Friday, December 7, 2007

Thinking about Radagast

How often does anyone say that?!

Tolkien’s Radagast has to be one of the most overlooked characters in his entire legendarium. And why not? Though he’s one of the few characters who bridges The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, his actions occur entirely off-stage in both books. Tolkien writes almost nothing about him in the published letters, though we do learn a good deal more in his posthumous essay on “The Istari” (published in Unfinished Tales).

Now, by strange coincidence, we now have two extended treatments of Radagast, published almost simultaneously. I discussed one of them recently: Nick Birns’s essay for Mythlore (Fall/Winter 2007, pp.113-26), “The Enigma of Radagast: Revision, Melodrama, and Depth” (read it here). The other is a chapter of about the same length in John Rateliff’s fantastic two-volume study, The History of The Hobbit (Part One: Mr. Baggins, pp.268-80). I’m reading Rateliff’s monumental work in preparation to review it for Mythlore.

Between the two essays, many new insights and theories about Radagast emerge, along with a pretty thorough discussion on the meaning of his name. Thorough, but perhaps not the final word. Since both are available in print now, and some of you may have read them (or will soon), I’d like to offer some thoughts of my own here — specifically on the etymology of the name.

Put on your waders. It’s going to get kinda deep. :)

Birns merely scratches the surface, referring us only to Ruth Noel’s theory that Radagast is “‘Radigost’, a pre-Christian Slavic deity” (116); Rateliff discusses a Slavic source as one of several possibilities, too, but he bypasses Noel and goes right to the source with much greater detail. But Birns does make one satellite point which I think very good: he points to the Elvish root RUSKĀ “brown” for a hint of Russian flavor. (117) This root was the source for Rhosgobel, the name of Radagast’s home; and of course, brown was Radagast’s color in the Order. This is something Rateliff misses in his footnote on Rhosgobel (289). Something Birns misses, on the other hand, is the fact that Beorn’s original name, Medwed, is decidedly Slavic, improving the evidence of a Slavic source for Radagast. Medwed simply means “bear” (or more literally, “honey-eater”) — cf. Slovenian medved, Serbian medvjed, Russian медведь, Czech medvěd, etc.; from an Indo-European root medh– “honey” > English mead. Rateliff acknowledges the name is Slavic but says little more about it.

This is the bulk of what Birns has to say on the subject (since it’s really outside his main purpose), so allow me now to visit Rateliff’s other theories and offer my own comments and further suggestions. In addition to the possibility of a Slavic source, he also posits Old English and Gothic. Well, actually, he first considers the possibility of an Elvish interpretation, though he dismisses this as yielding no low-hanging fruit; and in any case, Tolkien himself decided Radagast was to be “a name [...] of Mannish origin.” So, then, Rateliff turns to Old English and Gothic. What about Old Norse? Rateliff contends “Old Norse is not an option here” (289); however, I’m not so sure I buy his reasoning fully — more on that in a moment. To me, there is the very interesting possibility of Old Norse ráðgast “to take counsel” informing Tolkien’s choice.

But moving on, for Old English, Rateliff suggests a potential reading as “Spirit of the Road”. This would be composed of rád “road” + gast “spirit”; appropriate, considering his reading of Bladorthin as “Grey Traveller” — and I would add that Mithrandir is also quite close to this as well. Rateliff dismisses the element rǽd “counsel” for reasons that seem defensible to me. But then, Rateliff dismisses Old English entirely on the grounds that Tolkien had not yet changed Medwed (Slavic) to Beorn (Old English). I’m not completely convinced, as with the dismissal of Old Norse, and I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Rateliff goes on to talk about the Slavic candidates, with some meaty details, but I’ve already touched on that evidence (above). This leaves Gothic, which Rateliff finds the most probable source. What troubles me here is this: if one may dismiss Old English — “despite the excellent fit in sound and etymology” (277) — and Old Norse on the basis of the Slavic name, Medwed, then why should one not also dismiss Gothic? But to continue ...

Rateliff suggests the possibility of “the Gothic king or war-chieftain Radagaisus (died 406 AD), whose name is rendered Rhadagast in some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources” (278). One such source is an 1829 translation of Alfred’s Old English Boethius. But Rateliff missed an even better piece of evidence: the actual form Tolkien used, Radagast, occurs in at least one other, roughly contemporary, edition of the same [1]. Tolkien’s spelling also occurs in Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [2]; Rateliff cites this source, but gives the spelling of Rhadagast. Perhaps a different edition? The edition I examined showed both spellings.

