Thursday, April 24, 2008

Middle English “half trolls” and “ogres” — according to Tolkien

Not too long ago, I wrote about the Old English eoten (which is usually translated “giant”), as attested only in Beowulf. The word died out a very long time ago, sadly. Lay awareness of it today is solely due to Tolkien, who incorporated the word into his coinages, Ent and Ettendales/Ettenmoors — and also, to a lesser degree, to C.S. Lewis, who has an Ettinsmoor in the north of Narnia. Lewis probably got the word from Tolkien, come to that.

But the idea of the eoten made it pretty far into the Middle English period before dying out. One finds it in several places — most importantly, and the reason for my post today, in the medieval romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon published an influential edition of the poem in 1925, and Tolkien subsequently translated it into Modern English alliterative verse (published posthumously in 1975).

Reading the poem in the original dialect, one finds the Old English eoten, worn down into Middle English as etayn (pl. etayne3), in two places. First, at l. 140: “Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were” [1], which Tolkien rendered, “that half a troll upon earth I trow that he was” [2], And second, at l. 723: “And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe he3e felle” [3], which Tolkien rendered differently, “and with ogres that hounded him from the heights of the fells” [4, emphasis added].

Why trolls in one place and ogres in another, for the same Middle English word? Marjorie Burns has wondered about this too. In her book Perilous Realms, she observes: “etayne3 is an Anglo-Saxon word for giant, and yet both [Brian] Stone and Tolkien translate etayne3 as ogre, a word of French origin and therefore a word less appropriately northern but more typical of Arthurian tales” [5]. Others have suggested “giant”, returning to the original sense of the word in Old English [6]. In the glossary accompanying their edition, Tolkien and Gordon give etayn = “ogre, giant” — but again, “ogre” is a little surprising, given its Latin and Romance origins. Actually, “giant” is from Greek through French, too, so I suppose it’s no more appropriate than “ogre”, is it?

This very question came up again during the Q&A for Marjorie’s recent keynote address at Tolkien 2008 at the University of Vermont. Why did Tolkien use ogre instead of troll, which seems in so many ways more appropriate? Or perhaps Tolkien might even have retained “eoten” unchanged, as William Morris did in his translation of Beowulf, or “uncovered” a modern form, such as *etten, as he did in Ettenmoors ...

My first thought was that it might have been in deference to the Old English orcneas, which occurs in Beowulf in the richly Tolkienesque line, “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas swylce gigantas.” The word orcneas, another kind of giant, from which Tolkien derived his word “orc”, comes from the Latin Orcus, the Underworld (or, by association, its pagan god). Though “orc” didn’t make it into Modern English except through Tolkien’s intervention, the word does survive in Modern Italian orco, Spanish ogro (Old Spanish huergo, uerco), and French ogre, all meaning — well, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? ;)

Was this Tolkien’s thinking? While it might be a good theory, probably not. My well-read friend Merlin reminded me of Tom Shippey’s essay, “Tolkien and the Gawain-poet”, recently reprinted in the collection, Roots and Branches, where Shippey makes the much better case that Tolkien was attempting to reproduce the alliterative line as accurately as possible. Shippey theorizes:
Even the ‘mistakes’ of the Gawain-poet, it will be seen, tell a story to the philological mind, of which Tolkien was the twentieth century’s most prominent example. [...] A common ‘vulgarism’ much reproved by schoolteachers is ‘dropping your aitches.’ Did the Gawain-poet drop his aitches? In line 723 ‘etayne3’ alliterates with the second syllable of ‘anElede’ and is obviously meant to alliterate with ‘he3e.’ Should the latter then not be pronounced ‘e3e’? One cannot be sure, but in his translation Tolkien scrupulously follows the ‘error’ of his original: the only way to get the traditional and correct three alliterations out of Tolkien’s line is to read it as: ‘and with Ogres that ‘Ounded ‘im from the ‘Eights of the fells’ — a perfectly plausible pronunciation in the area, just as good as Standard English, and backed up not only by the Gawain-poet but once more by the Beowulf-poet, whose aitches are not above suspicion either. [7]
Imagine! This, almost certainly the correct answer, had been sitting there all along — since 1992. And Marjorie and I both missed it! (And Merlin didn’t remember it at the conference, apparently, but only after returning home.) Admittedly, this essay was pretty difficult to lay hands on until last year, but I do own a copy of the original publication (as well as the newer reprint), so I have no excuse except the failure of memory. But there you are — once again, the precision with which Tolkien made his word choices simply astounds.

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. and E.V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Oxford University Press. 1925, p. 5.

[2] Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 21.

[3] Tolkien and Gordon, p. 20.

[4] Tolkien, p. 38.

[5] Burns, Marjorie. Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, p. 186ch2n9.

[6] See for example, Cook, Albert Stanburrough. A Literary Middle English Reader. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1915, p. 55.

[7] Shippey, Tom. Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Berne and Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007, p. 70–71.


  1. Oh, Jason, why don't you go learn something! I'm tired of these superficial posts with no meat at all (I hope you are picking up the playful sarcasm =).

    By the way, I hear ole Tom Shippey's retiring from SLU this year. A real pity, as I had plans to go study there year after next. Oh well, I'm sure the Lit department will survive without him.

