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Tolkien And Welsh - An Interview With Author Mark T. Hooker


Tolkien And Welsh2Tolkien And Welsh (Tolkien a Chymraeg): Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien's Use of Welsh in his Legendarium - An Interview With Author Mark T. Hooker

From the product description:- "Tolkien and Welsh provides an overview of J.R.R.Tolkien's use of Welsh in his Legendarium, ranging from the obvious (Gwynfa—the Welsh word for Paradise), to the apparent (Took—a Welsh surname), to the veiled (Gerontius—the Latinizaton of a royal Welsh name), to the hidden (Goldberry—the English calque of a Welsh theonym). Though it is a book by a linguist, it was written for the non-linguist with the goal of making the topic accessible. The unavoidable jargon is explained in a glossary, and the narrative presents an overview of how Welsh influenced Tolkien's story line, as well as his synthetic languages Quenya and Sindarin."


Read our review of Tolkien and Welsh/Tolkien a Chymraeg by John Good here.

AmeriCymru: Hi Mark, and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru.

Mark:  Thank you for inviting me. It’s my honor to do an interview for AmeriCymru.

AmeriCymru: In your book Tolkien is quoted as saying re: The Lord of the Rings, that the Welsh elements of his tale are what has "given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it". How true do you think this is?

Mark:  Tolkien’s assertion that the Welsh elements in his tale have given more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it, might be an overstatement.

On the one extreme, there is Edward Crankshaw’s infamous critique of Tolkien’s work in which he said that he “disliked its eye-splitting Celtic names.” On the other hand, there are people like me, who write books about Tolkien’s use of Welsh. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

Crankshaw continued that Tolkien’s work “has something of that mad, bright-eyed beauty that perplexes all Anglo-Saxons in face of Celtic art,” and I think that is where the problem lies. Very few people understand the true beauty of Celtic art, and even fewer understand the beauty of Celtic linguistics.

I, like Tolkien, am a linguist, and when I first read Tolkien’s statement about the Welsh elements in The Lord of the Rings, my immediate impulse was to rush off to learn Welsh. It took a while before I was able to turn that impulse into action, but finally, in 2000, I found a hole in my schedule for the Cwrs Cymraeg Y Mileniwm in Carmarthen. This course run by Cymdeithas Madog gave me the basis I needed to come to grips with Tolkien’s use of Welsh and Welsh folklore. The location of the course was great, because it meant that I could try and speak Welsh with native speakers when I went downtown after class to shop and explore the city. I was really pleased with the course.

You might, therefore, say that my book was twelve years in the making, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I hope it makes it possible for more people to appreciate how big a part of Tolkien’s work is based on Welsh, by showing them how to find the Welsh elements in his work.

My examination of Tolkien’s work through a Welsh lens produces a “myopic” vision of it, but that is intentional, because as Jane Chance said in an interview, “the northern European influence seems more important than the Celtic, from what I have been able to tell. Perhaps that is because so much of the work done on Tolkien’s medievalism thus far has focused on the northern European influence.” Tolkien and Welsh is intended to remedy this imbalance.

AmeriCymru: Can you tell us a little more about Tolkien’s definition of 'Welsh'?

Mark: The “Welsh” that Tolkien knew best was not exactly what people think of when they say “Welsh” today. Tolkien’s academic specialty was historical linguistics, so the “Welsh” that he was most familiar with was the Celtic language known as “Welsh,” before it split into Cornish, Breton, and Modern Welsh. J.S. Ryan, who heard Tolkien deliver the lecture “English and Welsh,” remarks that “Tolkien’s use of the word Welsh would seem to be that found in Old English texts,” where it meant “foreign, or non Germanic.”

Max Förster, an eminent German linguist with whose work Tolkien was familiar, observes that between the fifth and the seventh centuries, the language of the Celtic peoples of Wales and Cornwall would have been little different than the Brittonic from which it stemmed. Even in the period of the ninth and eleventh centuries, remarks Förster, the phonetic differences between Breton, Cornish and Welsh would have been so slight as to be “barely noticeable” for the purposes of his study.

