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The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Horses!

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 blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth. This post reviews the horses of Middle-Earth.

The Rohirrim: Anglo-Saxons on horseback

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Left: Rohirrim on horseback in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King © WingNut Films; Right: Anglo-Saxons on horseback on the Aberlemno stone (c. 700-800) (source)

It is no secret that Tolkien based the Riders of Rohan on the Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of Mercia. Indeed, the Rohirrim have even been called ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’ (see Honneger 2011). It is not difficult to see why the Riders of the Mark are connected to the early medieval English inhabitants of Mercia: the Rohirrim occasionally speak Old English and have Old English names. For instance, when Éomer tells Théoden “Westu Théoden hal!” in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, he echoes Beowulf’s address to Hrothgar in the Old English poem Beowulf: “Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal” (Beowulf, l. 407) [May you be healthy, Hrothgar].  The name Théoden itself is Old English, being derived from Old English ðeoden ‘ruler, king’, as are so many other names of the Rohirrim.

The Rohirric fondness for horses is reflected in their name Éotheod, which stems from Old English eoh ‘war-horse’ + ðeod ‘people’. Among these ‘horse-people’, Éomer, Éowyn and their father Éomund stand out for also having names of an equine nature:

Éowyn < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, wynn ‘joy’
Éomer < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mǣre ‘famous, great’
Éomund < OE eoh ‘war-horse’, mund ‘protector, guardian’

Unlike the Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxons do not have a reputation for employing cavalry. Honegger (2011) points out that the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Maldon (991) and the Battle of Hastings (1066) fight on foot rather than on horseback. Be that as it may, earlier sources on Anglo-Saxon warfare do show Anglo-Saxons using cavalry, such as the Aberlemno Stone (c. 700-800) depicting (as some would argue) the Battle of Dun Nechtain (685) between the Northumbrian king Ecgfrith and the Picts (see image above).

The connection between the Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons (and their horses) is further borne out by the banner of Rohan, the names of the Rohirric horses and the treatment of Theoden’s horse Snowmane after its death.

The Banner of Rohan: “White horse upon a field of green”

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Left: The Uffington White Horse; Right: The Westbury White Horse

The banner of Rohan is described as bearing a “white horse upon a field of green” (LOTR, bk. V, ch. 10). Tolkien probably found his inspiration for this banner in Wiltshire, near his hometown Oxford. The hills of Wiltshire are littered with white chalk horses, one of which (the Uffington White Horse) dates back over three thousand years (more info here). Folklore connects some of these white horses to the Anglo-Saxon period: The Westbury White Horse, for instance, may commemorate the victory of King Alfred the Great over the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Alfred the Great himself may be the partial inspiration behind Aragorn (see: The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings).

From Arod to Windfola: The Old English names of the Rohirric steeds

The horses of the king of Rohan are of a special breed called the Mearas, a name that means ‘horses’ in Old English (it is the plural of mearh ‘horse’). Indeed, upon closer inspection all names of the Rohirric horses turn out to be Old English:

Arod < Old English arod ‘fast’
Brego < Old English brega ‘ruler, prince’
Felarof < Old English fela ‘very’ + rof ‘strong, brave’
Hasufel < Old English hasu ‘grey’ + fell ‘hide’
Shadowfax < Old English sceadu ‘shadow, grey’ + fæx ‘hair’
Windfola < Old English wind ‘wind’ + fola ‘foal

Perhaps my favourite Old English name for one of the horses of Rohan is Stybba, the pony given to Merry Brandybuck. The name derives from Old English stybb ‘stump’.

