Friday, February 27, 2009

Dictionaries and “darkling doors”

About a week ago, my friend Jake Seliger alerted me to an interesting new online project, Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. In its own words:

In celebration of the three hundredth anniversary of Johnson’s birth in 1709, a definition from the first edition of the dictionary will be posted each day for readers’ lexiconic delight, beginning on January 1, 2009. Words will be taken from the annotated proof copy of the first edition, extra-illustrated with Johnson’s and his helpers’ manuscript corrections, which is held in the collections of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The blog is full of interesting surprises (e.g., Harry Potter fans might recognize this one). And it’s especially nice to see illustrations and marginalia from the proof copy, as in the definition of “descent”. Be sure to stop by for a daily dose.

But now, to the matter at hand, of which the preceding was merely the catalyst. In his email message, Jake sent me the entry for “darkling”, noting that Tolkien used the word, and adding, “I’m not sure what it means that I hear of obscure Tolkien-related wordplay and think immediately of you.” Well, whatever it means, it’s a mental association I can appreciate. After all, when I hear of obscure Tolkien-related wordplay, I too think immediately of myself. ;)

Johnson writes that darkling is “a participle, as it seems, from darkle, which yet I have never found” and gives citations from Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden. Well, Johnson may not have found darkle, but it certainly exists. Some dictionaries suggest that darkle is simply back formation from darkling, but my own guess is that it’s a frequentative form of dark(en), as sparkle and dazzle are frequentative forms of spark and daze. But in any case, Johnson was wrong.

The word darkling is not a participle of darkle (or rather, this darkling isn’t, though the verb darkle, of course, does have a participial form). Rather, it’s an adverb going back to Middle English derkeling, built on the same model as ME sideling and hedlinge [1] — interesting because this suggests the modern form should have been *darklong, cf. sidelong and headlong. No Old English antecedent is attested, but if the word goes back that far (which is likely), it would probably have been *deorclinga. There are many contemporary words formed on the same principle, among them: OE handlinga “with the hands”, Old High German unwaringûn “unawares”, Old Saxon nichtinge “nighly”, and a bit later, Middle High German blindlings “blindly”. The word was originally adverbial, but has since become more often adjectival. The citations Johnson gives demonstrate both parts of speech.

I once used darkling myself, as a noun: dark + ling (cf. darling, earthling, underling, duckling, and Old English æðeling). I adopted this as the name for the “baddies” — my orcs, goblins, and trolls, if you will — in a fantasy novel I was writing in junior high school. I never finished the novel (luckily for you! ;), but at least one reader will remember it. Perhaps he’ll comment. I had come up with this word independently, I’m pretty sure, but apparently, an author named David Kesterton used it similarly in a novel called The Darkling (1982). This was a year or two before I began my novel, but I was never aware of Kesterton’s. A strange coincidence — and an example of how source hypotheses can be flat wrong.

Tolkien used darkling too, as Jake noted in the message that sent me down this particular rabbit-hole. The example he pointed out was from the final stanza of the tale of Tinúviel that Aragorn chants to the hobbits at Weathertop: “Long was the way that fate them bore, / O’er stony mountains cold and grey, / Through halls of iron and darkling door, / And woods of nightshade morrowless.”

But this isn’t the only time Tolkien used the word. In The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, Tolkien echoes himself very closely indeed:
Torhthelm: [...] Lo! Fire now wakens,
hearth is burning, house is lighted,
men there gather. Out of the mists they come
through darkling doors whereat doom waiteth.
Hark! I hear them in the hall chanting:
stern words they sing with strong voices.
(He chants) Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose,
more proud the spirit as our power lessens!
Mind shall not falter nor mood waver,
though doom shall come and dark conquer.
Indeed, Tolkien used darkling many more times — e.g., in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun”, throughout the drafts in The History of Middle-earth — and no less than twelve times in The Lord of the Rings (in which I include several instances of darkling as the participial form of darkle).

But two occasions of “darkling door” — that catches the eye, doesn’t it? Is the repetition coincidental? Beorhtnoth was published in 1953, but it goes back much further. The earliest draft, in fact, goes back to the 1930’s, conterminous with “Errantry”, though Tolkien had in mind a different formal structure at that stage. The version we know today seems to have come together during the first half of the 1940’s, making it definitely contemporary with the writing of The Lord of the Rings.

