Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon

The land now known as England was originally inhabited by an unknown culture of people, sometimes referred to as "Megalithic" people (a reference to the standing stones they left at, among other places, Stonehenge).  These people were displaced by Celtic tribes, who in their turn were pushed back to the peripheries of the island by three Germanic tribes -- the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes -- who arrived in the fifth century to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman colonizers.  We know little of their culture, though, and nothing of their literature, until the moment when they were converted to Christianity -- and literacy -- a couple of centuries later. The former pagans became enthusiastic patrons of the Church, endowing monasteries where scribes, perhaps in an idle moment, thought to transcribe some of the ancient oral traditional verse that was still remembered -- and this we have Beowulf, along with a few other shorter poems and fragments -- The Fight at Finnsburh, Waldere, The Wife's Lament, and the riddles of the Exeter Book (several of which Tolkien used for the Riddle game in The Hobbit).

Tolkien's field of study was Anglo-Saxon, and so of course he was intimately connected with this tradition; his work on Beowulf -- particularly his essay "Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics" -- was highly influential. And the Saxon world exercised great influence on his own creations; indeed, at one point early on in his subcreation, the entire story of the Fall of Gondolin and the Elder Days was meant to be to narrated by one Ælfwine (Saxon for Elf-friend), and Tolkien back-translated much of his narrative into an "original" Old English version (the inspiration for my facetious ancient manuscript page above). In the finished work, the Anglo-Saxon speech was given to the men of Rohan, whose names and speech were all taken quite literally from the language. Éomer's salutation greeting Westu Theoden Hál is perfectly grammatical: Be thou healthy, Theoden! The idea was that the speech of Rohan, as an older dialect of the Hobbits' Westron, would sound vaguely familiar, and indeed it does.

1 comment:

  1. I personally really like the fact that he made the people of Rohan speak Anglo-Saxon. It was a good way to establish the relationship between the people of Rohan and the Hobbits, and also between the languages that they spoke. I also think that he used Anglo-Saxon because some of the ideologies of the men are similar to those of the Anglo-Saxons. And as a result, the readers can bring those ideologies with them as they read, which helps establish the tone with which each character is perceived. It's just brilliant!