In 1926 Tolkien reviewed “with delight” the Introduction to the Survey of Place-names, noting with pleasure that such a work must be motivated by a “love of the land of England" (1). As well as the importance of real-life place-names, he was acutely aware of their uses in fantasy fiction – place-names weigh down a story, ground it, lend it authenticity (2). However, his use of place-names in The Lord of the Rings differs greatly from in The Hobbit. In the earlier work he tended to use combinations of adjectives and nouns, making place-names out of literal descriptions (3) - “Mirkwood” (4), for example, or “Laketown” (5) or “Rivendell” (6). In The Lord of the Rings, however, we see names such as “Bree,” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 149) (7) “Gondor” (p. 242) and “Isengard,” (p. 247) which to the casual reader may bear little literal resemblance to the place they stand for. There are also many more of them than in The Hobbit, even relative to the respective sizes of the works (8). This essay will argue that Tolkien's altered use of place-names in the first four books of The Lord of the Rings subtly underscores the coherence of his world, lending verisimilitude, while also reminding the reader what is at stake in the two climactic books.
Some place-names, such as “Hobbiton” and “Bag End,” (both p. 29) Tolkien was almost forced to use; The Lord of the Rings began life as a sequel to The Hobbit, and these places were already part of the milieu. However, unlike some other names left over from The Hobbit, there is a little more going on here than mere description. The hobbits are an anachronism, a loving portrait of rural nineteenth century England in a world that in many ways is resolutely medieval (9). They are a simple folk - we are told that a love of learning is “far from general” among them (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 14) - and that they are fond of the simple things in life, such as good food, gardening and pipeweed (ibid.). Like modern England, the Shire was founded via the unification of three races or tribes – Fallohides, Harfoots and Stoors (p. 15; cf. Angles, Saxons and Jutes) – and according to legend was first colonised by two brothers, Marcho and Blanco, whose names are Old English words for “horse” (cf. Hengest and Horsa). Accordingly, Shire place-names are authentically English – at the very least, the -ton element of Hobbiton should be familiar to most English speakers. It goes back to Old English -tun, meaning “enclosure, garden, field, yard, farm, manor, group of houses” (10), surviving into Modern English in its isolated form “town” and as the final element of place-names such as Repton, Thornton and Northallerton. Bag End, on the other hand, is a literal English translation of cul-de-sac – a phrase which does not even exist in France, but “has its origins in snobbery, the faint residual feeling” (11) left over from the Norman Conquest that French-sounding words are somehow better than English ones. Bag End is Tolkien's “defiantly English reaction” (12) to this sentiment.
These names are so authentically English that they could potentially have upset the coherence of a work that serves as a bridge between The Hobbit and the wider mythology, constantly reminding the reader that The Hobbit was not originally intended to be a part of this mythology. However, it is their very Englishness that helps to tie them to the internal logic of Tolkien's creation. Tolkien believed that people could detect “linguistic style” (13) in place-names, hence his choice of the name “Bree” for the town the hobbits visit on their way to Rivendell. Bre is an old Welsh word for 'hill'; wanting the Bree area to feel different from the distinctly English Shire, Tolkien gave Welsh-derived names to other village in the vicinity, such as Archet (ar chet, 'the wood') and Combe (cŵm, 'valley') (14). The result was a greater “sense of the variety and verisimilitude of Middle-earth” (15).
This sense is further amplified by the appearance of the riders of Rohan in The Two Towers. Despite Tolkien's protestations, it is hard not to read them as Anglo-Saxons on horseback – the parallels run too deep. The lament of the Rohirrim that Aragorn chants on the way to Edoras makes extensive use of the ubi sunt motif, a device frequently used in Old English elegies to lament the transience of the mortal state:
Where now is the horse and the rider? Where now is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harp string, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
(The Two Towers, p. 98)
This closely parallels the following passage from 'The Wanderer', an Old English poem which Tolkien worked on with his colleague E.V. Gordon at the University of Leeds:
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
(Where is the horse now, where the hero gone?
Where is the bounteous lord, and where the benches
For feasting? Where the joys of hall?) (16)
This cultural similarity is echoed in their place-names. Their hall is called “Meduseld,” (The Two Towers, p. 34) (17), a term used to describe Heorot in Beowulf (line 3065), and they refer to their country as “the Mark” (p. 32). Tolkien was a native of the area of England that among Anglo-Saxon historians is known as Mercia; however, Mercia is almost certainly a Latinization of West Saxon *Mearc (18), which translated back into Mercian would read *Marc and be pronounced 'Mark' (19). Just as the resemblance between hobbit place-names and those of modern England helps to underline the hobbits' cultural identity, Tolkien's use of Old English place-names links the Rohirrim to another, older version of Englishness. Furthermore, just as Modern English is derived from Old English, so there is a linguistic link between Rohan and the Shire. Tolkien believed that “no language could be adequately described unless its history is known” (20), and consequently provides migration patterns for the hobbits before they settled in the Shire. In the middle of the Second Age they came into contact with the ancestors of the Rohirrim, hence Théoden's recollection of the legendary folk “that some among us call the holbytlan” (The Two Towers, p. 142), before continuing to move eastwards and eventually settling in the Shire (21). The place-names thus reflect a carefully thought-through linguistic development similar to that of Old English to Modern English; rendered in Tolkien's work as those two tongues, they contribute to the “sense of variety” and “verisimilitude” referred to by Shippey (22), and demonstrate Tolkien's own belief that that a writer of fantasy or fairy-stories should be able to create an internally coherent “secondary world” (23).
