This is a name I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The bulk of the notes on which I will be drawing for this post are already over a year old, and some of these thoughts are a lot older than that. The name has come up again and again in recent years — in Mark Hooker’s Tolkienian Mathomium, in John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit, in Parma Eldalamberon 17, in Mark Hooker’s new book, Tolkien and Welsh, and so on — and each time I’ve been prompted to ponder the name a little bit more. With the impending Peter Jackson film adaptation of The Hobbit, the name will be at the tip of everyone’s tongues again soon enough. I think I finally have a gloss I like, but first, let’s review the state of the name.
Esgaroth does not appear in the “Nomenclature” Tolkien prepared for translators of The Lord of the Rings. This is not terribly surprising since the name is associated with The Hobbit, and occurs only a few times in The Lord of the Rings, mainly in connection with the earlier tale. Robert Foster did not attempt to gloss the name in his Complete Guide (1971, rev. 1978). Ditto J.E.A. Tyler in his Tolkien Companion (1976, rev. 2004). Neither Foster nor Tyler even guesses at the language, though it has usually been assumed to be Sindarin. Jim Allan doesn’t have very much more in his Introduction to Elvish (1978) — “[c]alled ‘Lake-town’ in Common Speech, which may be a translation” — though he does commit to identifying the name as Sindarin. In The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (1974, rev. 1980), Ruth Noel says the name means “Hiding Foam” (Sindarin esgal “hiding” + roth < ros “foam”). David Salo, surprisingly, omits Esgaroth from his Gateway to Sindarin (2004) entirely.
We learned something of Tolkien’s thinking about the name when the Eldarin Etymologies were published as part of The Lost Road (1987). Under a root √ESEK, Tolkien glosses Esgaroth as “Reedlake, because of reed-banks in the west”. Uh, what reed-banks in the west? Actually, this wasn’t merely an afterthought. In one of their songs, the Dwarves recall that “the reeds were rattling”, and the Elves likewise sing that the barrels of Lake-town will go “Past the rushes, past the reeds, / Past the marsh’s waving weeds”. So, although it is never really pointed out, there must be reeds in and around the Long Lake. Okay, moving on.
John Rateliff comments on Esgaroth and its etymology in The History of The Hobbit (2007, rev. 2011). John has the benefit of Tolkien’s explanation in the published Etymologies, which so many earlier thinkers did not, but he wants to reject it. He doesn’t like the fact that the name should apply to the body of water, the Long Lake, but actually applies to the town. He proposes an alternative etymology, again Sindarin: “city standing in or rising up out of the water, perhaps with a suggestion of pilings like reeds”. John’s instinct that the gloss in the published Etymologies isn’t altogether reliable may have some support from an unexpected quarter: Tolkien himself. In the “Addenda and Corrigenda to the Etymologies” (Part Two), published in Vinyar Tengwar No. 46 (July 2004), Tolkien himself has offered up a completely different gloss. Here we have pieces of Tolkien’s etymological thinking about names of Eldarin origin which were omitted from the version published as part of The History of Middle-earth. Under the root √SKAR², Tolkien explicitly glosses esgar as “shore” and esgaroth as “?strand-burg”. The question mark identifies cases where the editors had particular difficulty reading Tolkien’s handwriting. And editors Carl Hostetter and Patrick Wynne note that this is also a “[h]astily written entry not included in the published text”. John does not mention this additional gloss in his book (including the revised edition published last year). Neither does Mark Hooker.
A year before John’s book was published, but two years after the addenda in Vinyar Tengwar, Mark floated — no pun intended — an entirely new theory in his Tolkienian Mathomium (2006). Mark seeks glosses for Tolkien’s words and names from outside Middle-earth, as indeed I often like to do, and as indeed I will do again very shortly. Mark’s view of the name is that it is really of Celtic origin and means something like “an enclosed or guarded encampment on the water” (cf. Celtic elements es, ys, is, etc. “water” + gardd < garthan “enclosed encampment”).
