Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Hares, Chaucher, and Tolkien Trivia

I'm off on vacation today, but I was so fascinated by what I was reading last night, that I dreamt all night about posting a T.T.T about it!

So here it is:

Michel Delving.

There are two Delvings in the Shire. Little Delving and Michel Delving. Michel - pronounced Mickle not Michael - is a fascinating word IMHO. It is so typically Middle-English. But more on that later...

As with many placenames in the UK, there is a pattern that Tolkien has decided to follow.

Near Salisbury plain and Stone Henge, there is a glorious collection of villages that always tickle my funnybone.

-Upper Wallop
-Middle Wallop
-Nether Wallop
-(which is an Army Air Corps base, any budding terrorists in our ranks might like to know.. *winks*)

There are some familiarly Hobbitish names, like Nobottle, Stank End, Maggot's End, Wetwang, Compton Pauncefoot, and some that match almost exactly, like Chetwood, Clee, Bree, Archet, Bagginswood, Buckland, in the UK and many more. Just showing how much Tolkien really did delve into English history for that distinctly Shire-ish feel.

(Incidentally, if you want a giggle, there is a fabulous pair of websites here and here chronicling some of the wierdest and funniest placenames in the UK).

But he also used different types of placenames for different places. Chetwood, Archet and Bree for example are both derived from Ancient Briton - Celtic to you and me. Showing that the Hobbits of the area around Bree were earlier settlers than the Hobbits of the Shire. This fits with the history that we know of Hobbits, because they travelled west from beyond the misty mountains (where Smeagol dwelt) towards the sea by incriments every few hundred years. The last known slide westward of this type of course is Elanor Gardner and Fastred settling on the Tower Hills at "Undertowers" (a typically modern English name, which reflects in many ways the names given to places in America and Australia and other colonies inhabited by the English).

But I digress...

What then is so interesting to me about Michel? Is it a humerous name? Well, no not really. But it always piques my attention because it is such a rare Middle-English word. Very few people know what it means, or have ever heard it outside a placename context.

Here the fact that it is twinned with Little Delving should give some clue as to its meaning. (Delving of course is fairly self-explanatory. To Delve being 'to dig', and the suffix -ing is an Old English word ending that meant "People of" or "family of" and was adopted as a general adjective ending later on).

Michel means "a batch, a handful of, or a lot of something, or a great deal of something" It seems to have the connotations of being a lot of little things..

It is found in a very ancient English saying that my mother and grandmother loved to quote at me:

"Many a Michel (Or Mickle) macks a Muchel (or Mochel)"

Which means: "Many little things put together make a big/large thing."

And it is used to intice people to take small steps towards a big goal.

Michel Delving therefore is a large collection of small hobbit holes. (You will also see this name at Mickleburg which means Great City and is a mannish rendering of the name Belegost which was one of the Dwarf Cities in the Blue Mountains. In that case, Mickle is a rendering of Muchel which means "great" not Michel. But the two words seem to have been interchangable by Chaucer's time. The Encyclopedia of Arda has Michel translated as Muchel or 'great' But that is not what the word originally meant, although it is too close to it to split hairs over - and it sits nicely with the pairing together of Little and Michel Delvings).

That isn't the only reason why it always makes my ears prick up when I hear it. It is also found in an interesting folk song (one of very few that England has managed to keep hold of that posess mythologies from the Anglo-Saxon times). The song is about a Hare, and touches on the subject of Hare Coursing, which has been practiced since the Bronze Age in Britain.

Two hounds would be set on a Hare and the spectators watch to see who runs out of steam first. Contrary to popular belief it isn't a method of catching hares, in fact it is considered a loss if the hare does not manage to escape unscathed - although the dog that caught it is no doubt rewarded for his agility. It seems that they simply found it fascinating to watch these three lean animals ducking and diving each other and changing course in mid-run.

The song is more recently connected with witches or wise women, and it denotes the Anglo Saxon concept of people taking on the properties of animals or even turning into one. A man would wish to take on the ways of a Wolf, or a Bear (remember Beorn in the Hobbit?) And a Woman's aim was to take on the ways of a Hare. (Perhaps the concept of mad march hares - they really do act very strangely in the breeding season - was seen to relate to a woman's cycle and fertility?).

