Friday, May 20, 2011

A new collective plural?

Continuing my tradition of “explor[ing] the implications of one word” [1], something caught my eye during my current (re)reading of The Lord of the Rings. In “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”, we encounter these stirring words:
For now men leaped from the ships to the quays of the Harlond and swept north like a storm. There came Legolas, and Gimli wielding his axe, and Halbarad with the standard, and Elladan and Elrohir with stars on their brow, and the dour­-­handed Dúnedain, Rangers of the North, leading a great valour of the folk of Lebennin and Lamedon and the fiefs of the South. But before all went Aragorn with the Flame of the West, Andúril like a new fire kindled, Narsil re-forged as deadly as of old: and upon his brow was the Star of Elendil. [2]
It’s the phrase “a great valour of the folk of Lebennin [etc.]” that attracted my notice. This usage struck me as a bit unusual. Here, valour looks like it might be intended as a collective noun, like a gaggle of geese, a skulk of foxes, a swarm of bees, etc. It’s possible to read it differently, of course — valour doesn’t have to be a collective term. But whatever the case, the phrasing is a bit outside normal English usage. The word valour is seldom used with the indefinite article. I did a little poking around and haven’t been able to find an example of the phrasing, “a valour of <plural noun>”, that predates Tolkien. Not saying there isn’t one somewhere, but from what I can tell, it could be original with him. (If someone knows of something similar antedating this usage, please share.)

There are reasons to suppose it might be intended as a collective phrase. Elsewhere in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien uses a very similar construction many times. A few quick examples will suffice to make the point: (1) “a great following of Hobbits”, (2) “a great expanse of years”, (3) “a great troop of Orcs”, (4) “a great host of men”, (5) “a great cavalry of horsemen”, (6) “a great concourse of trumpets”, (7) “a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth”, (8) “a great welter of cloud and smoke”, and many others.

Colorful collective nouns for groups of animals and people go back to the middle of the 15th century. Many of these are first recorded in Lydgate’s Hors, Shepe, & the Ghoos (c. 1470); others, in The Boke of St. Albans (c. 1480). These early sporting and hawking terms brought us an unkindness of ravens, a charm of goldfinches, a parliament of owls, a knot of toads. Later, the idea was extended to people — a pity of prisoners, a hastiness of cooks, and so on. These are wonderfully imaginative, so it’s no wonder that people have continued to coin new ones in all the centuries since. We now have the likes of a murder of crows, a frenzy of sharks, an unction of undertakers, a blur of impressionists, and — one of my favorites — a shrivel of critics. [3]

I’m not sure whether Tolkien intended to coin a new collective noun, but doesn’t a valour of knights sound perfect? (Prior to this post, the exact phrase “a valour of knights” returned zero results from Google. Of course, that will no longer be true once this post makes it into their indexes.)

[1] Salu, Mary and Robert T. Farrell. J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 17.

[2] RK, p. 123.

[3] For more, see Lipton, James. An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. New York: Penguin, 1993.


  1. Nice catch! Checking five fan discussions of "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields" (once in the Rómenna group in 1986 and four times at in 2001, 2003, 2006, and 2008*), I can't find any comment on this point, even when that very sentence has been quoted to illustrate other ideas.

    I don't have either Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion or Richard Blackwelder's A Tolkien Thesaurus to hand -- is there anything about this curious use of "valour" in those works?

    *The fifth TORN discussion of The Lord of the Rings is currently underway. Volunteers are being sought now to lead discussion of chapters in Book V, and inspired by your post, I've signed up to discuss "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields" in July.

  2. Sorry to commit a Huxley's tragedy, but I think Tolkien's valour is an instance of OED2's fourth sense:

    4. The amount, quantity, etc., of (so much or so many). rare.

    1631 B. Jonson Bartholmew Fayre iv. vi. 77 in Wks. II, I thinke wee were best put'hem in the stocks,‥for the valour of an houre, or such a thing, till his worship come.

    a1825 R. Forby Vocab. E. Anglia (1830) (at cited word), It might be about the valour of three hours, two miles, four acres, etc.

    Also, the folk of Lebennin etc. suggests to me that the Rangers were leading common people rather than knights. But I'm sure Tolkien did intend a resonance with sense 1c, the ordinary one: "the quality of mind which enables a person to face danger with boldness or firmness; courage or bravery, esp. as shown in warfare or conflict; valiancy, prowess.

  3. Hi, John. I was not aware of this rare sense; thanks very much for pointing this out. I wouldn’t even have thought to look. You may well be right.

    However, with valour meaning, in this sense, “amount, quantity, […] so much or so many”, well, isn’t that still a collective noun in the sense I meant? It’s no different than Tolkien’s use of other such words (e.g., host, welter, troop, company). If this is the meaning Tolkien had in mind, then it means he didn’t coin a new collective noun, but rather used an existing (albeit rare) one. So I’d still be half-right. And there’s nothing to stop me talking of “a valour of knights”. ;)

    But more importantly, even if it’s an existing but rare sense, Tolkien used it quite cleverly. In the OED, sense 4, valour really just means value in a very general way; but valour also has a different connotation (OED, sense 1, as you also noted), on which Tolkien could be playing with the plural. That is to say, it may be that he’s deliberately summoning both senses. Notice too that the examples cited in the OED use the definite article. Tolkien’s use of the indefinite is more unusual, don’t you think?

    As for the folk of Lebennin, yes, of course, they aren’t knights. I didn’t intend to suggest otherwise.

  4. N.E. Brigand, thanks! Wayne and Christina do say a little about it, but I don’t have a copy handy either. I’ll look it up tonight. Google Books gets me far enough to see that they say “Here, presumably, valour means ‘strength, brave fighting force’”, which is not what I’ve suggested here — though that sense is naturally a part of it. Nor is this what John has added to the conversation. But I can’t read beyond that point until I get home.

  5. Can "valour" be used in the sense that John Cowan has identified (and I'm kicking myself for not checking the OED before) without specifying a quantity? Or can it be substituted as Tolkien uses it in the OED examples? "Put them in the stocks for a great valour of hours?" Does it make a difference that Tolkien uses the indefinite article but the two OED examples use the definite article?

  6. Sorry to overlap you, Jason -- I hadn't seen your response to John before adding my own further thoughts.

  7. No worries. We were thinking alike, it seems. I should have checked the OED too, and this may be the sense in which Tolkien was using the word. But I’m not totally convinced. It seems to me it might still be a nonce usage, unique to Tolkien, but informed by one or both senses from the OED.

  8. We do gloss valour in the Reader's Companion, but only to say that it 'presumably . . . means "strength, brave fighting force"'. We searched the OED too, as well as the English Dialect Dictionary and other sources, without success.

  9. Can it simply be that Tolkien is (a) aware of the rare old usage and (b) aware that it will strike his readers differently and therefore (c) playing on the tension between the two possibilities? He might have enjoyed that.

    Just to lower the tone to my level (!), Tolkien uses 'leaped' in that passage. I always think it's 'lept' (pronounced lept, spelled/spelt leapt). Are both of these acceptable or is one more 'correct' than the other? I've always wondered. And moreover, is 'leaped' pronounced 'lepped'? Thanks

  10. Wayne and Christina, thanks for adding this note.

    And Saranna, yes, that’s certainly possible. As for leap, this is a Germanic reduplicating strong verb which became weak in English. The OED gives leaped (pronounced /lipt/) and leapt (pronounced /lept/) as acceptable forms. The former follows the weak model, the latter the strong. There is also a valid form, lept, which is the past tense of a related, but distinct form, lep, an obsolete Scots English form of “leap”. At least, all this is according to the OED.