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As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the Rings of Power used by Sauron to gain dominion over those who would wear them…
“hringa fengel” (Beowulf, l. 2345): the original ‘Lord of the Rings‘
Why does Sauron give rings to the elves, men and dwarves he wants to control rather than any other object? The answer may be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, one of the texts Tolkien studied closely.
In Beowulf, kings are often described with metaphorical phrases such as “sincgyfan” [giver of treasure] (l. 1012a), “sinces bryttan” [distributor of treasure] (l. 1922b) and “goldgyfan” [giver of gold] (l. 2652). Rulers were thus associated with the dispensing of treasure and, more specifically, rings, as suggested by the use of the term “beaga bryttan” [distributor of rings] (ll. 35a, 352a) in the same poem (incidentally, the Old English word beag ‘ring’ is related to present-day English bagel). Other Anglo-Saxon poems, too, attest to the idea that kings were supposed to hand out rings: the wisdom poem Maxims II, for instance, holds ” Cyning sceal on healle / beagas dælan” [a king must share out rings in the hall]. Rulers handed out treasure to their followers as a way of establishing a bond of reciprocal loyalty: the king would give treasure in return for loyalty and service. What Sauron aims to do with the Rings of Power, then, is a perverted version of this medieval idea of treasure-for-loyalty.
The title The Lord of the Rings may also find its origins in the terms used for rulers in Beowulf. The eponymous character of the poem – King Beowulf himself – is called the “hringa fengel”, a phrase which neatly translates to ‘lord of the rings’:
Oferhogode ða hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan weorode gesohte,
sidan herge; no he him þa sæcce ondred
[The lord of the rings (Beowulf) then disdained that he should seek the wide-flyer (the dragon) with a troop, a large army; he did not fear the battle for himself.]
An inscribed ring from Anglo-Saxon England: The Kingmoor Ring
The One Ring, inscribed in Tengwar with part of the Ring verse (“One ring to rule them, etc.”), bears some resemblance to a group of early medieval, Anglo-Saxon rings with runic inscriptions. One of these is the ninth-century Kingmoor Ring, currently in the British Museum. This runic ring is inscribed with what has been interpreted as a magical spell: “ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpon” on the outer rim and “tol” on the inside. The text is, for the most part, magical gobbledegook, but shows some similarities to a charm found in an Old English medical text that deals with stopping the flow of blood. As such, scholars have assumed that the ring may have functioned as a medical amulet (see, e.g., Page 1999, pp. 112-113). Interestingly, the Kingmoor Ring is linked to various other Anglo-Saxon runic rings bearing a similar inscription: the Bramham Moor Ring and the Linstock Castle Ring. Could this group of magical rings be the source of inspiration for Tolkien’s Rings of Power?
Why doesn’t Isildur destroy the ring when he has the chance?
A last point concerning the Rings of Power that has a decidedly medieval ring to it is Isildur’s stated reason for refusing to throw the ring in Mount Doom. Elrond tells the fellowship in Rivendel that he and others had tried to persuade Isildur to destroy the Ring, but the latter ignored their pleas:
But Isildur would not listen to our counsel. ‘This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 2)
Here, Isildur refers to the early medieval legal principle of weregild. The term is Old English for ‘man-price, man-money’ (Old English wer is still there in werewolf, man-wolf). Weregild was the compensation for a murder (or some other mischief) in order to avoid a bloodfeud. Tolkien himself gives the following explanation of this principle that is found in many early Germanic law codes:
the offending party could ‘settle the feud’ by payment, and various elaborate scales of value were drawn up. this payment was called wergild: each man according to his status had a price. (J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf, pp. 165-6)
So, there you have it: Isildur uses a medieval reason not to dispose of a ring (itself possibly inspired by a group of medieval rings), which had been used by Sauron in a manner not unlike medieval kings. And all that in a book which may take its name from a phrase in a medieval poem. There is more medieval in Middle-Earth than you might think!
The information in this post is expanded from material I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here). If you liked this post, you may also be interested in The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Thror’s Map
Works referred to:
- Page, R.I., Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge, 1999)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (London, 2014)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
Even though the last native speaker of Old English died over 900 years ago, the language of the Anglo-Saxons is making a comeback in modern cinema. This blog post calls attention to five TV series and movies that use Old English.