Tolkien’s awareness of this undifferentiated use of Welsh to name the language of modern Wales and present-day Cornwall is perhaps best demonstrated in Tolkien’s tale of Ælfwine (English: Elf Friend), in which Tolkien wrote “the Welsh language is not strange to him [Ælfwine] … His wife was of Cornwall.”

My wife is “of Holland,” which is why I speak Dutch. The logical conclusion is that the Englishman Ælfwine understood Welsh, because that is what his wife spoke, and she came from Cornwall.

Tolkien’s knowledge of Breton can scarcely be in doubt. He has a note on Breton morphological change in “English and Welsh” that only a linguist well-versed in Breton could make. His knowledge of Breton is further attested by the poem he wrote, entitled The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. The “names” of the protagonists in the poem—Aotrou and Itroun—are in fact the Breton words for Lord and Lady.

In his Cambriae descriptio (Description of Wales), the twelfth century chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) comments that Welsh, Cornish and Breton are mutually intelligible in almost all instances. The “Welsh,” therefore, of Tolkien’s primary academic interest was more, or less, a “catch-all name” for the ancestor of Cornish, Breton, and Modern Welsh.

Tolkien’s poems “Earendil Was a Mariner” and “Errantry” demonstrate a considerable resemblance to the Welsh medieval poetic technique known as cynghanedd, which is regarded as one of, if not the most sophisticated poetic system of sound-patterning used anywhere in the world. Tolkien certainly knew Welsh well, if he was able to replicate that pattern.

That is not to say that Tolkien did not know Modern Welsh. There are reports of conversations he had in Welsh with various people, and apparently he spoke it quite well.

AmeriCymru: Tolkien is on record as saying that the names and places in The Lord of the Rings were developed on patterns deliberately modeled on Welsh sources, but not identical with them. How evident is this from the text? Care to quote a few examples?

Mark:  Unless your Welsh is very good and has a historical tint to it, it is hard to spot some of Tolkien’s “Welsh” names, because he deliberately changed elements in the name to make it harder to see them as such. Some are easy to spot, like Gwynfa (Paradise) from Tolkien’s children’s story Roverandom. All you have to do is open a Welsh dictionary to see this one.

Tolkien glossed the woman’s name Rhian as crown-gift, while in Welsh Rhian means queen. All he has done is change the meaning just a little bit, while the name remains easily recognizable as Welsh, because the letter combination ‘Rh’ is so typically Welsh.

Took CrestThe name Took is harder to see, because Tolkien used the English spelling. You can only really see that Tolkien intended the Welsh name, when Tolkien spells it Tūca, using a bared ‘Ū’ instead of the Welsh ‘W’ for the vowel. The name was originally Twca (type of sword).

Similarly, Tolkien’s place name Henneth Annûn looks a lot more Welsh, if it is spelled using Welsh orthography as Hennedd Annwn (the old abode in the Otherworld).

Tolkien glosses the place name Amon Lhaw as Hill of the Ear, but if lhaw is converted to modern Welsh orthography, it would be read as Amon Llaw (Amon of the Hand).

This is not in the book—as I have only just seen it myself: Tolkien’s Elvish names for the months December and January are based on the Welsh rhew (ice, frost). January is Cathriw (After the Frost) and December is Ephriw (Before the Frost), modeled on the old Anglo-Saxon month names Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) | Æftera Jéola (After Yule).

Goldberry wife of Tom BombadilIt is hard to see, not only because Tolkien changed the vowel in rhew, and because mutation changes rhew to rew, but also because the prefixes before and after are Greek.

The hardest names to spot are the ones that are translated piece by piece into English. The enigmatic name Goldberry becomes much clearer when it is translated back into Welsh, where it becomes Rhos Maelan, the place to which Maelan, the youngest daughter of the Welsh Goddess Dôn, escaped when Caer Arianrhod was flooded.