  2. I hope you are picking up the playful sarcasm =).

    I did pick up on that — lucky for you! If I hadn’t, I might have acted hastily and sent a hit-troll after you! You know, pin-stripe breeches, club-with-silencer, talking-wallet full of ill-gotten graft ... ;)

    By the way, I hear ole Tom Shippey’s retiring from SLU this year. A real pity, as I had plans to go study there year after next.

    I have heard that too, but I’m scratching my head trying to remember where I heard it. Where did you hear it? Assuming it’s true, I would guess he’ll be returning to England. I suppose we can’t complain; we’ve been lucky enough to have him on this side of the Pond for longer than we had any right to demand. Let his own countrymen and women get a crack at him again ...

  3. I have a friend who attends SLU (undergrad), he told me not too long ago. Nowhere official, completely hearsay, but my guess is, it's accurate. Man, I was crushed. I really wanted to study under him!

    By the way, you may not know this, but I used to be a troll wrestler. Your hit-troll better be one bad mo-fo if he's gonna take me on! I'm scarier than Ron Weasley spouting, "Wingardium Leviosa."

  4. Wish I could remember where I heard it. Such things seem to travel like wild-fire. P.S. Consider the hit-troll recalled. ;)

  5. Larry Swain mentioned Shippey's retirement here on the Mythsoc list.

    And Shippey is, for the first time in a while, not listed among the participants in the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo in two weeks.

  6. Ah, that is probably where I remembered it from — or where I didn’t remember it from, to be more precise. Thanks, Brigand. I didn’t know Tom was sitting out the ’Zoo this year, though. You’re going, yes? And what about that conference report you promised for Vermont? Before you end up owing us one for Kalamazoo, too! ;P

  7. I owe, I owe, but too much to work I'm bound to go.

  8. I know, I know. But I was just teasing you, bro. ;)

  9. Re: Shippey, tis true, he is retiring.

    Re: K'zoo: I believe Shippey will be there, just not giving a paper this year.

    Re: SLU, keep your eyes open! Shippey will be out, Paul Acker will be on sabbatical at least part of the year, and I believe Hassler, the Middle English chap, is out ill. So if you're planning on doing medievally or Tolkienish things at SLU, find out what they're doing to accomodate you and the other medievalists there before going.

  10. Thanks for providing those details, Larry. I had assumed it was true — isn’t everything on teh Interweb tru? ;)

    Perhaps Tom will do a whirlwind tour before he leaves SLU. And in any case, he’s made a lot of friends here, so I have no fear that he’ll retire into total seclusion in, say, the south of France. Certain people have been known to do that (not that those certain people haven’t earned a little peace and quiet :) ...

  11. I wanted to say "nice post" too.

  12. Much obliged. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m working on a follow-up as well. Marjorie Burns had some further ideas, which sparked still further ideas on my end. That always seems to be the way of it. Stay tuned for that follow-up in the next few days. (I keep thinking I’ll be getting to it, only to find that the day just slips aways a little too quickly!)

  13. I'm a random stranger who came across your blog while looking for etymology of the "etayn" in Gawain. The blog is quite fascinating!

    I just wanted to say that I remember as a child reading a fairy tale (maybe more than one) in one of Andrew Lang's color fairy books that used the word "etin" (possibly spelled slightly differently) for a giant. I believe it may have been a Scottish story originally. The point being that perhaps there was some survival of the term into Modern English, if only in some regional dialect?

  14. I’m a random stranger who came across your blog while looking for etymology of the "etayn" in Gawain.

    That has the be the first time that’s ever happened! But hello and welcome, Random Stranger! :)

    The blog is quite fascinating!

    Thanks, Genevieve. I appreciate that.

    I just wanted to say that I remember as a child reading a fairy tale (maybe more than one) in one of Andrew Lang's color fairy books that used the word "etin" (possibly spelled slightly differently) for a giant. I believe it may have been a Scottish story originally. The point being that perhaps there was some survival of the term into Modern English, if only in some regional dialect?

    Yes, you’re absolutely right about Lang. He included the traditional story, “The Red Ettin” (sometimes spelled your way, viz. “Etin”) in The Blue Fairy Book (1889). He got it from Joseph Jacobs, who went on to collect it in his English Fairy Tales (1890). Jacobs’s source seems to have been Robert Chambers’s Popular Traditions of Scotland, published earlier in the 19th century, so your guess about a Scottish source seems to have been a good one.

    It’s interesting, in fact, to think about the idea of a red giant and a green one (as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, not as in the Jolly Green Giant, hahae).

    I do think the word survived somewhat, in various spellings, for a little while. William Morris used the word eoten in his Modern English translation of Beowulf, as I wrote in the post. Of course, “Modern” English is a bit of an oxymoron with Morris. ;) And Lewis and Tolkien both adapted it in the form *etten.

    I don’t know if you saw it, but I wrote a second post on this topic, here.

  15. I'm going through Sir Gawain with my eighth graders, and came across the word, "orges." Went to the ME to see what the original word was, that set me on a rabbit hunt, and I discovered this insightful piece. Nice blog post, sir.