Friday, February 22, 2008

“Old entish swords” in Beowulf and Tolkien

Did y’all miss me? Apologies for the paucity of posts over the preceding days (heh, Germanic alliterative verse on the brain — read on!), but I’ve had the flu. All better now and back to write about Old English swords and words.

As attentive readers will already know, I’m currently reading John Rateliff’s two-volume History of The Hobbit, which I am reviewing for the next issue of Mythlore. In Rateliff’s short essay on Bard the Bowman and his Black Arrow, something caught my eye:

Once again Beowulf may have contributed something to the idea of a weapon that achieves its goal but then perishes: in the battle with Grendel’s dam, Beowulf [...] is able to slay her and to cut off Grendel’s head with an ancient sword he finds within her lair. This ealdsweord eotenisc ([...] literally ‘old entish sword’) then melts away [...], leaving only the hilt behind [...]. [1]
I’m not sure how apt is the comparison between this “old entish sword” and Bard’s Black Arrow, but it got me to thinking about two other melting blades in The Lord of the Rings. The first is the dagger of the Witch-king, which melts away after giving Frodo a near-fatal wound:

He [Strider] stooped again and lifted up a long thin knife. There was a cold gleam in it. As Strider raised it they saw that near the end its edge was notched and the point was broken off. But even as he held it up in the growing light, they gazed in astonishment, for the blade seemed to melt, and vanished like a smoke in the air, leaving only the hilt in Strider’s hand.
The second is the sword of the Barrow-downs, with which Merry “dealt that foe a wound so bitter, cleaving the undead flesh, breaking the spell that knit his unseen sinews to his will.” But the blade perishes in the act (indeed, Aragorn has said long before that “all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King”):

Then he [Merry] looked for his sword that he had let fall; for even as he struck his blow his arm was numbed, and now he could only use his left hand. And behold! there lay his weapon, but the blade was smoking like a dry branch that has been thrust in a fire; and as he watched it, it writhed and withered and was consumed.
Both scenes (of which Rateliff mentions only the second) remind one immediately of Beowulf, where we encounter this vivid description:

[...] // þa þæt sweord ongan
[Then that sword began]
æfter heaþoswate // hildegicelum,
[from the blood of war, the icicles of battle,]
wigbil wanian. // þæt wæs wundra sum,
[the war-blade to wane. That was a wondrous thing,]
þæt hit eal gemealt // ise gelicost,
[that it all melted just like ice]
ðonne forstes bend // fæder onlæteð,
[as when frosty bonds the Father releases,]
onwindeð wælrapas, // se geweald hafað
[unwinds the well-ropes, having wielded all]
sæla ond mæla; // þæt is soð metod.
[seasons and times: that is the true Lord.] [2]
Pretty powerful stuff, but was Tolkien deliberately echoing Beowulf in The Lord of the Rings, or was the allusion perhaps merely an unconscious one? After all, the melting sword motif is used of both an evil blade, then a good, an evil wielder, then an evil victim. Thanks to Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s Reader’s Companion, we have an excerpt from a previously unpublished letter in which Tolkien speaks directly to the point (no pun intended):

The melting of the sword-blade has a dramatic quality, which is attractive to a storyteller and makes it linger in the memory; but the dramatic effect is the only real connexion between the different uses of the motif [in The Lord of the Rings ...] and the Anglo-Saxon poem. But that remains a fact of my personal biography (of which I was certainly not consciously aware when writing), and in no way enhances or explains the incidents in their places. [3]
What about Rateliff’s ‘literal’ translation “old entish sword”? Likewise, the sword is elsewhere called enta ærgeweorc [4], which Rateliff or I might translate “ent-wrought”. I like using “entish” here myself, but it could be a bit confusing unless one remembers that the Old English ent (also eten and eoten) was really just a Giant in the Germanic mythological tradition. In fact, *ent may be taken as the theorized form the Old English word(s) would have eroded into over the intervening centuries. In the long history of Beowulf translations, one often finds eotenisc rendered as “giant”, “giant-made”, “giant-wrought”, “gigantic” (which is not quite right), and so forth (a prodigious sampling can be examined here). But with the proper footnotes, “entish” might do just as well.