AmeriCymru: How do the linguistic boundaries in Tolkien’s work reflect those existing between the Germanic and Celtic languages in the British Isles?

Mark: The map of the U.K. is like a patchwork quilt of names, where Celtic, Germanic, Latin and Norman-French elements dot the linguistic countryside, reflecting the history of the comings and goings of the peoples who spoke these languages. Stratfordford (O.E.) on the stratum (L) or ‘Roman road’—is on the banks of the River Avon, a tautology (a bilingual place name that repeats its meaning in both of its languages), as avon means river in Welsh. Bewdley—a hypercorrection of the Norman-French beau lieu—means beautiful spot. It is located on the banks of the River Severn (Celtic: Ys Hafren, Latin: Sabrina). Pembridge (Herefordshire) is the End (W: pen) of the Bridge (E). It is located just south of the River Arrow, which is Celtic in origin: Ar + gwy L> wy = Arwy (By the Water.)

Tolkien replicates this patchwork quilt in the names of Breeland. Bree was the principal town of Breeland, which consisted of the villages of Archet, Combe, and Staddle. It was built on Bree Hill.

The name Bree Hill is one of Tolkien’s philological jests, a joke only a linguist could love. It is another tautology. It is composed of the elements Bree (Celtic) + hill (English).

The same type of construction is seen in Tolkien’s name for the wood near Bree: Chetwood. In Old Celtic, chet means wood. On the real-world map, this tautological construction shows up in the names Chetwode (south-west of Buckingham) and the Chute Forest in Wiltshire.

The element chet also shows up in the name Archet. The prefix Ar- in the name Archet can be found in a number of Welsh place names, where it means nearby. Tolkien’s name, therefore, means near the woods, which is exactly where he placed Archet in his description of Bree-Land: “on the edge of the Chetwood.” (F.205) Compare: the Welsh place name Argoed (literally: by a wood).

The name Combe is the Anglicization of the Old Celtic kumb, meaning valley (compare the modern Welsh: cwm, which means hollow). It was used so extensively that it was adopted into Old English as cumb and has yielded numerous place names based on this root, such as Combe (Oxfordshire, and West Berkshire), Coomb (Cornwall, and Devon).

Linguistically, Staddle is the odd-man-out in BreeLand. Archet, Bree and Combe share a certain Celtic ancestry, while Staddle has a Germanic origin. Tolkien’s names do exactly what place names on the real-world map do.

AmeriCymru: Tolkiens work is rich in philological jests. In your book you point out that there are many place names which will amuse an etymologist both in the book and in modern day Britain. Care to expand on this theme a little?

Mark: Tolkien was a man who liked a good linguistic jest, another of the traits that he shared with the Welsh as described by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), the twelfth century chronicler who authored the Cambriae descriptio (Description of Wales). Welsh courtiers, and even plain family men have “the reputation of being great wits,” says Giraldus. They are fond of “sarcastic remarks and libelous allusions, plays on words, sly references, ambiguities and equivocal statements.” The description fits Tolkien handily. Most of Tolkien’s puns, however, are the kind that only another linguist can laugh at without being told what the joke is. I try to explain some of them in Tolkien and Welsh.

Many of Tolkien’s jokes are what linguists call “Folk Etymologies,” that is an explanation of a name that makes the name comprehensible to a non-linguist. The Hobbits, for example, changed the Elvish name for the River Baranduin into the name Brandywine. This kind of thing happens all the time in the real world. A real-world example is Golden Valley in Herefordshire, which is the work of French monks who thought that the Welsh dwr (water) was the French d’or (of gold).

Tolkien says that some members of the Boffin family thought that the name Boffin might mean “one who laughs out loud.” The connection is obviously to the word boff, a bit of slang from the entertainment industry that means “a hearty or unrestrained laugh.” Boffin is in fact a Welsh name that was originally spelled Baughan.

