Guest Article: Elves, Rangers and The Ninja
“What business does an Elf, a Ranger and a Ninja have in the Riddermark? – Speak quickly!” Is this a play on the famous meeting of Ẻomer and Aragon or in fact a question that rings out a connection that has never been looked at before? Is there a connection between an Elf, a Ranger of the North and the historical Ninja of feudal Japan? Indeed there is, more than most people realise.
When looking at Tolkien’s view of an Elf, especially in The Children of Húrin, we see the Elf as a silent scout, a “man” who treads where others can not and goes unseen by all, creeping, hiding and being invisible. But then so is a Ranger, Legolas and Strider are companions of skill and share their ability to journey unseen, to the comic underplay of the “clunking dwarf”. Thus, enter the Ninja! First, forget anything you know, ignore the figures screaming in black as they jump through screens and get cut down by the heroic Samurai, this is all media misunderstanding, the real and very historical Ninja of Japan were the real life Elves and Rangers of the East.
The word Ninja or Shinobi no mono as they were originally known is made up of two Chinese ideograms known as Kanji. The Kanji for Ninja is 忍者 and can be divided into two parts. First is “nin” or “shinobu” – 忍 – this has two meanings, first of perseverance, as it consists of two sub-kanji, heart and blade or heart of iron like a blade. The second meaning is, to “steal in”, to “infiltrate” or “to creep”, and to be where you should not be and go unnoticed. The second kanji used is – 者 – which simply means person. Put together, this has two meanings, those people who can persevere and those people who can “steal in” but in all contexts, these two Kanji together mean one thing- Ninja!
Tolkien rarely describes the Rangers and the Elves art of infiltration, in all honesty it was probably not a subject with much research done at the time, the closest thing to a real life infiltrator within Tolkien’s lifetime was, the Special Operations Executive of World War II, who were British or French infiltration agents sent into occupied France. However, it is unlikely that he ever came into contact with such information. Thus, were left with the impression of how an Elf and Ranger would sneak around but not so many details, again, time for the ninja to enter as a comparison.
The ninja, contra to popular myth were not a sub-class of bandit peasants, in truth they were primarily foot soldiers and samurai who had specialised skills and were employed by feudal armies as scouts, information gatherers, spies, agents of espionage and arson, in which all of these skills fell into two brackets. The divide in ninjutsu (the art and skills of the ninja) was called Yo-nin and In-nin, which is light ninjutsu and dark ninjutsu, much like In-Yo or Yin-Yang of Chinese culture. Light ninjutsu consisted of infiltrating the enemy in disguise, being in plain sight, such as a beggar, a street performer, animal trainer etc, while dark ninjutsu was the art of going unseen, the skill of infiltrating an enemy camp or castle without being noticed, giving us the iconic ninja image.
Here lies the problem with the Ninja-Elf or the Ninja-Ranger, it would be highly improbable that an Elf would don a beard, walk on his knees and cry Ho-Ho-Ho-Tum-Tum in a Dwarf like manner and get away with his disguise, the same holds true for Rangers. Thus we must drop the arts of light ninjutsu in favour of the skills of infiltration into or beyond enemy lines.
It is a common reoccurrence in Fantasy literature to have the Elf or Ranger of a party sneak off into the dead of night, break through the enemy lines and return with precise descriptions of the enemy stronghold or numbers, a startling similarity to the Ninja of Japan. But again, we are always left with the statement of “they did” and not “how they did”. Therefore, for the interest of Ranger and fans of the Elves across the world, I will explain some Ninja skills and tools of infiltration.
When in teams and scouting the mountains, the Ninja would leave signs and signals in coloured rice, each team member would be allotted a colour and they would work out an independent system of signals to help keep their communications secret.
Listening to conversations was a primary requirement for the Ninja, be it in a conversation or while infiltrating, the ninja would construct aids to help the sound resonate and so that they could catch the vibrations and hear all.
Palm Flaring Fire
A secret method of illumination was to have a fibrous and flammable compound in their hands that would flare up upon their opening, sometimes used to see if there were any people asleep within a room.
The Talk of Insects & Birds
The skill of kuina onkyō is the skill of imitating the sounds of birds and insects; if a Shinobi was caught and held captive, he could still communicate with his fellow Ninja by mimicking these sounds, thus continuing to be able to transfer any information he had back to the group.
Hiding of the Breath
When passing a sleeping person a Shinobi would hold a piece of paper in his teeth, this helped to dampen or even stop the sound of his breathing.
Hiding Inside a Dog
A ninja would use the head and fur of a dog, either climbing inside the carcass or draping the skin over his shoulders, in this way when it was dark he may be mistaken for a dog or another animal.
The Ten Steps
A ninja had ten individual types of footsteps, some of them where for sneaking and were stealthy, even versions where they place their feet on alternate hands, so that it was the soft palms of the hands that touched the floor. The rest of the foot steps were a form of “hidden steps” these where types of walking that the Ninja learned so that he could hide who he was in the dark. They would learn to walk like a cripple or a woman, or even with chopping footsteps. The aim was to make Togiki or listening scouts think that it was someone it was not in the dead of night.
When infiltrating a castle, a Ninja would use purpose made cotton padded wooden sandals, this would allow them to move around the hardwood floors of castles in silence.
To keep ninja at bay there were specific magical symbols that could be used to stop Ninja from entering or leaving a castle, much like the magic runes of the Fantasy genre.
Underwater breathing apparatus
Different Shinobi schools of old had a selection of water breathing devices, these would allow the Ninja to cross moats undetected or work underwater when engaging in deconstructive mining during a siege.
The Ninja used to use the crushed ash of the Kiri tree (Paulownia) which has a rather fine texture, at night they would hold this powder in a bag and gently throw it into the air spreading it around their person, the reason for this was to use the blackness of the powder against the blackness of the night, this would help disguise any outline they presented.
As we can see, the Ninja of Japan were experts in their art of infiltrating and it is from them, as historical examples that we can find a template to understand the Ranger and the Elf. From climbing castle walls and listening to the enemy, to hiding in all 4 elements of nature to secret tools and equipment, the Ninja were the real Ranger scouts of their day, bringing the world of Tolkien to life and showing that what he wrote was not always Fantasy.
Antony Cummins & Yoshie Minami have translated 5 major Ninja works into English and can be found in the books True Path of the Ninja and True Ninja Traditions. For more information see their website www.natori.co.uk
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