. Alas, not me: March 2023

25 March 2023

Tolkien Reading Day 2023


Here's my contribution for this year's Tolkien Reading Day. I hope you enjoy it.

24 March 2023

Beren One-Hand, Bruce the Shark, and Homer

It's fairly common knowledge that, when Tolkien has the werewolf Carcharoth bite off Beren's hand in The Silmarillion, he is drawing on Norse mythology, in which the wolf Fenrir did the same to the god Týr. What many don't recognize is that Tolkien is also drawing on Homer here, not for the story itself, but for the name of the wolf. In The Silmarillion Tolkien translates Carcharoth as 'the Red Maw', but his original name in The Tale of Tinúviel was Karkaras/Carcaras, which meant 'knife-fang.'

In Ancient Greek κάρχαρος, karkharos, meant 'saw-like, jagged, so with saw-like jagged teeth.' One word deriving from this is καρχαρίας, karkharias, defined as 'a kind of shark, so called from its saw-like teeth'. Also connected are the adjectives καρχαρόδους, karkharodous, and καρχαρόδων, karkharodon, both of which mean 'with saw-like teeth.' 

These words may also seem familiar from the scientific name of The Great White Shark, carcharodon carcharias (to use the Latin spelling of the words), or 'the shark with the saw-like teeth.'

Whether Tolkien knew anything about Great White Sharks, I don't know. But he certainly knew his Homer, and twice in the Iliad Homer uses different forms of καρχαρόδους to describe dogs. At line 360 of book 10, he speaks of καρχαρόδοντε δύω κύνε, karkharodonte dyo kyne, 'two saw-toothed dogs', and at line 198 of book 13 we again find κυνῶν ... καρχαροδόντων, kynon ... karkharodonton, 'dogs ... [with] saw-like teeth.' 

I'll leave it to you to decide, gentle reader, how many degrees of separation there are between Tolkien and Bruce the Shark.

No, not that 'Red Maw.'