Old English in LoTR
This month, Peter Jackson’s film The Two Towers hits theaters in the United States. It is the second installment of Jackson’s dramatization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. It seems an opportune time to take a look at Tolkien’s use of language to set the tone and environment of Middle-earth, particularly his use of Old English.
Tolkien was not simply a writer of fantasy stories. He had a day job as a professor of philology at Merton College, Oxford. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on Old English and his 1936 essay, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, revolutionized the teaching and study of Anglo-Saxon literature, treating the poem as a work of literature for the first time, rather than just a historical artifact. The Middle-earth stories about hobbits and wizards were simply a hobby and a way to amuse his children.
One of the things that inspired Tolkien was what he perceived to be a lack of English-language mythology. The tales and stories of the ancient Britons were never written down and were wiped out by the Anglo-Saxons. Similarly, most of the tales of the Anglo-Saxons were lost with the Norman Conquest. Even Beowulf, although written in Old English, is about a Geatish hero, from what is now Sweden, who travels to what is now Denmark to fight the monster Grendel. In writing The Lord of the Rings, and the accompanying books, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, Tolkien was attempting, in part, to create a mythology for England, and it made sense to use Old English associations as the means to link his tales with Britain.
Tolkien does this in several ways. He resurrects dead or little-used Old English words and uses them in his books, usually as names but also as terms for items of cultural significance, like smial and mathom. He also uses words that are not lost, but perhaps a bit archaic or evocative of older days in England, words like barrow or farthing. And in one case he even uses Old English in its entirety to represent the speech of one of the peoples of Middle-earth, the Rohirrim.
Geography of Middle-earth
Throughout his books, Tolkien uses Old English words, or words coined from Old English roots, as names for places, people, and things in Middle-earth. Even the name of his world itself, Middle-earth, is taken from the Old English midden-erd. As Tolkien wrote in a 1956 letter “Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd < middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumenē, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell)." Tolkien is not the first modern writer to use the word. It has been in continual, if rare, use since Old English; Shakespeare, for example, uses middle earth in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Hawthorne uses it in The Marble Faun.
Tolkien takes his name for the hobbits’ homeland, The Shire, from scír, an Anglo-Saxon term for an administrative district. The word is still in general use, found chiefly as a general term for district or in place names, such as Yorkshire. The hobbits’ Shire is divided into four districts, which Tolkien calls Farthings. That word is from the Old English féorðing or féorða, meaning a fourth. In the real world, the word is best known for its use to denote a quarter of a monetary denomination or other measure, especially a quarter of a penny. One particular low, wet region in Eastfarthing is called the Marish, a word from the Anglo-Norman mareis, meaning swamp. Again, this is not a unique Tolkien usage; the word has been in occasional usage since the 14th century. Spenser uses it in the Faerie Queene, as does Tennyson in Dying Swan.
Old English terms are not just used by Tolkien to evoke pleasant images of days gone by in England. He also uses the Anglo-Saxon for the names of darker places. In The Lord of the Rings, the hero, a hobbit named Frodo, must journey to Mordor, land of Sauron, the Dark Lord, to destroy a magical ring. The name Mordor bears a striking resemblance to the Old English morðor, or murder, a similarity that could not have been lost on Tolkien. Also, another evil-doer, the wizard Saruman dwells in the fortress of Isengard, Old English for iron court, from the isen (iron) + gard (enclosure). At the center of Isengard is the tower of Orthanc, an Old English word meaning contrivance, skill, intelligence, or as Tolkien glosses it, cunning mind.
Placenames from the languages of some of Tolkien’s fantastic creatures also sometimes come from Old English. The underground Dwarfish city of Dwarrowdelf is from dweorh (dwarf) + gedelf (mine, pit). Derndingle, the meeting place of the giant Ents, means secret valley and is, in part, from Old English, dyrne (secret) + dingle (valley, of unknown origin)
Characters and Creatures of Middle-earth
Tolkien occasionally dips into Old English for the names of characters. He does this most often with the names of the people of Rohan (see The Language of Rohan, below), but with others as well. The protagonist of The Lord of the Rings, a hobbit named Frodo, takes his name from the Old English fród, meaning wise. Nor did Tolkien invent the name of the wizard Gandalf. That name appears throughout Norse mythology. The meaning, magical, gaunt, or wand elf, depends on which Germanic language you take it from. The evil wizard Saruman’s name is also from Old English, searu (cunning) + man, as is the name of another wizard, Radagast, from rad (skillful) + gast (spirit). The Hobbit has a character, a man who can change into a bear at will. His name is Beorn, an Old English word for warrior or hero. And the monstrous spider, Shelob, takes her name from she + the Old English lobbe (spider).
