Futhark, Futhorc, and Wapentake
For all of you Tolkien fans, Dr. Richard Scott Nokes, over at Unlocked Wordhoard, has a blog entry on the great man.
Among other points, Nokes suggests why, initially, so few modern literary scholars subjected Tolkien's literary works to serious analysis:
The problem is that Tolkien's fiction taps into a deep well of philology that almost no modernist can dip into. How many modernists have a working knowledge of Old English? Old Norse? Any of the other medieval Germanic languages? How many know what the futhark is, and how it differs from the futhorc? How many understand what Tolkien means by the wapentake, and how Tolkien's use of the term indicates what he thinks it must have meant?Hmmm . . . what do these words mean? I'm supposed to be a Medievalist these days and have even published on Beowulf, so I suppose that I ought to try to find out.
Wikipedia (yeah, I know) takes me to Elder Futhark, which informs me that this is:
. . . the oldest form of the runic alphabet, used by Germanic tribes for Proto-Norse and other Germanic dialects of the 2nd to 7th centuries for inscriptions on artefacts (jewellery, amulets, tools, weapons) and rune stones.I see. The link to Tolkien is by way of the runic letters that he sprinkles throughout his fiction.
The word futhark derives from taking "the initial phoneme of the first six rune names" for letters in the runic alphabet and combining them in their alphabetical sequence.
From Wikipedia's entry on the runic alphabet, I learn that the Elder Futhark is Scandinavian but that another version comes to us from the Anglo-Saxons and is called the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc. From the different spellings of futhark and futhorc, I presume that the fifth letter -- a and o -- in each is pronounced differently. (Note that these would actually be the fourth letter in runic, which writes th as a single letter.) I take it that the k and c are merely conventional differences for the same sound (but I could be wrong).
But what about wapentake? That's easy. It's a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
To Alfred Tennyson Poet!
I come to touch thy lance with mine;
Not as a knight, who on the listed field
Of tourney touched his adversary's shield
In token of defiance, but in sign
Of homage to the mastery, which is thine,
In English song; nor will I keep concealed,
And voiceless as a rivulet frost-congealed,
My admiration for thy verse divine.
Not of the howling dervishes of song,
Who craze the brain with their delirious dance,
Art thou, O sweet historian of the heart!
Therefore to thee the laurel-leaves belong,
To thee our love and our allegiance,
For thy allegiance to the poet's art.
But this doesn't really tell me what wapentake is. It simply assumes that I know. So, I turn to another source, The Free Dictionary, which tells me that wapentake is:
A historical subdivision of some northern counties in England, corresponding roughly to the hundred in other shires.And it gives an etymology:
Middle English, from Old English wæpengetæc (translation of Old Norse vapnatak, act of taking weapons to indicate assent in an assembly) : wæpen, weapon + -getæc, act of taking (from tacan, to take; see take).So . . . it derives from some ancient Teutonic means of voting and has come to mean a subdivision of a county.
But what did Tolkien think that it meant? I don't know. I can't even recall his using it. Perhaps Dr. Nokes will tell us on his blog if we ask him. (But who is this "we"? I'm beginning to talk like Golum.)
Understanding Tolkien at a deeper level does require extra work, and of a somewhat tedious kind that assumes knowledge of old Germanic languages, so Nokes could be right about why scholars of modern English literature initially avoided his fiction.
I think that there may be a couple of other reasons. First, Tolkien wrote the Hobbit for children and the Ring Trilogy for adolescents, and only recently has this sort of literature come under serious scholarly scrutiny. Second, in the post-WWII world, scholars might not have liked the Germanic mythology that Tolkien appeals to, for the old Teutonic myths had become associated with the Nazi's glorification of things Germanic.
But I could be wrong.