio...

Detailed and reliable chronicles of the sixth century BC, describe how the Etruscan armies swept irresistibly upon Rome and overwhelmed it. Within hours, those inhabitants of Rome who survived the onslaught were forming long, miserable columns of refugees, leaving their 'eternal' city. Lars Porsena's name is scattered all over these documents. But what of Horatio?

Sadly, there is nothing. The myth of his epic stand on the bridge over the Tiber was invented after Rome had become a great Empire when it was decided they needed a past of sufficient grandure to match their current status.

By the first century AD Romans were too proud, and too intoxicated with their new weath and power to ever believe that a mere Etruscan had sacked their precious Rome!

The Horatio story, you see, reflects not history, but how a later generation of Romans needed to see their ancestors.

in the play I, Claudius two Roman Historians, Livy and Pollio argue over the Horatio story. Debating what History is, and what it should be used for. Livy claims that the role of history is 'not the uncovering of the Truth, but it is of halting the moral decline by providing idealised role models to the young and of dignifying the present through association with a glorious past.'

Pollio however, manages to get Claudius' support for the rival view that the historian's ultimate duty is to the Truth.

So which is the 'Truth' in our case? Put yourself in Middle-Earth for the moment. Did Frodo when writing his part of the Red Book, change the events in Moria from hapless defeat, followed by a retreat to the relative safety of Lothlorien? Did others who later copied out the original book embellish the story, finding it impossible to believe that with such a Hobbit-legend as Gandalf with them the Fellowship could ever have been defeated? Or has the original story come down to us in the way it 'actually' happened?

Either way, one thing is clear, in his school-time studies of Classical poetry and history, Tolkien was at least in part inspired by the valiant Horatio and his 'last stand' on the bridge of the Tiber. I wonder how he felt when, in later life, archaeologists discovered that Macaulay's poem was not true to the events?

- Originally posted on TORn main message board on Wednesday, 8/9/2004 at 15:48 by Amatire

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