Other dark creatures go by Old English names. Most famous perhaps is orc. Tolkien adopted the word, which has been in occasional use in its current form since the late 16th century, as the name for the race of evil minions of the Dark Lord. The ultimate origin is somewhat vague, with several candidates presenting themselves. It may be related to Orca, the name of a genus of whales. The sense of a sea monster may have led to a more general usage. The term orcneas appears in Beowulf as a plural form of a type of monster. It may also be related to or influenced by the Latin Orcus, another name for Pluto, the god of the underworld (and the source of ogre).
Sometimes accompanying the orcs on their raids are wargs, or wolves, especially wild and vicious ones. Tolkien coined the word, basing it on the Old Norse vargr (wolf) and the Old English wearg (criminal, evil person).
Tolkien also borrows trolls from Scandinavian myth. Originally large and quite fearsome, over the centuries trolls shrunk and acquired a subterranean existence. The word was adopted into English in the 19th century. Tolkien restores the monster’s size and fearsomeness. Although a new adoption to the general English vocabulary, the word has a longer history in the dialect of the Shetland and Orkney Islands, where the term has survived (modern form: trow) as a relic of the Norse language formerly spoken there.
And in the first book of The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits encounter a barrow-wight, a supernatural being that guards the treasure in a barrow or grave. The term was actually coined in the 19th century by Andrew Lang, a writer about myths and legends. It is a compounding of barrow and wight, an Old English term for a living creature, especially a human. This sense long ago fell out of use. Wight also has had a sense of a supernatural being since c. 950. This second sense also fell out of general use, although writers, like Lang and Tolkien, have made occasional use of it over the centuries to evoke an archaic atmosphere.
A barrow is a mound of earth and stones erected over a grave. Originally from an Old English word for mountain, that sense has long passed out of the language, except in the names of particular hills. The term survived as a local term for a grave mound in the Southwest of England. It since has enjoyed a revival as an archeological term. Tolkien uses it the sense of a grave mound, especially those found just outside the borders of the Shire.
Tolkien, however, doesn’t restrict Old English to the names of evil races of creatures. Ents, kindly giant tree-creatures likely get their name from Eoten, an Old English word for giant. And the Woses, or wild men of the forest, are from the Old English wudewása, wudu (wood) + *wása (unknown)
Things of Middle-earth
Tolkien also resurrects some Old English words to give names to things found in Middle-earth. One such example is mathom. It is an Old English word, meaning a treasure or something valuable, that fell out of use in 13th century. Tolkien revived it with a new sense, that of a hobbit’s trinket or useless heirloom. Tolkien also revived mathom-house, which had meant a treasury in Old English, but in Tolkien’s world becomes a museum stuffed with old curiosities.
Another such hobbit word is smial. Tolkien uses it as a term for a hobbit’s hole, especially a large and grand one. It is based on the Old English smygel, or burrow. And living in the Great Smials is the Thain of the Shire. Thane is an Old English word for a warrior who is charged with ruling lands of the king. Tolkien uses it to denote the leader of the hobbits in the Shire.
Kingsfoil is the name of a plant with healing powers, coined by Tolkien. The original sense of foil, which is from the Old French, is the leaf of a plant. This sense has long been obsolete in English, giving way to the modern sense of metal hammered very thin, like a leaf. But Tolkien used the original sense when he names this plant, literally king’s leaf. He also uses the Old English athel, or noble, to form the Elvish name for the plant, athelas.
The Language of Rohan
Tolkien did more than simply resurrect Old English words as names of places and things in Middle-earth. He actually used the language to represent the language of one of the peoples of Middle-earth, the Rohirrim (the word Rohirrim is a Tolkien coinage, formed from roots in the fictional Elvish languages he created). Of course, most of the dialogue spoken by the people of Rohan is in modern English, but throughout the books Tolkien gives us snippets of Rohirric/Old English.
Rohan, in Tolkien’s tales, is a land of men, peopled by a fair-haired, Nordic-like race known for their excellence as horsemen. When it comes to representing their speech, Tolkien simply uses Old English. Throughout the explanatory material and the appendices to Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses the conceit that he translated the material from ancient languages and that these are actual myths and legends, not stories of his own creation. In using Old English to represent Rohirric, Tolkien was choosing a language that had analogous relationship to modern English as Rohirric had to Hobbitish. He writes, “the language of Rohan I have accordingly made to resemble ancient English. The language of Rohan was related (more distantly) to the Common Speech, and (very closely) to the former tongue of the northern Hobbits, and was in comparison with the [Common Speech] archaic. In the Red Book it is noted in several places that when Hobbits heard the speech of Rohan they recognized many words and felt the language to be akin to their own, so that it seemed absurd to leave the recorded names and words of the Rohirrim in a wholly alien style.”