Despite the dispute I raised above, I do think that a Gothic source is very likely. Turning to David Salo, Rateliff gives *Radagais (“counsel-spear”) as a possible original Gothic form for the Latin Radagaisus. Could be; but why not *Radagast (“counsel-stranger”)? Otherwise, if Salo is correct, where does the –t in Radagast come from? Is it simply excrescent? In any case, I find “counsel-stranger” much more à propos than “counsel-spear” — for Radagast, at least, if not for Radagaisus.

And let’s also consider Radagast’s Quenya name, Aiwendil (given in “The Istari”). Clearly, the name is Quenya and means “friend of birds” — aiwë “(small) bird” + –(n)dil “friend” — as both Birns and Rateliff explain. But could it also be Gothic? Names with double-meanings in two languages are not uncommon in Tolkien — e.g., Orthanc and Mordor, to give a couple of the better known. It just so happens that Gothic aiwaggeli “evangel, gospel”, when pronounced, is quite close to Aiwendil (the Gothic –gg– is pronounced like English –ng–). This is a loan-word from Greek, related also to Gothic aggilus (άγγελος) “angel, messenger”; and it seems pretty compelling to me when taken in the context of Tolkien’s statements that the Istari were essentially “incarnate angels” (certainly in the sense of “messengers”, but also, arguably, in a more theological sense as well) — see Letters, #156.

Is it too great a stretch to suppose that the Gothic aiwaggeli could have helped to inform Tolkien’s choice of the name Aiwendil? Perhaps. Pehaps not. In any event, though the recent treatments of Radagast have brought us much further in understanding him, I’m not sure the final final word has yet been said.

[1] An excerpt in Thorpe, Benjamin. A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue from the Danish of Erasmus Rask. Second ed. London: Trübner & Co., 1865, p.188.

[2] Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Volume 3 (of 6). London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854, p.364-6.


  1. How disappointing to find that all the "new" information on Radagast by scholars is on the relatively unimportant (pardon me, Jason) etymology of his name.

    I was hoping, from your first paragraph, that we would be hearing more about his "powers" (shape shifting? landscape transformation?), his personality (a fool? detached? well-meaning but a trifle "dim"?), and the reason he played so small a part in the War of the Ring (where was he when Lorien was attacked by the forces of Dol Guldur?).

  2. As noted in Jason's earlier post on Birns, the Mythlore article actually has some good ideas on Tolkien's underuse of Radagast; the name is the least part of his essay.

  3. No, no, Squire, N.E.B. is right; there’s a good deal more than just the etymology. Remember that I wrote:

    Between the two essays, many new insights and theories about Radagast emerge, along with a pretty thorough discussion on the meaning of his name. (emphasis added)

    In Rateliff’s chapter, the discussion of the name is about five pages of twelve. In Birns’s essay, it’s more like three-quarters of one page out of thirteen. So don’t worry!

    My post was all about the name simply because that’s some of the stuff that interests me the most, personally. There’s plenty more for you! :) But no real discussion of his “powers”, I’m afraid. It seems that Tolkien just never thought much about this — other than what we get in “The Istari.”

  4. Hi Jason, thanks for your comments on my Tolkien/Tech post...I've added (most) your edits including the link to the full paper...sorry about that!

  5. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Leif. I’ve saved off a copy of your full paper and will check it out when I get a little extra time. I glanced at it just a bit, and the first thing I noticed was that you cite some sources in footnoes that aren’t in the bibliography at the end of your paper. That’s relatively minor, of course. More feedback to come.

  6. Looks like I'm in for a spanking... (: JK.
    Thanks, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  7. Hahae, not necessarily. I may point out a lot of minutiae, but if your central thesis is sound and well defended with evidence, then the minutiae can be easily cleaned up. :)

  8. Jase, I bypassed the Medwed point because I did not even notice it--but it is a fascinating one and you are absolutely right!

  9. The Gothic connection is an ingenious one (and it is even evident with the Greek/English 'evangel', not so far from Aiwendil), but it just carries R's mission into such an exalted range, I am skeptical--if Gandalf had been named that, perhaps, but that would be very 'Christianizing'. But I don't discount that it could have been a subconscious sonic influence on JRRT's part, I just do not see it as intentional.

  10. The Gothic connection [...] just carries R’s mission into such an exalted range, I am skeptical [...]

    Nick, you may be right to be skeptical. On the other hand, was not Radagast’s mission, as intended by the Valar, indeed an exalted one? That he failed in it doesn’t change that.

    Tolkien’s essay, “The Istari”, appears to have been written in the summer of 1954, or perhaps later in that year, and Tolkien would therefore have had well established in his mind the idea that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” That Radagast’s Western (i.e., “angelic”) name could be cognate with a word directly evocative of άγγελοι seems quite plausible to me for that reason.