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Hasufel, Arod and Shadowfax [note: Hasufel and Shaowfax should have been grey, judging by their Old English names!] (source)

A mound for a horse: Snowmane’s Howe and Sutton Hoo

The royal burial mounds of Rohan were inspired by the seventh-century royal burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, as I have argued elsewhere (Porck 2017). One such Rohirric mound is particularly relevant in connecting the Anglo-Saxons to the Rohirrim: Snowmane’s Howe. Snowmane, the horse of King Theoden, meets its demise in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields and is buried on the spot. The Rohirrim call the mound ‘Snowmane’s Howe’ – the second element of the grave’s name, ‘Howe’, reflects the element Hoo in Sutton Hoo (both potentially derive from the Old Norse word haugr ‘mound’). While this ceremonial burial of a horse may appear particular to the horse-loving Rohirrim, there is at least one Anglo-Saxon analogue. The Sutton Hoo burial mounds also include one mound with the skeleton of a horse, buried alongside its rider.

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To sum up, the Rohirrim share a fondness for horses with the Anglo-Saxons, who, after all, traced back their origins to Hengest and Horsa [‘horse, stallion’ and ‘horse’].

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

Works referred to:

  • Honegger, Thomas. (2011). The Rohirrim: ‘Anglo-Saxons on horseback’? An inquiry into Tolkien’s use of sources. In Tolkien and the study of his sources: Critical essays, ed. J. Fisher (2011), 116–132.
  • Porck, Thijs (2017). New roads and secret gates, waiting around the corner: Investigating Tolkien’s other Anglo-Saxon sources. In Tolkien Among Scholars, ed. N. Kuijpers, R. Vink and C. van Zon (s.l.: Tolkien Genootschap Unquendor, 2017), 49-64 [Book for sale here for €16,50]

 

 

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The Medieval in Middle-earth: The Anglo-Saxon Habits of Hobbits

 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 hobbits and their early medieval antecedents.

At first glance, there appears to be no resemblance of any kind between Tolkien’s peacable hobbits and the warlike early medieval Anglo-Saxons that conquered parts of Britain in the early Middle Ages; yet, there is more to these hobbits than meets the eye…

Old English roots: Holbytlan, scir, þegn, miclan delfing…

Pippin and Merry: Hobbits in helmets (source)

‘Are not these the Halflings, that some among us call the Holbytlan?’, Théoden asks, when he first sets eyes on Pippin and Merry on the outskirts of Isengard. Théoden’s word holbytla ‘hole-dweller’ is Tolkien’s own invented Old English etymology for the word Hobbit and means ‘hole-dweller’.  Other Hobbitish terms have more clear Old English roots: the Shire itself stems from the Old English word scir ‘district’ as does the name of its principal  administrator: the Thain, from Old English þegn ‘servant’. Hobbitish place names, too, derive from the language of the Anglo-Saxons: Michel Delving, for instance, is clearly Old English miclan delfing ‘great excavation’. Old Hobbitish, it seems, is nothing other than Old English!

What’s in a name? Hengist, Horsa, Marcho and Blanco

Hengest and Horsa…or Marcho and Blanco?

The story of how Hobbits came to settle in the Shire, as outline in the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, bears a keen resemblance to the foundation myth of the Anglo-Saxons. About the first Shire-Hobbits, Tolkien notes that the “Fallohide brothers, Marcho and Blanco” first crossed the river Baranduin, with a great following of Hobbits – the year of the crossing was to become the first year of Shire-reckoning. The names Marcho and Blanco both mean ‘horse’ and, thus, resemble the names of the two brothers who supposedly had led the Germanic tribes to Britain: Hengest and Horsa, whose names mean ‘stallion’ and ‘horse’.

Of mathoms and silver spoons

The hobbits’ fondness for mathoms also aligns them with the Anglo-Saxons:

The Mathom-house it was called; anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort. (The Fellowship of the Ring, prologue)

The word mathom is derived from the  Old English maðm ‘treasure’. The word appears in such poems as Beowulf, where it describes the gifts bestowed upon warriors by kings:

‘Me þone wælræs     wine Scildunga
fættan golde     fela leanode,
manegum maðmum‘ (Beowulf, ll. 2101-2103a)

[The friend of the Scildings gave me a lot of plated gold, many treasures, in exchange for the battle]