Compare Old English eoten with Old Norse jötunn “giant”, and Old English Eotaland “the land of the Jutes, Jutland” with Old Norse Jötunheimr, the World of the Giants in Norse mythology. Tolkien derived the name of his Ents from Anglo-Saxon literature [5], but we also find it used as more or less synonymous for Trolls in the toponym, Ettenmoors, the wild region north of Rivendell inhabited by the Ents’ more, well, trollish cousins. In fact, in early drafts, this area was called the “Entish Lands”. C.S. Lewis also used the toponym, Ettenmoor (singular), in his Chronicles of Narnia. Early on, Tolkien was unsure whether Treebeard the Ent would be friend or foe, or exactly what sort of giant he was (Gandalf “was caught in Fangorn and spent many weary days as a prisoner of the Giant Treebeard” [6]). But I digress. The point to take away from this is that Tolkien developed the idea of his Ents and Trolls (the two races are explicitly linked in some of the later “Silmarillion” writings) from this generalized notion of Giants in the Germanic mythological literature. One wonders whether they ought to be linked to the Stone-giants in The Hobbit as well.

It was just like Tolkien to postulate a feigned history for such a race (or races) of beings. Even so, one can’t easily imagine Tolkien’s Ents (or Trolls) wielding a sweord eotenisc ... And yet, the melting sword (unconsciously, it would seem) also found its way into Tolkien’s imagination.


[1] Rateliff, John D. The History of the Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007, p. 558–9.

[2] Beowulf, ll. 1605b–1611; the more or less literal translation, with any attendant faults, is mine.

[3] Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 182.

[4] Beowulf, l. 1679.

[5] In addition to Beowulf, “ents” are found in the poem The Wanderer, to which Tolkien refers in his letter to W.H. Auden (#163): Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 212, 445n2.

[6] Tolkien, Christopher, ed. The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988, p. 363.

23 comments:

  1. The Fish Wife2/22/2008 2:57 PM

    My head just exploded and only about 1/4 way in. too! ;)

    I love yer brain though. It's sexy! :)

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  2. Thanks, Fish Wife! Sorry about your brain exploding. I hope Jimmie’s home, ’cause you know I ain’t got any other friends in 818. Are we gonna have to get Marsellus to send the Wolf? ;)

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  3. The Fish Wife2/22/2008 4:09 PM

    Yes, we are going to need The Wolf. It's a 30 minute drive, but he'll be here in 10! ;)

    How we missed thee!

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  4. Is this a private conversation between Fishes?

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  5. Thank you for that very interesting note!

    By the way, I knew about the connection between ents and trolls and the link to eotanisc, but I only now grasped it (for the lack of a better expression) and let me tell you, ents now feel much more familiar and 'close to home'.

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  6. PJ, you just watch the sarcasm or my next comment will be in runes. ;)

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  7. Hello Adanedhel. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for letting me know. :)

    By the way, I knew about the connection between ents and trolls and the link to eotanisc, but I only now grasped it [...] and let me tell you, ents now feel much more familiar and 'close to home'.

    I find that to be one of the greatest pleasures in Tolkien source study: that eureka moment when something just falls into place, rippling through one’s whole understanding of how Tolkien’s imagination worked, and the attendant increase in appreciation for the depth, beauty, and quiet erudition of his legendarium. And it’s a testament to his genius that we are still able to hold meaningful conversations about these subjects decades after his death.

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  8. Gary Schmidt2/24/2008 9:50 AM

    Great post, SexyBrain! ;)

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  9. Hey Jason

    Just back from the Bath Literary Festival where we heard Terry Pratchett of Discworld (a man who also dabbles in trolls - think a couple of them are employed in Ankh Morpok) talk about his books and actually read from an upcoming book to be published in September called Nation. Great post - is there not also a connection with Eoten/Jutes made in the work did on Finn and Hengest? Also, I wonder how how an ent would carry a sword and boy it would take a long time for him to draw it! Great that you are feeling better -look forward to the posts - I am in the middle of The Journal of Tolkien Studies vol 4 and plan to blog on some of the excellent articles in coming weeks.

    Cheers, Andy

    BTW: Great Beowulf site need to explore this!

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  11. Andy,

    Thanks for the comment and feedback. Very much appreciated, as always.

    Great post - is there not also a connection with Eoten/Jutes made in the work did on Finn and Hengest?

    Yes, you’re absolutely right about Finn and Hengest. In the editor’s introduction, Alan Bliss writes that “[t]he main participants in the dispute were the Danes and the Frisians: but a third group, the ‘Eotens’, is referred to in lines 1072, 1088, 1141 and 1145 of Beowulf, and the part played by these has given rise to much discussion. [...] in spite of phonological difficulties most scholars accept that ‘Eotens’ is a proper name meaning ‘Jutes’; yet there are still some who believe that the word means ‘giants’, either literally, or metaphorically in the sense of ‘enemies’.”