1. The Rohirrim speak Old English: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at the University of Oxford and his fictional work is infused with his academic interests: the languages and literatures of the peoples of the medieval North-West. The Rohirrim, in particular, were modeled on the Anglo-Saxons. The riders of the Mark (itself based on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom Mercia) even speak Old English in the books, as when Éomer greets Théoden with “Westu Théoden hal!” (cf. “Wæs þu Hrothgar hal!” Beowulf, l. 407). The names of the Rohirrim also derive from Old English: Théoden means ‘king’ (< Old English þeoden) and Éomer means ‘famous horse’ (< Old English eoh ‘horse’ + mær ‘famous’). (If you are interested, I wrote an article on the influence of Old English language and literature on Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which you can find among my publications)
In the successful movie adaptations, the use of Old English (regrettably) is scarce and limited to the extended edition of the Two Towers. In a scene called ‘the funeral of Théodred’, Éowyn (‘horse-joy’) sings a funeral dirge, in Old English (singing starts at 0:48):
freone frecan. forþ onsended
giedd sculon singan. gleomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde. þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest. and maga deorost.
[Baleful death has sent forth the noble warrior, sorrowing singers will sing a song in Meduseld that he is no more, dearest to his lord and dearest to his kinsmen.]
The actress Miranda Otto actually does a great job when it comes to pronouncing the Old English (would she have followed a course?). The song also features a line which is similar to Beowulf, ll. 2265b-2266: “bealocwealm hafað / fela feorhcynna forð onsended” [baleful death has sent forth many warriors].
2. It speaks? IT SPEAKS! In Old English! Beowulf (2007)
Robert Zemeckis’s adapatation of Beowulf did not only give us a 3D animation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother (naked, clad in gold, with a tail), he also had the monsters attempt to speak in Old English. An intriguing example can be seen here, in the scene where Grendel loses his arm:
Beowulf: Your bloodletting days are over, demon!
Grendel: Arr – Ic nat daemon eam [I am not a demon]
Beowulf: It speaks? IT SPEAKS!
Grendel: Hwæt eart þu? [What are you?]
Arguably, the Old English is not very well done and the pronunciation is awful (there is some more in Grendel’s death scene, where you can hear ‘min sunu’ and ‘sin nama wæs Beowulf’). The decision to have the monsters (attempt to) speak Old English, though, is an interesting one: is it a way of stressing their antiquity? To separate them from the human world? To emphasise their monstrosity (I would hope not!)?
3. The magic of Old English: BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012)
The BBC series TV series focusing on the adventures of the young Merlin at Arthur´s court used Old English as the language for the various magical spells. A rather odd decision, seeing as Merlin should probably be associated more with the Celtic speaking peoples, rather than with the Old English speaking Anglo-Saxons that were fought by the pseudo-historical Arthur. Here are all the spells from the first series:
“Berbay odothay arisan quicken” <Old English Bebiede þe arisan cwican [I command you to arise alive]
(You can find more transcriptions of spells here)
The pronunciation, again, leaves something to be desired. However, often the Old English spells make sense, as in the example quoted above: Merlin wants to make a statue of a dog come alive; he tells it to come alive in Old English; presto! The dog is alive (it also affects the snakes painted on a shield in the next scene). If only that worked in real life!
4. The Shadow of Boniface: De Schaduw van Bonifatius (2010)
De Schaduw van Bonifatius [The Shadow of Boniface] is an ambitious short film, directed by Thijs Schreuder as a graduation project for the Film Academy in Amsterdam. It focuses on the missionary activity of the Anglo-Saxon Boniface (d. 754) in Frisia. While the film was praised for its use of special effects (similar to the LOTR-movies), its use of languages is also of interest: all dialogues are in Latin, Old English and Old Frisian.
I particularly like the scene that starts at 08:00, in which Boniface confronts a group of pagan Frisians at their sacred tree. Boniface speaks in Old English, the Frisian leader replies in Old Frisian. Seeing as these two medieval languages are closely related, it is highly probable that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries in Frisia could indeed converse with the people in their native tongue:
Boniface: Ondfo Godes lufu! Ondfo His miltse! [Receive God’s love! Receive his mercy!]
Frisian chief: Bonifatius! Thi mon ther thera Fronkena leinlika gode menniska bibiāt. ther tserika timbriath mith ūre hāligum bāmum. [Boniface! The man who sacrifices to the false gods of the Frankish people. Who builds churches with our holy trees.]
