Friday, June 29, 2007

Voldemort: anagrams and etymologies

A face only a mother could love!Prompted by a comment from The Cat Bastet to my recent post on Albus Dumbledore, I thought I would take up the anthroponomastic question of J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort. (“anthroponomastic” — now when’s the last time you saw that word plausibly worked into a blog post? ;)

The name, Voldemort, had always looked Latinate to me (as so many others of Rowling’s coinages and portmanteaux) with the element mors “death” (it’s the genitive mortis that gives it the t) standing front and center. For the other element, I’ve tended to suppose it was related to velle “to wish, want” (cf. volens “wishing, wanting”, volo “I want” — Marvolo, anyone?). Thus, with a meaning something like, “wishing for [others’] deaths”.

But then, to be honest, I never thought much more about it than that. Turns out that Wikipedia has a good article on Voldemort, including some other theories on his name — rather obvious ones, when you look at them, and therefore all the more surprising that I didn’t even think of them. They do suggest the etymology above, but they also point out the rather more straightforward French vol de mort “flight of/from death” (recalling Antoine de St.-Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, I would add). They also like the idea of vol “theft”, highlighting Voldemort’s continual efforts to cheat or escape death — which, as they say, would be a great example of nomen est omen! And the whole reason for thinking in terms of French in the first place stems from Rowling’s own statement (also new to me) that the final t was meant to be silent, as in French. Who knew? (Well, apparently Jim Dale did. :)

There’s also a great section in the Wikipedia article on how various translators have attempted to render the “I AM LORD VOLDEMORT / TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE” anagram from The Chamber of Secrets into their own languages. This is just the sort of thing that would interest my friend Mark Hooker, who specializes in similar translation issues in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Be sure to take a gander at how this problem (one of the more complex challenges professional translators encounter) has been approached in some thirty different languages. Now that’s a word game!

Which theory on the etymology of “Voldemort” is correct? It could be any of these, but a few others also occur to me now that I’m putting my mind to it. What about voile “veil, cover, disguise” (and here, I’m thinking of the chapter, “Beyond the Veil”, in The Order of the Phoenix — and perhaps also Quirrell’s turban in The Sorcerer’s Stone)? Or what about voix “voice”, making Voldemort something like “the voice of death”? Or even volte “turn” (cf. Italian volta), as in volte-face? And even though the mors “death” element is, I think, fairly certain, could there be a further play on words to the effect of volte d’amour “turn from love”? Or vol d’amour “theft of love” — as in, taking Harry’s parents from him (and Neville’s, come to that)?

Anyone else have any other ideas?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

New Orisinal Game - “The Crossing”

Ferry Halim, over at Orisinal Morning Sunshine, has launched a new game (his 59th), called The Crossing — see an image from the game above. The object of the game is to help the leaping deer cross a rushing stream. You control a moveable platform on which the deer can land and leap off again, and it really starts to get challenging as more and more deer keep approaching the stream, all running at different speeds.

Like all the Orisinal games (and that’s “Orisinal”, not “Original”, though they are that, too), it’s beautiful to look at, with a wonderful, relaxing musical soundtrack. Also, like almost all of the Orisinal games, it features animals for its characters, has very simple controls, and doesn’t promote violence and killing. Imagine that! If you’ve never tried any of his games, you really ought to pop on over and sample a few of them.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

One Month Online!

One month and twenty-four posts ago, I brought forth on the Internet a new blog, conceived in philology, and dedicated to the proposition that there’s more to Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, Garner, et al., than meets the eye (or ear). Now I am engaged in a great — oh well, you get the idea!

In my very first post, I talked about the word, lingwë, which I’d chosen for the title of my blog, so I thought I’d commemorate the one-month “anniversary” (mensiversary? lunaversary?) of my blog by writing a little bit more about what else lingwë might mean.

I’ve found two interesting occurrences of lingwë — well, not the Quenya word, but something spelled like it. In my earlier post, I pointed out that lingwë is a sort of homophone of Italian lingua “language” (its plural, in fact, is lingue). Well, it turns out that Ludvic Lazarus Zamenhof used my spelling in the development of an early Proto-Esperanto. He called his first crack at a universal language, Lingwe Uniwersala — and there were a lot more w’s in it (pronounced as v’s), showing more of Zamenhof’s German/Slavic background. From a roughly contemporary account:

En l’année 1878, la langue était déjà à moitié prête, quoique entre la « língwe [sic] uniwersala » d’alors et l’Esperanto actuel il y eût encore une grande différence. [1]

The second one occurs in one of the two manuscripts of the late medieval poem usually referred to as La3amon’s Brut. The earlier manuscript (MS. Cotton Caligula A ix) reads: “& he makede ane he3e burh: / Albe Lingoe wes ihaten” (“and he made a noble burg: Alba Longa it was named”). But interestingly, the other manuscript preserving the poem (MS. Cotton Otho C xiii), written down about fifty years later, toward the end of the 13th Century, reads slightly differently: “and he makede one e3e bor3: / Albe Lingwe ihote” (emphasis added) [2].

Alba Longa was an ancient Mediterranean city, reputed to be the birthplace of Romulus and Remus (the legendary founders of Rome). The name is usually translated with some variation on “Long White City,” though the second element, Alba, is sometimes connected rather with the Alps or with Latin alba “dawn” [3]. As we already know from my discussions about Albus Dumbledore, all of these derive, in any case, from albus “white”.

