10 July 2021 – Sounds
We live just below the north escarpment of Salisbury Plain. It is a beautiful part of Wiltshire. On quiet days you can hear sheep bleating, cattle lowing, larks singing high up in the blue etc. However, there is a military training area up there. We regularly get to hear a lot of the sounds of warfare, including semi-automatic rifle fire, general purpose machine gun fire, artillery and so on, and also very low-flying military aircraft, in amongst the songs of the skylarks. When the tanks are firing off at close range it shakes the house (it has quite a few cracks in the walls), rattles the doors and windows and knocks the pictures crooked. I have more or less got used to this and even feel quite reassured by it as it reminds me that we have a significant and competent Army standing between us in the UK and the evil-intentioned in the rest of this naughty world, but for the purposes of today it put me in mind of the constant irruption of combat noises into the narrative of “The Lord of the Rings”. These are not just the obvious booming, rumbling and thundering sounds suggestive of artillery fire which are increasingly frequently referenced towards the climax of the story.
In the chapter “A Journey in the Dark”, in which the Company is passing through the apparently abandoned Dwarvish city and mines of Moria, there is the following passage:
(Pippin has just foolishly dropped a stone into the well in the guard-room, inciting the ire of Gandalf. At first it seems that all is well, but then…)
“Nothing more was heard for several minutes; but then there came out of the depths faint knocks: tom-tap, tap-tom. They stopped, and when the echoes had died away, they were repeated: tap-tom, tom-tap, tap-tap, tom. They sounded disquietingly like signals of some sort; but after a while the knocking died away and was not heard again.
‘That was the sound of a hammer, or I have never heard one,’ said Gimli.”
It is well-known that mining and counter-mining by British and German troops were important preliminary actives in advance of various offensives of the First World War. Lt Charles Douie of the Dorsetshire Regiment recalled as follows:
“I descended a shaft on one occasion and although assured by the officer on duty that there was no safer place on the western front, I ascended again with remarkable speed, preferring the hazards of an open-air life in the mine craters to the narrow galleries, driven above and below the German galleries, where men lay always listening to the tap of enemy picks, and waiting for the silence which was ever the prelude to the blowing of mine or counter-mine.”*
Lt Norman Dillion of the Royal Engineers recalled:
“You had to listen to what the Germans were doing; you had to outsmart them. You had listening posts deep down in the chalk, I took my turn listening. Sitting down in the bowels of the earth listening for what was going on. You had primitive instruments, electrified earphones and you could easily hear people tapping away a long distance through the chalk. Then if you listened carefully if they were making a chamber to put the explosive charge in you could hear the much more hollow noise of digging. Following that you would hear the sinister sliding of bags of explosive into the chamber. Following that you got out!”*
It is some three days following the tapping incident when the Company finally hear the first percussive drum-beats of doom, doom heralding the arrival of the pursuing orcs and discover that they “cannot get out”.
Some nineteen mines of varying degrees of destructiveness were prepared by the British in advance of the opening of the offensive at the Somme on 1 July 1916. Their purpose was to destroy the German positions. There would have been more but there was not the available manpower or time and things did not go as planned. Nonetheless, the resulting massive explosion was said to have been so powerful as to be audible in London, the most enormous explosion ever caused by human beings until the arrival of the atomic bomb three decades later. Until then, the largest explosion ever unleashed by mankind had been the unintentional destruction by a stray British shell of the ammunition store at the fortress of Almeida in Portugal in 1810.** One can imagine that the effect of the detonation of those British mines might inform this passage from “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” when Frodo, Sam and Gollum are about to begin their ascent, still perilously close to Minas Morgul as the forces under the command of the Witch-King are about to march from the gate:
“At that moment the rock quivered and trembled beneath them. The great rumbling noise, louder than ever before, rolled in the ground and echoed in the mountains. Then with searing suddenness there came a great red flash. Far beyond the eastern mountains it leapt into the sky and splashed the lowering clouds with crimson. In that valley of shadow and cold deathly light it seemed unbearably violent and fierce. Peaks of stone and ridges like notched knives sprang out in staring black against the uprushing flame in Gorgoroth. Then came a great crack of thunder.
And Minas Morgul answered. There was a flare of livid lightnings: forks of blue flame springing up from the tower and from the encircling hills into the sullen clouds. The earth groaned…”
(In Peter Jackson’s cinematic version of this incident, Gandalf and Pippin are shown observing it from their lodgings in Minas Tirith – presumably it is the answering detonation in Minas Morgul that they are seeing and hearing, about 50 miles away, which reflects the anecdote about the British mines being audible in London. I don’t think this occurs in the book but please advise me if otherwise!)
I forget who pointed it out – Laura? – but there is one genuine incident of a mine, at Helm’s Deep, when Saruman’s forces plant explosives in the culvert to create a breach in the wall. A genuine example of modern sapper-work in LOTR.
Previously, as the trio arrived at the Crossroads, drawing ever closer to Mordor, they heard what might remind the reader of the sound of not-so-distant artillery:
“’I wonder what’s up,’ said Sam. ‘Is there a storm coming? If so it’s going to be the worst there ever was. We shall wish we were down a deep hole, not just stuck under a hedge.’ He listened. ‘What’s that? Thunder, or drums, or what is it?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo. ‘It’s been going on for a good while now. Sometimes the ground seems to tremble, sometimes it seems to be the heavy air throbbing in your ears.’”
And of course, it only gets worse. From “Mount Doom”:
“At that moment Sam felt a tremor in the ground beneath him, and he heard or sensed a deep remote rumble as of thunder imprisoned under the earth.”
These horrible sounds reminiscent of modern warfare are of course counterpointed by beautiful sounds – Elvish singing and music, water, laughter – and heart-lifting sounds such as the horns of Rohan. They are all necessary parts of the general sound environment of “The Lord of the Rings”.
Just a few semi-articulated thoughts!
*From “The Somme: An Eyewitness History” – ed. Robert T Foley & Helen McCartney. Folio Society, 2006.
**Fans of Bernard Cornwell will recall that he attributed this disaster to a deliberate act of sabotage by Lt Richard Sharpe of the (real) 95th Rifles but for some reason permanently attached to the (fictional) South Essex Regiment, hero of several of Cornwell’s novels set in the Peninsular Campaign.
Laura picked up the idea of an artillery barrage when she drew our attention to the effect of the Ents’ attack on Orthanc when they destroyed the masonary, and she noted that at the end of the Two Towers film she noticed ‘Sapper Orcs’ were credited.