The name Maggot is another linguistic joke of Tolkien’s. While English speakers are trying to figure out why Tolkien would name anyone Maggot, Welsh speakers of Tolkien’s ilk—and remember that means Welsh with a historical tint—know that King Magoth is one of the ancestors of King Arthur, and that the name changed to Baggot in Brittany, and came back to the U.K. in that form with William in 1066. This makes it just another in Tolkien’s nest of names that contain the element ‘bag,’ like Baggins of Bag End.

Orthanc is another of Tolkien’s puns. It has meaning in both Rohirric (Anglo-Saxon) and in Sindarin: In Rohirric, it means cunning mind, while in Sindarin, it means Mount Fang. Mordor yields both a Sindarin (black land) and an Old English (murder < morðor) gloss.

The pun in the Elvish name Cathriw hinges on the double meaning in the prefix. If you read the prefix as if it were Celtic instead of Greek, the prefix suggests the Irish cath (battle), the Welsh cad, the Old Welsh cat, and the Brittonic *kattā. Compare Taliesin’s Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees), Cath Maige Tuired (The Battle of the Plain of the Towers) from the Irish mythology, and the Welsh name Cadwallawer (Battle Ruler) < cad- (battle) + gwaladr (ruler) L > waladr. A Celtic reading of Cathriw makes it mean Battle of the Frost, which has a certain resonance with Ragnarok, the battle between the Norse Gods and the Frost Giants (hrímþursar) at the end of the world.

Sir John RhysAmeriCymru: Tolkien owed a great deal to his former tutor Sir John Rhys. Can you tell us a little more about him and the precise nature of the debt?

Mark: Sir John Rhys (1840–1915) was a famous Welsh scholar, fellow of the British Academy, Celtic Specialist, and the first Professor of Celtic at Oxford University. Tolkien was one of his students. As any diligent student should know, when you take a course from someone who has written a book on the topic of the course, the book will be a part of the course, even if it is not on the required reading list, and Professor Rhys was a well-published author. Lectures on Welsh Philology (1877)

 You can tell that Tolkien read Rhys’ books, because the only place that I’ve yet found the name Rhos Maelan attested is in Rhys’ book Celtic Folk-lore.

As I read Rhys’ works, I kept finding things that I recognized from Tolkien’s work. For example: Tolkien has a footnote to the song that Frodo sings at the Prancing Pony, in which Frodo calls the Sun “She.” The footnote says “Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She.” (F.218) Rhys has a very interesting paper in which he explains that the Celts worshiped a Sun Goddess, not a Sun God as is the case in Western tradition.

AmeriCymru: In The Two Towers, the Welsh folk belief in "corpse candles" is alluded to. Are there other instances of Welsh folk beliefs cropping up in Tolkien’s work?

Mark: In his book on Welsh folklore, Sikes remarks that although Keightley took Shakespeare to task in his Fairy Mythology for the inaccuracy of his use of “English fairy superstitions,” no such thing could be said of the Bard’s use of Welsh folklore. Shakespeare’s knowledge and use of Welsh fairy motifs and lore, notes Sikes, were “extensive and peculiarly faithful.” The same can be said of Tolkien.

Tolkien has a place named Long Lake that is the translation of the reasonably common Welsh name Llyn Hir. One of these “Long Lakes” is in Llanfair Caerneinion parish in Montgomeryshire. It is located on Mynydd y Drum in Powys. There is a legend about this mountain that has lots of elements in common with Tolkien’s tale of treasure in a mountain found in The Hobbit.

The legend is one from Rhys’ Celtic Folk-lore. It is a tale about a wizard (cwmshurwr) who lived in Ystradgynlais, near the mountain. The wizard had heard that there was a great treasure hidden in Mynydd y Drum, but he could not go get it alone. He needed the help of a “plucky fellow“ (dyn ysprydol).

