Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic in Middle Earth

J. R. R. Tolkien loved mythology and languages, and desired to be a myth-maker himself. He set about crafting Middle Earth, a world complete with its own tongues and tales. He knew that in order to become good at something, one must learn from the masters that came before. So, he borrowed many elements from the ancient myths and languages he knew so well, especially Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic (his favorites). A professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, he knew seven languages other than Modern English and was called by his contemporaries “the greatest authority in the world on Anglo-Saxon subjects.”1

It is easy to find examples of Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic in The Hobbit. Tolkien probably had to rely relatively heavily on these tongues as he had not yet developed his Eldarin (Elven) alphabets. In The Hobbit all runes are Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to the Elven runes used in The Lord of the Rings. Also, many characters bear Norse names taken from the Icelandic sagas. For instance, a dwarf by the name of Dvalin is found in The Prose Edda.2 And as Dinah Hazell notes in The Plants of Middle Earth,3 names such as Durin, Thorin Oakenshield, and even Gandalf can be found in the Elder Edda.

However, Tolkien’s use of Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic is not limited to The Hobbit. Traces of the two can also be found in The Lord of the Rings, though by this time his Eldarin tongues were well developed. Take for instance the dwarvish name Gimli. In Icelandic mythology, Gimli was the name of the highest heaven, home of the righteous, the only place untouched by the fire of Ragnarok. Shadowfax, too, contains Icelandic elements. According to Icelandic myth, the chariot of Night was drawn across the sky by a sable steed called Hrim-faxi or frost-mane.4 Then there is the land of Rohan, whose speech and culture is perhaps the most Anglo-Saxon in all of Middle Earth. As Hazell points out, Theoden comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning prince or king, while Eomer can be translated to help for horses.5 Moreover, the word for Hobbit in the tongue of Rohan is holbytla, which also happens to be Anglo-Saxon for hole dweller.6

Even the Eldarin languages themselves contain Anglo-Saxon elements, though Tolkien has said that Quenya7 (also called High Elven) was largely based on Latin.8 In most languages of Latin origin, the letter h is silent, but in Quenya the letter h is voiced (as it is in Anglo-Saxon). Many Eldarin digraphs and diphthongs9 are also Anglo-Saxon. For instance, take a look at the name of Maedhros, a prominent character in The Silmarillion. The Elven diphthong ae10 closely corresponds to the Anglo-Saxon letter Ash (æ), and would have been pronounced very like the a in apple. Meanwhile, the Eldarin digraph dh is similar to the Anglo-Saxon letter Eth (ð), both being pronounced like the voiced th of Modern English. Therefore, the Eldarin tongues, too, contain Anglo-Saxon aspects.

These are only a few examples of how Tolkien drew on Anglo-Saxon and Old Icelandic while developing Middle Earth. In The Hobbit, he used Anglo-Saxon runes and borrowed names from Icelandic mythology. In The Lord of the Rings, he continued to form the names of his characters from significant Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon words. He even combined Anglo-Saxon and Latin features while creating Elven languages of his own. Thus, this incredible master of fantasy created a new world, complete with its own tongues and tales, from the old.

Notes:

1. Fr. Martin C. D’Arcy, Laughter and the Love of Friends: Reminiscences of the Distinguished English Priest and Philosopher, pp. 112-113.

2. The Prose Edda is also known as the Younger Edda or Snorri’s Edda. A rich but accessible retelling of the story of Dvalin can be found in the fourth chapter of The Children of Odin by Padraic Colum.

3. Dinah Hazell, The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-creation, Preface.

4. H. A. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen: From the Eddas and Sagas, Chapter 1.

5. Dinah Hazell, The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-creation, Chapter 2.

6. Dinah Hazell, The Plants of Middle-earth: Botany and Sub-creation, Chapter 1.

7. Quenya was the most ancient language in Middle Earth. At the time of The Lord of the Rings, it was no longer spoken in Middle Earth and was primarily a language of lore (as Latin is today).

8. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix E.

9. A digraph may be defined as two letters that together form a single sound, such as th in the word thus, or sh in shot. A diphthong is two vowels that together form a single sound, such as ea in the word great, or ou in out.

10. To be specific, this dipthong is Sindarin, an Elven tongue which was closely derived from Quenya. In the Elder Days, Sindarin was first the speech of the Sindar or Grey-elves, and later the speech of all the Eldar. At the time of The Lord of the Rings, it was still spoken in Lothlorien and by Elven lords such as Elrond. Sindarin was to Quenya what Italian is to Latin.

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