. Alas, not me: Aglæca

05 May 2017


 Grendel © John Howe

There was just something about the word aglæca -- 'awesome opponent, ferocious fighter' as the DOE defines it -- that seemed familiar.  From the first time I encountered it in Beowulf, it rang a bell. There the poet most frequently uses it to describe Grendel or the Dragon as, according to the gloss in Klaeber, 'one inspiring awe or misery, formidable one, afflicter, assailant, adversary, combatant' (italics original):
ac se æglæca    ehtende wæs,
deorc deaþscua    duguþe ond geogoþe
seomade ond syrede; 
but the æglæca   was after them,
a dark death shadow,    warriors old and young
he lay for and ambushed; 
(Beowulf 159-61)
Elsewhere we find it used of Satan or sundry devils, in a way that combines their characteristic wretchedness and hostility:
Satan seolua ran    ond on susle gefeol,
earm æglece. 
Satan himself ran    and fell into Hell,
wretched æglæca.
(Christ and Satan 711-12)
                                    Blace hworfon
scinnan forscepene,    sceaðan hwearfedon,
earme æglecan,    geond þæt atole scref
for ðam anmedlan    þe hy ær drugon.
                                    They turned black,
spirits transformed,     the devils wandered,**
the wretched aglæca,   through that horrid pit
because of the pride    they had formerly shown. 
(Christ and Satan, 71-73)
Beowulf and the Dragon ©John Howe
Even when the word is used, for example, of Beowulf himself, it stresses ferocity and hostility, as when the poet describes both Beowulf and the Dragon with it:

                              Næs ða long to ðon
þæt ða aglæcean    hy eft gemetton.

                                 It was not so long
before the æglæca    met each other again.
(Beowulf 2591-92)

So, clearly, the word describes a fierce opponent who inspires awe and is sometimes also seen as wretched. This would all certainly apply to Grendel, Satan, and the devils, if not to Beowulf and the Dragon. Now, as I said, there was always something about this word that seemed familiar, but it wasn't until the other night that I made the connection and realized of whom it made me think.  Both because of the harsh, guttural sound of the word and the qualities of those it describes, aglæca reminds me of Uglúk, leader of the Uruk-Hai in The Two Towers

I am quite well aware that this suggestion is entirely circumstantial. It may well be completely wrong. I haven't been able to find any direct evidence, but it seemed an intriguing possibility that I thought worth mentioning. I would welcome any evidence, for or against, as well as notice of any scholarly treatment I may have missed. 

**Here is one case in which all those who wander are indeed lost.




  1. My good friend, Richard Rohlin, has quite rightly noted that the -c- in aglæca is pronounced -ch- which bears pointing out. My thought was more on the difference in the vowels. In any event, however, it was not my intention to suggest that Tolkien modelled the name Uglúk on Old English in the way he did names like Samwise or Hamfast, Éomer or Gríma. While he did sometimes reshape the Old English words he adopted, any connection that there might be between the words in question is clearly a more distant echo than a direct adaptation. I should have been more explicit about this.

  2. It's a wonderful word. I hope Tolkien used it somewhere!