These are the first resonances with Tolkien’s tale. Gandalf stops by Bag-End to recruit someone to go recover a treasure in a mountain, and convinces Bilbo to join in the expedition. Bilbo “plucks up his courage“ three times in The Hobbit: once in the face of the trolls (H.47), once when confronted by the spiders (H.158), and a third time when he talks to Smaug (H.214).

The wizard of Ystradgynlais found just such a man in the person of John Gethin (The Swarthy). John and the wizard climbed the mountain together, and when they got to the top, the wizard drew the symbol for infinity (∞) on the ground. The wizard stepped into one of the circles, and instructed John to enter the other. Under no circumstances, the wizard told him, was he to leave the circle. While the wizard was busy with his books, a monstrous bull appeared, bellowing threateningly, but the plucky John stood his ground, and the bull vanished.

The next stage of the story carries two more resonances with Tolkien’s tale. John is threatened by a “fly-wheel of fire“ that heads straight for him. This proves too much for John, and he steps out of the circle to avoid being hit by it. The wheel immediately turns into the devil, who grabs John to take him away. The wizard was only able to save John by trickery. He convinced the devil to let him keep John for as long as the piece of candle he had with him lasted. As soon as the devil agreed to his request, the wizard blew out the candle. This understandably made the devil quite cross, but he had given his word.

Without much imagination—a trait that Tolkien had in abundance—a “fly-wheel of fire” could be turned into a flying fire-breathing dragon. This is after all the man whose first name for Smaug was the simple Welsh compound Pryftan (literally: Worm of Fire). The role of the devil seems to have been given to the Goblins who detain Thorin and Co. They are indeed quite cross when Gandalf rescues Bilbo and the Dwarves from their clutches.

John kept the candle stowed away in a cool place, never lighting it. Nevertheless, the candle wasted away. John was so frightened by this that he took to his bed. He and the candle wasted away together, and they both came to an end simultaneously. John simply vanished. For appearances’ sake, they put a lump of clay into the coffin they buried under John’s headstone.

John’s vanishing act recalls Gandalf’s explanation of what the Ring does to its owner. A mortal ringbearer, says Gandalf, “does not die, … he fades.” In the end, he becomes invisible forever, and is condemned to walk in the twilight, under the watchful eye of the Dark Lord who rules the Rings of power. (F.76, Tolkien’s emphasis)

You think that you know all the players in the sub-field of Welsh Tolkienistics, because there are not a lot of us, but when Tolkien and Welsh was published, I got an eMail from Wales from Steve Ponty who is working on a book entitled The Hobbit: Professor J.R.R. Tolkien's Magic Mirror Maps of Wales. In his book, he points out—much to my embarrassment, because I wish I had seen it—that when Gandalf introduces Thorin and Company to Beorn, he announces that they are on their way to the “land of their fathers.” (H.122) Ponty explains that if Thorin had introduced himself, he would have said that they were going to the *‘land of my fathers,’ which, as any specialist in things Welsh should know, is the common English translation of the title of the Welsh National Anthem: Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

What makes this idea so attractive is that before the reader can get to the next paragraph where Ponty makes it explicit, the suggestion of Welsh Dwarves triggers the thought that both the Dwarves and the Welsh are famous for their considerable ability as miners.

AmeriCymru: In what way does the theme of matrilineal descent demonstrate a further Celtic influence in Tolkien’s work?

Mark: Matrilineal descent is one of the key characteristics of the Welsh pantheon. Rhys discusses this aspect of Welsh culture at length in Chapter 1 (“The Ethnology of Ancient Wales”) of his book The Welsh People.

Matrilineal descent means that the family tree of the Welsh gods and goddesses is presented with reference to their mothers, rather than to their fathers. So, when Tolkien describes Goldberry as “the River Woman’s daughter,” he is giving her a matrilineal description. This means that Goldberry fits seamlessly in the type of hierarchy that is used for the children of the goddess Dôn, who form the great dynasty of Welsh mythology.