Boniface: For iūre hreddunge. Hæfth iūre goda thunor smiten mē? Habbath hīe me thone wei thweorod? Se ondswaru is ‘nā’, ond for thǣm the iċ ēom hēr swā thæt ġē ġebīdath thæs cræftes thæs ǣnigan, sōthan Godes![For your protection. Has the thunder of your gods smitten me? Have they barred my path? The answer is ‘No’ and therefore I am here, so that you will experience the power of the only, true God!]
The actors do a fine job and the Old Frisian and Old English sounds rather authentic. No surprise there, since the actors were taught by a leading expert on both Old Frisian and Old English: prof.dr. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. (You can read about his involvement here, in Dutch).
5. Hwæt sægest þu? Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-)
In De Schaudw van Bonifatius, Old English was used to create at least the impression of historical accuracy . Much the same can be said for the use of Old English in History Channel’s Vikings (2013-). While the show’s authenticity is fiercely debated (see, e.g., this blog post), the makers of the show must certainly have thought that the use of early medieval languages, such as Old English and Old Norse in the first two seasons and Old French in the third season, would contribute to a sense of realism. The first scene to feature Old English is the prelude to the Viking raid of Lindisfarne in 793:
Monk: Gesawe þu þæt, brodor Æþelstan? Gesawe þu hit? Saga me þæt þu hit gesawe.
Athelstan: Gea, brodor. Ic hit gesawe.
Monk: Hit is awriten and swa hit hæfþ alimpen. God us helpan, god us helpan.
The monks looking at the thunder and seeing a viking ship in the sky is an obvious reference to the famous entry for the year 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, 7 þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas 7 ligrescas, 7 fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. [In this year, terrible omens came about over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense thunders and lightenings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.]
The second scene in the YouTube clip above shows Athelstan speaking Old English to some hostages. The Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, apparently, is able to understand their conversation. This is not too surprising, since Old Norse and Old English would have been mutually intelligble at the time. In terms of its language use, then, History Channel’s Vikings makes a good effort at historical accuracy.
Hwæt’s next? BBC’s The Last Kingdom (2015-) and ITV’s Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016-)
Over the last 15 years, Old English has been embraced by movie makers; first as a language of fantasy, monsters and magic, later as an instrument for historical accuracy. With upcoming TV series such as BBC’s The Last Kingdom, set in ninth-century England, and ITV’s Beowulf: The Return to the Shield Lands, based on the Old English poem Beowulf, we will undoubtedly hear more Old English from our TV sets in the future. The Last Kingdom, for instance, uses Old English place names, such as Bebbanburg (Bamburgh), Oxanfyrde (Oxford) and Wintanceastre (Winchester). Perhaps, it is time to pitch our courses in Old English to acting hopefuls and up-and-coming film makers. The native speakers of Old English may be long dead, in Hulferes wudu (Hollywood) their language is still alive!
With special thanks to Rolf Bremmer (Leiden University) for sending me the script he translated for De Schaduw van Bonifatius.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following posts about modern uses of Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
- Medieval manuscripts in modern media: Anglo-Saxon manuscripts spotted in Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
- Old English memes
According to an early medieval ‘book of monsters’, the bones of the sixth-century, gigantic king Hygelac were shown to travelers on an island in the Rhine, where this river flowed into the sea. Recent excavations in Oegstgeest (South Holland) and the finding of the unique silver Oegstgeest bowl have brought to light international activities in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. Could these excavations hold a clue to the location of the bones of Hygelac, who is also mentioned in the Old English poem Beowulf?
A Book of Monsters
Hermaphrodites, dragons, centaurs, pygmies, elephants and a whole lot more. Around the year 700, an anonymous Englishman wrote the Liber monstorum de diversis generibus [The book of monsters of all sorts] and provided an overview of the ‘freaks of nature’ that he had heard and read about. A ninth-century manuscript of the text is currently held in the University Library in Leiden (VLO 60). In this overview of monsters, the author describes Hygelac, a gigantic king of the Geats (a people that lived in southern Sweden):
There are also monsters of an incredible size, such as King Hygelac, who ruled the Geats and was murdered by the Franks; from the age of twelve, no horse could carry him. His bones are preserved on an island in the river Rhine, where it flows into the sea, and they are shown to travelers from afar as a marvel.
