Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Gandalf who signed himself with a G.

Probably because of their success in Austin, food trucks have now arrived in Dallas. One of these is Gandolfo’s Deli, and this got me thinking about the name, Gandolfo, as a variation on Gandalf. I’ve seen it before — Castel Gandolfo, for one, is a town in Lazio, about a half-hour drive south of Rome, and the likely site of the fabled Alba Longa. I actually came within 100 km of this small town when I visited Italy in 2005. Most of our time was spent in Tuscany, but we made a couple of ventures into Umbria and Lazio as well — the latter, to the environs of Vacone, an even smaller località than Castel Gandolfo.

We know that Tolkien’s Gandalf has a Germanic name, specifically Old Norse. Tolkien borrowed the name from the Dvergatal section of the Völuspá (it also appears in the Ynglinga Saga, part of the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson [1]). I need not unduly repeat myself and others here (for one example, a long time ago, you might want to read this), but we can gloss the name as gandr “wand, magic staff” + álfr “elf, fairy”. So much is well known, but what of the name, Gandolfo? Is it related, or merely coincidentally similar? Should we expect Gandolfo to have a Romance etymology, rather than a Germanic one? If so, I can’t come up with anything plausible — anyone have any ideas? — so I am inclined to think it may have been borrowed into the Italic branch from the Goths, Franks, Lombards, Bretons, or another Germanic tribe of Late Antiquity. More on these etymological ruminations in a bit. First, back to Gandolfo.

What is its provenance? As with most things Italian, we start by looking directly to Latin. In this case, we would expect to find something like Gandolphus or Gandulphus. There are a number of historical figures with this name, and one in particular jumped out at me: Magister Gandulphus, a medieval canonist of twelfth-century Bologna (d. ca. 1185), and author of Sententiae. Gandulphus was a contemporary of the better known Peter Lombard (d. 1160), bishop, canonist, and author of Libri Quattuor Sententiarum. This was a much more influential work in medieval theology, one on which no less than Thomas Aquinas wrote commentaries a half-century later, but the Sententiae of Gandulphus were every bit as important in their day. In fact, “[t]he two works [appear] so similar in purpose, method, and content […] that some have been tempted to find the work of Peter Lombard in debt to the writings of the Bologna canonist” [2]. Some have even gone so far as to use the “p word” (plagiarism) — though to be fair, I’ve seen the same charges being made in the other direction as well.

Now I have no idea whether — and no particular reason to think that — Tolkien was familiar with this Gandulphus, not in the way we know he was of the semi-legendary Norse figure, but it is an interesting coincidence that the writings of Gandulphus were identified with a siglum. The signing of glosses and other writings with sigla is not unusual, but in this case, it does catch the eye. Gandulphus used various sigla in the extant writings — g., G., Ga., Gan., and Gand. are all recorded [4]. Of these, the siglum, G., is especially tantalizing, since it is also Gandalf’s sign. Readers of Tolkien will remember that Gandalf used the same siglum to mark his fireworks (in two different runic alphabets), to sign the letter he left for Frodo in Bree, and (apparently) to mark a stone on Weathertop.

So it appears that we have two personages with the name Gandalf (allowing for spelling), both signing their writings or otherwise identifying themselves with a G. I don’t mean to imply a direct borrowing here — with all that we know of the history of Tolkien’s Gandalf, it would seem unlikely that Tolkien had yet another source. Nor would he need a source to tell him that Gandalf should sign with his initial; that could proceed perfectly naturally from the character alone. But it is a surprising coincidence to find a real and a fictive Gandalf both doing this. The Norse Gandalf does not — not that we know very much about him.

So, to return to the etymology. The meaning of the first Norse element is, in fact, a bit unclear. It seems to have something to do with wizards, their magic, and/or the equipment by which they work it. It’s often calqued as “wand”, but this implies (incorrectly) that the Modern English reflex for ON gandr is actually “wand”. It isn’t. English wand is indeed borrowed from the Scandinavian branch (no pun intended!), but from ON vöndr “wand, switch, twig” — cognate to Gothic wandus < *bi-windan “to wind”. The second element definitively means “elf, fairy” and is a mainstay of Germanic anthroponymy (Alfred, Alvin, et al.). It is unattested in Gothic, but would have been something like *albs [3]. In theory, a third- or fourth-century Gothic or Lombardic name along the lines of *Wandalbus or some such could have been introduced into Latin as Gandolphus. What about the change in the vowel from front (a, æ, e) to back (o, u) — does this rule out a gloss of “elf”? No indeed. The Modern English oaf is one of several dialectal variations on elf. Drayton used the form aulf, Shakespeare ouphe. The idea was that an elf-child or “changeling” was sometimes left in place of a newborn baby, and that this child showed itself to be foolish, simple, or contrary-minded — that is, elf in the ancient sense became oaf in the modern sense.

