With pictures

'Hobbits?' said Théoden. 'Your tongue is strangely changed.'

Nowhere is Tolkien's inspiration in Old English, and Anglo-Saxon culture generally, more apparent than with the Rohirrim, the Riders of Rohan. In fact, the earlier history of the Rohirrim is more directly inspired by Old Norse sagas. Their ancestry, like the Anglo-Saxons', is in the North of Middle-Earth, and they are related genetically, culturally and, of course, linguistically, to the people of the Dale. Accordingly, their earliest records, found in Appendix Aii in The Lord of the Rings are, both in terms of style and content, inspired by sagas, particularly one of the earliest, Ynglinga saga ('The saga of the people of Yngvi'). However, as I have discussed, their language, an archaic dialect of the hobbits', is represented by Old English, and here I focus on this.

Let us begin with Beowulf, lines 405-9a: Beowulf has, after a series of exchanges with the watchman and then the door-ward of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, come for the first time before the aged king:

Béowulf maþelode . . --on him byrne scán,
Beowulf spoke . . --on him [a] corselet shone,

searonet seowed . . smiþes orþancum--:
a mail-coat linked . . with a smith's ingenuities--

'Wæs þú, Hróðgár, hál! . . Ic eom Higeláces
'Be thou, Hrothgar, well! . . I am Hygelac’s

mæg ond magoðegn; . . hæbbe ic mærða fela
kinsman and young thegn; . . I have many glorious deeds

ongunnen on geogoþe.'
undertaken in [my] youth.'

Once more, the first thing to note is how much, after the initial shock, we actually recognise. Knowing that þ and ð are represented in Modern English with th, sc with sh, and æ with a, the words on him, scán ('shone'), smiþes ('smith's'), ic eom ('I am'), and hæbbe ('have'), become familiar. Other words we can recognise from archaic Modern English (of a sort of which Tolkien was fond)--for example, þú ('thou') and hál ('hale'). We can recognise words we know with slightly different meanings, like net in searonet (chainmail being like a net) and ongunnen (being the origin of Modern English begun). Wæs ('be!') is unfamiliar to us now, but obviously related to the w- parts of the modern verb to be, was and were.

The grammar of English has changed a great deal: word-endings are much more important in Old English than now, so in smiþes orþancum, for example, not only does the -es of smiþes tell us that the word means 'of a smith', just like Modern English smith's, but the -um of orþancum tells us that it means 'with ingenuities', where now we have to use words like 'with', 'by' or 'through'. But we can still easily recognise several grammatical elements: besides the -es in smiþes, is the -od- in maþelode is the past-tense ending which we still use in words like wanted, decided; scán is the past tense of scínan just as shone is the past tense of shine. To us as to Tolkien, after a little acquaintance, meeting Old English is the linguistic equivalent of the old friend whom you met only yesterday.

To those of you who know The Lord of the Rings well, some of these words will, of course, already be familiar. Compare this passage from Book III, chapter 6:

Slowly Théoden stretched forth his hand. As his fingers took the hilt, it seemed to the watchers that firmness and strength returned to his thin arm. Suddenly, he lifted the blade and swung it shimmering and whistling in the air. Then he gave a great cry. His voice rang clear as he chanted in the tongue of Rohan a call to arms.

Arise now, arise, . . Riders of Théoden!
Dire deeds awake, . . dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, . . horn be sounded!
. . . . . . . . . . Forth, Eorlingas!

The guards, thinking that they were summoned, sprang up the stair. They looked at their lord in amazement, and then as one man they drew their swords and laid them at his feet. ‘Command us!’ they said. ‘Westu Théoden hál!’ Cried Éomer. ‘It is a joy to us to see you return into your own. Never again shall it be said, Gandalf, that you come only with grief!’
Westu Théoden hál! is just a dialectal variant of Wæs þú, Hróðgár, hál (specifically, it is a West Midlands one--in another of Tolkien's scholarly jokes, the Riders of Rohan speak the Old English dialect of the place where Tolkien himself grew up). The names too, are Old English in pattern: Old English names were often transparently meaningful (thus Hygelác, 'thought-play'; Beowulf, 'bee-wolf', i.e. one who is to bees as a wolf is to men, a bear), and those of the Rohirrim are no exception. Þéoden means 'king'; Eorlingas are 'the people of Eorl' (a legendary king of the Rohirrim, whose own name meant 'nobleman, warrior'); Éomer (more properly Éohmer, and once more a West Midlands form) means 'horse-mare'.

There is one more word, of course, which is recognisable from The Lord of the Rings--orþanc, whose meaning is described in Book III chapter 8:

This was Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech orthanc signifies Mount Fang, and in the language of the Mark of old the Cunning Mind.
Old English þanc means 'thought, mind, intent'--in it lies the origin of Modern English thanks. Or-, 'original, first', may be familiar from the name given by the Northern Men to Tom Bombadil, mentioned by Elrond in Book II chapter 2: Orald. This is too early in form to be Old English or Old Norse, and is based on what we reconstruct as Germanic *orald-. The Germanic word means 'original epoch', 'original age'--since Tom Bombadil is far older even than the elves--and so orþanc means 'original thought' and, by extension 'cunning mind'.

