Ireland’s Wars: Mellifont

The Nine Years War had reached its ninth year. The winter of 1602/03 had been a bitter one for the population of Ulster, and Ireland in general, who struggled to survive amidst the scourge of a famine, the weather and a brutal English occupation. Tyrconnell and Connacht had made their peace with Mountjoy. Now, only Hugh O’Neill and a handful of others remained as rebels.

O’Neill’s war was now of a very low-scale nature, little more than an irritant to the plans and operations of the English. He had barely more than 600 men left, enough to launch a few raids and ambushes on English patrols and garrisons, but nowhere near enough to actually cause any lasting damage. Hiding in the forests of Fermanagh or the more watery country near Lough Neagh, O’Neill was now easily contained, and more likely to meet the same fate as previous rebel leaders, or his predecessor Shane O’Neill, than cause serious trouble for the English. But, it is also fair to say that, if allowed, his could maintain this struggle for a lengthy enough period, and keep English forces tied to Ulster for years to come.

It was time for peace to be made, and Mountjoy was keen to see the job through. By February Elizabeth, rapidly approaching her own end, had authorised him to bring O’Neill to terms, rather than hunt him down like had been done to other Irish rebels in the past. She still wanted those terms to be punitive, but Mountjoy was of a mind to be more generous. Anything to bring the fighting to a close. From a financial perspective alone, the war could no longer continue as it had.

Mountjoy directed two intermediaries, Sir William Godolphin and Sir Garret Moore, to get in contact with O’Neill. The Tyrone Chieftain, now living rough for several months, eagerly agreed to peace talks. There was no more use in further fighting, and all that remained was to see who would come out better in the peace to follow. The news of Hugh Roe’s death would have hit O’Neill as hard as anyone, the last blow to an already faltered war effort. The collapse since Kinsale was remarkable to see, but is evidence of the assertion that the expedition to the south was a winner-take-all affair. There was still the slim chance that the Spanish could come again, something that certainly influenced Mountjoy’s approach to the negotiations, and O’Neill was willing and eager to exploit that fear as much as possible.

The talks took place at Mellifont Abbey, County Louth, in late March, with safe conduct guaranteed for O’Neill. In truth, much of the negotiations were probably done by intermediaries beforehand, or else Hugh would have been unlikely to present himself before the English.

On the 27th of March, several days before Hugh arrived at Mellifont, Mountjoy secretly learned that Elizabeth, having been ill for some time, had died three days beforehand. It is likely that, given the nature of how communications were carried back and forth between Ireland and England, that Mountjoy was the first person in the island (of importance) to learn that the last of the Tudor dynasty was dead.

Much has been written about what happened afterwards, and I will attempt to cut through to the crux of the matter. The main issue was that no one was completely sure what would happen in England next. Elizabeth had no direct heirs, having famously stayed unmarried and childless her whole reign. The strongest claim, and the one that many in the court had been secretly working towards recognising and promoting, came from James VI of Scotland. His Great Grandmother had been Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth, making him a distant cousin. Given the nature of the English monarchy at the time – the Wars of the Roses were only a few generations past – plenty were worried that there could be a scrap if more than one claimant emerged.

As it happened, James VI was proclaimed King the day after Elizabeth died, and his succession – now as James I of England – went relatively smoothly. But the interregnum period still had a bearing on what was happening in Ireland.

It has been argued that Mountjoy’s authority in Ireland died with Elizabeth, she being the royal monarch that had appointed him and given him powers to fight and treat with the rebels as he saw fit. The new King could easily have a different outlook, so Mountjoy had no basis for continuing the negotiations. This however, is not true under English law in effect then or since, and Mountjoy’s position remained in being until the royal power removed it. James may have wanted to make changes in Ireland, but Mountjoy was legally obligated to follow his pre-existing orders until told otherwise and maintained his authority.

The more real concern was O’Neill. He was coming to Louth to surrender and swear fealty to Elizabeth, not James. If informed of the fact that the Queen was dead, the worry was that negotiations would be abandoned by him, and he would return to the woods and mountains to maintain his struggle for a while longer. The idea was that the new King, a somewhat unknown force, could have proved more open to reconciliation and to previous Irish demands, such as freedom of conscience, if the war could be maintained long enough for him to be installed as King and open his own negotiations. There might also have been an element of prestige to the entire affair, if O’Neill could fight on long enough to say that he had never submitted to Queen Elizabeth.

Faced with these worries, Mountjoy hushed up about the Queen’s death and swore to silence the handful of others who knew. Nothing could be allowed to delay peace and Mountjoy was probably eager to end the conflict on his terms before James could possible change them and to then head home and insert himself into the court of the new King.

Hugh O’Neill arrived at Mellifont on the 30th of March. Several sources indicate he was immediately submissive, falling to his knees before Mountjoy – who he was probably meeting in person for the first time – and spending an hour repenting his sins towards her Majesty’s government and swearing his allegiance forever more. There may be a degree of English propaganda in this of course, but was not propaganda was what he agreed to. The things he swore and the things that Mountjoy offered became what we know as the Treaty of Mellifont.

The terms of the treaty were exceedingly generous given the current state of the military situation, but they also a measure of how much England wanted the war to be over. O’Neill would abandon forever his Gaelic title – “The O’Neill” – accepting only the title of Earl of Tyrone and the primogeniture that came with it. This was a significant enough concession from the English, with Elizabeth wanting O’Neill’s reduced to the barony of Dungannon before she had passed.

O’Neill would also end forever any pretensions of loyalty to another crown, re-swearing allegiance to the English monarchy. Irish (Brehon) law in his country would be abolished, replaced by an English system enforced by crown-appointed English sheriffs. Irish culture, in the form of Gaelic Bards, would no longer be supported and English would be the official language of the Tyrone state. Catholic colleges were not to be built in Tyrone, and the reformation would continue apace there. In return for all this, the attainder on him would be withdrawn, O’Neill would retain the vast majority of his current lands (minus some land for the Church) and would receive a pardon for his supposed crimes. It was, in effect, the old policy of “surrender and regrant” by any other name. Considering the extent of the war, and the damage that O’Neill had caused the English position in Ireland, the final treaty could be deemed exceedingly positive for him.

With Mountjoy and O’Neill thus agreed, the Nine Years War came to an end.

The total number of casualties is difficult to determine, with both sides of the conflict exaggerating or downplaying as they saw fit. One thing we can know with relative certainty is the that the vast majority of deaths occurred as a result of famine in the case of the Irish and disease in the case of the English. A death toll of at least 100’000 overall is well within the bounds of possibility, a sizable proportion of the Irish population at the time, and also representing significant casualties and costs for the English side. Certainly, the island had not seen the like of the conflict before.

O’Neill travelled with Mountjoy to the Pale, where he received the news that the Queen he had just surrendered and sworn allegiance to had died. He allegedly burst into tears upon hearing so – whether it was because he felt he had been duped, was annoyed at the lack of prestige a continued hold out would have got him or was grieving over Elizabeth, we will never know – but the die was cast. He was compelled to make the exact same submission to the new King and nothing changed.

The war was over, but the repercussions would last a long time. Within a few years, some of the main players would be involved in another crises, one that would prove a watershed moment in Irish history.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: The Clouds Burst

We have come to the climax of the story, in the suitably titled “The Clouds Burst”. The chain of events that began back in Bilbo’s kitchen – or maybe even further back, to the sack of Dale and fall of Erebor – culminates here. “An Unexpected Party” becomes an unexpected battle, in a chapter full of tension, action and consequences.

Thorin illustrates starkly his own arrogance, but also his own metaphorical blindness, in the opening paragraphs, as he mistakes a new embassy as a coming submission due to the near-arrival of Dain: “That will be Dain!” said Thorin when he heard. “They will have got wind of his coming. I thought that would alter their mood!” The new King-under-the-mountain sounds positively gleeful at the idea that new enemies will be forced to parley on his own terms and doesn’t think for a moment that events may have transpired against him. Even with his growing paranoia, Thorin is still utterly self-confident.

This parley is automatically different, with both Bard and Thranduil attending, the Elvenking presumably wanting to be present at this moment of triumph. The reader must be on tenterhooks, awaiting what will be a humiliating moment for Thorin. But it is not undeserved, as evidenced by his snarky and ill-meant response to Bard’s opening question:

Hail Thorin!” said Bard. “Are you still of the same mind?”

“My mind does not change with the rising and setting of a few suns,” answered Thorin.”

Thorin attempts to portray his foes as changeable and weak-minded, but the rest of the exchange will only showcase his own emotional and mental weakness.

The big reveal isn’t long in coming, as “the old man” who has accompanied this group – Gandalf of course, as anyone could guess – holds up the Arkenstone “bright and white in the morning“. For once, the King-under-the-mountain has nothing to say, as his plans and desires unravel before him: “Thorin was stricken dumb with amazement and confusion.”

Still, he recovers very quickly, and his sense of arrogance returns in just a few sentences, his voice “thick with wrath“. He asserts his own possession of the Arkenstone, and insults his enemies in one breath:

That stone was my father’s, and is mine,” he said. “Why should I purchase my own?” But wonder overcame him and he added: “But how came you by the heirloom of my house — if there is need to ask such a question of thieves?…How came you be it?”, shouted Thorin in a gathering rage“.

Appropriately for this terrible scene of perceived betrayal, the answer that comes is described as a “squeak“: “I gave it to them“. Bilbo is rightfully scared of what is occurring, in “a dreadful fright“, but is too honest to hold back the truth, even if this puts him right in the crosshairs of a furious and likely-violent dwarf, who has sworn vengeance on anyone who comes between him and the Arkenstone. Bilbo can’t keep silent, evidence of a guilty conscience perhaps, even if doing so might actually forward his own aims of averting a violent confrontation between all of these respective armies.

Thorin’s reaction to this is one of the most emotional and visceral moments in The Hobbit, and in Tolkien’s whole legendarium really. You can feel the anger and outrage pulsing off him as he rounds on Bilbo:

You! You!” cried Thorin, turning upon him and grasping him with both hands. “You miserable hobbit! You undersized — burglar!” he shouted at a loss for words, and he shook poor Bilbo like a rabbit.”

Thorin gets physical and insulting very quickly, using the term “burglar” here in a derogatory sense, as if the job Bilbo was paid for is some kind of dishonourable thing that Thorin had no part in. And it only gets worse, as Thorin then labels Bilbo a “descendant of rats“, an utterly obscene thing to say, that manages to be both personally insulting and racist (even if the narrator is also in on the act in comparing Bilbo to a shaken rabbit).

His anger isn’t reserved just for Bilbo though, with Gandalf, still distant as far as Thorin must be aware, also getting some nasty scorn: “By the beard of Durin! I wish I had Gandalf here! Curse him for his choice of you! May his beard wither!“. Why does Thorin want Gandalf there in this moment? Is it ready to try and kill the wizard too, along with unwise cursing of his name? Does he really perceive a vast conspiracy, of men and elves and hobbits and wizards “in league” against him and his greedy desire?