Tolkien goes on to note, “this linguistic procedure does not imply that the Rohirrim closely resembled the ancient English otherwise, in culture or art, in weapons or modes of warfare, except in a general way due to their circumstances: a simpler and more primitive people living in contact with a higher and more venerable culture, and occupying lands that had once been part of its domain.”
The Rohirrim refer to themselves as the Eorlingas, or in Old English “the people of Eorl,” Eorl being the first king of Rohan. Their name for hobbits is holbytla, or hole-builder, from the Old English hol (hole) + *byldan (to build).
The names of the people of Rohan, for one thing, are all derived from Old English words. The king of Rohan is Théoden, which means king in Old English. His nephew and heir is Éomer, a name that also appears in Beowulf and means renowned rider, and Théoden’s niece is Éowyn, or joyful rider. His counselor, who is secretly in league with the evil wizard Saruman is named Gríma, or mask. Gríma gives the wizard Gandalf the nickname, Láthspell, or lað (hateful) + spell (message), because Gandalf always seems to appear when things are at their darkest. And the Rohirrim give the hobbit Merry, who befriends Théoden, the name of Holdwine, from hold (loyal) + wine (friend).
The Rohirrim are renowned horsemen and they treat their horses almost as well as they do their children. The horses’ names in the books are also from Old English. The most famous, Shadowfax, is somewhat updated for the modern reader. It is from sceadu (dusky, shadowy) + feax (hair). Another horse is named Arod, the Old English word for swift or quick and another is Hasufel, or hasu (gray) + fell (skin). And the name for the royal horses of Rohan is Mearas, from the Old English mearh, or horse (and the etyma of the modern word mare). As warriors, the Rohirrim fight on horseback, organized in troops called éoreds, which is an Old English word for a mounted company or legion.
Place names in Rohan are also from Old English. The capital is Edoras, or the courts, and the king’s hall is Meduseld, or mead-hall. Districts in Rohan are Eastemnet and Westemnet, from the Old English emnet meaning plain or level ground. These two districts are also known as the wold, or open country, plain. It is from the Old English weald or forest (Cf. modern German Wald). The sense of forest dropped out of the English in the 15th century. The sense of open plain, stemming from the deforested plains of England, arose in the 13th century. This latter sense fell out of common use by 1600, although it remains in poetic use and in the names of places, e.g., the Cotswolds.
Others districts are Eastfold and Westfold, from folde or district, country. The entire kingdom is known as The Mark, which stems from three related, but distinct Old English roots, all carrying the sense of border, boundary, or land. The boundary sense has remained current in English, although the sense of land or country has become archaic. This latter sense is preserved, however, in its modern German cognate.
Tolkien gives us very few actual sentences in Rohirric/Old English. One that he does is a greeting Éomer gives to the king, Westu Théoden hál, This, substituting the appropriate name, is a traditional Old English greeting meaning Hail, Théoden, or literally “you be healthy, Théoden.” Although Tolkien modifies the spelling a bit, in Old English the first words would actually be “Waes thu.” Similarly, Éowyn bids good-bye to Théoden with Ferthu Théoden hál, or “farewell, Théoden,” literally “go with health, Théoden”
Other Old English words appear individually in the speech of characters, giving the reader a sense of their language and mythos. Éowyn calls the Lord of the Nazgul, a wraith-like servant of Sauron, the Dark Lord, a dwimmerlaik. The word, demerlayk, meaning magic or occult, appears in Middle English and is from the Old English roots dweomer (illusion, phantasm) + -lác (suffix of action or condition). Dweomer appears again in the Rohirric name for the Elvish forest of Lothlórien, Dwimordene, dweomer + denu (valley)
The Rohirrim call the fortress of Minas Tirith Mundburg, from the Old English mund (protection) + burð (fortified town). The flower that grows on their gravesites is Simbelmynë, from symble (always) + mynd (remembrance). And a series of ancient statues depicting a race of squat, primitive men are called the Púkel-men, from the Old English púcel (goblin) + men.
So, here we have an example of a writer who is philologically savvy and who uses this knowledge to good effect. Tolkien went further than simply reusing Old English words. He even invented several languages (or at least some basic grammar and a few hundred vocabulary words) for his creations to speak. But the Old English usages are especially effective. They seem vaguely familiar and evoke images of ages past, when at least the possibility of magical creatures seemed real.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton