Friday, November 04, 2005

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.


At 2:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. I learned a lot by writing it.

I hope that Prof. Nokes will explain about the wapentake so that I can learn even more.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Very nice post.

But "adolescents"? I ask you ...

At 4:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, thanks. I'll try to find it if I can also find time.

Kate Marie, thanks for the kind words (undeserved). As for "adolescents," I stand by the description. I was trying to think of something that would encompass the years between childhood and 20. I think that Tolkien was aiming for that group but with older readers in mind as well.

I'm no expert, so this could be one of the things that I'm wrong about. I base my view mainly on how old I was when I read Tolkien. I was in high school, and others were reading him, too. Moreover, his works appealed to those baby boomers of the 60s and 70s who remained adolescents well into their 30s.

But if somebody knows something to the contrary . . .

At 12:42 AM, Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...


Yes, Tolkien seems to have had a poor opinion of my family; LotR also contains a gossipy "Old Noakes" figure ... again, not evil, but just of bad quality.

It could have been worse. I might have been named "Nazgul."

At 11:03 AM, Blogger squire said...

While I too first read and enthused about Tolkien as an adolescent, I think it's a bit casual to assume that Tolkien therefore wrote The Lord of the Rings "for adolescents". From what I understand, a heck of a lot of adults, plain old more-than-20s bought and read LotR when it first came out. If nothing else, the 17-year gap between The Hobbit (1937) and its nominal "sequel" LotR (1954) practically guarantees that the generation of his first readership were adults by the time they read it.

Of course, Tolkien began LotR as if it were a Hobbit sequel, and as if his Hobbit readers would be reading it soon -- say, when they were adolescents -- certainly a lot sooner than the 17 years it eventually took to finish and publish it. But long before it was finished, Tolkien found it was no Hobbit sequel, and he began writing it (and rewriting the earlier, more "juvenile" portions) for: who? I think, for himself. As he says in his second edition foreword, "as a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving".

So, was Tolkien an adolescent? Well, that is the can of worms you open when you talk about stuff like this. For myself, I think it is absurd to be discussing on a scholarly level the antecedents and meaning of a uniquely modernized Old English word like "weapontake", and the author who casually uses it, and then insert a introductory caveat that he (of course!) used the word in a book written "for adolescents".

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Squire, you make some good points about Tolkien's writing of Lord of the Rings, and I'm beginning to regret having characterized him as writing for adolescents.

Let me clarify one point, though. I meant no denigration of Tolkien by that characterization.

Anyway, I'd rather describe Tolkien as writing for an audience that would include both adolescents and adults. The adolescents might blip over a word like "weapontake" but return to it as an adult and wonder what it means.

That's my own experience, by the way. I simply blipped over the word as a teenager but now am trying to find out what it meant.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger theswain said...

I teach LoTR as part of a course on epics which traces epics and epic influenced literature from Homer to the 20th century. I don't know...from that perspective I can hardly say that LoTR is written for adolescents anymore or anyless than the Odyssey, or Beowulf.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Theswain, I've retreated from that position a bit, though I would say that I think Tolkien intended for readers of The Hobbit to 'graduate' to The Lord of the Rings, which suggests that he anticipated a lot of adolescents to attempt reading it.

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wait a minute . . . "The Swain" . . . "Larry Swain"?

Aren't you the classicist on X-talk or one of the listserves where we discuss biblical criticism, the historical Jesus, that sort of thing?

At 5:18 AM, Blogger phaedra said...

I came across the word wapentake in a Ngaio Marsh mystery (A Clutch of Constables) and she used it as a structure in which people could sit. That doesn't sound anything like what you all are defining. Any thoughts?

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Phaedra, I suppose that the best thing to do would be to look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary or some other good dictionary and find its various meanings.

I'd do so myself, but at the moment, I have no time. If you find out, please let me know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:55 AM, Blogger phaedra said...

I've looked in several dictionaries, encyclopedias, and commentaries and have found nothing to support my supposition that Ngaio Marsh used the word as a structure built where the wapentake officially took place. But I'm going to believe I'm right anyway. I now know more about wapentakes and the Ridings and Hundreds and etc. than I ever wanted to. But it has been edifying.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I guess that I'd need to read the passage from Ngaio Marsh's Clutch of Constables to see what I think, but I do find plausible that a word for the act could come to designate the place itself . . . and hence the structure.

Jeffery Hodges

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