The effect of the place-names, though, is not simply one of authenticity. As pointed out above, there are distinct cultural parallels between the Shire and an idyllic rural England, and between Rohan and Anglo-Saxon England. The place-names of the hobbits and the Rohirrim therefore carry certain associations. Meduseld, for example, means 'mead-hall' (24), thus evoking joyful comradeship, storytelling and a heroic ideal. Similarly, the inn name “The Ivy Bush” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 30) follows the tradition of English pubs with horticultural names – the real-world Ivy Bush in Birmingham, to give just one example – and conjures images of lazy evenings spent by a roaring fire, pint glass in hand.
The same is true for the names of places associated with the villains of The Lord of the Rings. “Orthanc” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 247), for example, is likely derived from Old English organic, meaning “skilful work, mechanical art” (25). This is an appropriate name for the stronghold of a character who “has a mind of metal and wheels” (The Two Towers, p. 66), and it neatly echoes Tolkien's aversion to industrialisation (in his essay 'On Fairy-stories', he rails against “mass-production robot factories” and “self-obstructive mechanical traffic” (26)). A suggested etymology for “Mordor” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 50), meanwhile, is Old English morthor (27) “deed of violence” (28) - although readers unfamiliar with Old English would more likely associate it with the French word for death, morte. It is a word element frequently used to evoke fear of a villain in literature – see Mordred of the King Arthur legends, or more recently J. K. Rowling's Lord Voldemort, nemesis of her eponymous hero Harry Potter. The place-names associated with villains in The Lord of the Rings hint darkly at what would be in store for Middle-earth if evil triumphed, while those associated with the heroes serve to remind the reader what is at stake – the sleepy lives of hobbits in the countryside and the Anglo-Saxon heroic ideals of the Rohirrim, among many other things.
The possibility of cultures and identities being lost in the relentless march of war is one likely to have resonated with Tolkien and many of his original readers – he worked on The Lord of the Rings during World War Two and fought in the trenches of World War One. This together with the rise of industry meant that he witnessed the fading and changing of the way of life he knew, something which spurred him in his ambition to create his “mythology for England” (29) to preserve what he saw as the “cool and clear” essence of his country, “the fair and elusive beauty that some call Celtic” (30) for future generations, in case it ceased to exist altogether. The place-names of the hobbits and the Rohirrim evoke images of Englishness (albeit Englishness of two different kinds, from very different time periods) that not only lend coherence to Tolkien's secondary world through their etymological links, but also sit starkly in contrast with the connotations of Orthanc and Mordor. This helps to set up the climactic The Return of the King by serving as a constant reminder of what might be lost if “mechanical art” and “deed[s] of violence” prevail.
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Hamer, R., trans., 'The Wanderer' in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, ed. Richard Hamer (London: Faber and Faber, 1977)
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1 Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (London: HarperCollins, 2005) p. 37
2 Ibid., p. 115
3 Ibid., p. 81
4 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (London: Allen & Unwin Inc., 1986) p. 29
5 Ibid., p. 171
6 Ibid., p. 51
7 All quotations from The Fellowship of the Ring in this essay are taken from J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the
Ring (London: Allen & Unwin Inc., 1977)
8 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 109
9 Ibid., p. 79
10 J. R. Clark-Hall, A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960) p. 350
11 Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 82
13 Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2001) p. 64
14 Ibid., p. 65
16 Richard Hamer, trans., 'The Wanderer' in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, ed. Richard Hamer (London: Faber and
Faber, 1977) p. 181
17 All quotations from The Two Towers in this essay are taken from J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (London: Allen &
Unwin Inc., 1977)
18 Shippey, Author of the Century, p. 91; the asterisk denotes a word that we have no written record of but that Old English specialists are confident used to exist.
20 Rainer Nagel, Hobbit Place-names: A Linguistic Excursion through the Shire (Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers,
2012) p. 24
22 Shippey, Author of the Century, p. 65
23 J. R. R. Tolkien, 'On Fairy-stories', Brainstorm Services [accessed 23/04/2012] p. 16
24 Clark-Hall, p. 232
25 Ibid., p. 270
26 Tolkien, 'On Fairy-stories', p. 62
27 'Mordor', Tolkien Gateway [accessed 22/04/2012]
28 Clark-Hall, p. 241
29 Humphrey Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (London: HarperCollins, 2002) p. 67
30 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (London: HarperCollins, 1999) p. xi
Chapter end notes:
ETA - Old English morthor would most likely have been pronounced with rolled r's, not dissimilar from the way Elrond says "Mordor" in the films. So maybe Hugo Weaving wasn't that far off with his pronunciation after all ;)