19 December 2015

Guest Post -- Luke Baugher on Tulkas and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"

Tulkas, a question of the influence of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


     On Tuesday of this week, I began a read-through of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. My text is that found in Medieval English Literature edited by Thomas Garbáty. This is an enchanting read and all the more enjoyable in its original language. I was working my way through the description of Arthur's Christmas feast when I came across the word tulkes in line 41:
Þer tournayed tulkes bi-tymez ful mony,
Justed ful iolilé þise gentyle kniȝtes,
Syþen kayred to þe court, caroles to make.[1]
Tulkas © Steamey
     In this edition, the definition ascribed to tulkes is "knights." As I have always been an avid Tolkien fan, this immediately struck me as very phonetically similar to Tolkien's character Tulkas. So I decided to do a little digging. What follows is some of the interesting information that I have found, with the helpful suggestions of several much respected Tolkien scholars.

    Initially, an etymological approach might shed some light on the association as, most Tolkien fan know, this field is intimately connected with The Professor's creativity.  The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that tulkes is "Generally identified with Old Norse túlkr interpreter, spokesman,"[2] which is related to the rarely attested Old Norse túlk, a verb meaning "to utter sound, to sound."[3] Although it also notes that "nothing has been found to connect the Middle English sense, common in alliterative verse, with these."[4] In order for us to find a connection, let's follow the advice of Carl F. Hostetter and look at how Tolkien himself has defined tulkes. Hostetter notes that:
In the Middle English glossaries prepared by Tolkien that bear on this matter (that for SGGK and that for Sisam's Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose), he glosses tulk(e) (tolke) as 'man, knight' (SGGK), or just 'man' (Sisam), and refers it to the Old Norse cognate túlk-r 'spokesman'. [5]
     So, to follow Hostetter's logic, the sense in which Middle English tulke means "man" "is a secondary development." He goes on to elaborate "its further sense "knight" being then a tertiary development."[6] So the sense in which tulke means "man" is more prevalent, while the sense in which it means "knight" is a derivative thereof, perhaps caused by context. While this etymological trace is very interesting, it does not actually solve whether or not this word could have inspired Tolkien.
          
     Perhaps looking more in-depth at Tolkien's name Tulkas will help illuminate a connection. Tulkas’s characterization certainly conforms to many of the traits laid out by tulke in that he is a male, and he does partake in youthful shows of strength and competition like one would expect of knights. Tolkien's descriptions of Tulkas certainly highlight these attributes:
Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. He came last to Arda, to aid the Valar in the first battles with Melkor. He delights in wrestling and in contests of strength; and he rides no steed, for he can outrun all things that go on feet, and he is tireless. His hair and beard are golden, and his flesh ruddy; his weapons are his hands. He has little heed for either the past or the future, and is of no avail as a counsellor, but is a hardy friend.[7]
     For an even closer connection, Tolkien defined tulkas. In his reflection on the subject, Jason Fisher also notes the connection between tulkes and tulkr, but extends his observation by noting that "within the legendarium, Tulkas is Quenya meaning 'strong, steadfast.'"[8] In the Appendix to The Book of Lost Tales 1, the context of Tolkien’s name is given contest:
QL gives the name under root TULUK, with tulunka ‘steady, firm’, tulka- ‘fix, set up, establish’. The Gnomish form is Tulcus (-os), with related words tulug ‘steady, firm’, tulga- ‘make firm, settle, steady, comfort’.[9]
     So now we are starting to form a bridge between two disparate words and finding a common ground. Fisher contends an additional definition of tulkr as "fighting man."[10] This background leads Patrick Wynne to observe:
There seems to be a clear logical connection between 'fighting man' and 'strong' (the former habitually having the latter attribute). The sort of game that Tolkien played with such allusions...would suggest that in later days, dim memories of the vala Tulkas 'Strong' as a skilled fighter resulted in the Quenya name influencing (or being the direct source of) words such as ON tulkr and ME tulkes.[11]
     So we have finally arrived at a tentative link etymologically, to compound with the phonetic similarity that started these observations. Although these links are possible, I cannot overstate the caution that we should use when ascribing motivation to Tolkien's creative process.
            
