The Machine That Changed the World
The day's last reds and golds were tinting the lines of the White Tower when a prince led his brother, his cousin, and his liege-lord down a flight of stone steps towards a cellar. Four wise men - three princes and a king - all learned in lore and crafty in the ways of state beyond any others in the reunited kingdoms.
Amrothos of Belfalas fumbled with a set of keys upon his belt, and unlocked the door. He ducked his head to pass beneath the low lintel, and gestured to the men behind to come within. They followed him into a small, dark room. The air was stuffy - and it reeked. Each of the guests began to choke and cough.
"Valar, Rothos!" gasped his brother, covering his mouth and nose with his hands. "The stench! You might have warned us!"
"Ah yes," Amrothos muttered. "'Tis the oils. But one does get used to it... in time." He hurried around the room, lighting candles. The other men came further inside, and peered around. As they become accustomed to the darkness, they saw that there, lurking in the centre of the room, was a large wooden structure. It was about the length of a dining table, and much like a table in appearance too - at least, the lower part was. But fixed to each of its longer sides were two planks of wood reaching upwards, and these were joined together by means of two other horizontal beams, like shelves across the middle of the table. The whole device was about the height of a man.
Over by one wall, there was a little cabinet, with bowls and pots upon it, and a stack of paper, and a number of blocks of wood. Elphir took a step towards the table, and began to look curiously into the pots.
Faramir was examining the wooden structure. "I am half-afraid to ask, Amrothos," he said, "but why have you installed a wine press in a cellar?"
"Another of his misguided projects, no doubt," laughed Elphir, lifting one of the pots, and sniffing the contents. He began to cough again, and set the pot down, hurriedly. "Perhaps I should be grateful that this experiment is taking place in Minas Tirith, rather than in Dol Amroth. Amrothos has done enough damage there over the years."
"I picked the City for this trial for good reason, brother," Amrothos replied, a little testily. "Since this is where my work will be of greatest import." He tapped his brother upon the arm. "If you could move over, please," he said. "There are a number things I need to retrieve from behind you."
Elphir took a couple of quick, graceful steps to one side. Amrothos looked apologetically at his king, who was examining the blocks of wood laid out upon the cabinet. "Sire," he said, "I would advise you to stand over by my cousin. This is a messy process, and I would not like you to be spattered."
Aragorn tilted his head politely and, without a word, walked slowly out of the way.
"Messy and foul-smelling!" Elphir laughed. "Like too many of your schemes, brother! I have often wished you would devote yourself to the cultivation of roses."
"There would still be thorns, Elphir," Amrothos pointed out.
"Amrothos," Faramir said, patiently, "you have still not answered my question. Why a wine press, here in the City? If this is some new process you have mastered that you wish to show me, surely the work would be better done back in Ithilien--"
"Wait but a moment, cousin, and all will be clear--"
"And it is not even as if we are near harvest time," Faramir carried on, "neither for the grapes nor the olives. Still, if the method is yet to be perfected, 'tis better for us to have plenty of time--"
"Faramir," Amrothos said sternly, looking up and glaring at his cousin, "this has naught to do with either wine or olives. Now, I pray you - let me attend to the matter at hand!"
The Princes of Dol Amroth and Ithilien exchanged a look. Between them, the King of Gondor stood silent yet, watching, and with a slight smile playing upon his face.
From the table, Amrothos had picked up a block of wood, and was holding it now in his left hand. In his right hand, he had a piece of cloth, much stained with something dark. He dabbed this into one of the bowls on the table, and then wiped it across the block of wood.
"Now," he said, putting down the cloth, and turning to the machine, "watch."
He set the wooden block down on the table, beneath the crossbeams. From the cabinet, he took a piece of paper from the pile, and then set this carefully in place upon the inked wood. Coming round to the side of the structure, he began cranking at a lever. The whole thing creaked and groaned at his efforts; it was as if some weird alchemy were being worked. As if they themselves were being put under an enchantment, the other men drew closer.
Another flat piece of wood was being brought down into place upon the paper and the inked block. When these had been pressed together, Amrothos began to wind the uppermost wooden piece back up. As this pressing block of wood was lifted, the page appeared once more.
Upon it now, as if conjured up, could be seen line after line of dark letters.
"Valar..." Elphir said, in wonder.