From Beowulf, we learn that mathoms could include decorated and bejewelled swords and armour, such as those found at Sutton Hoo (on display at the British Museum, here).  Hobbitish mathoms turn out to be of a similar sort: the Mathom-house in Michel Devling is filled with weapons of such long-forgotten battles as the Battle of the Greenfields, “in which Bandobras Took routed an invasion of Orcs.” Bilbo’s presents at his eleventy-first birthday may be mathoms of a different kind, but at least one of them  can also be linked to the Anglo-Saxon treasures found at Sutton Hoo. Bilbo’s gift of a pair of silver spoons to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is reminiscent of the two silver baptismal spoons found in the royal Anglo-Saxon grave:

Silver baptismal spoons, found at Sutton Hoo (source)

Family matters: The importance of genealogies

Another habit shared by Anglo-Saxon and Hobbit alike is an interest in filling books with genealogical information. In his prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien explains that Hobbits were keen to draw up long and elaborate family-trees and loved to set out such trees and lists in books. The Anglo-Saxons were little different in this respect: the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle contains up to eighteen genealogies of various royal houses, scattered throughout its annalistic narrative. Such royal genealogies also appeared in collections without any intervening text. A case in point is the so-called Anglian Collection, a collection of Anglo-Saxon regnal lists and genealogies (this Wikipedia page is highly informative):

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The Anglian Collection © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. v., fol. 22r

These endless lists of names do not make for exciting reading. Tolkien remarked the same of the genealogical information contained at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch: “all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull”; Hobbits…and Anglo-Saxons, it would seem!

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

The Medieval in Middle-earth: Aragorn and Exiled Anglo-Saxon Kings

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 Aragorn, who shows some parallels with the Anglo-Saxon kings Oswald of Northumbria, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor…

Aragorn and Oswald of Northumbria (604-642): Exiles reclaiming their throne

Two years ago, the Daily Mail ran an article with the following headline: “Amazing story of the Anglo-Saxon warrior saint whose struggle to claim his rightful place as king inspired Tolkien’s Aragorn”. That Anglo-Saxon warrior saint was Oswald of Northumbria and, indeed, there is at least one striking parallel between Aragorn and Oswald: they were both kings in exile.

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Aragorn and Oswald

Long story short: Aragorn belonged to the line of Isildur, High King of Gondor and Arnor; Isildur’s brother Anarion inherited Gondor, while the line of Isildur continued to rule the Northern kingdom of Arnor; Arnor eventually falls into ruin and the descendants of Isildur become kings in exile; the line of Anarion dies out and the stewards (like Denethor) take over Gondor. In The Return of the King, Aragorn returns to Gondor to take up the crown, defeating the evil forces of Sauron in the process.

Oswald of Northumbria’s story is equally heroic. He had spent most of his youth in exile in Scotland, where he lived from the age of twelve. His exile began  when his father Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria (or: Bernicia and Deira) had been killed and his uncle Edwin had taken to the throne of Northumbria. Only after his uncle Edwin and his brother Eanfrith were both killed by the pagan Cadwallon, did Oswald return to Northumbria in 634 to claim his birthright: the crown of Northumbria. He erected a wooden cross in a field near Hexham (now Heavenfield) and vanquished Cadwallon and his pagan army. Oswald is remembered as a saint because he was instrumental for the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the North (granting the isle of Lindisfarne to the Irish missionary Aidan). He would die eight years later, by the hand of the pagan Penda in the year 642.

So is there any truth to the title of the Daily Mail’s headline? Yes: both Aragorn and Oswald were exiles reclaiming their thrones, but Oswald was by no means the only Anglo-Saxon king in exile. In fact, Aragorn shows more parallels with two other ostracized early medieval English kings: Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor.

Aragorn and Alfred the Great (849-899): Meeting up at a stone

As user Giaconda commented on my blog The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power, there is an interesting parallel between Alfred the Great (849-899) and Aragorn, which concerns meeting up at a stone.

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Alfred the Great and Aragorn

In 878, Alfred, king of Wessex, was forced to flee into the Somerset marshes, after having been ambushed in Chippenham by the Vikings. A few months later, Alfred rallied a great force of Anglo-Saxon warriors, whom he met at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert’s Stone), somewhere near Edington. The battle of Edington was gloriously won by Alfred, forcing the Danesto accept a peace treaty. Egbert’s stone bears the name of Alfred’s grandfather Egbert, king of Wessex (802-839).