If this burst of frenzied rage wasn’t bad enough, Thorin now goes that extra, potentially irredeemable, step: “As for you I will throw you to the rocks!” he cried and lifted Bilbo in his arms.” While their opinion of what has happened is not going to be elaborated upon much, it is notable that the rest of the company do not intervene when Thorin undertakes this violent course.

The person who does intervene is, of course, Gandalf, perhaps the only person, in this moment, willing and able to stop Thorin from doing something monumentally stupid. Not physically of course, but Gandalf’s voice has power enough. All he needs to do is give Bilbo a chance to speak: “Put him down, and listen first to what he has to say!

Bilbo’s reaction to Thorin’s insults and physical confrontation is remarkably civilised, deliberately so I would so, as he asserts his own independence in a calm, but still haughty manner. The “squeak” is gone here, and Bilbo is insulting in his own way:

Dear me! Dear me!” said Bilbo. “I am sure this is all very uncomfortable. You may remember saying that I might choose my own fourteenth share? Perhaps I took it too literally — I have been told that dwarves are sometimes politer in word than in deed. The time was, all the same, when you seemed to think that I had been of some service. Descendant of rats, indeed! Is this all the service of you and your family that I was promised, Thorin? Take it that I have disposed of my share as I wished, and let it go at that!

…all very uncomfortable” is an understatement you would expect a country squire to say all right. Bilbo follows that up with his little bit of racial profiling on the dwarves – a fair shot it has to be said, in the circumstances – before going right for the jugular, bringing up Thorin’s previously praising words in “On The Doorstep” and even the offer of his service and his families way, way back in “An Unexpected Party”. Those words were more than just bland pleasantries, and Thorin’s dishonours himself by forgetting them.

But we can’t discount Bilbo’s own dishonesty in this moment, even if it might be a tad justified. The moment he took the Arkenstone and hid it, he knew that his fourteenth share was not meant to include such a precious jewel, and he’s stretching the terms of his contract to the breaking point by insisting he was free to take it and dole it out as he saw fit. Bilbo has guilt too, though Thorin’s violent reaction has resulted in some justified defensiveness. After all, he didn’t really hand over the Arkenstone over a contractual niggle, he did it to avoid a war. Is the reason he doesn’t bring this up due to his own sense of not having enough of the moral high ground to claim such grandiose motivations?

Thorin’s pronouncement following this is appallingly Smaug-like:

I will,” said Thorin grimly. “And I will let you go at that — and may we never meet again!…I will give one fourteenth share of the hoard in silver and gold, setting aside the gems; but that shall be accounted the promised share of this traitor, and with that reward he shall depart, and you can divide it as you will. He will get little enough, I doubt not. Take him, if you wish him to live; and no friendship of mine goes with him.”

The rejection of every prior relationship he had with Bilbo is important, a real final sign that the gold – and the lingering remnants of the dragon – has taken over Thorin’s mind. He implies Bilbo will be betrayed by those he trusts when it comes to payment, the same thing Smaug said to Bilbo in “Inside Information“.

Thorin precedes to bartering over the price of the Arkenstone, and the delivery of the fourteenth share, which will be given “as can be arranged“, depressingly similar to his words to Bard in “The Gathering Of The Clouds“, words that sound and feel remarkably insincere. Gandalf’s response to this is appropriately cutting, one of my favourite lines of his, a direct attack on Thorin’s position and dignity, dripping with scorn: “You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain“.

It works because it’s true, and the depths of Thorin’s newfound dishonour are revealed by his internal thought process: “…already, so strong was the bewilderment of the treasure upon him, he was pondering whether by the help of Dain he might not recapture the Arkenstone and withhold the share of the reward.”

The only time the rest of the dwarven company is noted in this entire exchange is as Bilbo is hoisted down from the wall: “More than one of the dwarves in their hearts felt shame and pity at his going.” More than one, but not all. The feelings of the company are dividing, but it isn’t clear where the majority are lining up. Still, the noting of “shame and pity” here is enough to indicate that Thorin’s line of thinking may not hold sway for much longer.

Even as he is being separated from the company for what seems like the final time, Bilbo attempts reconciliation, though aiming at the company, not Thorin: “Farewell!” he cried to them. “We may meet again as friends.” Thorin is the one to respond though and makes more naked threats against Bilbo in doing so: “…if you do not hasten, I will sting your miserable feet.”

The following day brings no respite from the growing tension, as the contingent from the Iron Hills arrives ahead of schedule, surprising everyone. Tolkien’s description leaves little room for doubt on just what Dain’s dwarves are here for:

Each one of his folk was clad in a hauberk of steel mail that hung to his knees, and his legs were covered with hose of a fine and flexible metal mesh…In battle they wielded heavy two-handed mattocks; but each of them had also a short broad sword at his side and a roundshield slung at his back…and their faces were grim.”

We should not discount the power of this relatively small group of dwarves. 500 might not seem much going up against the entire Woodland Realm and what is left of Laketown, but these are veterans of a terrible war against the goblins, fought above and below the earth. The Woodland Realm’s soldiers are presumably kept busy against the spiders and other nasty creatures infecting Mirkwood, but there’s no indication they have anything like the same recent combat experience. And Laketown may have just won a battle against a dragon, but it’s a town of traders, not warriors.

Yet another parley, the last one as it turns out, takes place, as forward representatives of Dain meet with Bard and, for some reason, Bilbo. Perhaps the hobbit just wants to witness events. The exchange is brief, with the narrator calling attention to the different between what is said and what is meant in a way that he hasn’t before, as if he wants to emphasise the likelihood of violence:

We are sent from Dain son of Nain,” they said when questioned. “We are hastening to our kinsmen in the Mountain, since we learn that the kingdom of old is renewed. But who are you that sit in the plain as foes before defended walls?” This, of course, in the polite and rather old-fashioned language of such occasions, meant simply: “You have no business here. We are going on, so make way or we shall fight you!

Bard’s position precludes allowing such a movement of dwarves. As outlined clearly and succinctly in the text, more dwarves in the mountain means more supplies for Thorin, and the possibility of opening a second gate, which means the sieges of the elves and men would become impossible to maintain. Thorin’s current untrustworthiness is plain, and it says something that Bard, a decent if somewhat headstrong character, does not believe the promises that were made the previous day. As if to underline the point, messengers sent to the front gate looking for the promised gold and silver find only arrows being fired in their direction, as close to a declaration of war as you can get. Bilbo’s presence at affairs adds little, the hobbit now just a little personality caught up in events much bigger than him.

Dain marches towards the front gate with the mountain to his side, a situation welcomed with uncharacteristic glee by Bard: “Fools!…There are many of our archers and spearmen now hidden in the rocks upon their right flank…Let us set on them now from both sides, before they are fully rested!”. Perhaps the bowman has simply been pushed a bit too far by broken dwarven promises, or maybe the Arkenstone is having a bit of an unwholesome effect on him. Either way, this sudden thirst for bloodletting comes a bit unexpectedly.

Perhaps just as surprising is the hesitation of Thranduil, having previously been so militant against the dwarves: “Long will I tarry, ere I begin this war for gold…Let us hope still for something that will bring reconciliation.” We might remember that the Elvenking’s initial march from the Woodland Realm was because of “the legend of the wealth of Thror“, but he did not, perhaps, expect to fight a battle for it. Does he think of former events, like the Sack of Doriath, that I spoke about in a previous chapter? Even with his faults – the aforementioned greed and lack of care for outside events – Thranduil isn’t willing to lose lives over the gold, though he won’t eagerly make peace either: “Our advantage in numbers will be enough, if in the end it must come to unhappy blows.”

The breakdown comes very quickly, as the dwarves, acting impetuously and with the image of the Arkenstone “burned in their thoughts” – they are willing to begin a war for gold at any rate – attack: “Bows twanged and arrows whistled; battle was about to be joined.” This would seem to be the natural outcome of everything that has occurred since the fall of the dragon, a final tragedy borne of Smaug, as men, elves and dwarves kill each other over his hoard. It would not be an inappropriate finale in a way but is too dark an ending for the story Tolkien is trying to tell, and the tone he is trying to adhere too. That tone is marked by the combat between good and evil, and no one about to come to blows in this situation could be described as solely one or the other. But some new players could.

Things take a very Biblical turn quickly, as the elements make their feelings known on what is happening:

Still more suddenly a darkness came on with dreadful swiftness! A black cloud hurried over the sky. Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak. And beneath the thunder another blackness could be seen whirling forward; but it did not come with the wind, it came from the North, like a vast cloud of birds, so dense that no light could be seen between their wings.”

This lends to the idea of some otherworldly power at play, heralding the arrival of the goblins and the wargs with literal storm clouds, and figurative clouds of swarming bats, a creature commonly associated in western myth with evil, darkness and malevolence (and provide a decent counter-part to the birds). While not stated outright here, it is not too much of a leap to think on the Necromancer, whose aims would be forwarded greatly by a victory for the forces of darkness in this moment. Sauron, as The Lord Of The Rings will make clear, has some form of control over the weather, as can be seen in the storms that issue from Mordor. Peter Jackson made Sauron’s intervention more obvious, and I think it fits.

It’s Gandalf who comes between the armies about to clash:

Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you!…They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!

As mentioned in the last chapter, Gandalf’s apparent refusal to warn Thranduil, Bard or Thorin about the coming danger until this very moment is a bit strange. He notes it has come “more swiftly than I guessed“, so was he hoping that the free peoples would sort out their problems before the goblins and wargs arrived? Did he just think they wouldn’t believe him (as Jackson’s film depicted)? Who knows, but I do find it a bit curious, as if the wizard was waiting for the perfect time to put himself centre-stage, and perhaps make him the truly indispensable one when it comes to the forming of a rapid alliance. Perhaps Tolkien hints a little bit at this when he writes “How much Gandalf knew cannot be said…“. Gandalf is consistently accused of being a manipulator and doom bringer, and it isn’t an entirely unworthy complaint.

And, thankfully, it isn’t just an overly-convenient thing, the goblins and wargs showing up here. The foundations for this plot-point were laid all the way back on “Over Hill And Under Hill“, and the goblins learning of the death of Smaug was mentioned in “Fire And Water“. While it comes as a bit of a narrative surprise, the goblins and wargs are just doing what everyone else – elves, men and dwarves – have been doing, going after the gold, so their sudden presence should not be taken as a deus ex machina to avoid a more ill-fated battle.

Gandalf killed the “Great Goblin” of course, so the goblins lack a singular personality to lead them here, excepting “Bolg – of the north“, mentioned by Gandalf without any more elaboration, indicating that his name is supposed to be well-known to those present. I always found this a bit strange, and even more since Jackson’s trilogy, where Bolg – and his father Azog, allowed to survive the battle outside Moria in the adaptation – filled a decent role of recurring villains, giving some personality to otherwise faceless legions or orcs and goblins. Could Bolg not have subbed in for the Great Goblin, and survived? Could he not have turned up in “Out Of The Frying-Pan Into The Fire“? As it is, Bolg will remain an unseen figure, only to be referenced a few more time in the course of this chapter and the next.

