Tuesday, May 6, 2008

More on Sir Gawain: Trolls, Ogres — and Rings?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — in particular, about the choices he made in two or three specific lines of the poem. This has continued to gnaw at me. Was Tolkien’s solution the only one, or even the best one? It certainly was a faithful one, if we believe Shippey’s theory that Tolkien intended his translation to mimic an error on the part of the author. But was that faithfulness worth abandoning a word of clear Germanic origin for a more Romantic one (in the linguistic sense)? In that case, one kind of fidelity comes at the cost of another.

The question continued to bug Marjorie Burns, too. She sent me this response:

In the back of my mind is the urge to try rewriting the ogre line for Tolkien and so avoid ogre. It seem obvious to me that ogre works for the alliteration. Shippey is dead right about that; but I don’t see why recognizing Tolkien’s alliterative intent locks us into the use of ogre. Surely some other word and alliterative string would work as well. Tolkien has already used troll two lines above [for the Middle English wodwos], but there must be something else. Couldn’t we have a line like: “And with trolls that trailed him from the tall heights of the fells.” Of course, then we’d need something else where Tolkien uses “wood-trolls” two lines above. Still, I’m sure that too can be solved — not that Tolkien cares or that anyone is going to change what he wrote, but only for the sake of exercise. Trolls and giants are often interchangeable in the sagas, as Tolkien well knew. So I’d go for one of several ways to indicate giant, or wood-giant in this case. I’ll leave that for another day or for some other inventive mind.

My own suggestion for ME wodwos would naturally be “woodwose”, a word Tolkien used in his fiction. Most readers will remember the Woses in The Lord of the Rings; but also, in the Narn i Chîn Húrin (in Unfinished Tales and in the more recent Children of Húrin, based on the Narn), Saeros refers to Túrin, contemptuously, as a woodwose. Picture a wild, aboriginal man of some kind, scarcely distinguishable from an animal of the woods. This would work in place of “wood-trolls”, I think, and although arcane, it has the added benefit of being extremely close to the original (OE wuduwása). Certainly better than “satyrs” [1] or “fauns” [2].

As to the other line, I like Marjorie’s suggestion pretty well — “And with trolls that trailed him from the tall heights of the fells” — though it introduces an entirely new word (“tall”) purely for the sake of alliteration. I prefer not to do that if it can be helped, even though it’s probably permissible here, because “heights” could be said to imply “tall.” What else might we try? Puzzling over that very question led me to zero in on the ME anelede, which Tolkien translated “hounded” and for which Marjorie suggests “trailed.” Tolkien and Gordon give “pursued” in their glossary [3] and identify the source of the word as the Old French aneler. So my first reaction is this: Tolkien substituted a Germanic verb (hounded) for a Romantic one (anelede), so it’s not unreasonable he should achieve linguistic parity by changing a Germanic noun (etayne3) into a Romantic one (ogres).

But even more interesting is the Old French aneler. According to Stratmann (in his entry for anelen), OF aneler derives from Latin anhelāre, and means something closer to “pant after, puff at” [4]. One or two Old French dictionaries I consulted gave OF aneler = ModF aspirer, inhaler. One recalls the folktale of the Three Little Pigs. Well, far be it from me (but that’s never stopped me before!), but I can’t see how this etymology is correct. Rather — now stay with me here — I think the source is something much nearer and dearer to the good Professor. Namely, rings!

Turning to the Dictionnaire Historique de l’Ancien Langage François, sort of the Bosworth/Toller of Old French, the etymology given for aneler is very different. In part, it reads:

Figurer en cercle; tourner en boucles, en anneaux; courber, arquer. Garnir d’anneaux. Attacher, suspender, fermer avec des anneaux. On observera qu’en particularisant l’acception générale dont Cotgrave paroit être le seul garant, on a dit et l’on dit encore anneler, en parlant des cheveux qu’on frise et qu’on tourne en boucles. (Voy. Dict. de l’Acad. Fr.) [5]
For those who don’t read French, this means, more or less:
To form into a circle; to turn in loops, in rings; to bend, to arch. To garnish with rings. To tie, suspend, close with rings. One should note that in particularizing the general acceptance of this meaning, Cotgrave appears to be the sole source; it was said and one still says anneler [= “to form into rings”], speaking of frizzy hair that turns in loops. (cf. The Dictionary of the French Academy)

Related to OF aneler are anel “circle, ring” (= ModF anneau), from Latin anus “ring”; and anelet “a small ring” from Latin an(n)ulus “small ring” (cf. English annulus). One can’t help but remember Boromir’s words at the Council of Elrond: “The Ring! Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing?” Or those of the Sauron’s messenger to Dáin, calling it “a little ring, the least of rings.” How wonderfully disingenuous!

But the definition in the Dictionnaire Historique seems nowhere near the idea of pursuit; and yet, Tolkien, Stratmann, and others identify OF aneler as the source for ME anelen, which clearly has that meaning. The answer to this riddle? My thinking: an enemy who encircles, turning and looping back in the pursuit, drawing an ever tightening ring around his prey. Perfect. So if I am right, has anyone else proposed this etymology? And if not, why not? I admit I like this much better than Stratmann’s “huff and puff” etymology, but is it merely an overzealous delight in the Tolkienian implications? And if this is the etymology, one boggles at the thought that Tolkien could have resisted the temptation to do something metaphorical with rings in his rendition of the poem — especially since there is a literal ring later in the poem. Christopher Tolkien dates his father’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to “soon after 1950” — so Tolkien would clearly have had rings on his mind.

Well, if the idea of “ringing him round” or “circling him” ever occurred to Tolkien, he must have dismissed it for lack of a suitable alliterative substitute for etayne3. And I can do no better, in spite of wasting plenty of thought on it — curses! What about you? Care to offer a suggestion — “for the sake of exercise”? :)

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. and E.V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: OUP, 1925, p. 229.

[2] Stratmann, Francis Henry. A Middle-English Dictionary. Rev. ed. London: OUP, 1891, p. 698.

[3] Tolkien and Gordon, p. 162.

[4] Stratmann, p. 24.

[5] Dictionnaire Historique de l’Ancien Langage François. Tome Premier A–AO. 1875, p. 441.

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