Aragorn, prior to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (where Théoden gets killed by the lord of the Nazgul), ventures onto the ‘Paths of the Dead’ to recruit the Oathbreakers (a.k.a. the King of the Dead and the men of Dunharrow). These men had been cursed by Aragorn’s forefather Isildur, because they had broken their vow to aid Isildur in battle against Sauron. That particular vow had been made on..dum-dum-dum…the ‘Stone of Erech’, which had been brought to Gondor by Isildur himself. It is at this very ‘Stone of Erech’ that Aragorn meets the Oathbreakers, who then help Isildur’s heir to destroy the ships of Sauron’s allies from the south. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Aragorn and Edward the Confessor (1003-1066): The hands of a king are the hands of a healer

Another exiled Anglo-Saxon king to whom Aragorn bears some similarity is Edward the Confessor.

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Edward the Confessor and Aragorn

Edward had spent much of his life as an exile at the court of Normandy, since a Viking king named Cnut had killed his half-brother Edmund Ironside and had occupied the throne of England between 1016 and 1035 (to add insult to injury, Cnut also married Edward’s mother!). Still, Edward was able to reclaim the throne of England,even though the manner in which he did so was not particularly heroic: he was invited back to England by Cnut’s son Harthacnut in 1041 and, when Harthacnut died a year later (he reportedly drank himself to death at a wedding!), Edward became king of England in 1042. Soon after his death in 1066, Edward the Confessor was revered as a saint and  it was claimed that he had ‘the royal touch’: the ability to cure people by touching them with his hand (e.g., the eleventh-century Vita Ædwardi Regis relates how the water with which Edward had rinsed his hands restores a blind man’s sight).

Guess who also had ‘the king’s touch’? That’s right: Aragorn. When Aragorn enters Gondor after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he visits the Houses of Healing. One of its nurses remembers an old saying “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known”. Aragorn arrives just in time to tend to FaramirFaramir and Éowynn, both suffering from the Black Shadow. He heals them both with the help of his hands and some crushed and boiled Athelas or Kingsfoil, revealing that he is the rightful king.

Aragorn may be the rightful king of Gondor, he certainly wouldn’t seem out of place in Anglo-Saxon England!

 If you liked this post, you may also be interested in The Medieval in Middle-earth: Rings of Power and  The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Thror’s Map

Works refered to:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2522449/Amazing-story-Anglo-Saxon-warrior-saint-struggle-claim-rightful-place-king-inspired-Tolkiens-Aragorn.html

[in retrospect: the Daily Mail article dealt with a new biography of Oswald of Northumbria, entitled “The King in the North” and, no doubt, the title’s reference to Game of Thrones and the article’s link between Oswald and Aragorn were intended to boost sales!].

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.

“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited

After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159).  The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).

That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf]  is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.

Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).

The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode

The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant]  are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…

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Notes 

Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!

  1. “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
  2. I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
  3. For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
  4. The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
  5. Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
  6. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
  7. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
  8. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
  9. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
  10. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
  11. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
  12. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
  13. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
  14. See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
  15. See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
  16. See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
  17. See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
  18. See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
  19. See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
  20. See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
  21. See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s  is highly symbolic.
  22. See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
  23. See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
  24. See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
  25. See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
  26. See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
  27. See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
  28. See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.

The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Rings of Power

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 Rings of Power used by Sauron to gain dominion over those who would wear them…

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Good guy Sauron meme (source)

“hringa fengel” (Beowulf, l. 2345): the original ‘Lord of the Rings

Why does Sauron give rings to the elves, men and dwarves he wants to control rather than any other object? The answer may be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, one of the texts Tolkien studied closely.