The majority of Tolkien’s characters are described in terms of patrilineal descent. There are, however, characters, whose descent is described in matrilineal terms. The descriptions of the lineage of the three Hobbit Ring Bearers all accent details of who their (grand)mothers were. This makes them stand out among all the patrilineal characters.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien’s narrator begins his introduction of Bilbo with “the mother of our particular hobbit … was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took.” (H.16) This is the only time that Tolkien uses the word mother in The Hobbit.

Frodo’s relationship to the Old Took is reckoned via one of Old Took’s daughters. Frodo is the son of the daughter of the youngest of the Old Took’s daughters (F.45), a description that is the essence of matrilineal descent. Bilbo’s selection of his mother’s sister’s daughter’s son as his heir and successor is equally in step with matrilineal descent.

Sméagol (Gollum) came from “a family of high repute” that “was ruled by a grandmother of the folk,” a matriarch. (F.84, F.89) She was a “great person” (F.89) who had the power to turn Sméagol out of the family and her hole. (F.85) She is the only ancestor of Sméagol’s who is mentioned, which is clearly another a matrilineal description of familial relationships.

AmeriCymru: How do the landscapes in Tolkien resemble actual geographical areas in Wales? Care to give us an example or two?

Mark: There are so many Welsh (Celtic) place names in Tolkien’s work, that it is hard to make a choice of two to give as examples, but I will give it a try.

In his notes, Tolkien said that Buckland is to The Shire as Wales is to England, so it was, therefore, “not wholly inappropriate” to use names of “a Celtic or specifically Welsh character” as the translations of “its many very peculiar names.”

Normally, Tolkien scholars say that the name Buckland came from Bookland, that is land owned by right of an entry in a book. They are generally unaware that there is a Buckland in Brecknockshire, in Wales that has a meaning that exactly matches the gloss that Tolkien gave for Buckland. He said that the names containing the element buck meant “the word ‘buck’ (animal): either Old English bucc ‘male deer’ (fallow or roe), or bucca ‘he-goat’.” The Brecknockshire Buckland was originally from the Welsh bwch (buck).

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the Dwarves pass The Carrock. The word carrock is strange enough that Bilbo has to ask what it means. Gandalf explains to Bilbo that carrock is the word that Beorn uses for what appears to be a common topographical feature, but Beorn considers this particular one The Carrock “because it is the only one near his home and he knows it well” (H.117).

CerregThe Welsh word carreg (stone, rock, escarpment) matches Tolkien’s gloss for carrock, and his description sounds very much like Castell Carreg Cennen, located among the foothills of the Carmarthenshire Black Mountains, near Llandeilo. A reviewer of Tolkien and Welsh on Amazon said that he was “hoping to see mention of Carrickfergus (Carraig Fhearghais)—the rock of Fergus (Fergus being Fergus Mór mac Eirc), but this is purely because [he] lived there for a time.” I’ve never been to Carrickfergus, but I have been to Castell Carreg Cennen, and it has a lot of things about it that fit Tolkien’s description of The Carrock.

In the Breton edition of The Hobbit, the translation of The Carrock is Ar Garreg (ar [the ] + karreg [rockgarreg), which demonstrates how clearly the Breton translator perceived the Celtic underpinnings of Carrock, despite Tolkien’s orthographic camouflage.

 

AmeriCymru: Where can one go to purchase 'Tolkien And Welsh'?

Mark:  “Tolkien and Welsh” is available from Amazon.com, from Amazon.co.uk, and from Amazon.de. Those who would like to support AmeriCymru, should, of course, click on the link in the AmeriCymru Bookstore, because Amazon pays AmeriCymru a “finder’s fee” for such sales. Signed copies will be available at the AmeriCymru stand at the Wordstock literary festival 3—6 October 2013 in Portland.

Buy from Amazon.com ( via AmeriCymru ) HERE

Buy from Amazon.co.uk HERE

Buy from Amazon.de HERE

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