It should be mentioned that there is an alternative theory. While most lexicographers agree that oaf derives from elf, it has been argued that oaf derives rather from auf “owl” (among its cognates, Old English úf, Old High German úvo, and Old Norse úfr “a bird of unknown kind”). Compare this to Italian gufo “owl”, and likewise compare French goffe “dull” and Modern English goof. This is one of a series of bird-names used metaphorically for silly, foolish, or mentally defective people — e.g., cuckoo, booby, dodo, gull (cp. gullible) — making it a pretty strong contender to explain the word oaf. But of course, this seems less likely to be the explanation for the second element in Gandolfo — unless Gandolfo was originally the name of a country clown or court jester.

So unless a reader can unearth an alternative explanation for the independent development of this name in the Italic family, I’m going to presume that it was most likely borrowed into Latin from one of the Continental Germanic tribes during the early centuries A.D., as were many other names, and that it has the same meaning as the Scandinavian Gandalf. That Tolkien’s Gandalf — a kind of angel, really — would bear some similarities to Gandulphus — not an angel, but a medieval Italian canonist [5] — is probably just an entertaining coincidence. But one, I think, worth spending a few words on. :)

[1] There are some eye-catching tidbits in the Ynglinga Saga as well (in addition to elements I discussed in my essay on Tolkien and the Heimskringla, which has been reviewed favorably). One passage, for example: “Olaf came to the kingdom after his father. […] He had Westfold; for King Alfgeir took all Vingulmark to himself, and placed his son Gandalf over it.” Olaf, though unrelated to elf, looks rather like it. Alfgeir is related to elf, and may be glossed “elf-spear”. Westfold, a part of the Vingulmark, of course, would cause any reader of Tolkien to sit up! There is also an Eastfold. But again, most likely no more than coincidence.

[2] John F. Sweeney, S.J. “Book Review of Le Mouvement Théologique du XIIe Siècle: Etudes, Recfarches et Documents, by J. de Ghellinck.” Theological Studies 11 (1950): 627–30, p. 628.

[3] William H. Bryson. Dictionary of Sigla and Abbreviations to and in Law Books Before 1607. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975, pp. 72–3. See also Wilfried Hartmann and Kenneth Pennington. The History of Medieval Canon Law in the Classical Period, 11401234: From Gratian to the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX. Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press, 2008., pp. 73–4.

[4] This is one of the difficulties with Gothic. Its limited surviving lexis is skewed toward Christian words and away from the older pagan Germanic traditions. A sad loss in the native word-stock, one which would be repeated some five or six centuries later in England.

[5] There is a Saint Gandulphus as well, or more than one, distinct from Magister Gandulphus of Bologna. Of one St. Gandulphus, it has been written that “Many Persons derided his Miracles, and even his Wife scornfully told him, that he performed them just as she farted: Whereupon she violently broke Wind, and continued to do so, whenever she spoke a Word, on the same Day of every Week to her Death” (George Lavington. The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compared. Volume I. London: J. and P. Knapton, 1754, p. 202; italics original). Let that be a lesson never to insult the magic of a wand-elf!


  1. The accepted etymology of Castel Gandolfo is that it is named after a Genoese family, the Gandolfi, whose legendary ancestor was a Lombard (or Longbeard, in English) named Gund(w)ulf 'battle-wolf'. The Romance vowel shift explains the /o/; I'm not sure how to explain the /a/, but names do mutate in unpredictable ways (my grandfather, whom I never knew, spelled and pronounced his name "Coen".)

    Romulus and Remus came from the royal family of Alba Longa, and were supposedly suckled by a wolf. Sheer coinkydink, of course.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Jase. I always learn so much from you!

  3. "Gandolfo" came from French/Occitan / N.Italian "gander", "mail goose", witch is also a "jar". Tolkien uses the verse in 1 Peter 3:7. Presenting his wife Edith as a wizard and adviser, and according to the Apostle Peter's wife is weaker vessel.
    Gandalf - Gander - elf, means elf-jar.

  4. LAVINGTON! I'm so happy to find someone who's read Lavington! I wrote a seminar paper on him. :-)

  5. I'm italian, every italian name that ends in "olf-" is obviously german. there is no such suffix in Latin.

    the etymology appears to be the same as Gandalf, wand+wolf

    other coincidences are that the crown of Aragon has always been one of the main defenders of the catholic church.

    the town near C. Gandolfo is not Alba Longa but Albano. the lake Albano is inside the crater of a active vulcano.

    Alba Longa "long white" reminds of Minas Tirith. Albano is said to be Alba Longa only for the assonance, in reality Alba Longa could have been somewhere else.

    the name "elves" obviously recalls the latin name for switzerland "Elvetia".

    oh and one more thing, as you might already know each Pope wears a ring called the "ring of the fisherman" (Smeagle and his friend find the ring while fishing). each Pope has a personalised ring and each time a Pope dies the ring or "anello piscatorio" must be destroyed.


    when the pope resigned, or better say abdicated, he moved to Castel Gandolfo therefore metaphorically taking the ring to active volcano. as you can see the coincidences are many! cheers.

  6. Grazie, Gio! Molto interessante ed anche un po’ buffo! :)