Alba Longa as “Long White City” then naturally puts me in mind of Minas Tirith, the White City of Gondor — which, by the way, is in roughly the right place geographically to correspond to Alba Longa, if we undertake a projection of Middle-earth onto Europe, as some have done. And Tolkien himself informally placed Gondor in and around Italy more than once. Perhaps something deserving further research! [4]

So there you have it! We find another surprising appearance of “white”, with its hints of “elves”, the homophonic suggestion of language and linguistics, echoes of Harry Potter, the Swiss Alps that Tolkien visited in his youth, and Middle-earth geography — all encapsulated by a rather extraordinary accident in my choice of the name for my blog.

Now that’s fun for the whole family! :)


[1] L’Année Linguistique, publiée sous les auspices de la Société de Philologie. Tome I — 1901–1902. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck, 1902, pp. 318-9.

[2] La3amon. La3amon’s Brut. Trans. Frederic Madden. London: Society of Antiquaries of London, 1847, p. 10.

[3] Livy. [Ab urbe condita] Books I, XXI, and XXII. Rev. ed. Ed. J.H. Westcott. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1890, p. 5-6, 221n28.

[4] Judy Ann Ford has an article in Tolkien Studies Volume 2 (2005), “The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire”, but she doesn’t mention Alba Longa. Which makes sense, as it precedes the Roman Empire. Such research might nicely bookend Ms. Ford’s.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf — some thoughts

It’s no great leap to look for imaginative links between Albus Dumbledore, one-time headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Gandalf, the Grey Pilgrim of Middle-earth. Both are major characters in their respective fictive worlds, both are immensely powerful but equally humble wizards, both have an unexpected sense of humor, both are the primary tacticians against an evil Dark Lord, both sacrifice their lives for the greater good (Gandalf returns — for a time; will Dumbledore?) — and so forth. But what I’d like to explore today relates to an interesting philological nexus between the two of them.

Tolkien once said, “I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally” [1]. The emergence of Gandalf into Tolkien’s imagination is certainly one of the best examples of this “creation from philology” (to use Tom Shippey’s term). This subject been explored elsewhere and at greater length, so I’ll just sum up for those of you unfamiliar with the background. The name Gandalf (modernized from Gandálfr) appears in several places in Old Norse literature, but most particularly in the Dvergatal (the “Catalog of Dwarves”, if you will) — a section of the Eddic poem, the Völuspá (“The Song of the Seeress”). The word comes from two distinct Old Norse elements, gandr “wand, staff” and álfr “elf” — and the suitability of such a name to the character we now know as Gandalf is pretty clear. [2] As to the specific way in which Gandalf is described in The Hobbit, there was another source of inspiration for Tolkien. The story (as related by Carpenter in his biography of Tolkien) goes like this: on a walking tour of the Swiss Alps in 1911, Tolkien purchased a postcard reproduction of a Josef Madlener painting, Der Berggeist (“the Mountain Spirit”), which depicted a rather Gandalf-like figure (with arguably some Radagast thrown in) — as you can see at the top of this post. Douglas Anderson explains some of the problems with this story, but however it really transpired, the fact remains that at some point, Tolkien came by this postcard and noted on it, years later, “Origin of Gandalf.” [3]

So, Gandalf, if not actually an elf himself, is associated with them through a name that essentially means “magical elf.” What about Albus Dumbledore?

Let’s dispense with the cognomen first. Rowling herself has pointed out that dumbledore is a British dialectal word for a “bumblebee”, and that she chose it because she imagined Dumbledore buzzing about Hogwarts Castle like a bee. If one takes the time to look, one finds this word in several, mainly southern British dialects — for example, the Kentish [4], Sussex [5], and Gloustershire [6] dialects, inter alia. Its etymology appears to be onomatopoeic (so, too, the “bumble” in bumblebee). Tolkien himself uses the word (spelled slightly differently) in this sense in the poem “Errantry”:

He battled with the Dumbledors,
the Hummerhorns, and Honeybees,
and won the Golden Honeycomb [...]


As a side note, Tom Shippey has suggested there may be a connection between Dumbledore and C.S. Lewis’s Professor Dimble in That Hideous Strength [7]. There certainly may be; the similarities appear to be more than superficial.

Moving on, what of Albus? The name is Latin, coming directly from albus “white” (with the Greek cognate αλφος). There is, for instance, the Liber Albus, the White Book of the City of London, compiled in 1419 by John Carpenter and describing the laws and customs of 15th Century London. Against the White Book, I suppose we might set Tolkien’s Red Book of Westmarch, not to mention the Golden Book of Tavrobel. But before I get too far afield ...

The Latin albus gives rise to English albino, as well as alb, a long white religious vestment. And the words alp (as in the Swiss Alps) and alpine derive from the same source, too, in reference to their white, snow-capped peaks [8] — which brings us back to Tolkien’s walking tour of the Alps. Well, Albus Dumbledore certainly is a white figure (like Gandalf, who explicitly becomes Gandalf the White) — both in terms of his age and appearance, and in terms of his diametric opposition to the Dark Lord, Voldemort, the representative figure of blackness and evil. Also, Albus Dumbledore is a distinctly British figure, of course; well, we should remember that one of the most ancient names of Britain was Albion, in reference to the White Cliffs of Dover (though actually, this name was apparently adapted from a Celtic source with a related, but slightly different meaning). I think that’s a nice touch in a fictive world so strikingly English. Speaking of Albion, there is also the historical figure of Alboin, whose name is the Lombardic form of Ælfwine (“elf-friend”), and whom Tolkien adapted for use in his legendarium [9]. I won’t dig any deeper into that here, but it offers another direction to explore at some time in the future.

And another side-note on Albus qua “the White”: Hagrid’s first name, you’ll remember, is Rubeus. This is from Latin rubeus “red, reddish” — certainly suitable for a half-giant who enjoys his drink. The 18th Century Italian historian, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, actually puts these two in close proximity in one his dissertazioni, where he wrote, “pulcherrima divisa est color albus, et rubeus” [9]. Does this lead us anywhere? I’m not sure — maybe; but it’s interesting ...

