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The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Anglo-Saxon Elves

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s elves and their counterparts from early medieval England.

Old English elf glosses

Grey elves, green elves, wood-elves, sea-elves; in his fiction, Tolkien distinguished between various types of elves. A similar variety of elf types can be found in early medieval England. A case in point is the following, curious list of Old English elf names that appears in a ninth-century manuscript:

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Old English elf glosses in Leiden, University Library, VLQ 106, fol. 10r

Nimphae aelfinni eadem & muse ‘elves’
Oreades duun-aelfinni ‘mountain elves’
Driades uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’
Amadriades uaeter-aelfinne ‘water elves’
Maides feld-aelfinne ‘field elves’
Naides sae-aelfinne ‘sea elves’

This list of elf glosses was added to the manuscript by the scribe who copied the table of contents to a series of Latin riddles, but found he had some space left over (and, apparently, he did not want to waste this blank spot on the parchment). Helpfully, the scribe provided Old English names of elves as translations for Latin words for types of nymphs: Latin driades ‘wood nymphs’ equals Old English uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’, etc. A similar list of elf names was added to the lower margin of an early eleventh-century manuscript; here the Amadriades are wylde elfen ‘wild elves’  rather than uaeter aelfinne ‘water elves’:

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London, British Library, Add. 32246, fol. 21r

It is not unlikely that Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford and particularly interested in elves, was aware of these lists of elf names. The variety of elves in this Anglo-Saxon manuscripts certainly seems reflected in the various sub-types of elves of Tolkien’s fiction: Sea-Elves (the Teleri), Wood-elves (the Silvan, like Legolas) and so on.

The ambivalent nature of elves: dark and shiny.

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The Psalmist harassed by elves (though more likely demons) in the Eadwine Psalter. Cambridge, University Library, MS R.17.1, fol. 66r.

While Tolkien’s portrayal of elves is generally very positive, the Wood-elves of Mirkwood are described in a more ambivalent manner. On the one hand, they are characterised as distrusting strangers, and “more dangerous and less wise” than the High elves of the West. On the other hand, Tolkien remarks “[s]till elves they were and remain, and that is Good People”. In Anglo-Saxon England, we find a similar dual attitude towards elves. Their dark and dangerous side is attested by Old English words for nightmare and physical ailments, such ælf-adl ‘elf disease, nightmare’, ælfsiden ‘elf’s influence, nightmare’, ælf-sogoða ‘hiccough’ and wæterælf-adl ‘water elf disease’. These last two words suggest that elves might cause diseases and this idea also turns up in Old English medical texts. The ‘Charm against a sudden stitch’, for example, attributes a shooting pain or cramp to ‘ylfa scot’ [elves’ shot] and another text provides instruction on what to do if your horse was shot by an elf (for some of these remedies, see this online edition by Karen Jolly). That elves could be considered malevolent creatures is also found in Beowulf, ll. 111-113a, which describes the elves as monstrous descendants of Cain, akin to giants and orcs: “þanon untydras ealle onwocon: / eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas / swylce gigantas” [thence (from Cain) all monsters awoke: giants and elves and orcs/monsters, as well as giants].

While some sources thus attest to a rather negative connotation of elves, there is also some evidence that the Anglo-Saxons considered the elves to be a positive presence. An example of this is the word ælf-scyne ‘bright as an elf, beautiful, radiant’ which is used three times in the extant corpus of Old English poetry to describe two Biblical women: Judith and Sarah. The element ælf- was also used in personal names, which equally suggests that early medieval English parents considered elves a force for good or atleast suitable for their babies: Ælf-red ‘elf-counsel’;  Ælf-noth ‘elf-brave’; Ælf-thryth ‘Ælf-powerful’; Ælf-here ‘elf army’; and Ælf-ric ‘elf-powerful’. Like Tolkien’s Wood-elves of Mirkwood, then, the Anglo-Saxon elves were both feared and respected.

Elf-Friends in Anglo-Saxon England

Various characters in Tolkien’s fiction, including Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are given the honorary title of ‘Elf-friend’. The title commemorates those who have proven themselves as valuable allies to the Elves in times of need. This much becomes clear from Elrond’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor:

But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right; and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together your seat should be among them.

