Through the hot, seldom-traveled plain of southeastern Gondor runs an overlooked river, the Poros, southernmost tributary of the great Anduin. Running more or less east to west, it forms a natural boundary between the furthest reaches of Gondor and lands under the sway of Harad to the south. The Harad Road fords the river at the Crossings of Poros, continuing north through Ithilien to the Crossroads and still further to the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Poros is barely mentioned. Apart from its proper place on the maps, it figures only in the appendices as a site of frontier skirmishes between Gondor and the Haradrim (Appendix A.I.iv; and see Appendix B at TA 2885). With so few references, why should this far-flung river be of any interest to anybody? Well, it’s the name that attracted my attention. In the context of Middle-earth and its languages, we don’t know what it means — and that is pretty rare.
Such puzzles always pique my curiosity, and I think I have an answer. Having a look through the materials available to me, and performing some moderately thorough (though not exhaustive) searches of the Internet, I don’t come across anyone with the same theory I am about to share. If anyone has seen this, please let me know. Anyway, here goes.
Tolkien doesn’t discuss the name in “The Rivers and Beacon Hills of Gondor” (Vinyar Tengwar 42); it seems not to be glossed in “Words, Phrases & Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings” (Parma Eldalamberon 17); it’s not in the “Nomenclature” Tolkien prepared for translators; nor is it in the Eldarin Etymologies. It’s really a bit of a mystery. As a result, guesses as to the meaning of this name are just that — guesses. The common element in most of these guesses is Sindarin ros “foam, spray”, but the first element is pretty much totally unknown. Eldarin roots with similar sound silhouettes seem to be red herrings (“flour”? “north”?). Jim Allan once suggested that it might be the same element in the equally rare (and also appendiceal) name, Araphor (= aran + por), but this doesn’t help much since we still have no idea what the element por is supposed to mean. And that’s assuming the name is Sindarin at all. A welter of names in the south of Gondor are said to be of pre-Númenórean origin and not Eldarin. The fact is, we just don’t know.
Here’s my theory, something I’ve been meaning to share with you for a long, long time. I can’t help wondering whether the name might have a primary world etymology. After all, it looks like a standard form Greek noun of the second declension, doesn’t it? In fact, there is such a word. Ancient Greek attests πόρος, matching Tolkien’s spelling exactly, and what is more, its meaning is highly suggestive. Of several connotations and uses, there are these in particular: (1) “a means of passing a river, a ford or ferry”, and (2) “a narrow sea, straight”. Through the regular laws of sound change, the Modern English words firth and ford are related, as are fjord < Old Norse fjörðr, and port “a haven” < Latin portus. I think Latin vadum “shoal, shallow, ford, sea, etc.” may be related to this same root as well.
The general sense of the Greek word is of a “passage, way, journey”, and it is also connected to the English fare (as in wayfarer and farewell) as well as ferry. It traces its ultimate origins to an Indo-European root √PER meaning “to lead, pass over, pass through” (also the source of prepositions and prefixes of directional meaning: e.g., for(e)– and peri–). This root has all sorts of interesting descendants; not only those previously mentioned, but also such an odd bunch as führer, porter, pier, parsely, fern, feather, gaberdine, and even the proper names Ferdinand, Portugal, and Parvati.
Plato wrote of Poros, a god of expediency, contrivance, and ease (i.e., passage). His antithesis was Aporia, goddess of difficulty, powerlessness, lack of means (i.e., impasse < α + πορία “without passage, means, device”). Aesop and Plutarch each have something to tell us about her. Aporia is a term still used in philosophy to express a state of puzzlement or doubt.
Finally, and I think most significantly, there is the Bosphorus, the Turkish strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. The original meaning of the name is literally an ox-ford (βοῦς “ox” + πόρος “passage, ford”). This is amusing to me, and might be to you too, because it recalls the humble origins of the English Oxford and the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford, the original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary whom Tolkien affectionately parodies in Farmer Giles of Ham.
I also chose the word “boundary” with good reason. If you were paying attention, you noticed I used the same word in the first paragraph of this post. Among drafts and notes for The Lord of the Rings (see The Treason of Isengard, p. 312), Tolkien explicitly identified the River Poros as a “boundary”. In Middle-earth, this was the boundary between Gondor and Harad, but if one overlays Middle-earth very roughly onto a map of our own real world, this corresponds pretty well to the boundary between Europe and Asia, making the Poros roughly analogous to the Bosphorus. Given this analogy and the similarity of the names, the likelihood the Greek word was in Tolkien’s mind seems hard to ignore.
By way of a closing fillip, I’d like to note that this isn’t the first time I’ve speculated about the specific influence of Greek on Tolkien’s nomenclature. If you’re interested and haven’t seen it yet, you might want to read my post on the name of the wolf, Carcharoth. I also wrote the entry on Greek Gods (among others) in the Tolkien Encyclopedia. In the same part of the ancient world, the Colossus of Rhodes seems like a possible model for the Argonath. And I could go on. A culture as rich as that of Ancient Greece could hardly fail to leave traces in Tolkien’s fictive world, especially when you consider that he began his academic career by specializing in Greek philology. A word like πόρος could easily have swum to the front of Tolkien’s mind when he needed a name for a boundary river. This, in fact, could explain why there is no adequate Eldarin gloss for the name. It was all Greek to him. :)