     When directly talking about whether or not this word could have served as an inspiration for Tolkien, caveats abound. Nelson Goering cautions that "It certainly seems possible, though obviously it's hard to know for sure."[12] He observes that
"If Tolkien traced the etymology of the word back, as is not unlikely, he would have arrived at Lithuanian tul̃kas... As an old Baltic word that found its way into various Germanic languages... it's the sort of thing that might have lodged somewhere in the back of his mind (maybe)."[13]
     So the jury is out on whether or not this word could be the inspiration behind Tolkien's creation of the grappling Vala, but the similarities are tantalizing regardless. Who knows, "he may well have found the sound/sense correspondence suggested by ME tulk(e) pleasing, regardless of ultimate etymology."[14]

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[1] “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas Garbáty. Long Grove: Waveland, 1997. 255-332. Print. (257, emphasis mine).

[2] "† tulk | tolk, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 16 December 2015.

[3] "† tulk, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 16 December 2015.

[4] "† tulk | tolk, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 16 December 2015.

[5] Hostetter, Carl F. " In the Middle English glossaries prepared by Tolkien that bear on this matter (that for SGGK and that for Sisam's Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose), he glosses _tulk(e)_(_tolke_) as 'man, knight' (SGGK), or just 'man' (Sisam), and refers it to the Old Norse cognate _túlk-r_ 'spokesman'." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015 < https://www.facebook.com/groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/>]

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print. (28).

[8] Fisher, Jason. " Yes, probably. The Old Norse form of the same word is tulkr "fighting man", which is even closer to the form Tolkien used. Though within the legendarium, Tulkas is Quenya meaning "strong, steadfast"." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/comment_id=10153189216071283&notif_t=group_comment>]

[9] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Book of Lost Tales 1. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Ballantine, 1983. Print. (313).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wynne, Patrick. " Yeah, there seems to be a clear logical connection between 'fighting man' and 'strong' (the former habitually having the latter attribute). The sort of game that Tolkien played with such allusions (as Carl F. Hostetter and I used to discuss in our column "Words and Devices" in VT) would suggest that in later days, dim memories of the vala Tulkas 'Strong' as a skilled fighter resulted in the Quenya name influencing (or being the direct source of) words such as ON _tulkr_ and ME _tulkes_." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. < https://www. facebook.com/groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/?comment_id=10153189216071283&notif_t=group_comment>]

[12] Goering, Nelson. "It certainly seems possible, though obviously it's hard to know for sure. If Tolkien traced the etymology of the word back, as is not unlikely, he would have arrived at Lithuanian tul̃kas (yes, the circumflex is meant to be above the 'l' - that's Lithuanian for you...). As an old Baltic word that found its way into various Germanic languages (northern German into Norse into English), it's the sort of thing that might have lodged somewhere in the back of his mind (maybe)." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/ groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/?comment_id=10153189216071283&notif_t=group_comment>]

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hostetter, Carl F. "Which is NOT to say that ME _tulk(e)_ 'man, knight' DIDN'T inspire Tolkien's "Tulkas" — he may well have found the sound/sense correspondence suggested by ME _tulk(e)_ pleasing, regardless of ultimate etymology. Because after all, etymology is NOT determinative of meaning (if it were, then languages would never change, and we would almost all be speaking Proto-Indo-European...). It's just to say that the meaning of _tulk(e)_ as exhibited in SGGK isn't in fact primary." Facebook. 15 Dec. 2015. [16 Dec. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/ groups/61115826282/permalink/10153187834231283/>]

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Thanks so much, Luke, for an interesting note on another possible connection between Tolkien's scholarly and mythological worlds. While we must be cautious, as Nelson Goering rightly emphasizes, so little in Tolkien seems to have happened by chance. As I read your note I was struck by the 'tulkes' jousting 'ful iolilé' and the 'delight' which Tulkas took 'in wrestling and contests of strength.' And of course Tulkas also 'laughs ever, in sport or in war, and even in the face of Melkor he laughed in battles before the Elves were born' (Silmarillion, 29).  Nicely done. 

2 comments:

  1. In re #5, it's not surprising that JRRT would find the word for "man" cognate with the word for "talk". Where elves got to talking first, they called themselves "Quendi".

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's an interesting point, Joe. You may be on to something. It may be where he got the idea for a sentient race to refer to themselves as 'those who speak with words.'

    ReplyDelete