And there’s more. Remember that álfr (in Gandalf) means “elf” — well, Latin albus is its source! “Elf” seems to have originally meant something like “the white one” [10], a supernatural being with a bright, shimmering, illuminated aspect. Both Old Norse álfr and Old English ælf (not to mention the Old Mercian form, elf, as well as Old High German alp, alb, Old Frisian alf, and even Old Irish ailbhín “flock”) derive from a hypothetical Germanic root *albiz, which came directly from Latin albus, Greek αλφος (which in turn trace their source to Indo-European *albho “white”).

So what have we learned here? That Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf may very well have a common etymological connection: the association with magic, elves, and nature. We know this was all by design in Tolkien’s works. How much of this was intentional on Rowling’s part? Well, certainly Latin albus “white” would have been. My guess is that albus > ælf, elf was probaly not, though one can still attempt to make the case — remember how friendly and sympathetic Dumbledore is toward Dobby? :)

Are any of you still with me? This has been one of my longer posts — I thought about breaking it up into parts, but I wasn’t quite sure where to place the fault line. I’ll very likely develop this into a more formal treatment (a conference paper, most likely) at some point. Any thoughts?


[1] Radio interview with J.R.R. Tolkien, conducted by Dennis Gerrolt for the BBC radio program “Now Read On ...”, January 1971.

[2] Shippey, Tom. Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Berne: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007, pp. 195-6.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Annotated Hobbit. Ed. Douglas Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, pp. 36-9.

[4] Paris, W.D. A Dictionary of the Kentish Dialect and Provincialism in the County of Kent. Lewes: Farncombe & Co., 1888, p. 48.

[5] ———. A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect and Provincialism in the County of Sussex. Lewes: Farncombe & Co., 1875, p. 38.

[6] Robertson, J. Drummond. A Glossary of Dialect and Archaic Words used in the County of Gloucester. London: English Dialect Society, 1890, p. 41.

[7] In an unpublished essay and in private correspondence.

[8] Taylor, Isaac. Names and Their Histories: A Handbook of Geography and Topographical Nomenclature. London: Rivingtons, 1898, p. 43.

[9] Shippey, pp. 269-71.

[10] Dizionario di Erudizione Storico-Ecclesiastica, Vol. XXIII. Venezia: Emiliana, 1843, p. 154.

[11] Hall, Alaric Timothy Peter. The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England. Ph.D. dissertation, 2004, pp. 56-7.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Proverbs and idiomatic expressions in fantasy

As we all know, proverbs and figures of speech give language a colorful idiomatic depth. Sometimes their origins are completely lost in the fog of changing customs and attitudes; other times, batty folk explanations and urban legends arise (analogous to folk etymologies). Such is apparently the case with “rule of thumb”, for instance.

So, as much as we enjoy a clever or colorful bon mot in the real world, it can be even more fun to come across one adapted for use in a fictive world. An example from Tolkien that pops readily to mind is Bilbo’s worry over “[e]scaping goblins to be caught by wolves!” We’re told by the narrator of The Hobbit that “it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.” [1]

Reading the Harry Potter books again, I’ve just come across some examples of this in The Order of the Pheonix that I though I’d share. They’re all uttered by a flustered Mrs. Figg at the outset of the story. First comes, “we might as well be hanged for a dragon as an egg” [2]. This one is particularly nice because it calls to mind the episode with Hagrid and the Norwegian Ridgeback, Norbert, in The Sorcerer’s Stone. Dragons are banned by the Ministry of Magic, of course, so having even an egg is already breaking the law; probably some kind of magical misdemeanor. The closest Muggle equivalent of the proverb would probably be, “in for a penny, in for a pound.” That is to say, if you’ve gone in part of the way, you may as well go all the way.

The next two follow soon after. “[I]t’s no good crying over spilled potion,” and “the cat’s among the pixies now” [3]. Okay, “spilled potion” is a bit lame, I admit, and its Muggle counterpart is only too obvious. But I like “the cat’s among the pixies.” We know all about pixies from Gilderoy Lockhart’s risible antics in The Chamber of Secrets; they’re annoying, but basically harmless. But a cat would have a field day chasing them — one pictures something like Crookshanks chasing the Weasleys’ garden gnomes at the Burrow, only with a lot more chaos. This is probably the wizarding wording of “a bull in a china shop,” eh?

The trick in all this is knowing how far to go so that the adaptation of proverbs for a fictive world doesn’t become ridiculous — or perhaps I should say, riddikulus. Otherwise, where does it all end? “If the Sorting Hat fits, wear it?” Or maybe: “That’s putting the cart before the thestral?” Or even: “You curse your mother with that mouth?!” :)

But salting the dialogue in a story with a few cleverly adapted proverbs can spice it up nicely, don’t you think? Can anyone think of other amusing or clever mock-proverbs from fantasy and science fiction? I have a feeling Gaiman must be chock full of them, though nothing comes immediately to mind.


[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Annotated Hobbit. Ed. Douglas Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 145. Anderson also provides a footnote on the origins of the real proverb being subsumed into Tolkien’s fictive world.

[2] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic, 2003, p. 21

[3] Ibid., p. 24.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New reviews at squire’s Encyclopedia Diary

For those keeping score, I’ve just passed 75 reviews on entries in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment over at squire’s Encyclopedia Diary. My newest six reviews (posted this morning) cover the following entries:
  • “Auden, W.H.: Influence of Tolkien”
  • “Childhood of Tolkien”
  • “Saint Oswald”
  • “Saint Brendan”
  • “Lombardic Language”
  • “Carolingians”
Why not pop over to the Diary and read them, along with the latest reviews by squire and N.E. Brigand?