Did one of these works suggest “darkling door” to the other? Or could “darkling door” have been suggested to Tolkien by his own reading? Among many less compelling examples, I’ve found a few suggestive antecedents.
He knocked at the door, but his summons was unheard in the midst of the music. Then he opened it softly, and went in. There was no light in the room except the pale twilight, which marked out every line of the windows, and the glimmering of the painted glass, at the end by which he entered. He seemed to step out of the real world altogether into an enchanted place when he crossed that darkling threshold. — Margaret Oliphant, The Three Brothers (1870) [2]

Then softly down the steps they slid,
Eustace the stable door undid,
And, darkling, Marmion’s steed arrayed [...]
— Sir Walter Scott, Marmion (1808)

An angry gust of wind
Puffed out his torch among the myriad-roomed
And many-corridored complexities
Of Arthur’s palace: then he found a door,
And darkling felt the sculptured ornament
That wreathen round it made it seem his own [...]
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King (1856–1885)

There far from regions of our solar height
“The Firmament,” where crystal pillars rise,
Hidden with God above all mortal sight, —
The Heaven of Heaven in the mysterious skies, —
The palace where His arch’d pavilion lies
‘Mid the divided waters; whose bright floor
Is pav’d beneath with starry galaxies; —
Such as mankind as through a darkling door
In distance may descry — the great eternal shore [...]
— Isaac Williams, The Seven Days, or the Old and New Creation, “The Second Day: The Firmament and the Waters” (1850) [3]
The last is particularly beautiful, isn’t it? I haven’t seen any evidence that Tolkien knew of Isaac Williams or his works, but considering the subject matter of Williams’s poetry and his close association with Oxford University in the century before Tolkien arrived there, it is not at all unlikely. Without making an unnecessary detour, I would just point out that the specifically Anglican ideals of the Oxford Movement need not automatically disqualify Willliams as a possible source. Nor, let me hasten to add, am I strenuously arguing that Williams (or any of these authors) was Tolkien’s source, nor even that Tolkien had or needed any particular source for his “darkling door” — but I find the similarity between Tolkien, Williams, and Oliphant especially suggestive. Tennyson and Scott, less so, but Tolkien definitely read their works. It might even be possible that the idea of a “darkling door” was a kind of commonplace of Victorian-era literature. But to answer that, a return trip to the library might be in order. :)

[1] Oliphant, T.L. Kington. The New English. Volume I. London, New York: Macmillan & Co., 1886, p. 284.

[2] Oliphant, Margaret. The Three Brothers. Serialized from June 1869 to September 1870 in Saint Pauls [sic]: A Monthly Magazine. Ed. Anthony Trollope. London: Strahan & Co. The text quoted is from Volume V (October 1869–March 1870), 1870, p. 515.

[3] Williams, Isaac. The Seven Days, or the Old and New Creation. Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1850, p. 67.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

More details on Sigurd and Gudrún

Last month, I wrote about the upcoming publication of Tolkien’s verse retelling of part of the Old Norse Volsungs legend. Since then, some new details have emerged:
  • According to recent announcements, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish the book, with commentary by Christopher Tolkien, on 5 May 2009 in the United States;
  • According to Pieter Collier, the book will be introduced by a previously unpublished lecture by Tolkien on Old Norse literature — and language, presumably. On the other hand, Harper Collins’ official online book store says it will be “edited and introduced by Tolkien’s son, Christopher” (emphasis added);
  • David Brawn announced that the U.K. edition will contain “a small number of decorative illustrations” by Bill Sanderson. I think the woodcut style looks very appropriate!
  • The book, in all its various forms (hardcover, de luxe, audio, etc.), is available for pre-order on (I will not take the time to provide links, since most of my visitors are American, but you’ll find them all conveniently collected here);
  • More good news: Mr. Brawn also informs us that the book will be 384 pages, “so not as thin as some people have been speculating” (“some people”, here, includes me).
Stay tuned for more details as they emerge.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oxen and Foxes — the curious life and death of plurals

The Little Prince © 2003 by Christophe DrochonThe plural of ox is oxen, but the plural of fox is foxes. Has that ever bothered you? Ever wondered why it is? I have known people to guess that it’s because the words were drawn from two different linguistic wells, but that’s not it; both are straight from the swift-flowing waters of Old English, surviving into Modern English almost without change. So ... why is it? And have oxes and foxen ever been spotted in the wild?

Let me answer the last question first. Yes — oxes is liberally attested in the Middle English period, with its veritable explosion of different word forms and spellings, and oxes has cropped up occasionally ever since. The form foxen has occasionally been seen as a plural of fox, as in David Booth’s Analytical Dictionary of the English Language [1]. But as a plural, it would have had stiff competition from foxen = vixen “a female fox”. When it has appeared as a plural, I would guess it was under the pressure to match oxen. Or it may show a Dutch influence. The examples Booth gives — housen, foxen, eyen — have the Dutch forms, huizen, vossen, ogen.