The Old English equivalent of ‘elf-friend’, Ælfwine, was not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon England: various abbots and bishops bore this name. One of these Ælfwines is closely connected to an 11th-century manuscript, known as ‘Ælfwine’s prayerbook’. The book was likely composed for Abbot Ælfwine of New Minster, whose name appears, in code, in one of the manuscript’s inscriptions:

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Inscription in London, British Library, Cotton Titus D.xxvi, fol. 13v

Here, some of the vowels have been substituted for the consonant following them in the alphabet: AFlfwknp mpnbchp > Aelfwino monacho ‘for Ælfwine the monk’ (if you want to learn more about this type of encoding, read Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England).

An equally mysterious Ælfwine is depicted in the Junius Manuscript, one of the four main codices of Old English poetry:

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“Ælfwine” depicted in a roundel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 2.

It is unclear who this young man named “Ælfwine” is – it has been suggested that he may have been the patron or the scribe of the manuscript. Perhaps it was even the poet of some of the Old English poems in the Junius Manuscript: GenesisDaniel, Christ and Satan and Exodus. Tolkien himself was keenly familiar with the last of these Old English poems: an edition and translation of the Old English Exodus, on the basis of Tolkien’s notes, appeared in 1982 (you can watch me lecture about this here: Tolkien keynote lecture: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Old Englsh Exodus)

Given that Tolkien worked on the Old English Exodus, he must have spotted the Ælfwine roundel in the Junius manuscript (which uniquely contains the Old English poem). Perhaps this mysterious Ælfwine inspired Tolkien in developing the conceit, found in the earliest drafts of The Silmarillion, of an Anglo-Saxon man called Ælfwine who travelled west and ended up in the lands of the Elves. As some versions of Tolkien’s mythology would have it, this Ælfwine later returned to Anglo-Saxon England and wrote down the stories of Middle-Earth in Old English (resulting in, e,g, the Old English annals of Valinor).

Clearly, from various elf types to ambivalent Wood-Elves and elf-friends, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has close connections to early medieval England.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in:

You can find my academic publications on Tolkien here; in the first semester of 2019/2020 I teach an MA course on Tolkien’s medieval sources (see Teaching). ASElvesBanner

Adoring the Magi in early medieval England

One of the most recognisable scenes of the Nativity of Jesus (celebrated at Christmas) is the ‘Adoration of the Magi’: the wise men from the East bringing gifts to Christ. This blog post provides a translation of the relevant passages from the Old English translation of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as a discussion of the Magi in Anglo-Saxon art.

Matthew 2:1-12 in the West-Saxon Gospels and the Missal of Robert of Jumièges

The only mention of the Adoration of the Magi in the Bible is in the Gospel of Matthew. The Old English text below is taken from the West-Saxon Gospels, the fist stand-alone English translation of the four Gospels (c. 990). The images are taken from the Missal of Robert of Jumièges, a beautiful manuscript made in Anglo-Saxon England for Robert of Jumièges, the first Norman archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1052/1055). This missal features the most complete cycle of Magi illustrations to come from Anglo-Saxon England.

Eornustlice, þa se Hælend acenned wæs on Iudeiscre Bethleem on þæs cyninges dagum Herodes, þa comon þa tungolwitegan fram eastdæle to Hierusalem 7 cwædon “hwær ys se Iudea cyning þe acenned ys? Soðlice we gesawon hys steorran on eastdæle 7 we comon us him to geeadmedenne.”

[Truly, when the Saviour was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, then the astronomers came from the East to Jerusalem and said “Where is the king of the Jews that is born? Truly, we saw his star in the East and we came to pay worship to him.”] (Matthew 2:1-2)

It is noteworthy that in the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi are not classified as kings (this is an apocryphal tradition, for which see below); instead, they are mentioned here as “tungolwitegan” [‘lit. planet-knowers, i.e. astronomers’].

Blog.Magi3 - Rouen - BM - ms. 0274, f. 036vr magi

Three magi on horseback in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 036v

Whereas the Gospel of Matthew does not specify the number of the Magi, the Missal of Robert of Jumièges follows the popular aprocryphal tradition that there were three Magi (a number derived no doubt, from the number of gifts that these wise men from the East bring to Christ). The Missal also provides a typical depiction of the Magi as wearing Persian clothing, recognisable by the so-called ‘Phrygian caps’.