Monday, June 18, 2007

A henge by any other name ...

Known among friends and family as a competent amateur etymologist and word-maven, I was recently challenged to explain the origins of the word henge, if I could. Some friends of my father-in-law had recently visited England and taken the usual obligatory guided tour of Stonehenge. During the tour, their crackerjack guide told them, “we’re not really sure what henge means.” Hrmph! I certainly wouldn’t have been satisfied with that explanation — in fact, being told “we don’t know” where a word comes from, why, it’s enough to make me come unhenged ... (Sorry, I just couldn’t restrain myself. ;)

Well, to begin with, henge, by itself, isn’t really a proper word at all. Or rather, it has only become a word through a process called back formation, but it wasn’t originally an independent word. But that, I suppose, is beside the point. What we really want to know is: what does the henge element in Stonehenge mean?

We find the earliest occurrence of Stonehenge in the writings of Henry of Huntingdon in the early twelfth century, in the form Stanhenges. [1] There are two theories regarding the meaning of the word. And either — or both — may hold the answer we’re looking for.

The first theory operates on the observation that many of the standing stones resemble mystical doorways. Doorways, of course, are composed of lintels, jambs — and hinges. Aha! Any evidence? Why yes! We have Middle English henge, hengel “hinge” [2] (with cognates Middle High German hengel, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch henge), and deriving from Old English hón, hangian “to hang, suspend” [3] (with cognates Old Norse hengja, Middle Low German hengen, Old High German hengan, henchman), and the clearly related hengen “hanging”, and “a gibbet, gallows, cross” [4]. So, according to this, the more common interpretation, Stonehenge means something like “stone-hinge”. Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, look at the picture above: the stones certainly do resembles doorways.

The second theory is a little more interesting. According to it, Stonehenge may actually be the Stone(s) of Hengest, the semi-lengendary conquerer of Britain. This is an appealing proposition, but is there any evidence for it? Indeed there may be. Not long after Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth described Stonehenge as a “monument erected in the reign of Aurelius Ambrosius, King of Britain, in order to commemorate the slaughter of the Britons by Hengist” [5]. Hensleigh Wedgwood also sets out the case for this possibility — as well as discussing the argument for henge “hinge”, inter alia, and offering several interesting specimens from the literary and historical record mentioning Stonehenge — in a pointed essay, “On the Etymology of the word Stonehenge” [6].

It must be noted that the “Stone(s) of Hengest” interpretation is definitely the minority opinion (perhaps mere folk etymology), but I like it. And it would certainly have appealed to Tolkien, who made clever use of the Hengest legend in the backdrop of his own fiction. [7] So, where does that leave us? We have two theories, and one, or both, of these etymological explanations may be correct (and both are certainly plausible). But “we’re not really sure what it means”? Please, you just aren’t trying!


[1] “Antiquarian and Literary Intelligence.” The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review, December 1864: 717-58, p. 741.

[2] Stratmann, Francis Henry. A Middle English Dictionary. New ed. by Henry Bradley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1891, p. 337. (The entry Stán-henge also appears in this dictionary, with the straightforward definition “Stonehenge”, see p. 573.)

[3] Bosworth, Joseph. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Ed. and enlarged by T. Northcote Toller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1898, pp. 510, 551.

[4] Ibid., p. 527.

[5] “Antiquarian and Literary Intelligence”, p. 741.

[6] Wedgwood, Hensleigh. “On the Etymology of the word Stonehenge.” Proceedings of the Philological Society Vol. VI, No. 130 (February 25, 1853): 31-35.

[7] See for example Smol, Anna. “History, Anglo-Saxon.” In The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D.C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2007: 274-7, p. 275.

Gordon’s Edition of The Pearl

With thanks to my friend N.E. Brigand and the greater Cleveland library system (and at the prompting of Carl Hostetter), here’s what the glossary in E.V. Gordon’s edition of The Pearl has to say about wryþe:
wryþe, v. twist; exert oneself, toil, 511; turn aside, 350; wryþe so wrange away, turn so unjustly from the true path, 488. [OE. wrīþan.] [1]
No surprises here. This basically corroborates what I’ve written on the subject so far. And again, unlike Tolkien’s definition, Gordon’s (with or without help from Tolkien — or Gordon’s wife Ida, who finished the edition after Gordon’s death [2]), does not imbue wryþe — on its own — with the sense of turning from the just path; rather, that sense only emerges with the addition of so wrange away.

[1] Gordon, E.V. The Pearl. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953, p.163.

[2] See Drout, Michael. “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Medieval Scholarship and its Significance.” Tolkien Studies 4 (2007): 113-76, p. 129-30.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Friday diversion

I’ve been on the Net longer than many (going on 18 years now), so I’ve already seen a lot of the forwards, chain letters, and viral videos people have come up with — often more than once. But people out there still manage to surprise me. What on earth possessed someone, for example, to do this? We may never know — and it’s probably better we don’t. (Make sure you watch the whole thing. :)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

An addendum on wryþe and The Pearl

In the second part of my comments on the etymology and cognates of wraith, I noted that Tolkien offered a telling definition of the Middle English verb wryþe(n). It occurred to me that there was a little bit more to say about this.

The usage in question comes from The Pearl, an anonymous fourteenth century poem of great interest to Tolkien (particularly as an example of the West Midland dialect so dear to him). It is found in the same manuscript as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — as well as two other poems, Patience and Cleanness, all apparently written by the same poet.