"'Tis astonishing," Faramir breathed. "Like seeing a spell being wrought!"
Aragorn said no word.
Very carefully, Amrothos drew out the sheet of paper. He handed it to his cousin. "Do you recognize it, Faramir?" he said, rather shyly, and turned to duck quickly back behind the press before Faramir could answer him.
Faramir was holding the sheet of paper between the tips of his fingers, and almost at arm's length. He drew the page in towards himself reverently, and took a closer look. "Yes, indeed; yes, I do..." Faramir shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. "These are my words!"
"Let me see that!" Elphir leaned towards his cousin but, before he could take the sheet from Faramir's hand, Amrothos had given him another.
"Faramir's is not the only copy, brother," Amrothos said, rather dryly. "That is rather by way of being the point." He went back to the press, and began work again.
Aragorn leaned over Elphir's shoulder to look at the newly-printed page. "Ah," he murmured, in recognition. "Some of your lines on Ar-Zimraphel, Faramir. I rather liked that one, although perhaps one or two of the rhymes were forced."
Faramir bowed his head graciously. "As you are aware, sire - given the lack of sources, Adûnaic is not the easiest of languages to master."
Amrothos lifted the press, still heaving and creaking, up once more. He pulled out the sheet. "Your own copy, sire," he said, offering it to Aragorn. "Take care," he said, as the king reached out to take it, "the ink will still smudge. You don't want hands like this!" He laughed as he showed the black stains all over his fingers. Then he turned and went back over to the cabinet. "Now," he said, rubbing filthy hands together, "let me show you something else." He picked up another block of wood, and a rag, and began dabbing ink about once more.
Elphir, holding his own copy in both hands, was staring between it and the press. "Tell me, brother," he said, "just how many identical pages can you produce in an hour?"
"As you can see, 'tis not an easy process," Rothos said, putting down one rag and reaching for another, "and requires some effort. With two men at work..." his looked up from the block and his eyes went distant as he made his calculations, "perhaps eight score? Maybe as many as ten?" He took the new block over to the press and began to work.
"Eight score!" Elphir stared down at the page.
"Or even ten," Faramir murmured, marvelling.
"Here," said Amrothos, holding up another sheet. "Is it not beautiful?"
And indeed it was. A picture had been cut into the wood, and so imprinted on the page, of a lonely island and a high mountain, all threatened by a great wave. The crests of the wave were drawn with black lines, and the borders around the picture were black too - but the mountain itself was inked in red. Emblazoned across the top of the page, in thick black letters, edged with red, was the legend: The Lay of the Last Queen.
Amrothos offered the page to his cousin. "This picture," he said proudly, "would be the work of many hours, if illuminated by hand. Yet if that time is spent instead crafting it in wood then, put upon my press, there can be many copies."
Faramir took the proffered sheet and examined it more closely. He rubbed his thumb along the page, and a little of the red ink came away. "Scrolls in scarlet and black," he murmured. He looked over at his king. Aragorn had raised a finger and was gently tapping it against the side of his nose. His eyes were dark and nothing could be read from them. We shall speak of this later, he seemed to be saying.
"'Twas an odd subject to choose, Faramir," Amrothos said. "And strangely told too."
"I wished to tell their tale a little differently," Faramir replied, quietly, still staring down at the page. "Perhaps there was indeed love between them, amidst all the griefs and sorrows."
"Well, and how do you like your tale in its new guise?" Rothos asked, eagerly. "Better, perhaps, than the handful that you had scribed for you?"
Faramir smiled up at him. His eyes were shining. "If there is only one reader, 'tis more than enough," he said. "It is the writing that is the greatest joy. But," he admitted, and began to laugh, "I would not baulk at a wider readership!"
"Forgive me, but I must speak," Elphir said. He sounded angry. "Brother, do you understand what you have wrought here?"
"I am not a fool, Elphir--"
"Yet you make these devices and, it seems, give no thought to the consequences! Sire," Elphir said, turning to Aragorn, his eyes blazing, "do you not remember, not two years ago, when many travellers were appearing in Belfalas? From Khand, they said they had come, and beyond. And it was not just their trade and their wares they brought with them, sire - they brought with them their lies."
"Ah yes," Amrothos murmured, tapping an ink-stained finger against his cheek. "I remember this. They argued, if I recall aright, that good and evil were co-equal; that the Light cannot be without the Shadow." He shrugged. "I thought their tales interesting."