Let’s take a closer look at the provenance of the two words. First, the obligatory litany of cognate forms. Now come on, no complaining; you knew this was coming. :)

The word ox comes from Middle English ox, from Old English oxa. Cognate are Old Norse uxi, Old Saxon ohso, Middle High German ohse, Old High German ohso, Welsh ych (pl. ychen), and Gothic aúhsa — all (well, not the Welsh) from Primitive Germanic *uhsōn.

The word fox comes from ME fox (and southern dialectal vox), from OE fox. Cognate forms include ON fóa “fox” (“vixen”, actually; the noun is feminine) — ON borrowed the OE fox, unchanged, but it was only used (and only rarely) in the metaphorical sense of a kind of fraud; Norn fūa; OS fuhs, vuhs; MHG voha, and vuhs; OHG foha, and fuhs; and Gothic faúhó — all from Primitive Germanic *fuhsaz.

Great, you’re saying, but how does this help us understand why the plural forms differ? Well, take a closer look at the OE forms, and you will notice that one of them ends in a vowel. Our ox originally ended with a vowel in all the Germanic languages, as it still does in Modern Swedish oxe, German Ochse, and Frisian okse. But in Modern English (as in Modern Dutch os) the terminal vowel has been lost. But fox had its terminal consonant from the beginning. OE fox is a strong noun, hence its plural form is foxas; but OE oxa is a weak noun, hence its plural would be … anyone? … oxan. And there you have it: that’s the reason for Modern English oxen, but foxes.

Are there other words like these? Not pox (actually = pocks, already plural). Nor tax (from Latin via Old French).

How about box? Like ox and fox, this is a direct survivor from OE box, but this word is a feminine strong noun, so its original plural, buxa, was of a third kind! Subsequently, buxa was standardized by force into boxes, just as oxen will probably someday become oxes.

And what about lox? This comes to Modern English via Yiddish, which is not Hebrew, but basically German. There is actually an all but forgotten OE antecedent in lex, leax, læx “salmon”. This was a strong noun (like fox), so its the plural would have been leaxas. But strangely enough, modern lox has no plural!

Any others? How about two more, just for fun. You are having fun, aren’t you? Modern English ax(e) is from OE æx, æcs(e); its correct plural is like box, æxa, but similarly, it has been “standardized” into the form, axes. And wax is from OE weax, wæx; a strong noun like fox, so its plural is weaxas. We’re all right there with Modern English waxes.

What does any of this have to do with Tolkien (as everything must :)? I’ll leave you with two quotations (emphasis added):
A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed. ‘Hobbits!’ he thought. ‘Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.’ He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it. — The Fellowship of the Ring (Chapter 3, “Three is Company”)
In Dasent’s words I would say: ‘We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.’ [...] By ‘the soup’ I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by ‘the bones’ its sources or material—even when (by rare luck) those can be with certainty discovered. — “On Fairy-Stories”

[1] Booth, David. An Analytical Dictionary of the English Language. Volume 1. London: J. and C. Adlard, 1830, p. xxxiv.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Mythprint reviews and essays

I contribute occasionally to Mythprint, the (mostly) monthly bulletin of the Mythopoeic Society. This is a really small publication, and as such, it has no explicit author agreement; nor are back issues available for sale anywhere, so far as I know*. All of which gives me free license to share these publications with Lingwë readers. I’ll do so after the fact — as a matter of courtesy to Mythprint and its readers — but below you will find a list of my reviews (and one essay) published so far. I will continue to update this page in the future, so you might like to revisit it once in a while.

  • Film review of The Fountain (January/February 2007)
  • Review of The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, by Lloyd Alexander (November 2007)
  • Essay, “Remembering Lloyd Alexander” (December 2007)
  • Review of the 70th anniversary edition of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (April/May 2008
  • Review of The Bestiary, by Nicholas Christopher (date to be provided, 2008)
  • Review of Tales Before Narnia, edited by Douglas A. Anderson (date to be provided, 2009)

* Update!
Well, what do you know? I’ve just learned that back issues of Mythprint are available, in one-year sets going all the way back to 1970. Very affordable, too. The entire set — almost forty years of the Society’s news and reviews! — will only set you back about $200.

Monday, February 9, 2009

And yet more new languages at Google

Last October, I updated Lingwë readers on Google’s online language tools. At that time, Google offered machine-assisted translation of 34 languages (including English). Though impressed, I did manage to complain about the conspicuous lack of several important ones (including Albanian). Well, Google has amended that oversight at least, as well as bringing out several more choices.

