Gareth Rees
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Was the title "The Lord of the Rings" picked on purpose to be ambiguous?
100 votes

The phrase “the Lord of the Rings” is ambiguous in the same way in English: it might, in theory, refer either to the One Ring, which rules the other rings, or to Sauron, who can use it to rule all the ...

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Why is Aragorn so weird to Pippin when they make their final farewell before going back to the Shire?
75 votes

TL;DR: In this scene Aragorn confirms to Pippin that their relationship remains one of liege-lord and vassal within the feudal system of Gondor and Arnor. This confers high status and honour upon ...

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Did H. G. Wells use an emoticon in “The Time Machine”?
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65 votes

TL;DR: The colon is a typographical error, not an early emoticon. One way to investigate this kind of question is to use full-text search on a suitable corpus. For example, we could search the ...

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Why don't Mr. Bennet's daughters get to inherit the Longbourn estate?
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37 votes

TL;DR: The Longbourn estate is ‘entailed’ to male heirs only, whereas Rosings is not. Austen sets out the financial situation of the Bennets in detail: Mr. Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely ...

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Bilbo’s song of Eärendil in “The Fellowship of the Ring”
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35 votes

This answer grew too long for a single post, so I’ve split it in two, with history and analysis in this part, and detailed line notes in the other part. Summary Bilbo’s poem retells the myth of the ...

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What is the pun in Kipling's poem "The Three-Decker"?
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33 votes

These are puns on the names of tourist agencies and operators. Ways no gaze could follow has the double meaning: routes that go beyond the horizon (or otherwise out of sight); routes that are not ...

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What is the earliest reference in fiction to a government-approved thieves guild?
30 votes

The question is difficult to answer due to its terms of reference. Usually it’s not possible to tell exactly where a given story lies on the continuum from “full endorsement” to “begrudging acceptance”...

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Bilbo’s song of Eärendil in “The Fellowship of the Ring”
27 votes

This is the second part of my answer, containing detailed line notes for the poem. If I’ve omitted any difficulties, let me know in the comments. I have preferred to use illustrative quotations from ...

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"My father declared he should invent a slip button"
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26 votes

The Kentucky Age for 10th February 1857 contains a short story which opens as follows: A celebrated wit once said he had found out a patent “slip button,” so that when a bore laid hold of him, and ...

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Was it common that the bridges of ditches or creeks had guarding gates in 1924?
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25 votes

Some geographical context might be helpful. The scene of the crime is the North Kent Marshes: “A shocking tragedy has come to light in a meadow about a mile from Dartford. About two o’clock this ...

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Why does the prophecy imply Macbeth has to murder the king?
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24 votes

You are quite right that the witches did not prophecy that Macbeth would murder Duncan, and so the option was available to him to “play it safe”: that is, to wait and see how the prophecy transpired, ...

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In which version of "Snow White" is her name really "Lips Red as Blood, Hair Black as Ebony, Skin White as Snow"?
24 votes

Here’s the start of the story ‘Sneewittchen’ as given by the brothers Grimm: Es war einmal mitten im Winter und die Schneeflocken fielen wie Federn vom Himmel, da saß eine schöne Königin an einem ...

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What does "skimmish" mean, in this eye dialect?
24 votes

The context is that Lucy is “’ollerin’ and carryin’ on” (that is, crying) because she is unhappy at the prospect of killing the rabbit: Lucy began to cry. She had not lived all her life on a farm for ...

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What is the source of "You can achieve a lot with hate, but even more with love" (Shakespeare?)
24 votes

This is from Émile Montégut’s translation of Romeo and Juliet: Roméo. — Hélas! pourquoi faut-il que l’amour, dont la vue est toujours couverte d’un bandeau, puisse sans yeux trouver le chemin qui ...

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In what Chinese fairy tale does a painter disappear into his own painting?
22 votes

As identified in the answer by HeyJude, this could be the story of the disappearance of Tang dynasty painter Wu Daozi (吴道子; variously transliterated as Wu Tao-tsz’, Wu Tao-Tsu, or Go Doshi). The ...