Tolkien, already dubbing the fight the “Battle of Five Armies”, allows himself a brief moment to discuss how “it fell out“, which also constitutes a Middle-Earth geography lesson, that touches on issues of old and recent history. The actions of the company in “Over Hill And Under Hill” and “Out Of The Frying-Pan Into The Fire” were seemingly wide-reaching:

Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies and strongholds; for they resolved now to win the dominion of the North. Tidings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming…a vast host was assembled ready to sweep down in time of storm unawares.”

That the goblins were apparently so numerous is to be noted, as is the immensity of their strength, enough that they feel capable of winning “the dominion of the north“. Tolkien drops names here, like “Mount Gundabad“, a major goblin fortress to the north, to further emphasise the goblins as an almost political entity (as opposed to bands of raiders and plunderers). All of this ties into the larger history of the region, and the old evil Kingdom of Angmar, through the remnants of which the goblins march, unseen by their enemies.

Also to be noted here is Tolkien’s refusal to let the dwarves off the hook in terms of cause and effect. The goblin host was assembled and ready to march before the news of Smaug’s death came to them: now the winning of the gold is just a bonus. Whether the quest would have succeeded or not, the Lakemen and the elves and maybe even the dwarves of the Iron Hills would have had to deal with this problem, and that situation lies at the feet of Gandalf and Thorin. One of them will pay the ultimate price for their actions and the other, well, it’s fair to say that the fallout of events is not entirely to his discomfort: to defeat such forces in one giant battle, and weaken the cause of evil in the region decisively, would be a great prize, a motivation that Tolkien sort of ret-conned in, as part of the Appendices to The Lord Of The Rings and his short addendum “The Quest Of Erebor”, that I might get to in time.

At Gandalf’s directions, Thranduil, Bard and Dain have just enough time to form a rapid plan. Tolkien’s account of the battle will actually be surprisingly distant, with notes on troop deployments, overall strategy and mass movements, over a focus on individual tactics, duels and fighting. For the next stretch Bilbo actually vanishes from the story, but his individual perspective will be returned to shortly enough.

The plan is simple enough, carrying with it both opportunities and dangers:

Their only hope was to lure the goblins into the valley between the arms of the Mountain; and themselves to man the great spurs that struck south and east. Yet this would be perilous, if the goblins were in sufficient numbers to overrun the Mountain itself, and so attack them also from behind and above; but there was no time to make any other plan, or to summon any help…On the Southern spur, in its lower slopes and in the rocks at its feet, the Elves were set; on the Eastern spur were men and dwarves.”

I’m unable to find any reasonable claim that the Battle of Five Armies is inspired by something from actual history, or even something more fantastical. Tolkien’s set-up is simple enough really – forces of good taking the high ground and fighting on the defensive against evil hordes – and while it’s interesting to see his narrative of how the battle unfolds, it’s hard to even ascribe his experience from the First World War in it. There are no trenches, gas, artillery, muddy ground, and the language used, here and in the next chapter, retains a sort of high epic feel, not quite the same as the poetry-like approach in “The Battle Of The Pelennor Fields” but not too far off it. Sometimes, a climactic battle is just a battle. We can, perhaps, infer a few things, like the emphasis on defence that the forces of good have, and sudden attack from the mountain that is almost aerial, but that’s about it really.

The battle opens with skirmishing on the outskirts, with men placed by Bard taking on impossible odds:  “A few brave men were strung before them to make a feint of resistance, and many there fell before the rest drew back and fled to either side.” Their sacrifice has a very important purpose though, both in delaying the enemy for a time, and in enraging them to the point that they charge recklessly thereafter “like a tide in fury and disorder” noted as being “As Gandalf had hoped“. The forces of good may well be outnumbered, but even an outnumbered army can win the day with well-prepared ground, the ability to charge a disordered foe and discipline, especially when their opponents have none of those things. The goblins and wargs may have the numbers, but they lack any sense of leadership at this point, massing between the spurs of the mountain before the gate. On the face of it, we’re just waiting for an all-too-obvious trap to close.

Here the narrator cuts to Bilbo, for his opinion on matters. You can hear the echoes of a war veteran in the claim that it was the “most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most — which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards, although he was quite unimportant in it.” This certainly may be a nod to Tolkien’s own experiences in the industrial warfare of the western front, where his own part would have been quite small. Bilbo slips on the Ring early, though the danger remains: “A magic ring of that sort is not a complete protection in a goblin charge, nor does it stop flying arrows and wild spears“. That Bilbo will not take an active part of the battle may come as a bit of a disappointment, but it does fit. What is he going to do, fight Bolg single-handed?

The Allies let the goblins and wargs march into place, and then charge from both directions. You can see, perhaps, a bit of Cannae about it, though it will turn about soon enough. The onrush of the elves and dwarves and men is described as decisive and irresistible:

Their spears and swords shone in the gloom with a gleam of chill flame, so deadly was the wrath of the hands that held them. As soon as the host of their enemies was dense in the valley, they sent against it a shower of arrows, and each flickered as it fled as if with stinging fire. Behind the arrows a thousand of their spearmen leapt down and charged. The yells were deafening. The rocks were stained black with goblin blood. 

Just as the goblins were recovering from the onslaught and the elf-charge was halted, there rose from across the valley a deep-throated roar. With cries of “Moria!” and “Dain, Dain!” the dwarves of the Iron Hills plunged in, wielding their mattocks, upon the other side; and beside them came the men of the Lake with long swords.”

Tolkien likes describing combat in such terms, inspired by the epics of long ago. They all tend to have shining swords, roaring battle cries and enemies put to flight by the sheer force of a righteous charge. The forces of good have perfect coordination, charging and re-charging in sequences, compared to the forces of evil, who turn on each other all too easily, in apocalyptic imagery: “…many of their own wolves were turning upon them and rending the dead and the wounded.”

Victory seemed at hand” but that would be a bit too easy, as the goblins, in a grim parody of the dwarfish ingenuity in scaling the mountain in “On The Doorstep”, do some scaling themselves, at a huge cost in lives: “…already many were on the slopes above the Gate, and others were streaming down recklessly, heedless of those that fell screaming from cliff and precipice, to attack the spurs from above.” The Allies are now surrounded, and things shift from optimism to despair: “Victory now vanished from hope. They had only stemmed the first onslaught of the black tide.”

The goblins and the wargs turn the screw now, massing again in the valley, bolstered by “the bodyguard of Bolg, goblins of huge size with scimitars of steel.” Things literally look dark for our heroes, thanks to the fading light and the blood-thirsty bats:  “…actual darkness was coming into a stormy sky; while still the great bats swirled about the heads and ears of elves and men, or fastened vampire-like on the stricken“. On each spur, the Allies are pushed back, with Bard giving ground to the east, and Thranduil pressed in tight at the south. It isn’t the first or last time that Tolkien will outline a battle where the good guys are surrounded and seemingly doomed, only for an unexpected relief to come from somewhere.

That relief comes from the company inside Erebor, and Thorin, now redeeming himself for his recent actions. Everyone has forgotten him – we might wonder if they considered holding up in the mountain – but now he’s back with a trumpet call and a crash as the wall the dwarves threw up is rapidly thrown done. The narrator himself identifies Thorin as the “King under the mountain” here, as if by this very action Thorin has made himself worthy of the title. With the company, he looks a miraculous sight, like gold incarnate to a dwarf:  “…they were in shining armour, and red light leapt from their eyes. In the gloom the great dwarf gleamed like gold in a dying fire.” This is, perhaps, Thorin’s most important moment, as he lays aside the binds of gold-lust and dishonourable greed to fight a terrible enemy, for his kinsfolk and for his newly re-won homeland. We needed to see this, to forgive Thorin for his worlds and dark throughs of the previous chapters.

Thorin appears to have gotten over his recent enmity, and issues a unity-calling rallying cry: “To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!“. The Allies give as good as they get, and soon everyone has charged back into the valley towards Thorin, which is not altogether to the delight of some: the dwarves of the Iron Hills charge “heedless of order” and Bard is unable to retrain his Lakemen soldiers.

The battle turns – the goblins “were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses” – and seems to reach a pivotal moment of victory on the back of Thorin’s glorious charge – “Thorin drove right against the bodyguard of Bolg” – but then turns once more:

…he could not pierce their ranks…Already behind him among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf…His numbers were too few. His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked, and they were forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault…and upon either side men and elves were being slowly beaten down.”

Like Theoden charging out of Helm’s Deep, this has the look of an heroic, but ultimately failing last charge. The goblin and warg numbers are too great, and the Allied charge almost reckless in the way they did not account for being surrounded. It’s evidence of the huge size of the goblin population in the Misty Mountains that they are able to take repeated charges and losses, and yet still be in a position of victory.

It’s now, when things look their grimmest, that we return to Bilbo, who has “taken his stand” with the Wood-elves on the southern spur. He has done so for two reasons that, as noted directly, take their inspiration from the two sides of his personality. The Took side is ready for a last desperate stand and prefers to do so “defending the Elvenking.” You would think that he might prefer to be with the company, but then again it is probably a bit beyond his capabilities to reach Thorin in the maelstrom of battle, and Thranduil is as good as Bard. But the Baggins side isn’t without hope of life just yet, albeit a self-interested, almost cowardly hope: “…there was more chance of escape from that point“. Gandalf is there too, preparing, just as he was when the wolves were circling underneath the trees, “some last blast of magic before the end“.

Facing the end, it is left to Bilbo to frame a last lament, for himself, for the company, for the quest and for everyone seemingly about to die, in one of The Hobbit’s most emotive pieces of dialogue, that still retains Bilbo’s inherent knack for civilised understatement:

Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili and all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves. Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious. It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”

Bilbo reasserts his quaint hobbit nature here. All he knows of battle (of this sort) is stories that glorify a fighting defeat, but the reality is different. If nothing else, this nods towards Tolkien’s own wartime experience, betraying, perhaps, a cynical dig at the “Dulce Est Decorum Est” sentiment that drove so many young men of Tolkien’s age into uniform, to the trenches and to their graves.

But of course, Bilbo isn’t going to die and the good guys are not going to be defeated. The dark weather and clouds of bats seemed almost divine in a malevolent way (and maybe they were) but a counter-attacking is coming:

The clouds were torn by the wind, and a red sunset slashed the West. Seeing the sudden gleam in the gloom Bilbo looked round. He gave a great cry: he had seen a sight that made his heart leap…“.

They are certainly some of the most well-remembered lines of Tolkien’s, so good he used them twice, the written embodiment of hope and victory unexpected:

The Eagles! The Eagles!” he shouted. “The Eagles are coming!”…If the elves could not see him they could hear him. Soon they too took up the cry, and it echoed across the valley.

