During the fall semester, as I was studying Old English texts, I unearthed several Old English words I vaguely assumed J.R.R. Tolkien had invented himself. I am not referring to words Tolkien borrowed and modified to his own taste. These were words whose form in The Lord of the Rings was identical (or nearly identical) to their form in Old English. They were Old English words.
Each Tolkien word encountered in the Old English was met with wonder and the delighted exclamation of “The genius!” For Tolkien is no simpleton and each Old English definition reveals a circle of meaning beneath the surface of The Lord of the Rings. He is a man after my own heart…
Here are five words I uncovered.
enta geweorc “work of giants”1
Ent is the Old English word for “giant.” In their poetry, the Anglo-Saxons often spoke of ruins as “the work of giants.”
orþonc ærsceaft “well-crafted ancient-work”2
Orþonc describes something made with great skill and craft. This could apply to the tower of Orthanc itself, or to Saruman.
morþor hycgendne “with murderous intent”3
Morþor means things like “murder,” “mortal sin, great wickedness,” “torment, deadly injury, great misery.”4 Anne Lingard Klinck writes that morþor “always carries a sense of evil or violence.”5
In Old English, there are two ways to represent the th sound. One is the letter þ (called a “thorn”), the other is the letter ð (called an “eth”). These were used fairly interchangeably. The ð looks a little like the Latin letter d.
deagol “secret,” “hidden, dark, obscure”6
I found this Old English word while researching the etymology of “dye.”
Déagol was Gollum’s friend, once upon a time. He was the one who first found the Ring and was after murdered by Gollum. The definition of the Old English word may refer to Déagol’s disappearance after the unfortunate fishing trip, for Tolkien says, “No one ever found out what had become of Déagol; he was murdered far from home, and his body was cunningly hidden.”7
Hwær cwom mearg? “Where is the horse?”8
Mearh is the Old English word for “horse.” Mearas is the plural form. In The Lord of the Rings, the Mearas are a race of horses, of which Shadowfax is chief.
I am continually awed by Tolkien’s grasp of languages. The more I study, the more I realise how much knowledge went into The Lord of the Rings. Most of it is subliminal and does not make much difference on the surface, as one staring at a tapestry from a distance, but allows it to retain its realism when viewed closely with scrutiny.
1The Wanderer, l. 86
2Richard Fahey, The Ruin, l. 16
3Ellen Amatangelo, The Wife’s Lament, l. 20
4Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, “Morþor”
5Anne Lingard Klinck, The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study, Part II
7J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2
8The Wanderer, l. 92