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In this article, I will discuss an aspect of our â€˜reconstructiveâ€™ pursuits that I feel is often overlooked, yet which I feel can greatly help create a true sense of depth in oneâ€™s impression: the use of a â€˜design languageâ€™ for decoration of utilitarian objects. Throughout human history, cultures have been seen to decorate even their most utilitarian objects (such as spoons or pottery) to add â€˜visual interestâ€™, and as we in this hobby/sport/lifestyle endeavor to present believable, grounded, and realistic interpretations of Middle-earth cultures (mythic-prehistoric though they may be), I believe this is a very important element to consider.
Before we set out, it is important to remember that while the specific details of our individual cultures or personas may differ, the procedure I utilize below can be applied broadly by all. Although I will be focusing on the late Third Age culture of Men in the Anduin vales, I will do my best to provide examples relevant to other groups in the course of this piece.
My first step is to ascertain what concrete detailsâ€”or other characteristics that may influence a â€˜visual languageâ€™â€”are known about a culture, and for this, a quick reread of any source material, my notes, and a glace at an atlas usually suffices.
For a very few cultures, Tolkien actually provides detailed examples of â€˜artifactsâ€™ which can be analyzed, such as his Numenorean tiles and textiles, or collected First Age heraldic devices: (see below)
In the case of the Anduin culture, The Hobbit Chapter 7: Queer Lodgings is the primary source (via Bilboâ€™s firsthand experience) for most of what we know, and from this source we can infer that the Northmenâ€™s culture seems to revolve around animal husbandry (for wool, dairy, meat, and likely draught-power), apiary (beekeeping), and trees (oaks are most prominent, which would allow for acorn harvesting in addition to building materials). Additionally, trade seems to have played a part in their economy, as in Lord of the Rings II:9 we read how â€œlight boatsâ€ from this region formerly traveled downriver to Gondor, presumably to trade.
Along these lines, Tolkien outright summarizes hobbit culture in the Shire when he writes, â€œGrowing food and eating it occupied most of their timeâ€ (LR, Prologue), and so one might expect naturalistic and agriculturally-derived motifs to be common in their art. Likewise, it is readily apparent that the culture of the Riddermark (â€˜Rohanâ€™) revolves almost entirely around equine husbandry, and so we would expect to see their unique design language incorporate horse motifs throughout (a detail which I feel Peter Jacksonâ€™s interpretations captured exceedingly well).
In Queer Lodgings, we also see one of Tolkienâ€™s few described â€˜artifactsâ€™ in this or any sphere: one of Beornâ€™s sheep brings a white tablecloth â€œembroidered at the edges with figures of animalsâ€. This tells us that embroidery is practiced by Men in the area (though I have a very hard time picturing the giant Beorn embroidering in his free time), and that animals are a common motif. While Tolkien omits any more specific details, there are many animals associated with the Anduin/Mirkwood region, and any of these would be appropriate decoration: sheep, eagles, cattle, horses, dogs, bears, wolves/Wargs, deer (red and white), rabbits, squirrels (black), butterflies (ditto), spiders, and of course, extra-large honeybees.
Beyond animals, what else might contribute to a visual language for decoration? Let us consider Tolkienâ€™s preference for depicting natural landscapes, as geography can play a significant role in influencing a peopleâ€™s â€˜mental landscapeâ€™. The land of the Beornings is dominated by three major features: the Misty Mountains to the West, the forest of Mirkwood to the East, and the Great River Anduin between these. Combining these influences, I think that riverine, alpine, and arboreal motifs would be acceptable (conjectural, though supported by the text) for decoration of items from this cultural sphere.
Following this logic, I would expect the design language of the elves of northern Mirkwood to also make frequent use of arboreal (repeated vertical motifs reflecting the trunks of Mirkwoodâ€™s beeches and oaks?) and possibly more sinuous/riverine â€˜Art Nouveauâ€™ patterns, reflecting the swift-flowing Forest River. This seems supported by the Doors of Durinâ€”designed by the master craftsman Celebrimborâ€”which we might use as evidence that Elvish designs do make use of such styles.
After identifying appropriate/possible design influences, the next question is one of styleâ€”how would an actual artifact from this culture really be decorated? To lend credibility to my interpretations, I like to take inspiration from cultures from the areas where and when Tolkienâ€™s stories â€˜took placeâ€™ â€“ northwestern Europe of â€œabout 6,000â€ years ago (Letter No. 211), and specifically the Nordic areas, as Britain seems firmly analogous to the Shire/western Eriador.
As a result, I have had to become fairly familiar with the pre-Roman groups (and their artifacts) who may have inspired Tolkienâ€™s writings. While metal tools may have been fairly limited in the Anduin valley (â€œâ€¦there were no things of gold or silver in [Beornâ€™s] hall, and few save the knives were made of metal at allâ€), the late Third Age as a wholeâ€”with its widespread metallurgyâ€”is quite unlike the European Neolithic, so I usually extend my search through the cultures of the Chalcolithic and as far as the Bronze Age, while trying to stay on the BC side of things; as a result, my interpretation of Anduin culture can roughly be summed up as Neolithic lifestyles/materials and Bronze Age fashion, improved with the addition of high-quality dwarvish iron.
For most groups during these periods, the dominant decoration style is purely abstract and geometric, though anthro- or zoomorphic images are known (especially in rock art). Once I have identified a particular culture (ErtebÃ¶lle, Linearbandkeramik, Beaker people, &c.) from the place (if not the time), I then use various print and digital resources to find examples of artifacts from which to draw motifs and patterns, such as the following ceramic designs (not to scale):
Studying these patterns gives me an idea of a basic â€˜paletteâ€™ from which to create my own designs.
In the case of the Anduin Vale, I would expect the sublime natural geometry of honeycomb (or designs based around the number six) to play a large part in the decorations of the â€˜racial Beorningsâ€™ at least, if not the later regional culture as a whole, while for those Men who live in villages nearer to the Misty Mountains, I imagine triangular â€˜mountainâ€™ designs like these might be common in their decorations:
To conclude: I hope that the preceding article has been of some use in explaining my method of better visualizing one of Tolkienâ€™s cultures, and hopefully will inspire you in your own continuing efforts to deepen your interpretation of Middle-earth!
- artifacts 1A heraldry.jpg (182 KiB) Viewed 5744 times
- artifacts Numenor.jpg (218.39 KiB) Viewed 5744 times
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Recently I've been thinking about metal-work, since that seems the be my primary skill (Mostly blade making). There have been many threads that I've started or chimed in on where styles have been suggested. But lately I've determined to start a study of Tolkein's works to try to see just what styles were prevalent in bladesmithing. I think this could be a task that is nigh unto impossible given that Tolkein never really said much about tapes of blades. But I think there could be some things worth learning there. this article helps me to ask questions like: what would influence a Dunedain smith (from where would he draw his artistic elements)? What type of blades would he forge? We know that a great sword with wide hilt would be of little use in the forests or on patrol. Is his customer base only Dunedain? Or does he seek to sell to whomever he crosses in his travels? The answer to that could simply be - is he patrolling or is he just traveling with a wagonload of stuff?
Okay, now forge set-up. Would his forge be made of clay or would he have an iron firepot? What would be his fuel? Natural gas is out as is electricity. But would he use coal or Charcoal? Angarth has a close relationship with the Dwarves. Dwarves would surely come across coal in their diggings. Could he manage to trade for their coal or is he strictly using charcoal made from a coliar (sp) in his area?
I'm sure there are more questions that will arise as I look into this. But this is enough to get me started.