In my writings on The Lord Of The Rings I have discussed Tolkien’s own concept of “eucatastrophe”, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story that produces a hither-to unlikely happy ending. The arrival of the eagles here (and in “The Black Gate Opens“) are the archetypical examples within Tolkien’s own works (he even referred to Bilbo’s cries here as a “eucatastrophic emotion”). For him, such things were not a convenient deus ex machina-esque way to get a happy ending, but a fundamental part of myth-making, and a very inherent part of how he set-up his own mythology to work. The eagles are their own being and, as the next chapter will outline, have very good reasons for their intervention here, but they have a religious symbolism too, with Tolkien comparing his concept of eucatastrophe to the death and resurrection of Christ, in the way that both things form an unexpected good for mankind.

But we won’t get to see any more of what should really be called the Battle of Six Armies (hell, make it seven with the bats).  The Ring can’t protect Bilbo anymore, as the chapter ends on a cliff-hanger: “…at that moment a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm, and he fell with a crash and knew no more.” This is obviously a little anti-climactic, since any reader will want to see the conclusion of the battle and Bilbo’s role in it. Yet, it is appropriate also. This is no longer Bilbo’s story: his last great part in it ended when he handed over the Arkenstone. More than that, it’s Bilbo Baggins we’re talking about: it would be just his luck to get knocked out by a random rock thrown from on high, just as the eagles were arriving, and even with invisibility to protect himself.

“The Clouds Burst” is another good half-and-half chapter, divided between the last of the parleys with an increasingly mad Thorin and then the Battle of Five Armies. The first part is another expertly written sequence that ratchets up the tension and provides some of our last moments of characterisation for Thorin and Bilbo. The second is an exhilarating action sequence, the like of which The Hobbit does not have elsewhere, a titanic and bloody struggle between good and evil that is both surprising and enthralling. And it isn’t even over, as the last part of the battle will go unelaborated upon until the next, penultimate, chapter.

As a finale, I think it works tremendously. Tolkien subverts expectations of a terrible clash between the dwarves and the Elvish/Lakemen alliance, and instead serves us a more traditional clash between the forces of good and the forces of not-so-good, replete with both strategic examination of the different forces engaged, and individual moments of daring-do, most notably with a redeemed Thorin. It could do with, maybe, a little bit more to do for Bilbo (even Pippin gets to stab a troll at the Black Gate) and a more personal focus for the goblins (why even bring up Bolg if you aren’t going to use him?). But, being one of only a few times when Tolkien allows himself to go into great detail on a battlefield, it serves as an awesome set-piece.

While we still have a little bit of this climax to get details on, that’s it in terms of the central drama of the narrative. All that’s left is the two concluding chapters, the first of which will have its fair share of heartache.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: The End In Tyrone

This is the second part of what was originally a single article, since split into two as part of a re-editing process. The first part can be found here.

The English had routed the main Irish rebel armies and pacified three quarters of the island. But while they had significant footholds in the last quarter, the province of Ulster, the main rebel heartland still needed to be dealt with decisively.

By the summer of 1602 Mountjoy was ready to launch what he hoped would be his last campaign in Ireland. His health had not been good over the last number of years, as he frequently complained of illness and headaches, conditions that were probably worsened by the drama around Kinsale. Like so many Lord Deputies before and after, he was probably desperate to get out of Ireland and back home, to make use of his powerful political and military position in the waning months of Elizabeth’s reign. For this campaign, aimed right at the heart of Tyrone, the sources claim he was able to muster around 3’500 infantry and 500 horse, a substantial army with which to try and pierce the heart of his enemy.

Marching from Newry in June, Mountjoy aimed centre north along the Blackwater route. The last time an English army of such size had attempted this passage the result had been the Yellow Ford debacle. Now Mountjoy swept forward almost unopposed. The ruins of the old Blackwater Fort were bypassed, and a new one, named after the victorious commander himself, Charlesmount Fort, was built a few miles further east. Nearby Dungannon, the traditional capital of the O’Neill clan, was evacuated and burnt by Hugh O’Neill and his remaining forces, the rebel chief in no position to offer a more conventional resistance to Mountjoy as he had before. The remnants of the town were occupied by a section of Mountjoy’s army a few days later, where the commander remarked joyfully that O’Neill “is turned a wood-kerne”. He was quite right. Where once a war effort that threatened to overturn the English position in Ireland had been run from Dungannon, it was now conquered by barely 700 soldiers.

Mountjoy had so far seen nothing but success on his march, and took one important symbolic step later that summer: at Tullyhogue Fort, a few miles north of Dungannon, he captured and smashed the traditional inauguration stone which was used to create the O’Neill Chieftain. Such a move was merely a propaganda piece, but its effect should not be understated: Mountjoy was showing his intention and power to destroy the O’Neill family. O’Neill, in no state militarily to defend his lands, fled to the forests of Ulster, there to begin a low-scale insurgency, initially contested primarily by Carrickfergus troops under Sir Arthur Chichester. As Henry Docwra put it when he heard the news, “The axe was now at the root of the tree”. English forces advancing from all directions went about reducing the last of the rebel garrisons and establishing their own, a task they carried out with terrible efficiency.

Mountjoy and his army did not go racing after O’Neill, who had retreated in a north-easterly direction, eventually to end up in Fermanagh. The Lord Deputy must have known that such a pursuit would prove largely fruitless. Instead, he turned into Monaghan and settled the rebellion there, rooting out the last of the hostile forces and placing a sympathetic member of the ruling clan into power. Such a tactic would be seen time and again in the coming months.

After a few weeks rest and gathering additional men from Carrickfergus and from Docwra, bringing his total number of soldiers under arms to over 8’000, Mountjoy was prepared to unleash the main point of his campaign. In autumn he ordered all who would submit to his authority to come south from Tyrone; many did so. On the 19th of August, he crossed the Blackwater again and proceeded to lay waste to the country to an extent that was almost unprecedented in Irish history. Every last scrap of produce, every herd, every source of farming resources was either taken for his own troops or destroyed. Villages and town were burned, civilians slaughtered or driven from their homes, forts and other strong points established, and elements of the Catholic faith annihilated. O’Neill and what paltry force he had left were far away, and were in no position to do anything about the hardships being forced upon Tyrone.

This was different to other pillaging tactics in the area. Frequently, that had just been a matter of feeding the army by necessity and had been carried out as much by rebel Irish in the course of the war, if not more so. This was “devastation”, a conscious targeting of the civilian population, an Early Modern form of total war in a way. Mountjoy had no intention of fighting O’Neill on the Tyrone Chief’s terms. He recognised that his conventional army could not march into bogs, forests and mountains without sapping their own strength to a large degree. He also recognised that O’Neill could not hold out without civilian support in intelligence and supplies. So, he put his troops to more effective use by ignoring O’Neill and aiming at the local population.

Civilians could not be brought over to the English line of thinking quickly, so it was easier to simply destroy. With no crops in the area, no civilians to act as a support, O’Neill would become hard-pressed. Further, as Tyrone had been the core of the revolt this far, the destruction carried out was as much a punishment as Munster had suffered several times over in the last few decades. In the event that O’Neill ever did come back from the Fermanagh boltholes he was now situated in, he would find nothing but royal garrisons in his homeland.

The effects were terrible. A famine quickly gripped Ulster, the depredations exacerbated by poor weather and nine gruelling years of a war economy. Thousands died from starvation or from exposure after being driven from their homes. There were not enough people left to bury the many bodies that began to pile up on roadsides, so the corpses remained where they were, decayed and rotten. People on the run ate leaves and grass to try and survive, with many dead bodies noted as having a green tint around their mouths. So many fled south of the Blackwater that there was not enough food to go around there either, and the English were not especially forthcoming.

The devastation policy was brutally effective. The people suffered horribly, but so did O’Neill. No one was willing to betray him and try to get an English reward for his death or capture, but they were equally unable to aid him after a time. As a bitter winter without food stores approached, the latest in a long line of bitter winters for Ulster, those few who were left in the province had enough trouble trying to ensure their own survival, let alone aid a chieftain who had fallen so low as to be completely unable to protect his homeland from the assault it was suffering. The sons of Shane O’Neill were temporarily installed in South Tyrone, further weakening Hugh’s position. So terrible was the results of the devastation that some English commanders didn’t entirely believe it, suspecting the Irish were actually engaged in subterfuge, hiding their strength in advance of another Spanish landing. At one point later in the year, food shortages became so acute that Mountjoy worried his own garrisons would struggle to feed themselves.

I have noted such “devastation” policies occurring in Ireland before, but nearly every source notes that this particular example was especially savage and unrelenting. The population of Ulster was horribly weakened, a boon to the English in terms of coming plantation plans. It would take years and generations for them to recover. More immediately, the very last plans of resistance from O’Neill and the 650 or so troops he still had left were dealt an unrecoverable blow. Resistance in Tyrone was largely finished. As 1602 came to a close, the final end was coming.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Killing Heydrich




What a happy scene!

Back in 2016 I caught Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid, a depiction of the titular World War II operation to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, carried out by members of the Czechoslovakian resistance and army-in-exile. With Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan as the leads, it was a taut, grim and powerful representation of what occurred, focusing entirely on the Czechoslovakian side of affairs. I had only two complaints about Anthropoid: that it balked from examining the moral ambiguity of the assassination plot, and that it choose to completely ignore Heydrich or the crimes that made him a target.

I knew that another film, from Cedric Jimenez, was in production at the same time as Anthropoid, that covered the same events, being an adaptation of the novel HHhH by Laurent Binet. For whatever reason, though I would imagine it was a n exercise in distancing given the competition, the oft-renamed Killing Heydrich (known variously as HHhH and The Man With The Iron Heart depending on the market) is only being given a more general release two years later, and looks likely to get the majority of its audience on Netflix. With a hell of a task on its hands in competing with the excellent Anthropoid, was Jimenez’ attempt at telling the story of the Heydrich assassination up to scratch, or is it just a pale imitation?

In Hitler’s Germany, Reinhard Heydrich (Jason Clarke) rises to prominence in the Nazi Party, eventually being seen as the right-hand of Henrich Himmler in the SS, combining organisation of the Final Solution with being the repressive Governor of occupied Czechoslovakia, while increasingly unhappy wife Lina (Rosamund Pike) looks on. When soldiers-in-exile Jan (Jack O’Connell) and Josef (Jack Reynor) are parachuted into their homeland with the aim of assassinating Heydrich, the stage is set for a fateful encounter between the three men.

There are obvious similarities between Killing Heydrich and Anthropoid, something that is practically inevitable. The third acts of both films, in particular, have mirrored plot beats, with the main differential being a certain overt brutality being better displayed in Ellis’ film. I feel a discussion on the merits of one over the other may be best directed by thinking about the two key flaws, in my eyes, of Anthropoid, and how Killing Heydrich tackles them.

The first is the shallowness of approach towards the key moral question of the story, that is whether it is right to kill Heydrich due to the scale of the reprisal that will be inflicted on innocent Czechoslovakians in the aftermath. Like Anthropoid, Killing Heydrich decides not to engage with the question too much, unfortunately, the debate on the matter taking up only a single scene, and the objections to the plan being knocked aside with relative ease. Killing Heydrich wants to portray it’s two “parachutists” as romantic heroes and Heydrich as a villain worth killing: anything else is just noise, apparently. The inability of Anthropoid to really tackle this question stopped it from being in the top tier of the genre, and, unfortunately, Killing Heydrich is even worse.