In the summer of 2007, a year after Mark’s book and in the same year as John’s, we got Parma Eldalamberon No. 17, “Words, Phrases and Passages in The Lord of the Rings”. Although it is easy to miss, there is a peculiar reference to Esgaroth in this work. “Galion and Esgaroth are not Sindarin (though perhaps ‘Sindarized’ in shape) or are not recorded in Sindarin” (p. 54). Well indeed! Now, untangling exactly when Tolkien thought what about which root element is a very tedious exercise, and one, moreover, that is likely to remain inconclusive anyway. Nor is it of major importance here. The point I’d like to make is that Tolkien was clearly not sure about Esgaroth. It seems it was one of those words which had sprung up in his imagination without an etymology, for purely phonaesthetic reasons, and which he had some difficulty fitting into the development of his Elvish languages. Instead, he offers two totally different etymologies, plus a statement that it might not even be Sindarin at all! There are plenty of other examples of this elsewhere in the legendarium (e.g., see “The Problem of Ros”, published in The Peoples of Middle-earth).
When Mark Hooker returned to this word in his new book, Tolkien and Welsh (2012), he expanded on his view that the name was a hydronym of Celtic origin. I read that book in draft and commented to Mark on Esgaroth at the time (almost a year ago now). I told him that while I felt he had a reasonable, perhaps defensible Celtic gloss for the word, I still had a nagging feeling about it. Why Celtic, when everything else in the region is Norse? I felt that Celtic names might make sense in Bree and the Shire (in the west), but not in Dale and its environs (in the northeast). Tolkien was very clear, at many points in his notes and essays, that the words and names of the northeast had a Norse character — seen from outside Middle-earth, of course. Just as Dale, Bard, Smaug, and the names of all the Dwarves, plus Gandalf, are obviously Norse in form, why not Esgaroth?
Pursuing this line of reasoning, I have always thought there ought to be a clear Norse gloss for Esgaroth, but developing a theory I could defend has taken a while. Mark replied that most of the Norse words with the sound envelope that he could think of had meanings to do with oak trees. Mark thought this was a long-shot to explain a word he took to be a hydronym. I’d seen the same words myself, and some others, and it has taken some ruminating, but now I think I can share some new ideas. I meant to post this in August 2011, not August 2012, but, well, the days and nights got away from me!
I agree that Norse readings relating to eik “oak” might seem a bit improbable — at first. However, there is the fact that Lake-town is built up on wooden piers, so why not start there? There is also the conspicuous name Oakenshield, taken directly from the Norse eikenskjaldi. And don’t forget that the northeastern part of Mirkwood consisted in large part of oak trees. It was a giant oak that Bilbo climbed when the Dwarves hoisted him up to attempt to determine whether they were any nearer the end of their journey through the dark wood. Though they didn’t know it, they were. The Elvenking carried “a carven staff of oak” too. And the trapdoors out of which the Dwarves and Bilbo escaped the Elvenking’s realm were made of oak. Oak is obviously big in this part of Middle-earth! We aren’t told of what type of wood the piers of Lake-town were fashioned, but why not oak? It’s a good choice, and abundant in the right part of Mirkwood. It could have been pine — there were pine trees in that part of the country as well — but mighty Norse eikr suit the name of the town well.
For the second element, there are some “water words” that pop up in the Norse lexicon — e.g., sker “a rock in the sea, a skerry” or skári “a young sea-mew” — but compounds of any of these really strain credulity. But there is skorða “to prop, support by shores”. Aha! So eik + skorða would mean “to prop up with oak”. The k and s could easily swap spots (metathesis is one of the most common linguistic processes; cf. Old English áscian, ácsian “to ask”). This could give us *Eiskorða, which is very close indeed to Esgaroth. Close enough to satisfy me, at any rate, though if anyone can think of an objection, do let me hear from you.
Another word that might inform the toponym is the Old Norse verb, eiskra “to roar, rage”. This could be a reference to water, perhaps the waterfalls on the edge of the Long Lake, or just as likely a reference to the dragon. Moreover, there is auðr, with two compelling meanings: as a noun, it’s “riches, wealth”; as an adjective, “empty, void, desolate”. The compound *Eiskrauðr might therefore imply “roaring desolation” or “raging riches” or something similar. Naturally, from a point of view inside the history of Middle-earth, Esgaroth wouldn’t have gotten its name because of the dragon, but Tolkien could have bestowed such a name on it from the outside, perhaps unconsciously. There is even an echo in the Noldorin asgar, ascar “violent, rushing, impetuous”.
But this strikes me as not particularly likely. It might just be a secondary echo in this case, albeit a fortuitous one. Given the options, I think the real solution is *Eiskorða, meaning something like “a city propped up on oaken piers”. What do you think?