I am sorry to say that I have been unable to unearth the exact lyrics for the song. But to show how old and commonly known the song once was, - and the saying - you can find a part of it in the Wife of Bath's Prologue in Chaucer's Cantabury tales, written in Middle English.

"Now wol I dye, I may no lenger speke. --
But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,
We fille acorded by us selven two"

(I said to him)
"Now will I die, I will no longer speak",
But at last, with much worry and grief, We came to an agreement"

The original song lyrics were an enchantment to turn a woman into a hare, and to warn the persuing man that he shall not catch her. In many ways it was a courting song. They go something like this:

"But so an you chase me,
Shall I vanish from thee,
I'll take upon the guise of hare,
and shall escape with michel care,
I'll take upon the guise of hare,
And shall escape with michel care."

Thus, whenever I see Michel Delving, I always think of hares....

Well, that might not have been so exciting to others of you, but consider this. Tolkien spent much of his time working on a way to provide a mythology for England to replace the one we lost. So much of Anglo-saxon tradition was wiped out with the Norman invasion in 1066. But in many places little bits of it remain, and the Hare Coursing song is one such fragment. I am sure Tolkien would be pleased to know that it is still remembered through his work.

- Originally posted on Main Discussion Board on Saturday, 21/8/2004 at 12:47 by Amatire


At September 8, 2004 at 12:11 PM, Blogger jesusandME said...

Awesome awesome post!!

Loved reading that-- learned so much! Henceforth, I shall be using 'michel' regularly.


At September 8, 2004 at 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hares, eh?

Fascinating stuff! Thanks for posting it.

Interesting how a collection of hobbit holes is called Michel Delving, and Michel Delving led you to "michel," and michel led you to hares; because hares leads me to rabbits (although unlike hares, rabbits aren't native to England) and rabbits make me think of hobbits. Tolkien denied that connection, but the RR discussion of The Hobbit earlier this year, and what Tom Shippey has written on the subject, suggests that there may be something to it.

-N E Brigand

At September 8, 2004 at 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wonderful! Did I just say that? Twice? I'll say it again! Wonderful!

I always wondered about Michel Delving (much less how to pronounce it). Thank you for all your research. It's wonderful to see the long, twisting journey of such a mickle word. I wonder if that's where "ickle" (sort of baby-talk for little, and, I think, is used in the Redwall books) comes from.


At September 8, 2004 at 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delightful, Amatire!

Not only is your research impressive, your writing style is both engaging and entertaining.

Thanks so much for this and have a great vacation!


At September 8, 2004 at 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't help

but smile through this whole thing! I love how Tolkien has woven so much of history and heritage into his work the same way he does in the stories themselves. He really did see more than what was in front of him. He understood that we really are all part of one great story. Wonderful :)

Thanks Amatire :) Have a GREAT vacation!!!


At September 8, 2004 at 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa! Thanks

What an education! I just LOVE to find out the origins of names.

Thanks for clearing up Michael Delving. I was pronouncing it wrong.

Can't believe Wetwang is the name of a village!

~ Lothiriel Adaneth

At September 8, 2004 at 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As somewhat of a Linguist myself, this is wonderful to read about. ~Clueless_I

At September 8, 2004 at 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for "delving" into this background! ~dernwyn

At September 8, 2004 at 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michel as mickle

is a connection I wasn't aware of. It does give me increased respect for the 'Poonies who wrote Bored of the Rings, with their immortal poem about the Elves and the Dwarves that Frito sings at Riv'n'Dell (excerpt follows):

"Angered was the mighty King,
About to raise the dickens,
'Just let me get my hands,' quoth he,
'On those half-pint chickens!'

Fearful were the chicken-Dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellowbac, their skins to save,
The elves did try to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo!"

-- Bored of the Rings


At September 14, 2004 at 1:56 PM, Blogger Roger R. said...

Michal... was what Charles Williams called his wife Florence... and what she is called on the Williams' Grave in St. Cross Cemetary in Oxford.... and the daughter (see the Beren & Luthien post) is mine!

OK I know it's spelled differently, but interesting nonetheless...

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