The second is Heydrich himself. In Anthropoid he appeared only in his assassination scene, a non-entity in narrative terms, and I posited in my review that the film could arguably have been improved if it had given itself the time to showcase Heydrich and his crimes a bit more, to truly get the audience invested in both his destruction and in the main characters’ determination to kill him.

Well, Killing Heydrich gives him plenty of time, engaging an unexpected split narrative, with Clarke’s depiction of the character taking up the entire first act, before the second switches to the assassins, before things come together in the third for the aftermath of the attack. And, having now seen the approach, I don’t think it works very well. It isn’t Clarke’s fault, who portrays Heydrich with a nice mix of intense sociopathy and violent emotion. But you’re left wondering what the point is, of giving a full 45 minutes of the move to Heidrich’s life: his time in the Kreigsmarine, his being cast out from the same in disgrace for a tawdry affair, his marriage to ambitious Lina, his rise in the ranks of the Nazi Party, the setting up of the infamous Einsatzgruppen, his appointment as “Reichs Protector” in Czechoslovakia and so on.


Not so happy.

It isn’t that this stuff isn’t interesting – there’s a Macbeth/Lady Macbeth dynamic to Heydrich and his wife that is fascinating enough, tied explicitly to a sort of raw sexual energy between the two – it’s that there doesn’t seem to be a narrative point to it. Is Jimenz trying to humanise Heydrich by depicting his background? Hardly, if anything he comes off less human by the end. Is he trying to make us sympathise with him in a twisted sense, as Der Untergang did with Hitler? If so, it isn’t a successful attempt, as Heydrich simply progresses from asshole to genocidal asshole. Is he trying to get the audience to hate Heydrich even more in an elongated sense, by giving the whole first part of the film to his increasingly villainy? This seems the most logical explanation, but the way it is executed – by making Killing Heydrich a biopic of the titular Nazi for the first act – rapidly becomes overbearing and, frankly, odd. Either way, a huge portion of the first hour goes by with only Nazi’s on-screen, which really isn’t the best way to get your audience engaged.

In the end, it makes Killing Heydrich feel almost like an incomplete docu-drama, like the presentation of Heydrich is just to inform the audience of his life and has no other purpose. You keep waiting for the talking heads to interrupt the scenes with their expert analysis. As such there is a certain lifelessness to certain points, and the film doesn’t really kick into gear until the second act, when Jack O’Connell and Jack Reynor arrive.

Their portion of the film could be in sepia, so similar is to the traditional beats of the SOE-genre of WW2 films. Jan and Jozef, best pals out to fight the Nazi menace and liberate their country, parachute in, engage in daring-do to take out Heydrich, fall in love with a pair of beautiful locals, and go out guns blazing in a heroic last-stand inside a church. Anthropoid took a much grimmer, gritty approach to this kind of stuff, and it felt much more like reality in the process.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, struggle with the enormity of what they are trying to accomplish, with the latter coming close to backing out; their love interests, played by older actresses giving off a more mature, jaded vibe than Mia Wasikowska and Abigail Lawrie, were interesting in their own right, and not just hangers-on as their counterparts in Killing Heydrich largely are. As such Killing Heydrich lacks a strong character element among its protagonists, perhaps because it spent so much time on the guy who gets offed two-thirds of the way in. O’Connell and Reynor do alright, but lack the chemistry of the other pair (and I don’t know how three Irish-born and one Irish-descended actors got these parts. Are the accents similar or something?).

In other ways separate to Anthropoid, Killing Heydrich is largely derivative. The marching Nazis, the unfurled swastikas, the perfect order and symmetry of the German fascist machine, we’ve seen it all time and again. It’s something I have been thinking about more with these kinds of films since being exposed to Folding Ideas’ thoughts on the modern perception of the Nazi’s being largely dictated by the Nazi’s own propaganda, and the samey-ness of all these depictions is starting to become apparent to me now.

Killing Heydrich is a grey/brown looking creature, where only the occasional glimpses of snow white in the wilderness of Czechoslovakia stand-out. Anthropoid was dark-looking too, but there it felt like a conscious attempt to tie into the kind of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy griminess reflecting the profession being depicted. Here, it’s just basic. Only on a few occasions does the film burst into life visually, like in an unexpectedly jaunty montage sequence for the assassins as garnering information on their target turns to frolicking love affairs, or when Heydrich reacts to being turned out of the German Navy in disgrace. At times Jimenez can find the telling moment, such as when Lina hears Himmler describe her husband as “the man with the iron heart” at a party, as she watches her husband cradle their infant child.

Sean Ellis can rest easy. Killing Heydrich is an inferior attempt to tell the same story, that goes too far in giving the war criminal such a focus and can’t muster up sufficient interest and empathy with the apparent heroes. It doesn’t look the best and feels like something made for the Discovery Channel rather than the big screen. While the cast is trying its hardest, the lacklustre material they have to work with is insurmountable. In the end, Anthropoid is superior on every level, and Killing Heydrich is doomed to irrelevancy as a result. Not recommended.


It is neat how they worked in the other title.

(All images are copyright of Mars Films).

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Ireland’s Wars: The End In Tyrconnell

This is the first part of what was previously a single post, now split as part of a re-editing process. 

Having seen the last of the Nine Years War in Munster, and with the conflict long since wrapped up in Leinster, we turn now to the end of things in the main rebel provinces.

Hugh O’Neill limped back to Tyrone after the defeat at Kinsale knowing full well that things had dramatically changed for him and what allies he had left. Hugh Roe O’Donnell was gone, leaving Tyrconnell in the hands of his less capable brother, Rory, and there were precious few friends to be found outside Ulster or Connacht. Having lost substantial numbers of men at Kinsale and more in the long march home, O’Neill now faced the indignity of watching his remaining forces disintegrate rapidly, dwindling to less than a thousand by the middle of 1602. This came from a mixture of submissions, those deciding that the English victory was inevitable and not worth contesting and those who figured that they were needed more at home than in a war that had already taken many years from them.

But as 1602 progressed from a drab winter and into a dismal Spring, O’Neill and his remaining allies did not go crawling on their knees to Mountjoy. They still had some forces, they still had terrain advantages and they still had hope that O’Donnell’s mission to Philip III would be successful. In the short term, the constant threat of Henry Docwra and Niall Garbh O’Donnell had to be dealt with, and after that the inevitable invasion of Ulster by Mountjoy. But the rebels were not giving up the fight yet, even if they no longer had any qualms about the doomed nature of the conflict.

The aim now, in reality, was not to expel the English from Ireland (if that had ever been the real aim) or make way for a Spanish expeditionary force, but to grind the English down and make them agree to less harsh terms than they wanted to impose. Hugh O’Neill, the ruling O’Donnell’s and the others had all committed treasons and been attainted, so faced execution if they gave up then and there. Continuing the struggle, making the English pay for every bit of ground they took, draining the English exchequer dry, these were all ways that could get Elizabeth and Mountjoy to offer suitable terms to O’Neill and the others, much as had been offered to the leaders of the First Desmond rebellion. Such terms had been offered before, and been rejected, but the rebels were no longer in a position not to listen.

For Mountjoy and the English, early 1602 was a much better time than the previous few years, when it had seemed that their entire position in Ireland was under threat. The existential threat from O’Neill and O’Donnell was over, the last vestiges of rebellion in Munster were being squashed. The summer and autumn campaigning season could well see the end of the rebellion. Through fresh reinforcements from England to supplement the current army and the Irish kerns that made up a large part of it, Mountjoy alone could afford to field somewhere in the region of 4’000 men himself, with other commands all over the island coming closer to three times that. The forts around the borders of Ulster provided a viable means of launching deeper offensives, and the English position around Derry had proved an excellent operation for harassing and pinning down the rebel military.

But all was still not well. Elizabeth, now 68, was entering the last year of her life, and would become increasingly sickly towards the end of 1602 and the beginning of 1603. She maintained a harsh policy of offering no terms to O’Neill, whom she deemed the key rebel and the most genuine threat to the English still. She wanted O’Neill dead, with his head on a pike, punishment for his rebellion and the many victories he had won. Lesser rebels could be bartered with and brought to the table – at Mountjoy’s discretion – but the crown wanted the main rebel leader to suffer a traitor’s fate.

This was against the wishes of Mountjoy. He was playing a dangerous enough game himself, all too aware that, in the event of Elizabeth’s death, he could have had a great deal of power in the possible succession crisis to follow, due to his high-ranking position and the men he controlled. As we will see later in Irish history, in the event of regime change in London, the man who controlled the military in Ireland could be a Kingmaker.

But Mountjoy could not do that  if he was still bogged down fighting a war in Ireland. The conflict was costing the English an extraordinary amount of money, in both pay for soldiers and in the damage the rebels had caused. It is no exaggeration to say that the Nine Years War was coming close to bankrupting the English state, even with the winning position they now found themselves in. The conflict in the Low Countries and the continuing naval combat with Spain did not come close to matching the amount of money the war in Ireland cost.

Mountjoy had no interest in sticking around Ireland for another few years, fighting a guerrilla war against the last of the rebel forces that could drag on interminably. The Irish could always vanish into the mountains and forests when the thousands of English troops available marched by. Mountjoy had plans to try and deal with this scenario, but he recognised that the optimal course – for him and for England – was to invite O’Neill to talk and work out a peace deal, on terms advantageous to the English. It is a measure of how capable O’Neill was that things got this far. Some sources indicate that Mountjoy rather admired O’Neill for his political and martial skill, which might have been part of this leniency, but it was also simply good politics.

The interim period in Ulster, between O’Neill and O’Donnell marching off to the return of their armies, was marked by continuing aggression from Docwra and Niall Garbh. Tyrone and Tyrconnell were not completely removed of troops – such an action would have been extremely foolish given the enemy forces in their rear – but there was certainly no rebel force strong enough to take on the English in Derry for the winter months and beyond. Both Docwra and Niall Garbh were able to raid far and wide over Ulster, free from any fear of effective retaliation. The garrison at Carrickfergus was also now free to engage in the conflict more pro-actively, raiding down the Bann River.

Docwra did have some problems, mostly in dealing with his Irish allies. They were prone to rash violence and frequent changing of sides, which frustrated and annoyed him enormously. It is not hard to imagine, as news filtered through of the English being besieged at Kinsale and the Irish drawing close to a decisive blow, that kerns in Docwra’s service may have thought better of their loyalty to the crown. And just as much, it is easy to imagine the final result of Kinsale sending them scurrying back. There was also the O’Neill family members that Docwra was using to try and supplant O’Neill, sons of Shane O’Neill from a different line, who frequently butted heads with Docwra and proved difficult to control. Ever and anon, the English had to be careful about who to give support to. It is easy to forget that Hugh O’Neill once fought alongside the English, and that allies could become enemies very quickly in 16th century Ireland.