The number is up to a remarkable 41 languages. Newly added: Albanian, Estonian, Galician, Hungarian, Maltese, Thai, Turkish. Never mind that Galician is really only spoken by three or four million people, and Maltese by fewer than half a million — it’s nice to see regular progress. Hopefully, Swahili, Punjabi, Tamil, et al., are on the way.

Google has also added a handy dandy link labeled swap, which flips the source and target languages. Very handy now that the list of languages itself has grown so long.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

WOTD: Accidie

Accidie is often identified as or equated with Sloth (one of the Seven Deadly Sins). Here’s a little taste of Chaucer’s use of the word in The Parson’s Tale:

After the synne of envye and ire, now wol I speken of the synne of accidie; for envye blyndeth the herte of man, and ire troubleth a man, and accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful and wrawful. […] Thanne is accidie the angwissh of troubled herte, and Saint Augustyn seith, it is anoy of goodnesse and joye of harm. [And the Parson goes on in much the same prolix manner for quite some while, not unlike myself, I suppose. :)]

In the century before Chaucer, Thomas Aquinas described the sin in his Summa Theologica, equating accidia (the Latin form; also, acedia) with torpor mentis (“a torpor of the mind”), which I think captures the sense of accidie much better than mere sloth. The modern sense of “sloth” (lower-case), implying laziness, seems too dismissive, and too insensitive. (And speaking of sloth, if you had only two toes, you probably wouldn’t get much done either! ;) Torpor, ennui, listlessness, and apathy are all closer to the intended sense than sloth.

Turning to the authority the Parson himself invoked, Augustine of Hippo dissertates on this and the other Deadly Sins in the City of God, but perhaps the best, most thorough description of accidie comes in Book X of John Cassian’s De institutis coenobiorum, written in the early 5th century (contemporary with Augustine).

The Latin accidia is not related to acidus “sour, tart”, nor to accidentia “an accident” (something that befalls one) — these explanations, common enough, are mere folk-etymology. It ultimately springs from the ancient Greek ακήδεια “indifference, torpor”, from α– “not” + κήδος “care”. Interestingly, κήδος eventually became the modern English “hate”. Accidie (the word, yes, but probably the need for the word too, hahae) came to Middle English with the Norman invaders, in the Old Norman French form accidie, acidie (from Old French accide, acide). The word was popular throughout the Middle Ages, particularly in Ecclesiastical use, but all but died out after that.

I say all but died out, because the Inklings and their circle clearly knew the word. John Wain, reviewing C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, referred to “the cultured accidie in Oxford” [1]. Another Inkling, Charles Williams, used the word in more than one of his books (e.g., in The Figure of Beatrice, his study of Dante). W.H. Auden, a student and later friend to Tolkien, wrote a commentary on accidie. Though Lewis does not use the word in it, the Narnia novel, The Silver Chair, deals with the sin of “spiritual sloth” (accidie), and we may be absolutely certain Lewis knew the word. (I believe he may have used the word in his letters, but I will have to check on that; they’re not very, er, portable. :) I’m likewise sure that Tolkien knew the word. It is not in his Middle English Vocabulary, but the man knew his Chaucer, not to mention Aquinas and Augustine.

So. Accidie, then. Less critical than sloth, not so banal as ennui, and well suited to pointed or metaphorical use. Well suited, in short, to be brought back into “the parlance of our times”. Shall we bring it back? Or are we too lazy? ;)

[1] Qtd in Hooper, Walter. C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works. London: HarperCollins, 1996, p. 74. [Published previously as the C.S. Lewis Companion and Guide.]

— Hat tip to Gary for the indirect suggestion of this WOTD. :)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

English ascendant — long foreseen?

I suppose we all have a certain chauvinism for the language we learned to speak first — our “cradle-tongue”, as Tolkien has called it [1]. We may learn other languages, explore the aesthetics of speech, and perhaps (if we are fortunate) even find our native language — “our own personal linguistic potential”, embodying our “inherent linguistic predilections”. But for all that, we still fall often enough into the prejudices of our “language of custom” [2]. So please take the following with that caveat in mind and not as a personal endorsement of English as the best language in the world. (Far from it, I sometimes think.)

It has become pervasive, though, hasn’t it? One recent book on Tolkien, in which a number of international contributors were given a voice, bemoaned “the fact that English has, without a doubt, become the koiné in Tolkien studies – some sort of Middle-earth Common Speech” [3]. And of course, English has spread far beyond Middle-earth. It is spoken in almost every corner of the world, and learning it is frequently required in the educational systems of many countries. I am told that Indians begin learning English in school at the age of two years! (In the U.S., children don’t even begin school until age five or six!)

