Tolkien's Anglo-Saxon poetic links
Originally posted on Theonering.net on 6th November 2003
Feeling Anglo-Saxon? It's Tolkien Trivia Time!
What to look at today... Hmm now, let me see. *Amatire rummages in an old rose-wood casket full of scrolls and old leather bound books* Genealogy? no... Geography? hmm not today... "On fairy stories"? maybe I'll leave that for next week.... Elvish? yeeks no! Aaaaahhhhh perfect! I've found just the thing.
*blows the dust of a small green volume*
Anglo Saxon poems!
Now let me ask you a question. Does this look familiar to you?
Hwaer cwom mearg? Hwaer cwom mago? Hwaer cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwaer cwom symbla gesetu? Hwaer sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala burnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm swa heo no waere.
Yes? No? Well in case you didn't already know. that is Old English. Pretty much the earliest written language known in Britain. (There are smatterings of Viking Runes, but they are contemporary or later, and of course theres Gaelic and Welsh, but they were not written down until much much later either. There is a possiblilty that a handful of rock-carvings on stones in the neolithic are in actual fact a basic written language, but no one is sure.... personally I reckon that they were just the doodles stone-age man made when he was on his mobile phone. No. Anglo-Saxon is almost definitely the first written language we know of in Britain.)
Now I expect that poem raises three questions in your mind. Firstly: What in the world does that mean? Secondly: How do I even pronounce it?! And thirdly: What if anything does that have to do with Tolkien?!
Well, lets see if by answering the first two questions, I can inadvertantly answer the third.
Hwaer say that out loud, speak it phoenetically. What does it sound like to you? if you said where give yourself a gold star!
That is the main key to pronouncing Old English. You say it phoenetically, (just be thankful youre not the one having to spell that! Sheesh! If I have ever found a word more un-phoenetical I certainly can't think of it now!) and you pronounce every letter. So no silent Consonants or Eees here people! (if you were an Anglo-Saxon, those last two words would have been pronounced as 'heeruh pee-owp-luh' make sense?) Also, if you come across an unfamiliar letter such as: 'þ' you pronounce it as a 'th' like in 'there' or 'that'.*
cwom well it looks a lot like 'come' and it is the same basic root word, but in this case it is often translated as 'is.' Confused? I know I am!
mearg** this means 'horse' believe it or not.
Now most consider this whole sentance to be in the past tense, so the translation goes like this:
Where is the horse gone? or What has become of the horse? which gives a better translation to the root word cwom as 'become' instead of 'is'
Have you got a good idea so far? Ok so let's fly through the rest of it.
Hwaer cwom mago? translated as "What has become of the warrior**?"
The other words are:
maþþumgyfa = 'giver of gifts/treasure,' symbla = 'feast/feasting,' gesetu = 'seat/ceremonial seat or dwelling,' sindon = 'are,' seledreamas = 'hall-joy/delight of the hall ,' Eala = 'Alas!' beorht = 'bright,' bune = 'cup/chalice/goblet,' burnwiga = 'chainmailed-warrior,' þeodnes* = 'Prince,' þrym = 'splendidness/illustriousness/brilliance,' Hu = 'how,' seo = 'that,' þrag = 'time,' gewat = 'departed,' genap = 'grow dark/to become (suddenly?) obscured,' nihthelm = 'night's onset/the shadow of night,' swa = 'thus/so/as/consequently,' heo = 'darkness,' no = 'by no means/not,' waere = 'to be/was'
Are you beginning to think that this sounds familiar?
Well let me give you a hand.
It comes from an Old English poem called The Wanderer. Lines 92-96 to be exact. The E-online Wanderer file gives us this information.
"The poem known as The Wanderer appears in The Exeter Book, an anthology dating from the third quarter of the 10th century (Thats from 950-975AD), though the poems in it may be considerably older."
This is what the original looks like.
So what is the full translation?
***"Where is the horse gone? Where the young rider?
What has become of the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feasting gone?
Where are the merry sounds in the hall?
Alas, bright chalice! Alas, the knight and his hauberk!
Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed,
And vanished under cover of darkness, as if it had never been."
Now do you see? Yes, these are almost exactly the same words that Theoden speaks in the film of the Two Towers (or if you want to be picky, the words that Aragorn speaks to Legolas and Gimli when describing the people of Rohan to them).
See TTT The King of the Golden Hall:
"[Aragorn] began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was strong music in it.
'That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,' said Legolas; ' for it is like to the land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.'"
That is a really good description of Anglo-Saxon poetry. More often than not they were laments, or if they spoke of great deeds - such as the story of Beowulf - they were still 'laden with sadness' as Legolas says. And his description of the sound of the language is spot on in my opinion, Old English is very definitely rolling and hard at the same time!
Let's go on.
"'It runs thus in the common speech' said Aragorn, 'as near as I can make it.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?'"
So now you know where the good Professor got that particular poem from. If we needed any more proof that he was a big fan of Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture, (aside from the fact that he was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University!) you can't get any better than this!
I think that Tolkien has taken the original lines of the poem and expanded on their meaning much better than a direct translation does.
Well, I have waffled for long enough. Any questions, comments, debates, mistakes noticed or requests for next week as ever are welcomed and appreciated.
(*So Theoden's name if written correctly would probably be þeoden/þeodnes and means 'Prince')
(**notice that the words for warrior and horse are similar. Perhaps because one was rarely seen without the other? In fact another translation gives the word mago the meaning 'young rider').
(***notice there is no word for "the" in the original Anglo-Saxon poem.)
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