In Beowulf, kings are often described with metaphorical phrases such as “sincgyfan” [giver of treasure] (l. 1012a),  “sinces bryttan” [distributor of treasure] (l. 1922b) and “goldgyfan” [giver of gold] (l. 2652). Rulers were thus associated with the dispensing of treasure and, more specifically, rings, as suggested by the use of the term “beaga bryttan” [distributor of rings] (ll. 35a, 352a) in the same poem (incidentally, the Old English word beag ‘ring’ is related to present-day English bagel). Other Anglo-Saxon poems, too, attest to the idea that kings were supposed to hand out rings: the wisdom poem Maxims II, for instance, holds ” Cyning sceal on healle / beagas dælan” [a king must share out rings in the hall]. Rulers handed out treasure to their followers as a way of establishing a bond of reciprocal loyalty: the king would give treasure in return for loyalty and service. What Sauron aims to do with the Rings of Power, then, is a perverted version of this medieval idea of treasure-for-loyalty.

The title The Lord of the Rings may also find its origins in the terms used for rulers in Beowulf.  The eponymous character of the poem – King Beowulf himself – is called the “hringa fengel”, a phrase which neatly translates to ‘lord of the rings’:

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Beowulf, ll. 2345-7 © The British Library, Cotton Vitelius A. xv, f. 185r (source)

Oferhogode ða         hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan         weorode gesohte,
sidan herge;         no he him þa sæcce ondred

[The lord of the rings (Beowulf) then disdained that he should seek the wide-flyer (the dragon) with a troop, a large army; he did not fear the battle for himself.]

An inscribed ring from Anglo-Saxon England: The Kingmoor Ring

The One Ring, inscribed in Tengwar with part of the Ring verse (“One ring to rule them, etc.”), bears some resemblance to a group of early medieval, Anglo-Saxon rings with runic inscriptions. One of these is the ninth-century Kingmoor Ring, currently in the British Museum. This runic ring is inscribed with what has been interpreted as a magical spell: “ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpon” on the outer rim and “tol” on the inside. The text is, for the most part, magical gobbledegook, but shows some similarities to a charm found in an Old English medical text that deals with stopping the flow of blood. As such, scholars have assumed that the ring may have functioned as a medical amulet (see, e.g., Page  1999, pp. 112-113). Interestingly, the Kingmoor Ring is linked to various other Anglo-Saxon runic rings bearing a similar inscription: the Bramham Moor Ring and the Linstock Castle Ring. Could this group of magical rings be the source of inspiration for Tolkien’s Rings of Power?

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Left: The One Ring (source). Right: The Kingmoor Ring © Trustees of the British Museum (source)

Why doesn’t Isildur destroy the ring when he has the chance?

A last point concerning the Rings of Power that has a decidedly medieval ring to it is Isildur’s stated reason for refusing to throw the ring in Mount Doom. Elrond tells the fellowship in Rivendel that he and others had tried to persuade Isildur to destroy the Ring, but the latter ignored their pleas:

But Isildur would not listen to our counsel. ‘This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 2)

Here, Isildur refers to the early medieval legal principle of weregild. The term is Old English for ‘man-price, man-money’ (Old English wer is still there in werewolf, man-wolf). Weregild was the compensation for a murder (or some other mischief) in order to avoid a bloodfeud. Tolkien himself gives the following explanation of this principle that is found in many early Germanic law codes:

the offending party could ‘settle the feud’ by payment, and various elaborate scales of value were drawn up. this payment was called wergild: each man according to his status had a price. (J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf, pp. 165-6)

So, there you have it: Isildur uses a medieval reason not to dispose of a ring (itself possibly inspired by a group of medieval rings), which had been used by Sauron in a manner not unlike medieval kings. And all that in a book which may take its name from a phrase in a medieval poem. There is more medieval in Middle-Earth than you might think!

The information in this post is expanded from material I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here). If you liked this post, you may also be interested in The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Thror’s Map

Works referred to:

  • Page, R.I., Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge, 1999)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (London, 2014)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)

 

The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Thror’s Map

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 blog, I will regularly shed some light on the medieval in Middle-Earth, starting with the map of Thror.

