. Alas, not me: December 2021

15 December 2021

Ylfig and the Foresight of the Elves

Alaric Hall in his article Elves on the Brain: Chaucer, Old English, and Elvish makes an excellent case for believing that in Chaucer's time and earlier 'elvish' could mean 'prophetic'. To be brief, Hall notes that ylfig

is transparently derived from the late West Saxon form of ælf and the denominative adjectival suffix -ig; as this suffix has been productive from Common Germanic to present day English, ylfig could have been coined at any time. Parallel Old English formations are werig (‘weary, tired, exhausted’ < wor ‘ooze, bog’); sælig (‘happy, prosperous’ < sæl ‘prosperity, happiness’); and gydig (‘possessed (by a god)’ < *γuðaz ‘god’). All these suggest ‘(like) one engaged with noun X’: ‘like one in a bog’, ‘one in good fortune’, ‘one engaged with a god’, and so forth. The etymological meaning of ylfig seems therefore to be ‘(like) one engaged with an ælf or ælfe’. 

Hall then notes a glossator's use of ylfig to clarify further a Latin gloss for the word fanaticus: futura praecinens. Ylfig thus explains futura praecinens, 'foretelling the future'. Elves thus at one point were believed to possess this ability or skill. 

In The Lord of the Rings foresight and foretelling are strongly associated with Wizards, Elves and those with elvish blood in them (Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, Gandalf, Saruman, Legolas, Arwen, Gilraen). I haven't the leisure right now to look more fully into this. It may be a coincidence, and it may well be impossible to prove. Yet I wouldn't be surprised if Tolkien, too, had seen this gloss, and that it lies behind the foretellings of Tolkien's Elves.


I admit I find the derivation Hall gives for 'werig' very amusing, but I am a bit perplexed by it, since I haven't yet found another source that says the same. Admittedly my search has been short and this is far more his patch than mine. I would love to learn better.

12 December 2021

Tolkien on what a lot of things an author means

“Good Morning!” said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

“All of them at once,” said Bilbo. 


“Good morning!” he said at last. “We don’t want any adventures here, thank you. You might try over The Hill or across The Water.” By this he meant that the conversation was at an end.

“What a lot of things you do use Good morning for!” said Gandalf. “Now you mean that you want to get rid of me, and that it won’t be good till I move off.”

“Not at all, not at all, my dear sir! Let me see, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Yes, yes, my dear sir—and I do know your name, Mr. Bilbo Baggins. And you do know my name, though you don’t remember that I belong to it. I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me! To think that I should have lived to be good-morninged by Belladonna Took’s son, as if I was selling buttons at the door!”

Italics mine. 

11 December 2021

A Long-expected Parenthesis -- Part 5

Previously we have noted that parenthetical commentary appears and disappears as the story grows lighter and darker by turns, and that this in general follows the relationship of Bilbo and then Frodo with the Ring. We have also just seen a very similar dynamic occur with Merry and Pippin in Book Three. Though neither of them ever possesses the Ring, it is nevertheless Saruman's lust to acquire it and Sauron's to regain it that motivates their kidnapping by the orcs, thus directly causing the darker and lighter turns the narrative takes in The Uruk-hai and Treebeard. Indeed Merry and Pippin perceive the role the Ring is playing in their captivity, and with desperate audacity play upon Grishnákh's mistaken belief that they have it, wagering their lives for a chance at escape. So here, too, the Ring is intimately connected to the dynamic at work and the parentheses. Since it transfers so smoothly from Bilbo and Frodo to Merry and Pippin, and, as we shall presently see, to Sam, it should also be evident just how closely concerned with the hobbit voice these asides are. 

After the cluster of parentheses in Treebeard a long gap of 155 pages follows (TT 3.iv.483-4.iii.638), empty except for the somewhat knowing comment on the sinister multiple meanings of Orthanc (TT 3.viii.555). An even longer gap of 177 pages before Treebeard (3.iv.465) extends back to The Ring Goes South (FR 2.iii.288), also interrupted only once (2.vi.344). This lack of parenthetical comments elsewhere in Book Three coincides with the general absence of the hobbits from this book despite the crucial role played by Merry and Pippin, a dynamic to be repeated in Book Five. Something similar holds true also in Book Two, where the narrative attends more to the Company as a whole than to the hobbits or Frodo specifically. So darker turns in the narrative connected to the Ring may be the most striking reason for the absence of parentheses, but not the only reason.

In Book 4 parentheses reappear in The Black Gate Is Closed. As I noted in Part 4, in this book Sam begins to carry the burden of the narrative as Frodo becomes increasingly preoccupied by his struggle against the Ring. It is Sam to whom the three parenthesis in The Black Gate Is Closed refer, at least two of which give us Sam's commentary on his own thoughts at the time (TT 4.iii.638, 640), and the third almost certainly does, too (4.iii.647). This last is perhaps the most remarkable since Sam's behavior in the tale here is as lighthearted as his comment on it, recalling Frodo from the darkness of his cares and purpose by this recitation of 'the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt' outside the Black Gate of Mordor, and recalling for the reader an earlier such moment where Sam did the same thing in the same way, hands behind his back and all (FR 1.xii.206-208). Consider also the comment in Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit where we learn that Sam is 'a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning' (TT 4.v.653), an art hobbits 'begin to learn before their letters (which many never reach)'. Here we must remember that Sam was called out by name a full chapter and seventeen years before we met him as a hobbit who had learned his letters. As with his pose while 'speaking poetry', the narrator is using the parentheses to remind the reader of how special Sam is. Not only could he cook the cabbages and potatoes which his Gaffer thought he'd be better off minding, but he knew his letters and poetry and great tales, which repeatedly helped to sustain him on the long road into darkness he and Frodo had to walk. His sense of mission comes from his learning his letters. Sam Gamgee had read all the right books.

These parentheses also further mark the shift we saw earlier with Merry and Pippin, a shift away from Frodo as his hobbit comrades step forward and begin to take up the roles they will play until the end of the book. This is not to say that Frodo is becoming less important. Far from it. But his are now not the only small hands that turn the wheels of the world while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. Sam in particular becomes critically important, and increasingly the story of Frodo's journey is seen through his eyes because Frodo's eyes are elsewhere.