Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A new essay

Some time ago, The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza asked me to contribute an essay to their Scholars Forum, which has previously featured new papers by Tom Shippey, Michael Drout, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, and other notable names in Tolkien studies. It’s a great honor to have been offered a place in such a fellowship. My essay was published earlier this month, so I thought it was high time I mentioned it here!

You can read my paper, “Some Contributions to Middle-earth Lexicography: Hapax Legomena in The Lord of the Rings”, by following this link. (Forgive the odd formatting; that wasn’t my doing.) The title offers a hint at my approach, playing as it does on Tolkien’s own paper, “Some Contributions to Middle-English Lexicography” (1925). If you are a regular reader of Lingwë, then you should find plenty of interesting things in the essay. I do hope you enjoy it.

Note that if you would like to comment on it — and I hope some of you will — they ask that you do so in a separate thread, located here. Of course, I also invite comments on the essay here.


  1. I enjoyed the essay a lot, thank you! I had just made a comment in the comment thread on the Plaza when I discovered that you've posted about it here.

    Two points that I feel is worth bringing up here as well is Théoden's use of leechcraft which I think has at least three possible interpretations:

    1: First there is the generic meaning of ‘doctoring’, which you mention in the essay, doctoring with adverse effects on the patient's health (in this case the suggestion is probably that this was actually Gríma's intention — I suppose it is not entirely impossible that Gríma was even drugging Théoden under the pretense of trying to cure him).
    2: Then there's the more specific reference to Gríma draining the lifeblood out of Théoden, like a leech.
    3: Finally Théoden may be intending it very literally: that Gríma has been applying actual leeches in order to keep Théoden anaemic and therefore weaker.

    With respect to the application to the craft practiced in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith, I think the use of leechcraft also implies that, though it was still wise in Gondor, it had nonetheless fallen far from the healing crafts of Númenor of old, and had become filled with tradition: repeating, as we see elsewhere, old lore without understanding it, and probably also using practices of dubious effect.

    The other thing that I would like to raise here is your comment about the use of weregild offering us ‘some idea of what jurisprudence in Gondor might have been like.’ I am familiar with the laws on weregild in the old Danish regional laws, (e.g. a quarter weregild for a hand), and am curious if this is what you're thinking of?

  2. Wonderful essay! You get the feeling that any study on Tolkien which doesn't start with individual words needs some kind of apology or justification.

    A couple of years ago I wrote a note about the several contexts where Tolkien uses weregild, concluding more or less that the only case where the word clearly retains its legal value in in the Felaróf episode (Appendix A.II):


    As regards the Norse equivalent of weregild (see your note vi): there is also manngjöld, which clearly conveys the meaning "compensation for the life of a man". It is used in the Egil Saga (p. 138 line 34 in Einarsson's edition in the Viking Society page); W.C. Green translates it as "atonement". Also in the Njál Saga chapter 123 (which Dasent translated as "manfine"), and in the Ljósvetninga Saga. Both Cleasby-Vigfusson and Zoega define it simply as "weregild". It doesn't seem to be very common, though.

  3. The old Danish regional laws also have man bøter and manbötær (modern Danish mandebod deriving from ON mann bót where the second element originally had the meaning of ‘betterment’ - presumably the original meaning was something along the lines of that which makes the taking of a man's life good again, which I think fits well with man bøter being also the basis for calculating compensation also if the man survived.

  4. Thanks to both of you for the feedback!

    To Troels: First, I think you are right about the layers of meaning in leechcraft. That kind of complexity, even in the choice of a single word, is so typical of Tolkien. Substitute any synonym you like, and at least part of the richness of meaning collapses.

    Second, as to weregild, yes, these laws are generally what I meant to evoke. The 13th-century Codex Holmiensis to which you referred in the Scholars Forum comments thread is later than I had in mind, but it would have been built on the same foundations. I had in mind mainly the laws of Anglo-Saxon England some centuries earlier (cf. Benjamin Thorpe, ed., Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, 1840). These in turn look back on still earlier legal expressions of much the same kind (e.g., the 6th-century Lex Salica).