So, to give you the proper context, wryþe occurs a little less than halfway through the poem, in the following stanza — the text quoted here is from Sisam [1]:

‘That cortaysé is to fre of dede,
3yf hyt be soth þat þou cone3 saye;
Þou lyfed not two 3er in oure þede;
Þou cowþe3 neuer God nauþer plese ne pray,
Ne neuer nawþer Pater ne Crede;
And quen mad on þe fyrst day!
I may not traw, so God me spede,
Þat God wolde wryþe so wrange away;
Of countes, damysel, par ma fay!
Wer fayr in heuen to halde asstate,
Oþer elle3 a lady of lasse aray;
Bot a queen! — hit is to dere a date.’

As most of you are aware, Tolkien himself translated The Pearl into modern verse. How then does he render wryþe? I won’t quote the entire stanza, but Tolkien gives the line in question and its penult as: “I cannot believe, God helping me, / That God so far from right would stray.” [2]

Now, since Tolkien’s definition of wryþe(n) in the glossary he compiled for Sisam is rather different from others [3], I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the earlier translations of The Pearl. There are a number of them. The two most important editions I’m aware of are Morris (1854) and Gollancz (1891) — there is also E.V. Gordon’s edition (1953), but this sheds no light on Tolkien’s thinking in the early 1920’s. [Update: One reader has suggested I may have dismissed Gordon's edition too hastily. I'll have to give it a closer look.] Among the translations, Tolkien might have known any of several — e.g., Israel Gollancz (1891), G.G. Coulton (1906), Marian Mead (1908), Sophie Jewett (1908). These, I find, generally translate the line similarly to Tolkien. For example, Jewett gives the line, “That God from right would swerve away” [4]; and Mead gives, “That he would deal so wrong a way” [5]. I couldn’t get my hands on Gollancz, but I suspect it’s much the same.

So Tolkien’s translation isn't as unique as his definition. And the reason is clear: the connotation comes from the entire phrase, wyrþe so wrange away. What’s interesting, though, is that Tolkien decides to imbue the verb alone with some of the sense conveyed in The Pearl through these additional words. I wonder if he is unique in this — I suspect so. It’s also interesting that in this source line, the being doing the “turn[ing] aside (from the just course)” is not some clearly evil being (like a Ringwraith), but God himself.

Surprising.

[1] Sisam, Kenneth. Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (with Glossary). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921. Reprinted with corrections, 1964, p. 63.

[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975, p. 102.

[3] Notably, from Morris, Richard. Early English Alliterative Poems in the West-Midland Dialect of the Fourteenth Century. London: Early English Text Society, 1854. 2nd ed., 1869, p. 213. Morris defines wryþe variously as “turn, wriggle, toil, bind, thrust,” but there is no suggestion of turning from the right to the wrong course.

Likewise, Tolkien’s definition differs from Stratmann, Francis Henry. A Middle English Dictionary. New ed. by Henry Bradley [Tolkien’s mentor at the O.E.D.]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1891, p. 697.

[4] Jewett, Sophie. The Pearl: A Middle English Poem. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co., 1908, p. 43.

[5] Mead, Marian. The Pearl: An English Vision-Poem of the Fourteenth Century Done Into Modern Verse. Portland (ME): Thomas B. Mosher, 1908, p. 27.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Vermont — There and back again (an independent scholar’s holiday) [Updated]

My Famous Air Quotes!Not too long ago, I traveled to Vermont for Tolkien 2007, a small but rewarding conference hosted by Michael Faletra and Chris Vaccaro at the University of Vermont at Burlington. This was my second time (in as many years) visiting Burlington for this conference. I had a simply wonderful time both years, and I’ll definitely be there in 2008. So at the suggestion of my friend Gary (who lives in Boston and who accompanied me to UVM both this year and last), I thought I would share a tale or two from my adventures there.

The conference takes place in April, but the weather this year was miserable. It was unseasonably cold and rainy for most of my trip (whereas last year, the weather was cool but beautiful). We had hoped it would improve, but it actually got worse, culminating in a veritable Fimbulwinter, the likes of which I had never seen — except in the opening of the film Fargo. After the conference, we ventured up to Montréal for the day (about 100 miles away), and on the way back, we were caught in a blizzard of apocalyptic proportions (quite something for a Texan like me!). Something like a foot of snow fell in just three, maybe four hours. During the harrowing drive through the heart of the Green Mountains in pitch darkness, we ended up careening off the road — luckily, we weren’t on top of a mountain at the time! Within sixty seconds, three separate vehicles full of intrepid Vermonters had stopped to make sure we were okay. Bless them! We were, but we couldn’t get back onto the road on our own steam, city boys that we are. A very nice guy from Milton pulled us back onto the road with a chain and his 4x4. I have pictures of the whole ordeal — in which Gary and I come off looking much more manly than we really are. (I could probably be persuaded to post one. [Update:] How about four?)



But outside of the alarming caprices of Mother Nature, Burlington is a wonderful place to visit. It’s full of progressive thinkers (and more than its share of weirdos — making Burlington the Austin of Vermont, as some people like to say). Speaking of weird people, after making it back from our traumatic blizzard experience, we were accosted by a strange dude from Texas outside the Inn. He kept us out there talking in the falling snow for what seemed like eons. No surprise when he told us, out of the blue, that he was bipolar.

Burlington also has great coffee and tea houses (make sure you visit Speeder and Earl’s Coffee House and Dobrá Tea), plus maple syrup and cheddar cheese factories aplenty! Not to mention Ben & Jerry's and the Magic Hat Brewery. None of which we have in Texas — although Shiner is nothing to sneeze at. Vermont is really my kind of place!

