Friday, October 5, 2007

“Hringbogan” — it has a nice ring to it ...

About a month ago, I got an interesting comment about the concepts underlying my “wraith” posts from my friend Merlin:
In your third blog post on “wraith”, you write: “From wraiths to bent roads, from rings to dragons (and perhaps orcs and goblins) — we’ve gone there and back again purely by digging into the roots of words.” I’ve just been reading John Holmes’ article on “Art and Illustrations by Tolkien” [in the Tolkien Encyclopedia] and noticed his comments on Hringaboga [sic] Heorte Gefysed, Tolkien’s 1927 painting of a dragon, whose title comes from Beowulf and whose first word Holmes translates as “bent into a ring”.
I replied to Merlin privately, but I wanted to take a little time to assemble some comments for my readers here. One thing led to another, and here it is a month later already! So, at long last, here’s what I thought about Merlin’s very good find.

First, regarding Holmes’s rendering of Old English hringbogan as “bent into a ring”. The word hring is, of course, “ring”, and boga gives us the Modern English word “bow”, as in “arch, angle, corner, anything curved”. Related is bogen “bowed, bent, gave way”, past participle of búgan “to bow (down), bend, swerve”. And here, there definitely could be a connection to the writhen / bent notion I’ve been blogging off and on over the last several months. But Tolkien’s word is a noun + a noun, the common formula for a kenning, so I think I would rather have translated it “ring-bow(ed)” or something of that sort than to introduce the English participial form, but Holmes’s version is close, and more poetic. Its only problem — and a very slight one at that — is that by using the (passive-sounding) participial form, the phrase seems to be begging for an actor, a bender, if you will, rather than simply reflecting the form of a bend, arch, curve, etc. That idea might indeed inhere in Tolkien’s image (as in, looking for the active hand of Morgoth or Sauron in shaping Dragons and Rings, respectively), but perhaps it’s presuming too much, philologically. If Tolkien had meant “bent into a ring”, wouldn’t he have opted for something like hringbogen?

Returning to the title, as Holmes noted, it’s directly from Beowulf, lines 2561-2 — ða wæs hringbogan heorte gefysed / saecce tó séceanne. Several of the editions I consulted translate hringbogan as “coiled (one)” or something similar; however, Harrison and Sharp (roughly contemporary to Tolkien’s early studies of Old English) give “hring-boga, w.m., one who bends himself into a ring: gen. sg. hring-bogan (of the drake, bending himself into a circle)” [1], which accords very well with Holmes’s ‘extraordinary rendition’. :)

Hammond and Scull tell us that Tolkien himself rendered as: “Now was the heart of the coiling beast stirred to come out to fight” [2]. Christopher Tolkien reports a slightly different translation made by his father for the quotation he used as the painting’s title: “the heart of the coiling beast was stirred” [3]. Tolkien, I expect, would certainly have been aware of the idea of a ring hidden in the line, but the fact that he opted for a simpler, more colloquial translation could be taken to mitigate its importance.

[1] Béowulf and The Fight at Finnsburh. Eds. James A. Harrison and Robert Sharp. 4th rev. ed. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1904, p. 256.

[2] From Tolkien’s unpublished translation of Beowulf at the Bodleian, quoted in Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p. 53.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Chistopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, plate 40 [n.p.].


  1. I should point out that the typo of "Hringaboga" for "Hringboga" was in the e-mail to Jason, not in Holmes' article (or Tolkien's title, of course).

  2. Hahae, I didn’t feel the need to point that out, but thank you for doing so, for the benefit of my readers. All three or four of them. Hahae, I can just imagine the mental response from most passers-by: “Cool dragon picture, but otherwise: TLDNR.” :)