Why has English become so popular? I won’t rehearse the many arguments about the whilom successes of the British Empire, the emergence of the United States as a world-dominating political and economic force, etc., etc. You have heard these arguments many times. But other answers might be closer to the mark — or at least equally valid. Why, after all, didn’t Chinese or Hindi become the ascendant lingua franca? Both can boast more native speakers than English, almost as widely distributed around the globe.

Part of the answer might be the particular structural, phono-logical, morphological, and assimilative qualities of English. All the foregoing has been a perhaps too lengthy introduction to the following quotation. Here, Richard Carew (quoted in William Camden’s Remains Concerning Britain) extoled the virtues of English some 400 years ago. His description of the “excellency” of the English language seems to come near the mark (bracketed insertions are mine):
The Italian is pleasant, but without sinews, as a still fleeting water. The French, delicate, but even nice as a woman, scarce daring to open her lips for fear or marring her countenance. The Spanish, majestical, but fulsome, running too much on the O, and terrible like the devil in a play. The Dutch [i.e., modern German, not modern Dutch], manlike, but withal very harsh, as one ready at every word to pick a quarrel. Now we, in borrowing from them, give the strength of consonants to the Italian, the full sound of words to the French, the variety of terminations to the Spanish, and the mollifying of more vowels to the Dutch, and so (like Bees) gather the honey of their good properties and leave the dregs to themselves. And thus when substantialness combineth with delightful-ness, fulness with fineness, seemliness with portliness, and currantness [i.e., fluency] with stayedness, how can the language which consisteth of all these sound other than most full of sweetness?

Again, the long words that we borrow [e.g., from the Latin and Greek], being intermingled with the short of our own store, make up a perfect harmony; by culling from out which mixture (with judgment) you may frame your speech according to the matter you must work on, majestical, pleasant, delicate, or manly, more or less, in what sort you please. Adde hereunto, that whatsoever grace any other language carrieth in verse or prose, in Tropes or Metaphors, in Ecchoes [i.e., onomatopoeia] and Agnominations [i.e., alliteration], they may all be lively and exactly represented in ours. [4]
Carew goes on from here to provide a litany of Classical writers and the English writers who capture their styles in that language. I won’t repeat them all here. He’s clearly very partial to English (“if mine own eyes be not blinded by affection,” he admits), and he may go too far in some of his verdicts — but even so, I think he has hit on some important points. Most importantly: that even then, and moreso now, English owes much of her success (and, to Carew, aesthetic virtue) to her unique ability to assimilate the most successful or euphonic words and elements from other languages and to make them her own.

I welcome your thoughts on this — especially those of you whose “cradle-tongue” is not English. (And let me congratulate you for reading this blog in English and perhaps helping to prove the point. ;)

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. “English and Welsh.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983, p. 190.

[2] All quotations, loc.cit.

[3] Segura, Eduardo and Thomas Honegger, eds. Myth and Magic: Art according to the Inklings. Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007, p. ii.

[4] Camden, William. “The Excellency of the English Tongue, by R.C. [Richard Carew] of Anthony Esquire to W.C. [William Camden].” Remains Concerning Britain. London: John Russell Smith, 1870, pp. 50–1. The text quoted is the 1870 reprint of the 7th edition (1674). The last edition Camden himself revised was the 5th (1607); the first edition appeared in 1586.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A new publication on Alan Garner

Toward the end of last summer, I wrote about Randy Hoyt’s online mythology magazine, Journey to the Sea (then relatively new). Issue 8 appeared yesterday, and in it a new essay written by me, on Alan Garner’s use of northern Germanic mythological elements in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. (I’ve written about Alan Garner here at Lingwë on previous occasions, too.) The issue also features an article on Batman — yes, the same Batman you’re thinking of — seen through the lens of myth.

If you haven’t hied thee over to Journey to the Sea yet, you definitely should. Randy has done an admirable job of presenting articles on a wide variety of multicultural mythological topics, as well as several on newer subjects examined in the context of myth (e.g., Batman, as already mentioned, role-playing games, the illustration of myths, the Native American totem pole, and so on). In addition, Randy has managed to nab a couple of very well-known figures in the Tolkien community for interviews: Verlyn Flieger and Ted Nasmith.

There’s really something here for almost anyone, so if you’ve been dithering, do yourself a favor and take a look. And while you’re there, feel free to drop a comment onto my Alan Garner essay.