Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Words Tolkien skipped

I'm just noodling around today—at least for right now—with some linguistics discussion.  Everyone knows, for instance, that Tolkien was a professional linguist.  (Philologist was the word he preferred, but historical and comparative linguistics is what we call that specific line of academic inquiry today.)  Everyone also knows that his professional love-affair with the Northern languages of Europe was hugely influential on the development of The Lord of the Rings.  He wrote very particularly and precisely—as Stanley Unwin's son (Allen and Unwin was his first British publisher) said in an interview that "one does not edit Tolkien"—and one of the things that he did was to reject, as much as possible, using words that came into English via Norman French.  He used a number of words that were very specifically words of Anglo-Saxon extraction.

Now, to be fair, Tolkien comes at the end of a string of authors who wrote in a Medievalist tradition that is probably considered somewhat dense and difficult to read by today's less educated audience.  I've recently re-read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow, for instance, and Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and it's interesting to me to see the facility with which they used fairly archaic language throughout.  William Morris did so as well, and in some ways more specifically prefigures Tolkien.  And of course, only a few generations ago, you couldn't possibly be considered educated or even anything more than an ignorant bumpkin if you weren't familiar with a number of foundational works of literature in the Western tradition that wrote in then current now archaic writing, like Malory and Spenser, for instance.  Nowadays, kids are lucky if they read heavily expurgated Shakespeare texts.  Blegh.

But Tolkien went a step further in this regard, because he specifically worked in a "Northern Thing", one inspired very little (if at all) by the Matters of Rome, France and even Britain, but rather one inspired by Anglo-Saxon and Viking literature.  In fact, he specifically rejected much of the Matters of Rome, France and Britain as being as important to his cultural heritage as the Northern Thing.  But of course, there's only so much of this that can be done.  The three pillars of Western civilization may include as one pillar the traditions and laws of the Germanic peoples, but they also include Christianity (as brought to the North by the Romans) and the Classical Graeco-Roman tradition.  But he did what he could to make Christianity a background element that is never mentioned, but who's values inform the work, and the Classical tradition is rather studiously ignored entirely.

But there's a few odd examples, and I've occasionally mentioned them here.  The first is wight and although the word itself is an old one (an archaic one in English, actually) with cognates in every Germanic language and a good history in Old and Middle English, Tolkien did not actually use it the way that it was originally used.  However, he did have some precedent; "barrow wight" was actually William Morris' translation of the Norse draug, and Tolkien used it in the exact same way.  This is curious, though—what I would perhaps have expected Tolkien to do was "create" an Old English (Mercian dialect) cognate to the Norse draug if one is not attested anywhere in the literature.  He did a lot of similar things (changing the plural of dwarf from dwarfs to dwarves and the even more archaic dwarrow, for instance.)

The second example of orc, which is not a word Tolkien created, but one that he certainly popularized in the sense that we know it today.  Orc is a word that (perhaps ironically) comes from Latin Orcus (Tolkien did express some doubts about this etymology, actually), but which has a solid Anglo-Saxon pedigree that easily predates the Norman invasion.  His doubts seem to be related to the fact that orc appears as a component in kennings—orc-néas in Beowulf, where néas is believed to be a word for corpses from the underworld, and orc-þyrs in other sources.  It's curious that if Tolkien and other Anglo-Saxon philologists of his day believed that orc was a native A-S word, comparable to (and in fact, pretty indistinguishable from it in terms of meaning) þyrs, that he selected orc instead of þyrs.  The latter actually has an Old Norse cognate, þurs, derived from Proto-Germanic *þurisaz.  It's a better word for his purposes, having a clearer Northern pedigree, and no confusion about whether or not it has a Graeco-Roman connection, and it's got slightly better textual attestation, with less confusion about how the old Anglo-Saxons might have actually used the word.  But he didn't, so we have orcs today in modern fantasy, instead of thurses, or however exactly Tolkien might have modernized the Old English word þyrs.