When we drove up to Burlington in 2006, we decided just to chance it on accommodations. We drove around looking for a likely spot and happened on the most unexpected thing of all (but still somehow “typical” of Vermont): a Tibetan Inn, apparently the only one in the United States. I highly recommend it the next time you’re in Burlington. The rooms have a lovely view across Lake Champlain to the Adirondack Mountains in eastern New York. And the proprietor and his family are wonderful people. (Allow me to interject, “Free Tibet!”)

So, if you’re looking for a Tolkien conference and a little bit of adventure, definitely keep Vermont in mind for next year. And if you want to know more about any of this, feel free to comment with questions.

Monday, June 11, 2007

“All roads are now bent.”

Read part one of this post.

So where were we in our discussion of wraith? Close examination of the Indo-European root *wreit “to turn, wind” — together with some help from Mssrs. Skeat, Brockett, and Shippey — has given us the fairly defensible idea that a proper etymology of wraith ought to include the sense of a being twisted, contorted, and turned toward evil from good. The idea of a thing that turns or twists, furthermore, calls to mind the idea of the Ring, for which we also found some etymological evidence.

So, what’s the next terminus on this train of thought?

Let’s begin by recalling Skeat’s suggested etymology of wraith. He proposed, as you’ll recall, the Icelandic (from Old Norse) vörðr “ward(en), guardian”. In the genitive case, the word is varðar, showing a vowel shift, and with the meaning, “of the guardian”. Now this struck me as resembling, more than casually, Varda — the Vala whom the Elves revere above all others, invoking her by the name Elbereth. Tellingly, it is to Varda that the Elves (as well as Frodo and Samwise) call for protection, in one of the few explicit references to the Valar we find in The Lord of the Rings. The possibility of an etymological connection to Old Norse vörðr is certainly appealing, then, isn’t it? And even more so when we consider that Old Norse vörð is a poetic word for “woman” [1].

This may be mere coincidence; after all, Tolkien didn’t seem to be convinced that Skeat’s etymology was the correct one. Still, he would have been aware of it, and the resemblance between vörð(r) and Varda is tantalizing. And the more so when we remember the bent road leading back to her from Middle-earth.

In The Lost Road, we find a very curious passage in Old English (Shippey reminds us of it in The Road to Middle-earth [2]): “Westra lage wegas rehtas, nu isti sa wraithas.” This is Old English, and means “a straight road lay westward, now it is bent” [3]. The reference is to the same Straight Road across the great western sea from Middle-earth to the Blessed Realm. How telling that Tolkien would use wraithas to describe how the Straight Road had become bent after the Fall of Númenor. As Tolkien wrote in the Akallabêth:

[T]he loremasters of Men said that a Straight Road must still be, for those that were permitted to find it. And they taught that, while the new world fell away, the old road and the path of the memory of the West still went on, as it were a mighty bridge invisible that passed through the air of breath and of flight (which were bent now as the world was bent), and traversed Ilmen which flesh unaided cannot endure, until it came to Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, and maybe even beyond, to Valinor, where the Valar still dwell and watch the unfolding of the story of the world.
The idea seems clear: to be bent, twisted, turned, generally from good toward evil or, if not toward evil, then bent or turned because of evil, was to be writhen, wraithas (“bent”), or to become a wraith. Even the English word wrong derives from the same cluster of Indo-European roots. And here's another salient point regarding writhen: in his 1922 Middle English Vocabulary, Tolkien defines wryþe(n) as, first, “to twist, bind” — something the One Ring does, no? — but second, “[to] turn aside (from the just course)” [4].

The Ringwraiths, then, as well as the Ring itself, right and wrong, and the lost Straight Road that leads to Aman (and to Varda) — all come together in a handful of Germanic roots. Remarkable!

And I’m still not finished. I’ll be writing one more installment on this subject, in which I plan to bring Gollum (Sméagol) and Smaug into the mix.


[1] Zoëga, Geir T. A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910, p. 503.

[2] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148-50.

[3] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987, p. 43.

[4] Sisam, Kenneth. Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (with Glossary). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921. Reprinted with corrections, 1964, [no pagination].

Eye exam this morning — new post this afternoon

For anyone — Bueller? Bueller? — who might be impatient for the continuation of my tracing the Germanic etymology of wraith and its many interesting cognates, don't lose heart. I've got my annual eye exam this morning, but I hope to get back to the Ringwraiths (plus The Lost Road, Varda, Gollum, and Smaug) this afternoon.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Quackery at the expense of Tolkien

Now, I'm not normally prone to hatchet-job reviews, but ...

This new book looks terrible! The author — an enfant terrible whose day-job is evidently hunting for UFO's, panicking about the end of the Mayan Calendar, and drawing unsupportable connections between the two — claims that The Lord of the Rings is genuine history, not fiction, and that Tolkien must have tapped into some kind of ancient (perhaps extraterrestrial) store of knowledge to write it. And that he can “prove” it.

Check out my Amazon review for more specifics on the author, the book, and its cockamamie claims.

It seems like this new book might be the heir apparent to Gracia Fay Ellwood's Good News from Middle Earth [sic]. Luckily for us, we've had a break of close to forty years since it appeared (and then just as quickly disappeared — let's hope Quest for Middle-earth does the same).

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Writhe, writhen, wroth … wraith? And ring?

In the absence of any direct depiction of Sauron — who works much better as a presence felt and feared, but never seen — evil in Middle-earth is most effectively embodied in the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths. Tolkien’s Ringwraiths are usually seen enrobed in black, faces unseen, and in fact invisible, sowing the seeds of despair wherever they go. The image has been taken up in fantasy literature in many forms since — e.g., think about Grimnir in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or consider the Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels.