Still, that had not prevented Docwra from extending his own area of influence, building basic forts and capturing others, leaving such places with small garrisons that were more than enough to defend them. Mountjoy, in the North Leinster/South-East Ulster region, was doing the same, building up his advantage piece by piece, as could be seen in the Moyry Pass region. What is striking here is the complete freedom of movement that people like Docwra and Niall Garbh had in rebel heartlands, able to move from point to point without harassment, capturing forts and other places with barely any challenge. Only a year ago such an activity would have been fraught with risk, but now, with the collapse of the Tyrconnell and Tyrone militaries, the English operating out of Derry had almost free reign.

One of the big coups of this period was the attack on Ballyshannon Castle. Hugh Roe O’Donnell had successfully defended the castle from Conyers Clifford in 1597, and it was noted as an impressive structure. But this did not suffice to dissuade Niall Garbh and Docwra from combining forces to attack it, this time with the key advantage of artillery support. The Tyrconnell military was powerless to do anything about the situation, and after a bombardment of several days the castle was breached and captured. Its location on the southern border of Tyrconnell, near a key area of fighting in Sligo and North Connacht, made its capture an important success for the Anglo-Irish side, and another step on the road to dominating the region. Its fall had long been sought, and was as sure a sign of the way things were going as anything else. Now, the English had a degree of control over two of the traditional routes into Ulster, with only the Blackwater opening left. Niall Garbh went even further a short time later, attacking and capturing the castle at Enniskillen, Fermanagh, one of the starting points of the entire war. Everywhere, the resistance of the rebels was ending. Kinsale had simply been too bad a blow.

Now might be a good moment to briefly step aside and mention Antrim. The MacDonnell’s, with the exception of a few black sheep and the brief fighting around Carrickfergus several years earlier, stayed out of the conflict. Theirs was now a decently powerful position in the north-east of the island, with plenty of new settlers coming yearly from their Scottish homes. This country was still a technically unauthorised one in English eyes, but the days of conflict between the two sides was long past.

Scottish mercenaries, frequently through the medium of the Antrim area, had previously made up a substantial core of the Tyrone army, the impressive “Redshanks”. But this resource had dwindled over time, thanks to two main factors. The first was some family/marriage insults that Hugh O’Neill had unwittingly dealt out to factions in MacDonnell lands by spurning his one-time Scottish mistress. I’ve usually stayed away from O’Neill’s personal life due to lack of relevance, but this is one occasion when his tendency to create as many (or more) illegitimate children than legitimate and swap partners like he swapped socks was a problem for his political ambitions. The other factor was the King of Scotland, James VI, soon to become a very major figure in Irish history. Earlier in his reign he had been lackadaisical about the flood of mercenary soldiers departing his lands to fight for Ulster Chieftains, but in later years he stepped in and tried to put a stop to it, worried about the military resources that were leaving his Kingdom. He was never able to plug the leak completely, but he certainly ensured that recruitment to O’Neill’s army suffered over time.

We must now turn to Connacht, where the war was rapidly drawing to a conclusion. The military efforts of the English here, so long subordinate to the movements and operations of Hugh Roe, was in the ascendant, but mostly consisted of mopping up. The new governor of the province was Sir Oliver Lambert, a long term veteran of the Irish wars, noted as a capable soldier by many high ranking figures of the time. He had been a key subordinate to the Earl of Essex, and had even been the acting commander of all royal forces in Ireland for the time between Essex’s fall and Mountjoy’s appointment. Despite his martial experience, he had actually bought the position of President for 500 pounds, and was not noted as an effective administrator. But his immediate priority in the province was not to govern peacefully, but to drive the rebels out and help bring Tyrconnell to heel.

He did so with rapid advances to the north, with the aid of his ally, the Clanrickarde. The aim was Sligo town, long in the hands of rebels , and to complete the encirclement of Tyrconnell’s southern border that had been half-carried out with the capture of Ballyshannon. The last three rebels of the areas united to try and stop him, but their position was growing desperate. Rory O’Donnell was not his more illustrious brother, lacking his daring or his aggressive style. Brian O’Rourke was the last of the truly hardcore rebel leaders, but his position was becoming increasingly isolated. And O’Connor Sligo, forced onto the Irish side by the victories of Hugh Roe, was little more than a prisoner of the other two, his forces acting under some duress.

This last campaign took place in June, just as Mountjoy was commencing his own forward movement to the east. Such concurrent movement was probably well planned, to prevent one rebel side from coming to the aid of the other, though this probably would not have happened if the two attacks were not launched at the same time. The two armies faced off against each other near Sligo, a town now largely destroyed by the rebels, but no great battle took place save for some brief skirmishing between the two sides. Hugh Roe probably would have rushed to the attack, but not Rory, who was much more cautious.

After a time, Lambert backed off, unwilling to risk open battle when he could simply let time pick away at his foes. The Tyrconnell army was in no great shape, sapped by casualties, hunger and the need to have garrisons elsewhere ward off Niall Garbh. Lambert choose to forgo an attack on Sligo, instead busying himself with a naval campaign up the west coast, securing various islands and ports that had been used by rebel-sympathetic pirates over the last few years. Eventually, a small naval landing would be able to capture Sligo, but the town was now noted to be next to useless as a defensive position and probably not worth fighting over to any degree. Certainly, the rebels do not seem to have made any attempt to retake Sligo once it was lost.

In August an Anglo-Irish force under the Clanrickarde and an English officer named Arthur Savage attempted to move into Leitrim via the Curlew Pass, the same point that had seen the end of a previous governor of Connacht and the final stages of a desperate march to the north. Rory and others got wind of this movement, and were waiting. At the top of the pass, in bad ground, the Anglo-Irish ran smack into a unit of 400 musketeers led by Rory. A vicious firefight broke out, and after a few hours of combat, the Anglo-Irish broke and fled. Casualties were light on both sides, this being no repeat of the more substantial slaughter of the first battle fought there. The Irish pursued, inflicting some further casualties. While it was only a minor success in the grand scheme of things they had at least beaten off another English assault on their lands, and Rory could claim to have matched at least one of his brothers accomplishments.

It was the last significant rebel victory of the Nine Years War.

By now Rory was wavering. Mountjoy had been in contact with him, seeking a submission, and it was from him that Rory first heard the news of his brother’s death in Spain. Once confirmed by other sources, all the fight went out of him and Tyrconnell. All of their hopes had remained tied up to their true Chieftain: with his death and the end of any chance for another Spanish expedition, continued fighting seemed pointless. Further, numerous strongholds all over Tyrconnell had fallen into enemy hands and it was only a matter of time before either Lambert or Mountjoy made a more committed attack. No one wanted the devastation being carried out in Tyrone (to be covered next week) to spill over into Tyrconnell.

Mountjoy had his own reasons for offering acceptable terms. Aside from the cost and the closing of another front, he had more medium-term politics in mind. Success in Tyrconnell had come about with huge help from Niall Garbh O’Donnell, who was making clear his own desire for the top job in the country, something he hoped would come about after his significant aid to the English side. But Niall Garbh was a firebrand, a decent fighter, a competent raider, and inspired much loyalty from his own troops. Indeed, he was more alike to Hugh Roe than Rory was. Having such a man in charge of Tyrconnell was not Mountjoy’s preference, and so he offered Rory a pardon, peace and his lands – under an English title, English laws and English religion – if he would submit.

Rory, while not considered especially capable by any source, had no options. Continuing to fight a losing war would only cost him his title and hand his country over to a bitter family rival, and there was no longer any chance of success. He submitted to Mountjoy, as did O’Connor Sligo. Both were pardoned and offered their old lands back, Rory to become the first “Earl of Tyrconnell”. Only O’Rourke of this Connacht triumvirate refused to bend the knee, but even he, as steadfast as anyone, was wavering. Tyrconnell was out of the war. The final defeat was punctuated by a brief sojourn taken by Mountjoy, in force, into Galway, from which he received numerous submissions from various minor Irish nobles.

The last real notworthy event of the fighting in this region was a brief rebellion by Niall Garbh, unhappy with his lot, who declared himself the Tyrconnell Chief and fought a short conflict with Docwra. His cause was doomed from the start, lacking sufficient support and facing powerful enemies. He eventually submitted, taking only his old ancestral lands in the Finn Valley region after a pardon, but his conflicts with the English crown would not end there.

All that was left was Tyrone, and the final English operations to end its resistance will form the basis of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: A Thief In The Night

Having set up the central conflict of what remains of the narrative in the last chapter, Tolkien must now execute the final instigating act of the plot, in one of The Hobbit’s shortest, but most important, chapters. “A Thief In The Night” brings the story right back to Bilbo, having side-lined the hobbit for most of the last two chapters. Here, Bilbo will re-assert his own independence as a character, and will actually rise to become, once again, the most important player in what is going on.

The chapter opens with a nice visual for the pointlessness of what is occurring, as the dwarves, lacking anything more pro-active to do, “spent their time piling and ordering the treasure“, as if their primary focus should be on organising the unaccountably gigantic hoard of gold and jewels they are in no position to enjoy just yet. Are they already dividing it into 14 shares? Of course, it’s only the dwarves doing it, as Bilbo remains aloof, dissatisfied with how things have fallen out and about to showcase this dissatisfaction in a very memorable manner.

The whole time, an increasingly intense Thorin continues to obsess over the Arkenstone, his lust now manifesting in a megalomaniacal statement of claim and threat:

…the Arkenstone of my father,” he said, “is worth more than a river of gold in itself, and to me it is beyond price. That stone of all the treasure I name unto myself, and I will be avenged on anyone who finds it and withholds it.”

Bilbo, secretly in possession of the Arkenstone, is rightly afraid of what Thorin may be capable of. He’s already shot at a herald over the gold, now he defines his very position as synonymous with the Arkenstone. His threat of vengeance is the sort of thing he was previously saying in reference to the dragon. The devolution into madness and paranoia is becoming ever more acute and bears a resemblance to Feanor and his sons reaction to the theft of the Silmarils in The Silmarillion, swearing ill-considered and fateful oaths to reclaim them, and treat as the worst of foes any who would hold one against them, actions unquestionably presented as a terrible evil.

The strategic situation continues to evolve, as Roac brings news of Dain’s approach, with 500 heavily armed dwarves with him. Roac is no longer offering a pretence of neutrality – “I fear lest there be battle in the valley. I do not call this counsel good” – and is also brutally upfront with Thorin on the desperateness of how things stand: “…they are not likely to overcome the host that besets you…Winter and snow is hastening behind them. How shall you be fed without the friendship and goodwill of the lands about you?“. Roac, remember, basically just wants a peaceful solution, even if he and the ravens have, almost as a result of their inherent nature, sided with the dwarves. Having previously hinted at his distaste for a bloody end to the whole affair, he now comes right out and says that Thorin’s plan is going to end badly for everybody.

Thorin’s reply, wherein he reveals his own designs, is illuminating:

Winter and snow will bite both men and elves…and they may find their dwelling in the waste grievous to bear. With my friends behind them and winter upon them, they will perhaps be in softer mood to parley with.”