Ða Herodes þæt gehyrde ða wearð he gedrefed 7 eal Hierosolimwaru mid him. 7 þa gegaderode Herodes ealle ealdras þæra sacerda 7 folces writeras 7 axode hwær Crist acenned wære. Ða sædon hi him “on Iudeiscere Bethlem. Witodlice þus ys awriten þurh þone witegan: ‘And þu Bethleem Iudealand, witodlice ne eart þu læst on Iuda ealdrum. Of ðe forð gæð se heretoga se þe recð min folc Israhel.'”.

[When Herod heard that, he became afraid and all of the Jerusalem-dwellers with him. And then Herod gathered all the elders of the priests and the writers of the people and asked where Christ had been born. Then they said to him: “In Bethlehem of Judea. Truly thus it is written by the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, are truly not the least among the elders of Judah. From you the leader goes forth, he who rules my people Israel.'”.] (Matthew 2:3-6)

The prophecy referred to and cited by one of these “Hierosolimwaru” is Micah 5:2.

Blog.Magi3 - Rouen - BM - ms. 0274, f. 036vr magi at Herod

King Herod in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 036v

The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows Herod on his throne, surrounded by his advisors; one of them, on the outer right, points up to the Star of Bethlehem. The two advisors closest to Herod lift up five and two fingers, respectively – a reference to Micah 5:2? Maybe. The fact that King Herod wears a Phrygian cap similar to the ones worn by the Magi might indicate that the artist of the Missal already associated the Magi with kings (for which, see below).

Herodes þa clypode on sunderspræce ða tungelwitegan 7 befran hi georne hwænne se steorra him æteowde. And he asende hi to Bethlem 7 ðus cwæð: “Farað 7 axiað geornlice be þam cilde 7 þonne ge hyt gemetað cyþað eft me þæt ic cume 7 me to him gebidde”. Ða hi þæt gebod gehyrdon þa ferdon hi, 7 soþlice se steorra þe hi on eastdæle gesawon him beforan ferde oð he stod ofer þær þæt cild wæs. Soþlice þa ða tungelwitegan þone steorran gesawon fægenodon swyðe myclum gefean. 7 gangende into þam huse hi gemetton þæt cild mid Marian hys meder 7 hi aðenedon hi 7 hi to him gebædon. And hi untyndon hyra goldhordas 7 him lac brohton þæt wæs gold 7 recels 7 myrre.

[Herod then spoke in private to the astronomers and asked them eagerly when the star had shown itself to them. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said thus: “Go and ask eagerly about the child and when you meet it tell me afterwards so that I might come and worship him.” When they heard that command then they travelled, and truly the story, which they saw in the East, went before them until it stood over the place where the child was. Truly, when the astronomers saw the star, they rejoiced with much faith, and, going into the house, they met the child with Mary his mother and they paid worship to them and they worshipped them. And they unclosed their gold-hoards and brought them a gift, that was gold, frankincense and myrrh.] (Matthew 2:7-11)

It is notable here that the Gospel indicates that the Magi only met Christ and his mother – there is no reference to Joseph, who, consequently, is often absent from depictions of the Adoration of the Magi, as in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges:

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The Adoration of the Magi in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 037r

The Missal’s depiction of the Magi in the Adoration scene shows some notable differences to the Magi on horseback in the same manuscript. They are still wearing their Phrygian caps, but appear to have lost their pants and shoes (a sign of humility?); one of them had a beard while on his horse, but now all of them are clean-shaven (on the importance of bearded Magi, see below).

And hi afengon andsware on swefnum þæt hi eft to Herode ne hwyrfdon ac hi on oðerne weg on hyra rice ferdon.

[And they received  a warning in their dreams so that they did not turn to Herod afterwards but travelled to their realm via another road.] (Matthew 2:12)

And that is the last we heard of the wise men from the East in the Gospel of Matthew. The Missal of Robert of Jumièges shows how the three Magi received their warning while they slept under one blanket. Notably, they had kept their clothes (and Phrygian caps!) on:

Blog.Magi3 - Rouen - BM - ms. 0274, f. 037r dream

The dream of the Magi in the Missal of Robert of Jumièges. Rouen, BM, ms. 274, f. 037r

Psalm 71:10-11 and the Magi as kings

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The Adoration of the Magi in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold. British Library, Add. MS 49598, f. 24v

The Magi in the tenth-century Benedictional of St Æthelwold are depicted without Phrygian caps but with crowns, instead. The notion that the Magi were kings is not derived from the Gospel of Matthew, but stems from the interpretation of Psalm 71:10-11 (according to Vulgate reckoning). Here is the relevant Latin passage from the twelfth-century Eadwine Psalter, along with its Old English gloss:

Reges Tharsis & insulae munera offerent. reges Arabum & Saba dona adducent. Et  adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae. Omnes gentes seruient ei.