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What does "if the court knows herself" mean?
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22 votes

“If the court knows herself” is a catch-phrase referencing a joke that was popular in mid-19th-century America. The earliest version of the joke that I have been able to find is from 1853: When a ...

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What's the meaning of Tom Bombadil's poem?
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22 votes

Here’s a bit more context from chapter 6: He [Frodo] turned round and listened, and soon there could be no doubt: someone was singing a song; a deep glad voice was singing carelessly and happily, ...

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How do these lines in Shakespeare's Sonnet 151 mean what they're supposed to?
21 votes

Just glossing the last two lines. No want of conscience hold it that I call Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall. The main difficulty is with “No want of conscience hold it”. This is an ...

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Where was the Odyssean Ithaca?
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21 votes

TL;DR: Homer’s Ithaca is somewhere in the Ionian islands but his descriptions are hard to reconcile, so pending a really convincing archaeological find it is impossible to be sure how the descriptions ...

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How did contemporary readers respond to coincidence in 19th century novels?
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21 votes

This is a vast subject; entire books have been written on the subject of coincidence in fiction. So I’ll attempt a very brief survey. Were coincidence plots popular? Charles Dickens was the most ...

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Why does Valentine refer to her father's second wife as her "mother-in-law"?
20 votes

This is a translation error! The original French is as follows: — Oh! monsieur, dit-elle, pourquoi donc êtes vous venu si tard aujourd’hui? Savez-vous que l’on va dîner bientôt, et qu’il m’a fallu ...

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What is a "three-part moon"?
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20 votes

“Three-part” means “three-quarter”: three-part, adj. b. = three parts, n. three parts, n. Three out of four equal parts, three quarters. Oxford English Dictionary. “Three-quarter moon” means “...

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Origin of “Good books are the warehouses of ideas”, attributed to H. G. Wells on commemorative £2 coin?
20 votes

TL;DR: It’s a typographical error: for “ideas” read “ideals”! “Ideals!” said my uncle; “certainly Ideals. Of course one must have ideals, else life would be bare materialism. Bare fact alone, naked ...

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Were English poets of the sixteenth century aware of the Great Vowel Shift?
20 votes

TL;DR: As late as the beginning of the 17th century, the editor Thomas Speght claimed that it was possible for a skillful reader to scan Chaucer. But he modernized Chaucer’s spelling, making it hard ...

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"Sly frantic wretch, that holp'st to make me great" what is the meaning of "holp'st"?
19 votes

“Holp” is the archaic past tense of “help”, which was formerly a strong verb (a verb that inflects by changing its vowel) like freeze/froze or ride/rode. The old form was obsolete in ordinary language ...

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Why does Shakespeare sometimes use "do" with the verbs in his plays?
18 votes

Rhythm The word ‘do’ fills what would otherwise be a gap in the rhythm. With ‘do’ you can scan the line as regular iambic pentameter: x / x / x / x / x / x As two ...

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What does "FACIT" mean in D. J. Enright's "The Typewriter Revolution"?
16 votes

Facit was a brand of typewriters made by the company of the same name in Åtvidaberg, Sweden. The poem says so in the second stanza: Mine is a Swetish Maid Called FACIT Others are OLIMPYA or ...

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Why does this copy of the Iliad mention "the will of God"?
16 votes

The Greek is “Διὸς … βουλή” where “βουλή” means “will” and “Διὸς” is the genitive of “Ζεύς”, hence “will of Zeus”. So why did Rouse translate “Zeus” as “God” here? This is clearly a deliberate ...

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When and why did "No man is an island" start being regarded as a poem?
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16 votes

Independent versifications The versification of this passage from Donne predates the widespread use of the Internet, as you’ll see from the earliest examples below. Moreover, it looks as though ...

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Why does the Iliad start "in the middle"?
16 votes

Whether the Iliad starts in the middle depends on what the subject of the poem is. If the subject is the whole Trojan War, then certainly the poem starts in the middle, and finishes well before the ...

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