Apparently, an Englishman around the year 700 had heard a of an island in the Rhine estuary, where travelers would come from faraway and where they would be shown the gigantic bones of Hygelac. Could this be Oegstgeest? And who was this King Hygelac?
Oegstgeest: An island in the Rhine?
Present-day Oegstgeest certainly does not look like an island, but the medieval situation was wholly different. The name Oegstgeest derives from the personal name Osger and the Middle Dutch word ‘geest’, a term denoting a raised area of sandy soil. In the Middle Ages, Oegstgeest would have been more elevated than the surrounding landscape, which consisted mainly of water (the Rhine and various waterways) and marshland. As such, medieval Oegstgeest may very well be considered an island in the Rhine, which then still had its main estuary in nearby Katwijk (on the medieval history of Oegstgeest, see Lugt 2009).
Recent excavations in Oegstgeest uncovered not only the unique silver bowl, but also imported pottery and wine barrels. Together with a previous find of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle in nearby Rijnsburg, these finds are indications of international activity in the Rhine estuary in the early medieval period. These archaeological discoveries might now be linked to the text of the Liber monstrorum and the island in the Rhine estuary where, according to the English author, “travelers from afar” were shown the bones of Hygelac.
Who was Hygelac?
Although the Liber monstrorum is the only text to comment on Hygelac’s size, his death around the year 525 AD is described in three early medieval texts. The historian Gregory of Tours (ca. 538-594) wrote that Hygelac died in a naval battle, as he returned from a raid to the north of Gaul. The anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, written two hundred years later, gives a similar story, but places Hygelac’s raid in the area inhabited by the “Att-oarii”, a people that possibly lived near Nijmegen (Storms 1970).
Hygelac is also mentioned in Beowulf, a long poem in Old English (the language spoken in early medieval England). The poet reports that Hygelac took on the combined forces of Franks, Frisians and “Hetware” (the “Att-oarii” of the Liber Historiae Francorum) and that he died in Frisia:
faran flotherge on Fresna land,
þær hyne Hetware hilde gehnægdon,
elne geeodon mid ofermægene,
þæt se byrnwiga bugan sceolde,
feoll on feðan; nalles frætwe geaf
ealdor dugoðe. (Beowulf, ll. 2914b-2920a)
[Hygelac came sailing with a naval army to Frisia, where the “Hetware” assailed him in battle. They acted with courage and superior force, so that the byrnie-warrior had to bow down, he fell in the battle; this leader did not at all give treasures to his warriors.]
In the early Middle Ages, ‘Frisia’ was larger than present-day Friesland and it extended along the North Sea coast, from North-Western Germany south to well beyond the Rhine estuary.
Where did Hygelac die?
Concerning the location of Hygelac’s death, the early medieval sources are not in agreement: to the north of Gaul, near Nijmegen or in Frisia? Gregory of Tours’ naval battle, the mentioning of the Frisians in Beowulf and the text of the Liber monstrorum all seem to indicate a location at least close to the North Sea.
Hygelac’s bones have never been found. In the fifties, a scholar suggested that the bones may have been kept on the island Goeree Overflakkee (Magoun 1953). Given the recent archeological excavations in Oegstgeest and the evidence outlined above, Oegstgeest within the Rhine estuary appears a more likely option. Due to the scarcity of sources for the early Middle Ages, the best we can do is speculate, but I would not be surprised if the archeologists in Oegstgeest should stumble upon some gigantic bones in the ground!
This is a slightly edited version of a blog previously posted on the Leiden University website. If you liked this blog post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or continue reading the following posts on Beowulf:
- “A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880
- Beowulf vs the Dragon: A Student Doodle Edition
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
Works referred to:
- Lugt, F. (2009), Het Goed van Oegstgeest: De Middeleeuwen in Oegstgeest, Poelgeest, Kerkwerve, Rijnsburg en Nieuw-Rhijngeest. Leiden: Ginkgo.
- Magoun, F., Jr. (1953), ‘The Geography of Hygelac’s Raid on the Lands of the West Frisians and the Hætt-ware, ca. 530 AD’, English Studies 34.
- Storms, G. (1970), ‘The Significance of Hygelac’s Raid’, Nottingham Mediaeval Studies 14,3-26.