It’s a cold but not unwise summation of events, that illustrates a ruthless streak to Thorin’s mood change, as well as a hint that he isn’t entirely on-board with a violent showdown as the answer just yet. Still, it’s frightening that Thorin, having heard of the hardships being suffered by the Lakemen, wants to use such suffering as a negotiating weapon, a villainous act if ever there was one.

Indeed, so villainous is it that it is, essentially, the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Bilbo, already noted as having “the beginnings of a plan“. Thorin’s latest conversation with Roac, his heartless attitude towards the Lakemen and his refusal to deviate from a course that seems sure to end in bloodshed proves too much for the hobbit: “That night Bilbo made up his mind“.

Bilbo gets up in the middle of the night and engages Bombur, on watch, in conversation.  Bombur has never been portrayed in a really positive way, having been mostly a burden to the company in “Flies And Spiders“, but his brief back-and-forth with Bilbo here is better, even if the entire point of Bilbo’s half of the conversation is to get Bombur out of the way. Both hobbit and dwarf express a longing for something they don’t have – the “feel of grass” for Bilbo, “a soft bed after a good supper” for Bombur – and both also express dissatisfaction with present circumstances. Bombur’s criticism of Thorin – “…he was ever a dwarf with a stiff neck” – is limited, yet still notable in the public airing of it. These two are some of the few who seem less interested in gold and more interested in a final end to the adventure. Bilbo easily convinces a tired Bombur to get some sleep while he takes over the watch.

Bilbo isn’t slow about his business: “As soon as Bombur had gone, Bilbo put on his ring, fastened his rope, slipped down over the wall, and was gone.” The exact details of the hobbit’s scheme will be revealed over the next few pages, but it is immediately apparent that this is not a one-way trip for Bilbo, and he is intending to come back. As will be elaborated upon a little towards the end of the chapter, Bilbo feels some responsibility for Bombur, and presumably wants to spare him any embarrassment from being culpable in Bilbo’s sudden departure.

His initial trek past the gate ends in a stumbling splash into the manufactured lake, a reminder, perhaps, that Bilbo is still Bilbo, and not a mighty warrior or cunning spy. He’s soon heard by scouts of the Elvenking, who refer hilariously to him as “that queer little creature that is said to be their servant” when they aren’t aware that Bilbo is nearby. It speaks to Bilbo’s actions thus far that he is being separated from the dwarves in terms of talk, though not so much if he is considered a mere “servant“.

Bilbo, of course, isn’t having any of that : “Servant, indeed!” snorted Bilbo“. The elves, in an uncharacteristically blunt, almost panicked manner, question him in a flurry – “Who are you? Are you the dwarves’ hobbit? What are you doing? How did you get so far past our sentinels?” – and again make the mistake of thinking Bilbo is some manner of servant or pet of the dwarves.

Bilbo has come a long way, and that shows in his reply to this questioning:

I am Mr. Bilbo Baggins,” he answered, “companion of Thorin, if you want to know. I know your king well by sight, though perhaps he doesn’t know me to look at. But Bard will remember me, and it is Bard I particularly want to see.”

“Indeed!” said they, “and what may be your business?” 

“Whatever it is, it’s my own, my good elves. But if you wish ever to get back to your own woods from this cold cheerless place,” he answered shivering, “you will take me along quick to a fire, where I can dry — and then you will let me speak to your chiefs as quick as may be. I have only an hour or two to spare.”

He speaks with a certain authority here, looking down on his captors even as he, presumably, looks up at them. His speech is that of a wise old leader, similar in some respects to Roac, who has a critical errand to accomplish, and no time to engage in questions from hangers-on. Bilbo gives orders and vague pronouncements and offers no explanations. He’s simply become too important.

Moreover, this exchange is a suitable point to reflect on Bilbo’s actions here. He’s undertaken his own plans and actions previous in the narrative, but always in line with what benefited the company. Here, he’s breaking with the company to a certain extent, and carrying out his own plans of his own volition and for his own ends. It’s one of the final great character moments for Bilbo, now influencing the larger narrative and its outcome to the greatest possible extent.

Tolkien takes great pleasure in describing the resultant scene:

That is how it came about that some two hours after his escape from the Gate, Bilbo was sitting beside a warm fire in front of a large tent, and there sat too, gazing curiously at him, both the Elvenking and Bard. A hobbit in elvish armour, partly wrapped in an old blanket, was something new to them.”

And it is remarkably odd and would even be comical but for the serious nature of the things being discussed. From a country squire in the faraway west to parleying with leaders of an enemy army in the far east: Bilbo Baggins everybody.

Of course, we can’t pass this chapter without discussing, even briefly, the nature of Bilbo’s actions and whether they amount to a betrayal of the dwarves. From a strictly legal perspective Bilbo isn’t doing anything wrong, having been employed as a burglar to help with the regaining of the treasure, a job he has carried out to very best of his abilities. There is a sticky issue regards just how the fourteenth share was to be apportioned (Bilbo’s internal thoughts noted that his own belief is this doesn’t cover the Arkenstone) but Thorin’s obsession with the Arkenstone and his naked threat to any that would withhold it was not part of the equation until after Bilbo found it. It can be argued that Bilbo has taken his share and can do with it as he will, having no political allegiance to the dwarves and thus no reason to find himself as a belligerent player in a state of war with Lake-town or the Woodland Realm.

But on a less technical level, we must consider Bilbo’s actions. The dwarves are his companions, albeit grumbly, sometimes inconsiderate companions. He has, whether he wants to admit it or not, aligned himself with their cause. He could, perhaps, have walked away when the news of the dragon’s death came to the company, and there is no indication that he has voiced his dissatisfaction with affairs to Thorin (though fear could have played a part in that). Even now, he could leave the Arkenstone behind, scramble down the gate, and tell Thranduil, Bard and Gandalf that he just wants to go home, and one of the reasons he doesn’t is the connection he has with the dwarves.

So, does Bilbo have the right to take this action? To use the Arkenstone as a peace-making tool, sabotaging the position of Thorin, as part of seeking a greater good? To outline Thorin’s military strategy and offer critical intelligence to Thranduil? Even with the very best of good intentions, is this really Bilbo’s choice to make? There is no easy answer I suppose. It is natural to see Thorin’s violent descent into madness as justifying Bilbo’s decisions, but I can’t help but feel a bit queasy about it all. Bilbo’s general selflessness makes it easier to swallow I suppose: in “Not At Home” he pockets the jewel out of something that must be considered greed, but here he gives it up in the cause of preventing needless bloodshed. Intent is important is judging Bilbo’s actions and his intentions are honourable, almost to a fault.

And yet, keeping the larger canon in mind, we must remember the Ring, that malevolent entity in Bilbo’s pocket, created to dominate others, and whose evil influence on lesser creatures becomes obvious the longer they hold it. Here, Bilbo takes it upon himself to handover the Arkenstone of his own volition, to thwart Thorin’s own designs, putting the hobbit in a high position in terms of determining the outcome of the events. Can we see a little sliver of the Ring’s influence in such things? Perhaps.

Lastly on this topic, I feel it might be important to keep the title of the chapter in mind. Obviously, Bilbo is the thief in the night, and in today’s parlance the term has an undoubtedly negative connotation. But some may not know – I didn’t before my reading on this chapter – that the term’s origins are actually Biblical, it appearing in two passages – Matthew 24:43 and Thessalonians 5:2 – as a metaphor for the second coming of Christ, who will return to Earth “like a thief in the night“, to the surprise of those who should be guarding their house, ie, leading a Christian life. Is Bilbo a stand-in for Jesus then, doling out judgements on those just and unjust, who should all be prepared for his actions? Does Tolkien truly consider Bilbo to be the ultimate moral arbiter of his story?

Bilbo, for his part, is straight-forward, gentlemanly and civilised about the whole situation and we might remember his position in “An Unexpected Journey” as “putting on his business manner (usually reserved for people who tried to borrow money off him), and doing his best to appear wise and prudent and professional“. Bilbo outlines where he stands:

Really you know,” Bilbo was saying in his best business manner, “things are impossible. Personally I am tired of the whole affair. I wish I was back in the West in my own home, where folk are more reasonable.”

He continues by tying his continued involvement with events to his expected reward, though the reader will know Bilbo has increasingly little care for this. Still, Bilbo is generous:

I have an interest in this matter — one fourteenth share, to be precise…A share in the profits, mind you,” he went on. “I am aware of that. Personally I am only too ready to consider all your claims carefully, and deduct what is right from the total before putting in my own…“.

From there, the conversation turns to matters of strategy, and Bilbo does is very best to appear logical pointing out that, even if the elves and Lakemen are prepared to let Thorin starve  – Bilbo agrees with Bard’s sentiment that Thorin is “a fool“, rather tellingly – the winter will hurt them too, and Dain’s army of Iron Hills dwarves will be upon them soon. Bilbo sums up the situation is rather under-stated terms: “When they arrive there may be serious trouble.”

Bard, still noted as speaking “grimly“, shows himself a cynical distrustful man in his ill-thought response:

Why do you tell us this? Are you betraying your friends, or are you threatening us?

And Bilbo, with the air of a man who is really quite sick and tired of all this adventuring lark, bites back with aplomb, showcasing his own trusting nature, the critical difference between him and all of the other chief players here:

My dear Bard!” squeaked Bilbo. “Don’t be so hasty! I never met such suspicious folk! I am merely trying to avoid trouble for all concerned.”

The reveal of the Arkenstone is another moment for Tolkien to outline its incredible beauty, here through the eyes of Thranduil and Bard: “It was as if a globe had been filled with moonlight and hung before them in a net woven of the glint of frosty stars.” Bilbo ties a line directly between “the Heart of the Mountain” and “the Heart of Thorin“, and even echoes Oakenshield’s words regards its worth as more than “a river of gold“. Even now, in the act of rejecting wealth as a motivator – “I am willing to let it stand against all my claim, don’t you know. I may be a burglar…but I am an honest one, I hope, more or less” – Bilbo struggles to give the jewel to another as he “not without a shudder, not without a glance of longing, handed the marvellous stone to Bard.”

What’s left is how to handle the aftermath. Bilbo is set on returning to the Mountain “and the dwarves can do what they like to me“. Thranduil offers a grim warning not to do so: “I have more knowledge of dwarves in general than you have perhaps. I advise you to remain with us, and here you shall be honoured and thrice welcome.”

We can well believe the Elvenking’s warning. Thorin has already demonstrated a violent streak when being opposed, and it’s been noted that most of the company is still of his mind. When the handover of the Arkenstone is revealed, and Bilbo’s part in it, it is quite possible that Bilbo’s life will be in danger. So, why does he go back? In the end, it is little more than his unbroken commitment to “his friends…after all we have gone through together“. Bilbo is doing this for them, and while his self-claimed position as moral arbiter for the dwarves might be questionable, his loyalty to friends isn’t. Bilbo enunciates this as a very down-to-earth declaration that he needs to keep his promises, even one as immediate as waking Bombur when he said he would. Bilbo may be a titular thief in the night, but he is an honest one too.