    Later on, Tolkien explains that he feels there is no reason to doubt that Jutes (not Giants) are intended in the fragmentary poem. He writes that “[n]o creatures are less likely to have any concern in the story than ‘trolls’, and only reluctantly and in face of conclusive evidence should we admit them.” However, that being said, Tolkien is at great pains to attempt to untangle the evident conflation (the “phonological difficulties”) of eoten in its earlier sense (as “giant”) with eoten in this later usage (as “Jute”).

    I am in the middle of The Journal of Tolkien Studies vol 4 and plan to blog on some of the excellent articles in coming weeks.

    It’s a very good issue. Looking forward to reading your thoughts. Also, Tolkien Studies 5 is just around the corner. I will have an essay appearing in that issue on the Three Rings of the Elves.

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  12. Great post, Jason - par excellence. I greatly appreciate your work: you are always thorough, well-researched and well-thought out, and I thank you. I especially appreciated your Beowulf quote; I find the poetry of that piece so stirring.

    Very interesting stuff on the Ents; I too found it interesting that Treebeard may have first been envisioned as a foe. Of course, The Return of the Shadow has a lot of surprises!

    But I was wondering about the chronologies. I'm not sure where in the Silmarillion it says so, but weren't the Ents formed by Vala Yavanna to protect her plants and such, and Etu granted that they would have life and awaken in the proper time? I wonder, did this first conception of the "Giant Treebeard" give birth to what later became the Ents, and so was worked into the Silmarillion once the people was more firmly conceived?

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  13. Great post, Jason - par excellence. I greatly appreciate your work: you are always thorough, well-researched and well-thought out, and I thank you.

    Thank you, Alex, for your very kind words. :)

    I especially appreciated your Beowulf quote; I find the poetry of that piece so stirring.

    As do I. And “stirring” is just the right word, too.

    Very interesting stuff on the Ents; I too found it interesting that Treebeard may have first been envisioned as a foe. Of course, The Return of the Shadow has a lot of surprises!

    It’s full of them, yes. More so than some of the other volumes, but they all have their surprises.

    But I was wondering about the chronologies. I’m not sure where in the Silmarillion it says so, but weren’t the Ents formed by Vala Yavanna to protect her plants and such, and Eru granted that they would have life and awaken in the proper time? I wonder, did this first conception of the “Giant Treebeard” give birth to what later became the Ents, and so was worked into the Silmarillion once the people was more firmly conceived?

    The passage from The Silmarillion to which you are referring (in Chapter 2 of the Quenta Silmarillion, “Of Aulë and Yavanna”, in the published book) is really an editorial insertion made by Christopher Tolkien early into Quenta using material Tolkien wrote much later (at the earliest, 1958-9, several years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings). See “Of the Ents and the Eagles” in The War of the Jewels (Volume 11 in the History of Middle-earth).

    So, yes, the Ents developed as part of The Lord of the Rings and were only retroactively incorporated into the “Silmarillion” writings much later. The same is true of Galadriel, for that matter.

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  14. Yes, Eru. That's what I meant.

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  15. Don’t you hate typos? And Blogger doesn’t let you edit your comments; you can only delete them. That’s frustrating!

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  16. Very interesting. Coming to your site while hunting for juicy stuff is always a good bet.

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  17. Thank you for the kind words, Oromë. Or perhaps I should say, tante grazie a Lei. I have just read the answering post you wrote on your own blog (in Italian, here), and I was very gratified to find myself called a linguista provetto. :)

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  18. You know, Jason, speaking about Beowulf (as old as this post is), I've been meaning to ask you: what did you think of the most recent film interpretation? No rush, obviously, but I would love to hear what you think.

    Congrats on the new house, and I hope all is well.

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  19. Hi Alex,

    You caught me at a good time. And thanks for the congrats! :)

    I liked the movie — more than I expected to, in fact. I had meant to write a full post about it at some point, but I never got around to that. But in a nutshell, here’s what I thought ...

    Does it deviate from the poem? Yes, of course it does, and in some very significant ways (e.g., Grendel’s mother and Beowulf’s relationship to the Dragon). But those deviations are all right with me, because I didn’t expect the film to be completely faithful to its source (just as the Peter Jackson film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings wasn’t completely faithful to its source). Movies are movies. Period.

    Visually, it was quite stunning, and I thought the 3D presentation was pretty remarkable. Some shots simply couldn’t have been done live action, or at least, not easily; and they wouldn’t have packed the same punch without 3D. The Dragon sequence, for example, is just breathtaking!