Of course, Tolkien does sometimes call his orcs goblins, which is a Norman derived word, but he phased this out after The Hobbit and mostly uses it as a word relegated to the more ignorant and provincial of the hobbits (meaning Sam, mostly.)

Curiously, if you do some research into the word thursar, the Norse version of the word, to see what you find, it's always paired with jötunn, or jotun, a word that's also very familiar to anyone who reads Norse Mythology, or heck, even good old-fashioned pre-SJW Thor comic books.  This is another word with an impeccable Northern pedigree, from proto-Germanic *etunaz, and which has very well-attested Old and Middle and even early Modern English attestations: OE eoten, ME eten and etend, Modern English ettin (and various other similar spellings, including yotun, which is very similar to the Norse version, and etten, see below.)  Most gamers are familiar with the concept of the ettin because Gary Gygax included them in the first Monster Manual as two-headed, orc-like, giant-like creatures.  In this sense, it reflects well the Norse tradition of trolls and jotuns that often had more than one head, but it really should just have been an Old English word for a giant—it would have served Tolkien much better than ogre, which he does use occasionally.

On the other hand, Tolkien does include a note on the map and in some few geographical references to the land north of Rivendell, which is called both the Troll-fells and the Ettenmoors, suggesting that he knew the word quite well, and just didn't use it except as an obsolete geographical notation.  His good friend and fellow Inklings writer C. S. Lewis also has the Ettinsmoor, and a section of the Ettenmoors is apparently known as the Ettendales.

Anyway, after all this, I suppose I should merely note that in FANTASY HACK, I've used the following:
  • wights, to represent barrow wights or draugs, following the notation pioneered by Morris and Tolkien and more or less standardized across the fantasy genre since then.
  • orc, to represent something more or less standard for the fantasy genre.  Less like Warhammer bald, green gorilla orcs and more like Peter Jackson style uruk-hai, I think.
  • goblin to represent a small pestilential version of the same; goblins are to orcs more or less as halflings are to humans.  In FANTASY HACK there's no such thing as a hobgoblin, although it could be a colloquial term for a rustic goblin, I suppose.  I'd defer to folklore rather than D&D lore, which takes them in the opposite direction—rather than being bigger, stronger, more militaristic goblins, hobgoblins would be smaller, more mischievous, localized goblins.
  • thurse to represent larger, more powerful savage creatures than orcs.  Although I don't envision the thurse itself as being an ogre, the stats are equivalent to ogre stats.  Also to be used for gnophkeh or sasquatch, man-apes, predatory Neanderthals, etc.
  • ettins to represent giants.  I don't have the strange array of giants that D&D does; I've just got ettins, which may be kinda sorta like the Warhammer version of giants, I suppose.  They can also be seen as equivalent to hill giants in D&D, except not necessarily savage, stupid and primitive in culture.  Ergo, frost giants would just be ettins who live where it's colder, etc.  I don't have an equivalent to lava dwelling, flame resistant fire giants, but in reality, Surtr (Swert in English?) was just a jotun with a flaming sword who kills Freyr.  It's certainly OK to interpret Surtr as the king of a whole race of fiery giants who live in Muspelheim, but it's not strictly speaking necessary to do so by a reading of the two Eddas.  And even if it is, it's possible that much of that interpretation is Icelandic in particular, having to do with the volcanic origin of the island, and that the greater Norse (or even broader Teutonic) mythological tradition may have had Surtr merely be a dark-skinned southerner giant.


Simon J. Hogwood said...

Very interesting - I've never noticed that Tolkien emphasized Germanic over Latin words, although in retrospect I shouldn't really be surprised. Out of curiosity, have you read Scott Oden's recent novel A Gathering of Ravens? It does some really interesting things with the Northern Thing while bringing orcs and other such creatures into historical times.

Desdichado said...

I haven't, but I think I'm gonna look it up now.