But Tolkien didn’t invent this word. It was used much earlier by Sir Walter Scott (where Tolkien may have encountered it), among many other instances. So what is a wraith, actually? What does this rather curious word mean? It’s usually used for some sort of ghost, apparition, or premonitory omen of death (something like the Grim in J.K. Rowling) as here.

But regardless of how it’s used, what does it mean? For the best sense of that, we have to turn to its etymology. Yet as you can see at Encarta — “[Early 16th century. Origin ?]” — its etymology is not terribly obvious. So let’s look a bit further back. In his influential Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Walter Skeat can only conjecture (see the illustration at the top of this post). One suggestion connects it to Icelandic vörðr “warden, guardian” [1].

What else do we have? How about John Trotter Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words? And no, I’m not making up Brockett’s middle name — something that would have tickled Tolkien’s fancy, I imagine! Brockett connects wraith to a northern dialectal word, waff, meaning “an apparition in the exact resemblance of a person, supposed to be seen just before or soon after death.” He guesses the word may be linked to waft, no doubt envisioning the airy apparition wafting along in a gentle breeze on the moors. [2]

Poking around in various other etymological dictionaries, we find other suggestions, some good, some not so good — including Old English weard, ward “warden, guardian” (cf. Skeat’s vörðr); Old Gaelic breith (aspirated form, bhreith) “doom, judgment”; and even Modern English wrath, wroth (from Old English wráð), suggesting a wraith might be a particularly wrathful spirit. The OED traces the word all the way back to 1513, to a translation of the Aeneid made by the Scottish poet, Gavin Douglas; consequently, they assume its origin to be Scottish. [3]

Any or all of these are possible, but Tolkien had a different etymology in mind. He thought wraith might have been a form of the verb writhe “to twist or struggle, as in pain”, with the archaic past participle, writhen (< Middle English writhen < Old English wríðen “to twist, torture”). The idea being that a wraith was something twisted, contorted, bent out of its proper original shape — in the case of the Nazgûl, by evil. [4]

This would, in fact, cousin the word to wrath, wroth, which has a literal meaning closer to “twisted by rage” than is usually remembered. Its Old English form was wráð, derived from Primitive Germanic *wraithaz. Now that's beginning to look familiar!

Other interesting cognates include Gothic wraiqs “curved, winding, twisting”, and perhaps wraka “persecution, punishing pursuit; Old Frisian wreth “evil”; Old Saxon wred, Middle Dutch wret “cruel”; Old High German reid, Old Norse reiðr “wroth”; Old Norse ríða “to twist, knit, wind” — all originally related to the Proto-Indo-European root *wreit “to turn, wind”. Another descendent of this root is Modern English wreath, from Old English wriða “band (i.e., that which is wound around)” — sounds rather like a ring, no? Indeed, in the Old English corpus, wríða is sometimes used for “ring” (as in the Homilies).

From “wraith” to “ring” in only, what, a dozen complicated steps? :) And I'm not even remotely finished with this topic! Stay tuned for more to come.


[1] Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1893, p. 720.

[2] Brockett, John Trotter. A Glossary of North Country Words with Their Etymology and Affinity to Other Languages and Occasional Notices of Local Customs and Popular Superstitions. 3rd ed. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Emerson, Charnley, Bigg Market; and Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1846, pp. 200-1, 202.

[3] Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 223-4.

[4] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and expanded ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148-50.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Unicorn Power!"

Here is a great introduction to my favorite webcomic, the Perry Bible Fellowship (which has nothing to do with the Bible, I should point out).

People who know me well often tell me my sense of humor is warped, twisted, writhen even — so it's no surprise I would love the PBF. Check out this week's installment, “Service Culture”. This one made me laugh out loud.

More Harry Potter Subtleties (in The Prisoner of Azkaban) [Updated]

First, a clarification: by “subtleties”, I mean, well, subtleties. In other words, there are plenty of great big obvious examples of foreshadowing in each of the books, but those aren’t what I’m paying attention for on this reading. What I’m looking for are those little things that would otherwise go unnoticed. So, that being said, it’s early in Book 3, and I’ve already noticed two things.


* ONCE AGAIN, SPOILERS FOR BOOKS 1–6, AND NO DISCUSSION WHATSOVER OF BOOK 7 *

First off, remember when Aunt Marge tells Harry, “you’d have gone straight to an orphanage if you’d been dumped on my doorstep”? And in reply, Harry thinks he would much rather live in an orphanage. [1] This is perhaps meant to subtly remind us that Tom Riddle grew up in an orphanage, which we learned at the end of Chamber of Secrets — another nice parallel between Harry and Voldemort.

Second (so far — I’ll be updating this post as needed), remember when Harry gives Stan Shunpike an alias on the Knight Bus? Is it mere coincidence that the first name he thinks to say is Neville Longbottom? [2] As I noted in my previous post on the subject, we will later learn that Harry and Neville have a lot more in common than was apparent at the beginning.

[Update:] And here's yet another subtle Harry / Neville connection. Remember the Quidditch finals? Harry can't sleep well the night before, tossing and turning with a series of nightmares about the final match. In one, he oversleeps the match, and when he finally turns up, Oliver Wood roars that they had to use Neville instead. Nice! [3]

[1] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic, 1999, pp. 23-4.
[2] Ibid., p. 34.
[3] Ibid., p. 302.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Always read the reviews! [Updated]

So, this morning I was perusing a Medieval Studies catalog I just got in the mail from Cambridge University Press, when I came across a very interesting-sounding new book, Satan: A Biography, by Henry Ansgar Kelly of UCLA. It immediately made me think of Jack Miles's similarly titled, God: A Biography, which I have at home (but haven't read yet).

