Friday, February 27, 2009

Dictionaries and “darkling doors”

About a week ago, my friend Jake Seliger alerted me to an interesting new online project, Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. In its own words:

In celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s birth in 1709, a definition from the first edition of the dictionary will be posted each day for readers’ lexiconic delight, beginning on January 1, 2009. Words will be taken from the annotated proof copy of the first edition, extra-illustrated with Johnson’s and his helpers’ manuscript corrections, which is held in the collections of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The blog is full of interesting surprises (e.g., Harry Potter fans might recognize this one). And it’s especially nice to see illustrations and marginalia from the proof copy, as in the definition of “descent”. Be sure to stop by for a daily dose.

But now, to the matter at hand, of which the preceding was merely the catalyst. In his email message, Jake sent me the entry for “darkling”, noting that Tolkien used the word, and adding, “I’m not sure what it means that I hear of obscure Tolkien-related wordplay and think immediately of you.” Well, whatever it means, it’s a mental association I can appreciate. After all, when I hear of obscure Tolkien-related wordplay, I too think immediately of myself. ;)

Johnson writes that darkling is “a participle, as it seems, from darkle, which yet I have never found” and gives citations from Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden. Well, Johnson may not have found darkle, but it certainly exists. Some dictionaries suggest that darkle is simply back formation from darkling, but my own guess is that it’s a frequentative form of dark(en), as sparkle and dazzle are frequentative forms of spark and daze. But in any case, Johnson was wrong.

The word darkling is not a participle of darkle (or rather, this darkling isn’t, though the verb darkle, of course, does have a participial form). Rather, it’s an adverb going back to Middle English derkeling, built on the same model as ME sideling and hedlinge [1] — interesting because this suggests the modern form should have been *darklong, cf. sidelong and headlong. No Old English antecedent is attested, but if the word goes back that far (which is likely), it would probably have been *deorclinga. There are many contemporary words formed on the same principle, among them: OE handlinga “with the hands”, Old High German unwaringûn “unawares”, Old Saxon nichtinge “nighly”, and a bit later, Middle High German blindlings “blindly”. The word was originally adverbial, but has since become more often adjectival. The citations Johnson gives demonstrate both parts of speech.

I once used darkling myself, as a noun: dark + ling (cf. darling, earthling, underling, duckling, and Old English æðeling). I adopted this as the name for the “baddies” — my orcs, goblins, and trolls, if you will — in a fantasy novel I was writing in junior high school. I never finished the novel (luckily for you! ;), but at least one reader will remember it. Perhaps he’ll comment. I had come up with this word independently, I’m pretty sure, but apparently, an author named David Kesterton used it similarly in a novel called The Darkling (1982). This was a year or two before I began my novel, but I was never aware of Kesterton’s. A strange coincidence — and an example of how source hypotheses can be flat wrong.

Tolkien used darkling too, as Jake noted in the message that sent me down this particular rabbit-hole. The example he pointed out was from the final stanza of the tale of Tinúviel that Aragorn chants to the hobbits at Weathertop: “Long was the way that fate them bore, / O’er stony mountains cold and grey, / Through halls of iron and darkling door, / And woods of nightshade morrowless.”

But this isn’t the only time Tolkien used the word. In The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, Tolkien echoes himself very closely indeed:
Torhthelm: [...] Lo! Fire now wakens,
hearth is burning, house is lighted,
men there gather. Out of the mists they come
through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth.
Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting:
stern words they sing with strong voices.
(He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,
more proud the spirit as our power lessens!
Mind shall not falter nor mood waver,
though doom shall come and dark conquer.
Indeed, Tolkien used darkling many more times — e.g., in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”, throughout the drafts in The History of Middle-earth — and no less than twelve times in The Lord of the Rings (in which I include several instances of darkling as the participial form of darkle).

But two occasions of “darkling door” — that catches the eye, doesn’t it? Is the repetition coincidental? Beorhtnoth was published in 1953, but it goes back much further. The earliest draft, in fact, goes back to the 1930’s, conterminous with “Errantry”, though Tolkien had in mind a different formal structure at that stage. The version we know today seems to have come together during the first half of the 1940’s, making it definitely contemporary with the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

Did one of these works suggest “darkling door” to the other? Or could “darkling door” have been suggested to Tolkien by his own reading? Among many less compelling examples, I’ve found a few suggestive antecedents.
He knocked at the door, but his summons was unheard in the midst of the music. Then he opened it softly, and went in. There was no light in the room except the pale twilight, which marked out every line of the windows, and the glimmering of the painted glass, at the end by which he entered. He seemed to step out of the real world altogether into an enchanted place when he crossed that darkling threshold. — Margaret Oliphant, The Three Brothers (1870) [2]