As reward for Bilbo’s bravery in coming here, and in his well-spoken words to Bard and Thranduil, the hobbit is unexpectedly accosted by none other than Gandalf, returned for the first time since the closing moments of “Queer Lodgings“. Gandalf compliments Bilbo on his actions and claps him on the back, something we can take as a sort of absolution from the story’s personification of wisdom and good sense. He speaks briefly on the “unpleasant time” just ahead of Bilbo – I’ll say – and cryptically notes coming complications: “There is news brewing that even the ravens have not heard“.

Speaking in a larger sense, Gandalf’s whole plan here is a bit odd. It becomes apparent very soon that he is well-aware of the army of goblins and wargs heading this way, but isn’t saying so for a time, until the most dramatic moment really. Is it because he thinks Bilbo needs the time to perform this action, so that Thorin can be exposed for the man he has become? That would indicate an understanding of what is occurring that is almost omniscient, but Gandalf is essentially an angel I suppose. His sudden re-introduction at this point is not as a saviour per say, as he was in “Roast Mutton” or “Over Hill And Under Hill“, but more as an observer, and as the best possible character to judge the actions of Bilbo, Thorin and others, and pronounce definitively who is in the right.

As for Bilbo, he returns to Erebor, wakes up Bombur and goes to sleep, not carrying any kind of weighted conscience. The last line of the chapter is an affirmation of the extent of his desires at this time: “As a matter of fact he was dreaming of eggs and bacon“.

“A Thief In The Night” is actually the shortest chapter in the story, though it doesn’t really feel like it. There is a certain thrill in Bilbo’s scheme and the way that he undertakes it, and his conference with Bard and Thranduil is another fine set-piece. The events of the chapter could have been merged fairly seamlessly into the previous or following, but I think we can forgive Tolkien the desire to shine the spotlight on Bilbo once again, and indeed for the last time in terms of truly plot-pivotal actions. Bilbo is characterised as brave, resourceful, decisive and loyal in this chapter, without any sense of mindless dedication or unthinking action. The sense of moral greyness in the chapter’s defining event is something that may be off-putting, but it is undoubted that Bilbo’s moral centre is undamaged, and his role as an opposite to Thorin’s reckless war-mongering is important.

With the set-up out of the way, we are now ready for The Hobbit’s climax.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

NFB will be on holiday next week, posts will resume Tuesday 4th September.

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Ireland’s Wars: O’Sullivan’s March

This is the second part of what was once a single post, that has since been split-up as part of an editing process. The first part is here.

Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare was devastated by the loss and then destruction of Dunboy Castle, with the associated loss of most of the Beara peninsula to the troops of George Carew. Though O’Sullivan Beare continued his guerrilla campaign, he was operating on borrowed time. Carew went back to the tried and true methods of crop stealing/burning in order to reduce his enemy’s access to supplies and weaken his connection to the local population, already living on the edge of starvation. This “devastation” policy would soon be mirrored in other parts of Ireland, and was part of a Pale-ordered effort to strangle the last support that the rebels across the country had. Cork and Kerry received the worst of it, with reports of mass executions and slaughter of wounded and sick. Though Irish accounts are to be taken with a degree of salt, it’s clear that the English in Munster were, at this stage, not relying too much on soft power.

Though O’Sullivan Beare and what remained of his followers still held a few lesser fortresses and remained an irritating source of raids and ambushes for the rest of 1602, it couldn’t last. All of the Spanish gold would not help him if there was nothing to spend it on. Once Richard Tyrell and the last of his meagre force left the area (he had actually attacked civilians in Kerry as a result of feeling he had been betrayed by the McCarthys), O’Sullivan Beare was largely alone, with little chance of any support coming to him from outside the province. The loss of Dunboy, according to at least one source, was the final death knell in Spanish plans to send a new force to Ireland, though I personally find the idea of Philip III sending any more troops to be highly improbable after Kinsale. Still, if O’Sullivan believed this, it might explain the near-suicidal course he took as 1602 drew to a close. With the loss of a fastness in the Glengariff Forest after a bitter fight with Carew’s armies, and the final defeat of the Kerry rebels in a skirmish at Carbery, his positions of last retreat had been captured or cut off. He was out of crops and herds, and Carew stood poised to bring him to heel at last.

With the last thousand of his loyal followers – maybe half of whom would have been soldiers, the rest being elderly, women and children – O’Sullivan Beare made the decision to strike out of Cork, out of Munster, and head to the relative safety of allies in the north of Ireland. His letter connections to the Spanish court continued to make his survival upon surrender unlikely, and he could not continue to stay where he was and live. Carew pushed him too hard, necessitating the leaving time being one of the worst possible, December 31st. In a grim mirror of the Gaelic Army’s march from the north the previous year, O’Sullivan would now lead a force in the other direction at the height of winter.

This march has become famous – or infamous if you prefer – as one of the great (and last) struggles of Gaelic Ireland. The thousand strong host left Glengarrif, not far from Bantry, and headed north towards Limerick. Sanctuary was hundreds of miles off, with some of the only allies O’Sullivan had left, in North Connacht and Ulster.

All along the way, more especially after they had left Cork, this column would come under attack, from both English forces, Irish forces and just whatever local population they would stray near. The intent of the attacks would have been both military and opportunistic, as the slow-moving host would have been a ripe target for brigands as well as Carew and company. Covering anywhere between 20 and 30 miles a day, O’Sullivan kept his people moving at a pace that was near murderous at times but was a result of their many enemies. The route they took varied from roads and countryside depending on the environment and suspected attack. I have replicated their journey below to the best of my ability, with the green dots representing major camp sites, and the red dots representing major fights. It should not be taken as anything other than a very rough guide to their route and progress.

(The dots, from south to north, would be Glengarrif, Millstreet, the East Limerick region (Hospital perhaps), Donohill, North Tipperary camps, Portumna, Aughrim, Glinsk and Leitrim Town.)

The first major combat, aside from a few raids suffered near Millstreet, occurred as the group entered the east of Limerick, and came under attack from White Knight forces based out of Kilmallock. Supplemented by soldiers from Limerick City itself, they caused many casualties and drove O’Sullivan and the survivors on to the mountains in Tipperary in a running battle. O’Sullivan and his people survived, perhaps due to the piecemeal and undisciplined way their enemies attacked, not to mention their own soldiers firing back with their stock of muskets. The Shannon had to be crossed, a passage on the eastern side not something that could be contemplated due to the English domination of the midlands. A direct approach, crossing to the south of the rivers course, was also out of the question, due to the English control of the estuary and the immediate area. So, O’Sullivan was obliged to swing into Tipperary and pursue a curving path northwards past Lough Derg.

Along the way they attacked the small fort at Donohill for desperately needed supplies, but came under constant attack themselves from local raiding parties and some forces under the Earl of Ormond. None of these was large enough to cause a fatal blow, but the attacks chipped away at the column’s strength, and over 300 of them had already fallen or left. The winter froze some to death, starvation took others. Carrying no food, they were forced to eat what they could find on the road, which was slim pickings at that time of year.

The crossing of the Shannon took place at the top of Lough Derg, near the village of Portumna. The river could not be forded, so O’Sullivan Beare took the measure of slaughtering the last of their horses and skinning them to make currachs (a small Irish boat). Two were constructed to ferry the remainder of the column across. One of these sank on the way, though close enough to the shore that no one drowned. The other, after an agonising time, got the rest across and into modern day County Galway. Local Irish out of Redwood Castle, loyal to the English, launched a number of attacks while the refugees waited on the eastern side, inflating their misery.

O’Sullivan Beare, his group leaking members all the time, continued north. In the Aughrim area of Galway he was able to stop for a while and raid about for supplies, which would not have endeared him to the local population. North of this area O’Sullivan Beare and his group were attacked by a force under a Thomas Malby, an English veteran of the Yellow Ford and Kinsale, but beat off the assault. Malby is depicted in most accounts as severely outnumbering his pennants, making this fight an historical oddity. Given the lack of information, it is strange that, with a reported 3-1 advantage over a group of tired, starving wanderers, Malby was not able to destroy his foe, so we must assume that the numbers are exaggerated, or that the attack failed for other reasons – poor weather, bad timing, etc. One account claims O’Sullivan Beare made use of a false retreat tactic to put his enemy to (temporary) flight, allowing he and his followers to escape the danger. Malby was killed in the fighting, which may also explain why the English were deterred.

As O’Sullivan Beare maintained his pace, snow began to fall, leaving the threat of exposure ever present for those few who now remained, well less than half of who set out. Some would not have died, but simply turned aside or gone home, seeking shelter wherever they could, rather than continue the brutal journey. When it wasn’t snowing, it was raining.

O’Sullivan Beare went on, now following the course of the Suck River. Eventually this brought him close to Glinsk Castle, controlled by the Burke’s. O’Sullivan approached the castle, apparently hoping to find help or shelter there, but the castles owner not only shut his doors, but organised the locals to drive the refugees off. Though mostly unarmed, they heavily outnumbered the marchers, and O’Sullivan Beare was hesitant to confront them. One source claims he tried to trick the garrison of Glinsk into opening up by displaying colours captured from Malby, but this ruse failed to work. A pursuit until they were clear of Burke lands continued, a consistent harassment, that meant O’Sullivan Beare could find no succour there.

So the column, now a week and a half in the wilderness, was compelled to keep moving, the numbers now dropping low. The route went into Roscommon and the many lakes in the north of the county. This was far closer to rebel territory, and the welcome the group received was probably friendlier here, or at least somewhat neutral. The last part of the march at least had a local guide of some sort. O’Sullivan made the pass through the Curlew Mountains, probably through the same point where Hugh Roe O’Donnell had defeated Conyers Clifford a few years earlier, then around Lough Arrow and into Leitrim, where the last of his exhausted hungry troop fell in the doors of O’Rourke’s castle, probably where Leitrim Village is today.

Of the thousand or so that set out, all that remained, apart from O’Sullivan Beare himself, were “18 soldiers, 16 horseboys and one woman”. Just 35 of the group made it to the relative safety of the north, two weeks after they had set out. A few dribs and drabs, groups of two and three, would follow over the following days. The rest had died from starvation and the cold, been killed by the near ceaseless attacks, or had turned aside and sought their own end. O’Rourke, long a rebel, freely offered comfort and what relief he could to them. The nightmare, for now, had ended.

O’Sullivan’s movement north was a desperate move that resulted in the loss of nearly all of his remaining followers. One could argue that it would have been better if he had just turned himself in rather than let the last of his people be slaughtered, but this thought does not seem to have occurred to most Irish sources, who paint the march with the most tragic/romantic brushes possible, emphasising the cruelty of those who were opposed to the marchers over the insanity of the marchers themselves. A famous jig may not have helped matters in that respect. The march was a near hopeless endeavour from start to finish, as O’Sullivan lacked the soldiers to defend all of his people and moved through an environment that was as hostile in nature as it was in locals.

The march offered nothing to the rebellion in the north, given the tiny numbers of military effectives who made it that far. By then, the Nine Years War was rapidly heading to a close anyway and those final moves will be the focus of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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