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Tolkien's etymologies

Tolkien’s etymologies

I’m tremendously excited about the film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit that’s coming out in the UK this week. As a child, my favourite film was the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings by Ralph Bakshi. When I say it was my favourite, I suppose I mean that it was my only film. I just couldn’t get enough of it; it was always new to me. The black riders were always terrifying. Gandalf’s death was always a shock. And Legolas’s nostrils were always unfeasibly gigantic. Family legend has it that I started reading the books when I was five years old, and as a result on one occasion terrified my poor father into thinking he was about to be sacked.

The story goes like this: dad has to collect his boss from the airport. I’m sitting in the back of the car, absorbed in my book. Dad’s boss decides that it would be kind to speak to the small child, and asks me what I’m reading. “The Lord of the Rings”, I reply. “It’s about wizards and a magic ring.” Boss asks to see the book, flips through a few pages, and hands it back, saying in some surprise “It’s got a lot of long words, hasn’t it?” “Yes.” I reply, in my best Helen-Mirren-as-the-Queen voice. “And there aren’t any pictures, either.” Luckily, boss found obnoxious overeducated munchkins charming, and dad remained gainfully employed for many years to come.

But despite having been a Tolkien fan since roughly the time I first learned to walk, it wasn’t until I came to university and started studying Old English that Tolkien entered my consciousness as something other than the author of my favourite piece of fiction. Encountering poems like The Wanderer and Beowulf for the first time, I realised that Tolkien’s professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, his depth of knowledge about Old English literature, was absolutely crucial to his story-telling.

Tolkien: a writer and a scholar

Reading the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, which I had ignored for the first fifteen years of my love-affair with the novels, I came to see that Tolkien approached his writing not simply as a novelist, but as a scholar. In the appendices, he presented himself as the translator of a revised version of Bilbo Baggins’s writings called the Red Book of Westmarch, as though he were merely the editor of tales written by his characters.

Tolkien the “translator”, explains that he used Old English roots for names and words that were archaic to the ears of the characters in his book. He wanted the language in The Lord of the Rings to have a similar emotional content for his modern English readers as the imagined language of the Red Book had for its fictional readers. Fully appreciating this technique requires at least a little skill in doublethink; Tolkien essentially presents us with a work that has all the marks of being a translation from a non-existent original in a language that he himself invented. For me, this is absolute proof of Tolkien’s linguistic and literary genius.

The role of Old English literature in Tolkien’s mythology is nowhere clearer than in the riddle competition in The Hobbit. Riddles were clearly well-loved in Old English literature, and a great many of them survive, from the childish, to the poetic, to the downright rude. It is the creature Gollum who invites Bilbo Baggins to a riddle competition with some pretty high stakes: “It must have a competition with us, my preciouss! If precious asks, and it doesn’t answer, we eats it, my preciousss.”

The stakes for today’s quiz aren’t nearly as high, you’ll be glad to hear, since cannibalism is not on my list of vices. There are eleven questions (I was going to aim for eleventy-one, but ran out of time…) and they take a look at some of the names in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings which can be related to Old English roots.

If you want to read more about Tolkien’s fascinating relationship with the Oxford English Dictionary, then rush out and buy The Ring of Words, by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.


Quiz: Tolkien’s etymologies

Game Over

Tolkien explained the word Hobbit as a shortened form of holbytla. What is the approximate meaning of holbytla in Old English?
One of the characters I’m most looking forward to seeing in The Hobbit is Beorn, a skin-changer, a man who can transform into a bear. But what did beorn mean in Old English?
If Beorn is my anticipated highlight of The Hobbit, one of the major highlights of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are the Ents, gigantic tree-like creatures. What does the Old English word ent mean?
One of Tolkien’s major characters is Gollum, whose real name is Sméagol. What is the meaning of the Old English word smeagol?
Frodo Baggins, nephew of Bilbo, is the main protagonist of The Lord of the Rings. The name is related to the Old English word frod. What does this mean in Old English?
Frodo’s dearest companion is Samwise Gamgee, a brave-hearted gardener. Sam’s father, Hamfast was also gardener at Bilbo’s house. What do the Old English words samwis and hamfæst mean?
saintly and clumsy
half-witted and home-stayer
wise-strength and meat-eater
predictable and comfortable
At the beginning of The Two Towers, King Théoden is manipulated by his advisor, Grima Wormtongue. Theoden is a common word in Old English. Which of the following is one of the word’s recorded meanings?
King Théoden’s court is in the hill-fort Edoras. Which of these is not one of the meanings of the word edoras in Old English?
The wizard Gandalf borrows from Théoden a horse whose name is Shadowfax, a compound of the Old English words sceadu and fæx. Put together, what does sceadu and fæx mean?
The evil wizard Saruman lives in the tower Orthanc (an Old English word meaning “skill” or “cleverness”), around which was built the stronghold of Isengard. What does Isengard mean?
Walls of ice
Iron enclosure
Castle of deceit
A giant spider called Shelob attacks Frodo on his way to Mordor. What does Shelob’s name mean?

Lord of the Rings image: rook76 /

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