Thror’s Map

erebor_original

Thror’s map (source)

Found in the front matter of The Hobbit, Thror’s map is for many readers the first glimpse at Tolkien’s fictional universe. A closer look soon reveals that this is no ordinary  map. For one, its orientation seems off: the East is on top, North is on the left, West is on the bottom. Moreover, the map contains little drawings, such as a mountain, a dragon and a spider in a web, accompanied by such little texts as “there are spiders”. More obviously, perhaps, is the strange alphabet (discovered and identified by Elrond as ‘moon letters’) and the little hand on the left, pointing at more moon-ish letters. A strange map, indeed. Though not so strange, perhaps, for someone who is familiar with the Middle Ages.

A medieval map: The Cotton World Map 

cotton_world_map

Cotton World Map. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B v (source)

This Anglo-Saxon map of the world, made in Canterbury around 1025-1050, shows a number of similarities to Tolkien’s map of Thror. First and foremost, the two maps share the same orientation: East is on the top, North is on the left and the West is on the bottom (you can clearly see this by looking at Britain in the bottom left corner!) –  a standard feature of medieval maps (before the introduction of the compass, the East (where the sun rises) was the easiest direction to locate). Moreover, the Cotton World Map, like Tolkien’s, features several drawings, such as two little men fighting in the south of Britain, little drawings of cities like Rome and Jerusalem, and mountains (including Mount Ararat in Armenia with a little Ark of Noah!). Finally, the Anglo-Saxon map accompanies some of these drawings with descriptions; e.g., the drawing of a lion in China, where it says “hic abundant leones” [here are many lions] – not unlike Tolkien’s drawing of a spider, near the text ‘There are spiders’.

It is not inconceivable that Tolkien, in fact, drew inspiration from the Cotton World Map – its manuscript, Cotton Tibius B v, contains a version of the Marvels of the East (a catalogue of monsters), of which another version is found in the Beowulf manuscript that was so vigorously studied by Tolkien.

CottonWMDetails

Details of the Cotton World Map: Britain; Mount Ararat with “arca noe”; Lion. © The British Library, Cotton Tiberius B v

Strange script: Moon letters are Anglo-Saxon runes

The fact that only Elrond is able to decipher the moon letters might make them seem strange and ancient; they turn out to be a lot closer to home. Tolkien based his moon letters on the Anglo-Saxon ‘futhorc’, the runic alphabet used for short inscriptions on stone, wood and metal. Using the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, one can clear decipher the message on Thror’s map as “Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the keyhole”. The English reading of the runes is retained even in some foreign-language versions of The Hobbit, including the Dutch one.

TMRunes

Anglo-Saxon futhorc (left) and moon letters on Thror’s map (right)

Manicula: Little hands in the margins of medieval manuscripts

The little hand pointing at another set of letters (which, again, can be deciphered using the Anglo-Saxon futhorc) is reminiscent of similar little hands found in medieval manuscripts. These so-called maniculae were often added in the margins by readers to point out important pieces of text (see a highly informative blog here)- the little hand on Thror’s map serves a similar purpose.

Maniculae

Little hand on Thror’s map and examples of early 14th-century maniculae. © The British Library, Royal MS 12 E.xxv (source)

To conclude, the map that serves as every reader’s introduction to Middle-Earth immediately gives away the medieval character of the fictional world it depicts. Welcome to Middle-Earth? More like welcome to middangeard!

The information in this post is slightly adapted from an article I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here).

MiM.Featured

Tolkien’s map and its Anglo-Saxon exemplar?

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Old English is alive! Five TV series and movies that use Old English

Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.

1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer  means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)

In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):

Bealocwealm hafað

freone frecan.     forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan.     gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde.       þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest.      and maga deorost.

[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]

The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].

2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)

Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:

Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!

Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]

Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!

Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]

Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?

3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)

The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:

“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]

(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)

The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!

4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)

De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.

I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:

Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]

Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]

Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]

The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).

5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)

In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:

Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.

Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.

Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.

The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 793. © British Library, Cotton Tiberius B. iv (Source)

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]

The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.

Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)

Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive! 

With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.

© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.