    I also loved the choice to have Grendel speak in Old English. The swimming contest with Breca and the giant sea-monsters was also great. And of course, Grendel’s visiting havoc upon Heorot. Exciting stuff!

    Most of the casting and the performances were excellent; though of all of them, Anthony Hopkins was perhaps the most miscast, or at least the character of Hrothgar was the most mishandled. John Malkovich was a delightfully sarcastic Unferth. Brendan Gleeson (whom I’d not heard about beforehand) was a great Wiglaf. And I really enjoyed Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, and Crispin Glover too.

    The animation was fantastic, much improved over the uber-creepy, dead-behind-the-eyes Polar Express. There’s still a long way to go, though. But overall, the film was highly enjoyable!

    What did you think?

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  20. I do completely agree with the "movies are movies" bit. Apples and oranges and all that. There were some differences, and I think that is due as much to a differences of philosophy of the ages and cultural-linguistic frameworks, etc. I did post on my blog a review of the more philosophical aspects of the interpretation. Of course, I thought there were some anachronistic character developments, giving heroes introspective consciences and tragic familial flaws and what not, but I do not believe that to be unbecoming. As art affects each age and generation, the people whom it speaks to must accept it and dialogue with it according to its own cultural linguistic framework. And that always breathes a new life and power to an interpretation - however dangerous that might be. And really, we are always giving introspective consciences to our heroes, these days. I mean, speaking of Peter Jackson - look what they did to Aragorn. Of all the changes, what they did to him and Faramir is what I would like to know how Tolkien would have felt the most. Well, and a few others, but you know...

    Visually - yes, stunning. There were many who criticized, but I think we should be careful about criticizing art for its failures to match reality; it's much like critizing van Gogh for the very same thing - rather tacky. And I like you thought they did a lot that would have been beyond reach in real life.

    And very well acted. I was surprised to hear you had not heard of Brendan Gleeson - especially with your keen interest in Harry Potter, since he is the actor who portrays Mad Eye Moody. I also agreed with you about Hrothgar, but I don't think it is that Hopkins did a bad job (not that you said that exactly); I think it was just a poor interpretation of his character - the whole Hrothgar-Wealhtheow-Beowulf triangle in general was perhaps a slight bit irritating.

    But I think it was incredibly clear that the writers were well-aware of the poem. The scene about the Sea Race/Battle between Beowulf and Breca was really good, and it happened closely to the way it did in the poem, I thought. I even went back and read that part, and it was pretty much all there - Unferth's accusation, Beowulf's counter, the insane story of slaying nine sea beasts and all that. I think the writer's at least showed us they knew the poem, and that they were well aware of the changes they intended to make - which in a way, makes them all the more appropriate for consideration, says I.

    Anyway, I'll stop. It was very enjoyable and thought-provoking I thought. I would like to see it again, to see how I would take it a second time.

    Cheers!

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  21. As art affects each age and generation, the people whom it speaks to must accept it and dialogue with it according to its own cultural linguistic framework. And that always breathes a new life and power to an interpretation - however dangerous that might be.

    Yes, I agree. Well said. You see the same kind of thing in the reinterpretation of the Classical tradition during the Renaissance, and the reshaping of Latin thought through the new lens of Humanism, to name just one other example.

    And really, we are always giving introspective consciences to our heroes, these days. I mean, speaking of Peter Jackson - look what they did to Aragorn. Of all the changes, what they did to him and Faramir is what I would like to know how Tolkien would have felt the most. Well, and a few others, but you know...

    Agreed. I’m sure Tolkien would have been most displeased. The changes to Faramir’s character were especially grating.

    I was surprised to hear you had not heard of Brendan Gleeson - especially with your keen interest in Harry Potter, since he is the actor who portrays Mad Eye Moody.

    No, no, I knew the actor, I just didn’t know ahead of time that he was in Beowulf. I realize I didn’t communicate that very well. But yeah, I know Gleeson from the Harry Potter franchise and elsewhere (e.g., The Village, Gangs of New York, et al.).

    I also agreed with you about Hrothgar, but I don't think it is that Hopkins did a bad job (not that you said that exactly); I think it was just a poor interpretation of his character

    Yes, that’s what I meant too. Hopkins is a fine actor — and an amazing pianist. My wife and I met him once at a party (very briefly), and he tickled the ivories with a little Chopin.

    I think the writer's at least showed us they knew the poem, and that they were well aware of the changes they intended to make - which in a way, makes them all the more appropriate for consideration, says I.

    Absolutely.

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