The poetry of the Riders of Rohan, too, takes its form from Old English. As with the Norse poetry already discussed, alliteration of the stressed syllables of the first major words in each half-line is its most obvious characteristic:

Arise now, arise / Riders of Théoden
Dire deeds awake, / dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, / horn be sounded!
The same principle applies in 'Béowulf maþelode / --on him byrne scán', and so forth. This is not the only organising principle at work in this poetry--syllable-counting is also involved--but there is no need to go into this here. More important is the effect it has on the listener. As Tolkien said, 'It may not be, at large or in detail, fluid or musical, but it is strong to stand: tough builder's work of true stone' (1983 [1940], 71).

In many ways, then, The Lord of the Rings makes a good introduction to Beowulf: Beowulf, like Tolkien's novel, has some great battle-scenes, but at heart it is really a poem of speeches. Its plot is played out across a panoramic landscape of stories, some recent, some remote, some to come. Both works differ from most modern novels, in that their action is, fundamentally, not self-contained: it is from the stories to which they allude and, when necessary, re-tell, that we sense the 'distance and a great abyss of time' that is so essential to their effect. Thus, spread over the last thousand lines of Beowulf is the story of a feud between the tribes of the Swedes and Beowulf's people, the Geats. The audience only comes to understand this story fully in the closing lines of the poem, at which point Beowulf's actions and his death take on a new and grim significance. As with the fragmentary accounts of the histories of the Ring and Gollum, the story is handed to us in a fragmentary way, not only creating dramatic tension and revelation, but a sense of the richness and depth of the world in which the main plot takes place.

The passage below is from the account of this feud, lines 2977-81. It comes from a section which Tolkien drew on substantially in his story of the seige and attack of Éomer's men on Uglúk's Uruk-hai in Book III Chapter 3, and opens a window into the world of the Rohirrim, whom Tolkien tended to depict only from outsiders' point of view. It also offers a neat example of Beowulf's dense poetic virtuosity:

Lét se hearda . . Higeláces þegn
That determined thegn . . of Higelac caused
brádne méce, . . þá his bróðor læg,
[his] broad blade, . . when his brother lay [wounded],
ealdsweord eotonisc . . entiscne helm
[the] ancient-sword, giant-made, . . the ent-made helmet
brecan ofer bordweal; . . ða gebéah cyning,
to break, across the shield-wall; . . then [the] king bent,
folces hyrde, . . wæs in feorh dropen.
[the] people's shepherd; . . [he] was in [the] life-spirit struck.
This is the very stuff of the heroic warrior culture of the Rohirrim. The symmetry of 'ealdsweord eotonisc / entiscne helm', building on the balance of sounds and syllables between the Old English half-lines, encapsulates the titanic clash of the arms, the dead stop as they meet, and the even match between the assailants (both physical and, in the wider scope of the narrative, moral). But this poetry is very different from what our reading habits are adapted to today, even those of us who read poetry. Beowulf leaves much more unsaid than The Lord of the Rings: characters' thoughts and appearances, and most of all scene-setting, all conducted at length in modern literature, are rarely to be found there. This is by no means to say that they are absent--though all too often, translations can give this impression. Rather, they are implied by Beowulf's subtle, densely-woven wordings. Another example (itself commented on by Tolkien 1983 [1940], 68-71) is lines 229-33, as Beowulf and his companions arrive on Hrothgar's shores, this time the beginning of a sequence which inspired the elaborate entry of Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn into Théoden's hall in Edoras:
Þá of wealle geseah . . weard Scildinga,
Then from the wall saw . . the guard of the Scyldings
sé þe of holmclifu . . healdan scolde,
he who from sea-cliffs . . had to keep watch,
beran ofer bolcan . . beorhte randas,
[men] bringing over [the] gangway . . bright shields,
fyrdsearu fúslicu; . . hine fyrwyt bræc
battle-gear ready; . . him curiosity pressed
módgehygdum, . . hwæt þá men wæron.
in [his] mind-thoughts, . . [as to] who those men were.
There is no description such as 'From the walls on the cliffs which rose from the sea'--all this is implied instead by the characteristic use of multiple references, each giving slightly different information: the second line of the passage zooms out from the first to put the watchman's location and duties in a wider perspective. Both sea and cliffs are added to our vision in one noun, holmclifu (or, perhaps more accurately, the ambiguous noun weall becomes specified as a clifu). The watchman's sense and execution of duty are added to our image by the verb sceolde (the origin of Modern English should, but in Old English meaning 'had to'). Moreover, the watchman does not at first see men disembarking: he sees the beorhte randas ('bright shields'): this gives us an impression of the distance which he stands above beach, seeing the large shields better than the men carrying them, and his immediate and professional concern that the men are a potential threat--it is not the men he looks at, but their armaments.

Beowulf is a poem where intent is implicit in action. Complexities and details of form, character and deed rely neither on building up adjectives and adverbs, nor on saying 'X was like Y', but on the layering of differing noun- or verb-phrases, each denoting the same thing from a different perspective, often using compounds (like holmclifu), which may themselves be dense, poetic metaphors (like béo-wulf for 'bear'). Criticism of characters and deeds is advanced not in itself, but through the gaps left in praise, or praise of which the recipient is unworthy. This is the subtle, complex world of the Riders of Rohan. Tolkien loved it, and his responses to it help modern readers to appreciate it. But Tolkien did not reproduce it: for the main literary roots of his own work, we would look better to the last great flowering of the English alliterative line, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

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