I wondered whether Satan was available from Amazon (now there's a strange thing to write!) and whether it would be less expensive than ordering directly from CUP, so I looked it up. It was indeed available, but luckily somebody's already read it and posted a thoughtful review, warning readers away. “No way, Jose. Not yet, Josette” — really?! Are ya kiddin' me?!

So, it sounds like it's definitely not worth an outright purchase (but I might still get it from the library). The lesson here? Always read the reviews! Thank you, C.T. Schreep!

[Update:] My friend Gary, who has so far yet to comment on this blog, called this post “fluffy”. Hmm. Let's challenge him to make his presence known and to defend that bald accusation! ;)

Monday, June 4, 2007

Wulfs, waúrms, and *wargs — oh my!

Unpacking some boxes from storage a couple of weekends ago, I unearthed a long-forgotten gem: Brian Regan’s Dictionary of the Biblical Gothic Language. Out of print, unavailable from Amazon or BookFinder, I’m glad I never got rid of this. It originally belonged to my oldest friend, Gary Schmidt, but he passed it on to me some time in the middle 1980’s.

In his introduction, the author calls this “the first complete Gothic-English dictionary in eight decades” [1]; so I’m torn between being relieved that the complete lexicon of attested forms is short enough for convenient use (about 200 pages of fairly large type) and the sad realization that so many, many words of 4th Century Gothic are now lost forever.

To bring this around to Tolkien (more or less inevitable with me), it’s pretty well known that he developed a soft spot for Gothic after first discovering it in his mentor Joe Wright’s Primer of the Gothic Language. He wrote a pretty well-known poem in it (“Bagme Bloma” — Gothic for “Flower of the Trees”), included in the rare collection, Songs for the Philologists. He also incorporated elements of Gothic names into the ancestors of the Rohirrim as part of the backdrop for The Lord of the Rings. And Tolkien was known for deploying his extensive understanding of comparative Germanic phonology in an effort to extrapolate the forms of unattested Gothic words. (Such words are generally preceded with an asterisk, as in *wargs in the title of this post.) There’s even an extended piece of Gothic in one of Tolkien’s letters — a facsimile of an inscription he made in a book he owned in 1910 (the image at the upper right is a part of that inscription). [2] My friend Gary once adapted this same inscription on the flyleaf of a Dutch-English dictionary he gifted me back in the early 1980's; sadly, I'm not sure I have it any longer. Maybe one of these days, I'll get a letter inquiring about it, as Tolkien did in 1965.

Fellow admirers of Tolkien will probably recognize the Gothic words in the title of this post, too, even without any special training. For those who don’t, they are: “wolf, worm (i.e., dragon), outlaw (> warg)”. They’re actually in the nominative singular form, but to speakers of English they look more like plural forms this way, so I left them. For anyone wanting to take a stab at Gothic (but who might be too intimidated by Joe Wright), David Salo (known for his work on Tolkien’s invented languages, especially Sindarin) has put together a simple — and incomplete, it must be added — outline of Gothic grammar.

(Okay, I'm betting this post will have scared off the few readers I had! Anyone who’s still reading, drop me a comment! ;)

[1] Regan, Brian T. Dictionary of the Biblical Gothic Language. Phoenix: Wellspring, 1974, p. vii.
[2] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, pp. 356-8.

New essay on Tolkien and MacDonald published

For those who might be interested, I have a new essay in print:

“Reluctantly Inspired: George MacDonald and the Genesis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major.” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 25 (2006): 113-20.

Unfortunately, the George MacDonald Society website hasn't been updated in some time, so I can't link you directly to the journal issue in question. But if you'd like to read it and don't have ready access to the journal in your local library, drop me a comment or an email, and I can send you a copy.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Subtleties in Harry Potter [Updated]

As you may have noticed (see right), I'm reading the Harry Potter books again in anticipation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Jennifer and I always re-read everything right before reading the latest (and this time, the last — *sniff*) installment in the series, both to reimmerse ourselves in Harry Potter's world as well as to prick up our eyes and ears for hints, clues, nuances, and subtleties about what to expect next. Which brings me to the reason for this post.

* SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN'T READ BOOKS 1–6 *

First, let me say that I'm not going to speculate on what we'll find in Book 7. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm insane about avoiding spoilers — so anyone planning to leave comments, you've been warned!! Nothing about Book 7!!

Okay, so in reading Sorcerer's Stone again, I've noticed a couple of little things that suddenly seem more significant in the light of developments in the most recent couple of books.

First, when Harry and friends are sorted into their houses, we read that "the [sorting] hat took a long time to decide with Neville" [1]. This is interesting given that we've now learned about the close connection between Neville and Harry. The hat also took a long time with Harry, and it considered — *gasp* — putting him in Slytherin. Was it considering the same with Neville? Interesting ...

Second, there's that bit when Harry, Ron, and Hermione have just figured out who Nicolas Flamel is. In the upcoming Quidditch match between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff, it's announced that Snape will referee, which (at the time) seems ominous for Harry, who, we're told, "sometimes had the horrible feeling that Snape could read minds" [2]. Of course, this makes me think of the Occlumency lessons Snape gives to Harry in Order of the Phoenix, and Snape's powerful demonstrations of Legilimency. Harry was right!

[Update:] And there's another example of this, in Chamber of Secrets. When Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts in the enchanted car and Snape catches them, he demands an explanation. Before it's revealed that Harry and Ron were spotted by Muggles, we read: "This wasn't the first time Snape had given Harry the impression of being able read minds" [3].

Nice to see these elements present right at the beginning, isn't it? I'm sure I'll be discovering little things like this for years to come.

[1] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998, p. 120.
[2] Ibid., p. 221.
[3] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999, p. 79.