Kininges 7 iglonde of tarsis læc brohton. Kininges of Arabe 7 Feredæ giefa to geledæþ. 7 gebiddaþ hine eællæ kininges of eorðæn. Eællæ diodæ þeowigæþ him.

[The kings and the island of Tharsis brought treasure. Kings of Arabia and Saba bring gifts and all kings of earth worship him. All nations serve him.]

The Eadwine Psalter itself is beautifully illustrated with literal interpretations of the Psalms – the illustration of Psalm 71 features an image of three kings offering gifts  to Christ:

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Psalm 71:10-11 (illustration and text) in the Eadwine Psalter. Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, ff. 124r-124v

Whereas the Eadwine Psalter depicts three kings offering their gifts to an adult Christ, the eleventh-century Bury St Edmunds Psalter illustrates the same passage of Psalm 71 with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, giving gifts to the baby Jesus:

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Adoration of the Magi in the margin of Psalm 71:10-11 in the Bury St Edmunds Psalter. Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Reg.lat 12, fol. 78v

If you look closely (you can zoom in on the image here), you can see that one of the Magi is wearing a Phrygian cap and the other two are wearing crowns. The Magi are further differentiated: the Phrygian cap Magus is clean shaven, the standing Magus has a beard, while the kneeling Magus has an even longer beard. This differentiation between the Magi (in this case in terms of age: young, middle-aged, elderly) became a common topos in depictions of the Adoration of the Magi – representing different age classes, the Magi symbolize mankind in its entirety (similarly, in later traditions, the Magi are differentiated for race).

The importance of beards: The Franks Casket and Bishop Cuthwine’s  Carmen Paschale

The earliest known depiction of the Adoration of the Magi from Anglo-Saxon England is found on the front panel of the Franks Casket, an early 8th-century whalebone box now kept in the British Museum. the Magi, here led by a duck (or dove), are clearly differentiated in terms of age: beardless, semi-beard, full beard.

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The Adoration of the Magi on the Franks Casket. British Museum (source)

There is one more depiction of the Magi with Anglo-Saxon origins that differentiates between the Magi through their beards. It is found in a ninth-century Carolingian manuscript of  Sedulius’s Carmen Paschale (an epic re-write of the Gospels) :

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The Adoration of the Magi © Plantin-Moretus Museum, Antwerp, M 17.4, fol. 15v

As I have discussed in another blog post (An Anglo-Saxon comic book collector: Cuthwine and the Carmen Paschale), this manuscript was copied from a book once owned by the Anglo-Saxon Bishop Cuthwine (fl. 716-731) and its miniatures show the influence of an eighth-century English exemplar. As such, Cuthwine’s original copy may have had a similar image of the Magi; it would certainly have featured Sedulius’s poetic paraphrase of Matthew 2:1-12:

So, watching the light fixed high in the sky before them,
The wise men made haste to follow the star with its royal twinkling.
They kept close to the hoped for road which under a subsequent
Dispensation has led adoring gentiles to the holy cradle.
And when together they had opened their treasures in reverence,
So that the precious objects themselves could point to Christ,
They poured out gold as a present fit for a new born king;
They gave him frankincense, a gift for a god; they offered him myrrh for his grave.
But why three gifts? Because the greatest hope we have in life
Is the faith which testifies to this number and the most high God
Who distinguishes all times, past, present, and future,
Always is, always was, and always will be possessed
Of his triple power. Then the Magi, warned from on high
By a dream to despise the commands of the threatening tyrant,
Changed their itinerary, and, proceeding by alternative routes,
Returned to their homeland. Thus we also,
If we wish to reach our holy homeland at last,
After we have come to Christ, should no longer return to the evil one.  (bk. II, ll. 89-106, trans. Springer 2013)

By exhibiting this valuable lesson, the Magi themselves, it seems, were deemed worthy of adoration in early medieval England.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other posts about illuminated manuscripts:

Works referred to:

  • Sedulius, The Paschal Song and Hymns, trans. C. P. E. Springer (Atlanta, 2013)