Then softly down the steps they slid,
Eustace the stable door undid,
And, darkling, Marmion’s steed arrayed [...]
— Sir Walter Scott, Marmion (1808)

An angry gust of wind
Puffed out his torch among the myriad-roomed
And many-corridored complexities
Of Arthur’s palace: then he found a door,
And darkling felt the sculptured ornament
That wreathen round it made it seem his own [...]
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King (1856–1885)

There far from regions of our solar height
“The Firmament,” where crystal pillars rise,
Hidden with God above all mortal sight, —
The Heaven of Heaven in the mysterious skies, —
The palace where His arch’d pavilion lies
‘Mid the divided waters; whose bright floor
Is pav’d beneath with starry galaxies; —
Such as mankind as through a darkling door
In distance may descry — the great eternal shore [...]
— Isaac Williams, The Seven Days, or the Old and New Creation, “The Second Day: The Firmament and the Waters” (1850) [3]
The last is particularly beautiful, isn’t it? I haven’t seen any evidence that Tolkien knew of Isaac Williams or his works, but considering the subject matter of Williams’s poetry and his close association with Oxford University in the century before Tolkien arrived there, it is not at all unlikely. Without making an unnecessary detour, I would just point out that the specifically Anglican ideals of the Oxford Movement need not automatically disqualify Willliams as a possible source. Nor, let me hasten to add, am I strenuously arguing that Williams (or any of these authors) was Tolkien’s source, nor even that Tolkien had or needed any particular source for his “darkling door” — but I find the similarity between Tolkien, Williams, and Oliphant especially suggestive. Tennyson and Scott, less so, but Tolkien definitely read their works. It might even be possible that the idea of a “darkling door” was a kind of commonplace of Victorian-era literature. But to answer that, a return trip to the library might be in order. :)

[1] Oliphant, T.L. Kington. The New English. Volume I. London, New York: Macmillan & Co., 1886, p. 284.

[2] Oliphant, Margaret. The Three Brothers. Serialized from June 1869 to September 1870 in Saint Pauls [sic]: A Monthly Magazine. Ed. Anthony Trollope. London: Strahan & Co. The text quoted is from Volume V (October 1869–March 1870), 1870, p. 515.

[3] Williams, Isaac. The Seven Days, or the Old and New Creation. Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1850, p. 67.


  1. Here's one I (or rather, the all-knowing Google) found: "To earth he starts a weapon wildly snatches / Hies through the hall, the darkling door unlatches". It is apparently from "The Irish Poems of Alfred Perceval Graves" (Robert Graves' father). What is curious about the reference is that it is from a poem about Orpheus and Eurydice, in whose legend critics have long found parallels with Tolkien's story of Beren and Luthien.

  2. Yes, that passage certainly has the right flavor. I don’t know of any reason to suppose Tolkien ever read it, though he could have done. Tolkien did attend a lecture given by the son, Robert Graves, which he called “the most ludicrously bad lecture I have ever heard.” Tolkien described Graves himself as “[a] remarkable creature, entertaining, likeable, odd, bonnet full of wild bees, half-German, half-Irish, very tall, must have looked like Siegfried/Sigurd in his youth, but an Ass” (Letters #267, p. 353). This lecture was the same occasion where Tolkien was introduced to Ava Gardner and had no idea whom she was. :)

  3. Nice discussion of darkling door! For what it's worth, I've always found Tolkien's use of darkling woods in Frodo's lament for Gandalf particularly evocative. Here's the second stanza (LotR, Bk2, Ch7, ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’):

      From Wilderland to Western shore,
      from northern waste to southern hill,
      through dragon-lair and hidden door
      and darkling woods he walked at will.

    Of course, this is just one of some twelve occurrences of darkling you mentioned were in LotR, but isn't it interesting that door and darkling are associated again? Surely the ‘hidden door’ in question was the West Gate of Moria, which could hardly have been more ‘darkling,’ but perhaps Tolkien (or Frodo!) felt the Mirkwood reference more deserving of the adjective in this setting.

  4. Marc, great comment! Yes, you’re right: “door” and “darkling” again in proximity! It would seem the image held a prominent place in Tolkien’s imagination.

    As for the “hidden door”, yes, it probably was the West Gate of Moria. This would naturally have been fresh in Frodo’s mind. Or could it have been Dol Guldur? As Gandalf says, “Some here will remember that many years ago I myself dared to pass the doors of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, and secretly explored his ways [...]” (emphasis added). Then, “hidden door / and darkling woods” could represent Dol Guldur and Mirkwood, in close propinquity as they are.