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Tolkien's Etymology in Lord of the Rings

Updated on September 13, 2014

J.R.R Tolkien was not only an author with a vivid imagination; he was also an English professor and a scholar in many fields. One of those fields, one that attracted his personal attention is etymology. Discovering the history of words was of his particular interest, and so when he wrote, or to more rightly express it when he created the world of Middle Earth, etymology and philology are both deeply rooted in its pages. Having worked for the Oxford Dictionary for two years, Tolkien's knowledge of etymology was very expansive, and his passion for it fueled the naming of several figures and places in the realm of Middle Earth (Feeling for Language). Most of these names were known as "talking names" because their derivatives often could be directly associated with the nature of that character. Not only were there literal descriptions rooted in the names, but there was also a history behind many of them, the purpose of which is to create a pre-established perspective on certain parts of the book. Etymology is very deeply rooted in the Lord of the Rings series, out of the will of passion for language and diction.

Tolkien appreciated etymology and its value for adding depth to a story, and it is especially significant when he chooses names. Some characters are known by several different names in varying areas of Middle Earth, creating cultural differences within this fictional universe. Gandalf is known as "Incanus" in some southern areas. The Latin derivative for "Incanus" is white-haired (Steiner). This is an example of a physical talking name. It also describes Gandalf's age, telling us more about Gandalf than just his literal appearance. All predecessors of Éomer have names referring to King, showing the royal lineage of his blood line (Steiner) Such historical references are utilized by Tolkien so that a history is bolstered in the mind of the reader, creating a more concrete world for the mind to imagine. Old tales of Ents, Dwarves, Elves, and Dragons referred to in the story become philological facts, and create a second history for words. One in the literal world and one for Middle Earth (Steiner) Names also indicated characteristics, which gave some characters many facets. Some of these names were true to their selves as Tolkien intended them. Others were perceptions of the character that were misleading. Aragorn has different names that the reader discovers at different stages of the story. The way his names change as the reader gains knowledge of him is an example of how etymology can cloak the true identity of a character. His name is first Strider, and during this time he is not trusted by anyone other than the people critical to plot advancement. Later on it is discovered that Aragorn is also known as Elessar, which is elfish for "Elven-Star". The revealing of the name Elessar is a radical transition from Strider, and is timed chronologically with the revealing of Aragorn's true nature and motives (Steiner). Wraith means obscure and comes from the verb writhe. In Middle Earth, Wraiths are bent and obscured from their original forms. They are kings who were duped by Sauron because of their lust for power, and are now loyal servants under his complete control.

The word elf has a very rich and deep etymology, which makes the elf culture very intriguing. In our own history elves have been very suspicious, often aligned with bad things, such as disease or the touchy subject of sexuality. In the Anglo Saxon language, Elves come up often in the diction. A variety of diseases all have elf derivatives in them such as; "ælfadl" (chicken pox), "wæterælfadl" (dropsy), "ælfsiden" (lunacy) and "ælfsogoda" which is a sort of elf vampirism(Shippey). Elf related terms dealing with sexuality were also not very kind to the Elfish people. "Nihtgengan" stands for "night walkers" and there even is a phrase referring to Elves that means "the people the Devil has sex with" (Shippey). The negative outlook on Elves can probably be explained by ignorant superstition. Things that people did not have an explanation for at the time was given one like this. How did one get a disease like this? Well you must have been shot by one of the elfish disease-bearing darts named "ylfa gescot" (Shippey). Elves were given a negative connotation because of this, but there was also a certain air of respect because they are a superior sort of being. Elf derivatives from the Anglo Saxon diction are still around today in peoples names. "Ælfred" means "Elf-friend" and can be found as Alfred today. Ælfwin means "Elf-counsel" and is Elwin today (Shippey). These names bear a much lighter feeling for Elves, and helps explain their etymology coming from the Anglo Saxon language.

The Scandinavian derivative of the word elf is a very difficult etymology to trace. There are many different interpretations, but for the sake of staying with a consistent perspective, we will use the interpretation of Snorri Sturlson (Shippey). In 1230, he attempted to explain Scandinavian diction, and handles the derivation of elves quite well. "Álfar" is the base word for elf, and they are often referred to as "Æsir", which are pagan Gods. Iötnar is also common, referring to ancient giants (Shippey). Both of these Scandinavian references were believed to be superior to normal people on an intelligence level. They were not feared like in the Anglo Saxon diction, but were respected for their advanced knowledge (Shippey). "Álfheim" is the derivative of "elf-home" and usually was accompanied by one of these prefixes: "ljós" (light), "dökk" (dark), and "svart" (black) (Shippey). The differentiation between elves did not occur in the Anglo Saxon diction, and thus created a rift in culture. "Dökkálfar" (Dark Elves) are not necessarily mean, however light elves were considered to be angelic (Shippey). The Black Elves are believed to be considered Dwarves, and not a third type of elf (Shippey).

The idea that dwarves might be black elves as in the Scandinavian diction was not observed by Tolkien, though there was elf differentiation in the Silmarillion (Shippey). Most elves are perceived to be light, but it could be thought that the Sylvan Elves were to be the Dark Elves. They fled to the woods and observe the starts at night, as a "Twilight Elf" (Shippey). How other kinds of people in Middle Earth perceive the Elves reflects both the etymology from the Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon derivatives. Boromir is hesitant to go into the Golden Wood because tales of it speak that "few come out alive". Aragorn is quick to correct Boromir about his misconception of Elves, but did not deny it (Shippey). This weary respect for elves is even embodied in someone close inside their own culture. Éomer thinks the Lady of the Wood is a sorceress, but still uses the word "Elfish" to convey "uncanny" (Shippey). Deep rooted respect for the elves is weaved throughout the history of Middle Earth, partially because it is they who keep it. The Scandinavian idea of elves is rooted in that respect, but the caution and suspicion of them can be found in the Anglo Saxon etymology. Since there are varying perceptions of Elves in different dictions, Tolkien took both to create the philology for his literary purposes.

Having an interest in philology and etymology fueled many purposeful naming when Tolkien was creating the world of Middle Earth. Creating a perspective of Elves that relates to our own historical ideas of them. This created another dimension of perception to understand their world. It is important for a novel to be grasped by its readers, and Tolkien's love for etymology enabled that to happen on numerous levels.


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