Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Small Tolkienish/Old English thang

By way of quick posts, I mused on this elsewhere, so forgive the repeat. I and my OE students this semester were translating the Finnsburh Fragment. In that fragmentary poem the Beasts of Battle motif is mentioned and the wolf there is called "greyhame." As is well known, the beasts of battle are both harbingers of battle as well as who's left when the thing is done, carrion creatures.

I don't know why it didn't strike me previously, but in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, one of the names of Gandalf among the oh-so-Germanic (Anglo-Saxon even) Rohirrim is Gandalf Greyhame. Another that he is called among the people of the horse is Lathspell, bad news (something of an irony with the Christological typography going on with Gandalf). Anyway, it suddenly struck me that "greyhame" might be more than just describing Gandalf's color of cloak, but also his nature as "lathspell." That is, like the grey hued wolf, beast of battle, harbinger of war, feeder on the dead and living, Gandalf's role in the legendarium has often been as harbinger of war, beast of battle in that way, and often depending on the living and according to his critics, metaphorically feeding on the dead and living alike. So, is Tolkien having another little linguistic joke on us? T'would see so. As far as I can tell this is the first time he is called "Greyhame":

Gandalf!" Eomer exclaimed. "Gandalf Greyhame is known in the Mark: but his name, I warn you, is no longer a password to the king's favour. He has been a guest in the land many times in the memory of men, coming as he will, after a season, or after many years. He is ever the herald of strange events: a bringer of evil, some now say."

Note that the name is given in the context of Gandalf being "the herald of strange events", even a bringer of evil! And certainly Gandalf's physical description might lend one to think of the beasts of battle too, with popping up unexpectedly in stealth, his beak nose, etc.

Interesting, no?


Anonymous said...

Gandalf is also called Storm Crow. I would think a storm crow would be an eater of the dead, especially if the storm is another name for war or battle.

Jason Fisher said...

Nice post! One quibble: I don't think it's right to say that Gandalf is also called Láthspell "among the people of the horse". It's just Gríma Wormtongue who names him this when he comes to Edoras with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. You can tell it's just an insult for the nonce, and it's never repeated.

Something else that would probably interest you ... In drafts of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien originally wrote:

"Gandalf! said Éomer. "We know that name, and the wandering witega that claims it. Hasupada we call him mostly in our tongue."

In Old English, witega is a "wise man, one who has knowledge"; and Hasupada is "grey-coat", the first element of which is familiar from the horse-name, Hasufel. Also in draft, the Rohirrim "Old Englished" Gandalf (Old Norse in form) into the Mercian Gondelf. See The Treason of Isengard, p. 405.