    As to the “modern Danish mandebod deriving from ON mann bót where the second element originally had the meaning of ‘betterment’ — presumably the original meaning was something along the lines of that which makes the taking of a man’s life good again […]”. The ON bót also carried the meaning “atonement, compensation, remedy”, which I think fits better. The ON mannbœtr is the compensation, or the remedy, for murdering or maiming a man.

    As a sidenote, it is tempting to look for the sense of “barter” in the second element (English from French from Celtic), but that is getting too far afield for any kind of convincing case. :)

    To Hlaford: I look forward to reading your post on weregild more closely. I had intended to skim it now, for the purposes of replying to your comment, but I see that it is a pretty substantial post, requiring due attention.

    And — As regards the Norse equivalent of weregild (see your note vi): there is also manngjöld, which clearly conveys the meaning “compensation for the life of a man” […] It doesn’t seem to be very common, though — thanks for pointing that out. I had forgotten or overlooked it. It would have been a footnote to a footnote, I suppose, but well worth knowing!

  5. WOW, that was really interesting! I mean, I never knew about Hapax Legomena. I did know that there were some words used only once, and leechcraft always stood out for me in the book, and I liked the fact that it was put into the movie! I never knew that the proper name for it was Hapax Legomena, keep it up with these articles! I learn things!

  6. Glad to hear you liked the essay. Sometimes while I’m working, I’ll find myself thinking, “what if I’m the only one who finds this the least bit interesting?!” Of course, I would do it anyway — I can’t really help myself; it’s how I’m wired — but it’s really nice to hear that folks have enjoyed the results. :)

  7. Somewhere in the blogosphere, or the portion of it that I frequent, I wrote a lengthy comment listing all the hapax legomena in Tolkien in another sense: the words that only he uses. I found these by running the text of the L.R. through a spelling checker to locate all the "misspelled" words, eliminating (by eye) all the Quenya, Sindarin, Orkish, etc. and all the proper names, and checking what was left against the OED. There weren't too many words left, something like 40.

    Alas and dammit, despite much creative Googling I just can't find that comment.

  8. Keep looking! I’d definitely like to see that, John.

  9. Finally I found it!

    Only 18 words after all: backarappers, dolven, eleventy-one, elven, errandless, gentlehobbit, haywards, hobbit, rightabouts, smials, starmoon, truesilver, tweens, and warg, plus the four borrowings crebain, ithildin, miruvor, and mithril. Many of these are hapaxes in your sense as well.

  10. Obviously lots of people have used some of these words since, I hasten to add.

  11. Even most of those were not coinages of Tolkien. At least backarappers, dolven, eleventy, elven, errandless, rightabouts, and tweens were all legitimate English words before Tolkien, though most are dialectal and/or obsolete. Tolkien did give some of these new senses or adapt them to new parts of speech. His actual coinages are very, very few.

  12. Add hayward, included in the OED. I'm not sure about tweens: the OED gives an aphetic form of between, but it's still a preposition; is it recorded anywhere as a noun in the sense Tolkien uses it? If not, I believe it should count as a coinage.

    Something that might be a true neologism is the verb trillup/trillap Tolkien uses in BoLT I; ChT notes that he couldn't find it in any dictionary available to him. It is clearly onomatopoeic: compare with a passage (obviously unrelated) in "Wild acres: a book of the gulf coast country" (H.H. Kopman, 1946 - found via Google) about the barn swallow:

    "They passed eastward along the shore in a scarcely interrupted file, following each other usually by a difference of a few seconds, no great distance as measured in the speed of their flight. Except for an occasional light 'trillup, trillup,' they sustained their swift flight silently."

  13. I might be wrong about tweens. I know it’s attested in more or less the same usage as Tolkien’s from the later 1940’s — therefore, independent. My presumption is that it goes further back, but I don’t have good evidence of that at hand.

    Good catch with trillup. I’d forgotten about that one!

  14. Somehow I overlooked evermind, though it is not an ordinary word of the narrative: "Evermind they are called, simbelmynë in this land of Men, for they blossom in all the seasons of the year, and grow where dead men rest." It's clear that Aragorn is just glossing the (translated) Rohirric word here, not using an ordinary term of the Common Speech. This is both an ordinary hapax and a Tolkien-specific word.

  15. Oops. Gandalf, of course, not Aragorn.