"They were lies seeded by the Deceiver, Rothos, as you well know!" Elphir shot back. "And they would have taken root in Belfalas if we had not been vigilant." He turned again to Aragorn. "Think, sire, if a device such as this," he gestured at the press, "had been at the disposal of such men. Their deceits would have spread throughout Belfalas - throughout the whole of Gondor - like... like dragon-fire!"
"But men will always tell their tales, cousin," Faramir said quietly. "Think of the Rohirrim - they write no words, and yet their stories are passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, down all the days. 'Tis the telling that counts, not the means of telling. Nor even, perhaps," he said, glancing at the king, and smiling, "the rightness of the rhyme."
"You only think that, cousin, because my brother here was crafty enough to copy you some of your own verse!"
"Come now, brother, that is ungenerous of you!"
At that, the King raised his hand. The quarrelling ceased at once.
Aragorn took the illustrated page from Faramir, and examined it. "Tell me, Amrothos," he said, "what purpose lay behind the making of this?"
Amrothos looked at the king. His face, behind the smudges of dark ink, lit up. "I wished to share my learning, lord. What other purpose could there be?" He stretched out his hands. "But 'twas not only that. Think of all that was lost when Númenor was lost; think of all its lore and its wisdom, gone for good beneath the waves. How much more easily," he said, a quiet excitement rising in his voice, "we could now establish libraries; how much more quickly we could disperse our knowledge - our light - throughout both of the realms..." His voice drifted away; he too was elsewhere now, perhaps in some place where all men might share their tales and learn each from one another.
"'Tis a worthy goal, Amrothos, and a wise one," Aragorn said, gently. "But others are more fearful." He turned to Elphir. "What, my lord prince, would be your counsel?"
Elphir looked at his brother, and sighed. "If I thought I could persuade you, sire, I would urge you to destroy it--"
"That would be an evil deed!" Amrothos cried.
"But," Elphir continued, raising his hand to stay his brother, "Such things, once crafted, cannot be unmade so easily. Yet I would counsel you, sire," he said, turning to Aragorn, "not to take this matter lightly. There should be conditions on the use of this device; consideration of what matter may be printed, and in what quantity. Like any teller of tales, it must be subject to the law."
"'Tis always rules and regulations from you, Elphir," Amrothos said, shaking his head sadly.
"And 'tis always the idea without forethought from you, Amrothos," his brother answered.
Aragorn did not speak. He walked with slow steps towards the cabinet. He looked at the pots of ink, and stirred one of them; he picked up a block of wood, and examined the backwards letters carved upon it. He nodded in understanding. Then he went over to the press. He cranked the handle down a little, and it creaked. He cranked it back up. Then he turned to his counsellors.
"I fear," said the King of Gondor and Arnor, "that the Worshipful Order of Scriveners will not be pleased."
A/N: "Scrolls in scarlet and black": from the Akallabêth, in the description of the treasures which Elendil and his sons brought from Númenor: "Many things there were of beauty and power, such as the Númenoreans had contrived in the days of their wisdom, vessels and jewels, and scrolls of lore written in scarlet and black." Since we know, of course, from various sources that Númenor industrialized, it should come as no surprise to learn they had the printing press. Faramir might be a bit surprised, though.
I took the idea of cults popping up in Gondor from Tolkien's unfinished Fourth Age story, 'The New Shadow', which is published in HoMe XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth. The cult in that story appeared much later, during the reign of Eldarion. Perhaps, with the advent of the printing press, these 'heresies' could be transmitted more easily.
Also from HoMe XII ('The History of the Akallabêth'), I took the idea that the marriage of Pharazôn and Zimraphel (here, Zimrahil) was not necessarily forced: "And Amandil and Pharazôn rode into Andúnië and Elentir and Zimrahil saw them afar as they [?stood] ... for Elentir loved his brother. But when Zimrahil saw Pharazôn in the splendour of his young manhood come riding [?in] ... Suddenly Zimrahil's heart turned towards him. And when Pharazôn was greeted upon the steps of the house their eyes met ... and were abashed."
The Machine That Changed the World is the title of a book on lean production in the Japanese automotive industry, by Womack, Jones and Roos. If anyone has an earlier source for the phrase, I would be very interested to learn it.
Altariel, 4th-5th July 2004