You never really know when J.R.R. Tolkien was joking in some subtle, philological way or if serendipity guided his choice of words. We have found so many interesting stories and associations behind his words that whole generations of future scholarship may have yet to unveil many of the secret references that influenced Tolkien’s writing.
As someone with only minimal training in etymological research I strive to avoid the more complicated discussions about which words arose when, but I cannot help but fall off the cliff into the seas of speculation from time to time when I come across something interesting.
For example, The Book of Lost Tales might seem like a very straight-forward title for a collection of supposed lost myths and legends; but if you look into the etymology of the word “tale” you’ll find that it is traced back to a hypothetical proto-Germanic word *talo. That word might have been used to describe someone talking or telling a story; or it might have been used to describe someone counting. You will find that the Dutch word taal is translated as “speech, language” and that Danish tale is given as “speech, talk, discourse” (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary).
So one could look at the title as a gentle play on words, The Book of Lost Talo. Much of the structural narrative consists of Eriol chatting with the Elves (rather like in Greek dialogues) and so the etymology of the title word suggests a connection between the stories and the characters telling them. But The Book of Lost Tales is so much more concise and oblique than The Book of Lost Conversations between a Man and Fairy Tale Elves.
Tolkien sometimes used words in archaic ways, reviving their earlier meanings as echoes of the philological past while leaving modern readers in a position to understand what he was describing. For example, he mentioned kine in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But he also uses the word cow (and its modern plural form cattle). What is the difference between kine and cattle, though? Cattle comes from a word meaning “property”, whereas kine is simply an archaic plural form for cow.
Neither word is really correct by modern usage. Cows is how a modern English speaker would expect to pluralize the word. We simply treat our cows (and bulls) as property so they are cattle to us but to people in a previous time they were the double plural kine. It’s almost like Tolkien wanted us to think he had something in mind but his teasing is so subtle we can’t easily discern any purpose.
Tolkien used the word kine in “Turambar and the Foaloke” but I can find no occurrences of “cow” or “cattle” in The Book of Lost Tales, so it would seem that he had a lifelong preference for kine over cattle. Such a preference is consistent with a Francophobic approach to language, I suppose, but it doesn’t allow one to be very inventive with extrapolation.
You see, I cannot find a way to argue that kine might have referred to something other than cattle in The Lord of the Rings, although the “wild kine of Araw” sound like they might be styled on the ancient European Aurochs to some readers. I can find no support for that thesis, but I always thought it was curious that the Wood Elves of The Hobbit would sing about “the kine and oxen”:
South away! and South away!
Seek the sunlight and the day,
Back to pasture, back to mead,
Where the kine and oxen feed!
Back to gardens on the hills
Where the berry swells and fills
Under sunlight, under day!
Oxen are just castrated bulls (or maybe they don’t have to be castrated) used to pull heavy loads. So it would seem that — despite using the word cattle liberally throughout The Lord of the Rings when it came time to mention herd animals and draft animals in close proxmity to one another — he fell back on kine:
Pippin could see all the Pelennor laid out before him, dotted into the distance with farmsteads and little walls, barns and byres, but nowhere could he see any kine or other beasts. Many roads and tracks crossed the green fields, and there was much coming and going: wains moving in lines towards the Great Gate, and others passing out. Now and again a horseman would ride up, and leap from the saddle and hasten into the City. But most of the traffic went out along the chief highway, and that turned south, and then bending swifter than the River skirted the hills and passed soon from sight. It was wide and well-paved, and along its eastern edge ran a broad green riding-track, and beyond that a wall. On the ride horsemen galloped to and fro, but all the street seemed to be choked with great covered wains going south. But soon Pippin saw that all was in fact well-ordered: the wains were moving in three lines, one swifter drawn by horses; another slower, great waggons with fair housings of many colours, drawn by oxen; and along the west rim of the road many smaller carts hauled by trudging men.
This passage highlights another odd word Tolkien pulled out of the mists of archaism: wain. There is actually a recent historical application of the word to a specific type of wagon that was used on English farms; but in Tolkien’s literature wain just seems to mean “wagon” even though he has no problem using the word (“waggon” to people outside the United States). Wain is beloved by poets because it is easier to make a rhyme for wain (all the same) than it is to make a rhyme for wag(g)on (raise your flagon and stop your dragon from bagg’un those kine and oxen).
There seems to be no rhyme or reason behind some of the word choices Tolkien made. It was almost like he grew weary of using one word and brought in an alternate, but then went back to the original word. Tolkien’s use of archaic words and forms has been observed many times over the years. He delighted in turning his phrases into semi-historical studies of the past. And that, of course, brings to mind Letter No. 171 (as anyone who knows their Tolkien should know) — which, technically, was not a letter at all but an unsent draft:
…the pain that I always feel when anyone – in an age when almost all auctorial manhandling of English is permitted (especially if disruptive) in the name of art or ‘personal expression’ – immediately dismisses out of court deliberate ‘archaism’. The proper use of ‘tushery’ is to apply it to the kind of bogus ‘medieval’ stuff which attempts (without knowledge) to give a supposed temporal colour with expletives, such as tush, pish, zounds, marry, and the like. But a real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom. Of course, not being specially well read in modern English, and far more familiar with works in the ancient and ‘middle’ idioms, my own ear is to some extent affected; so that though I could easily recollect how a modern would put this or that, what comes easiest to mind or pen is not quite that. But take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible): Book iii, “The King of the Golden Hall’. ‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’
This is a fair sample — moderated or watered archaism. Using only words that still are used or known to the educated, the King would really have said: ‘Nay, thou (n’)wost not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall . . .’ etc. I know well enough what a modern would say. ‘Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties’ — and then what? Theoden would certainly think, and probably say ‘thus shall I sleep better’! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’, or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used. Like some non-Christian making a reference to some Christian belief which did not in fact move him at all.
Or p. 127, as an example of ‘archaism’ that cannot be defended as ‘dramatic’, since it is not in dialogue, but the author’s description of the arming of the guests – which seemed specially to upset you. But such ‘heroic’ scenes do not occur in a modern setting to which a modern idiom belongs. Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility.
I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields, hauberks into modern uniforms.
‘Helms too they chose’ is archaic. Some (wrongly) class it as an ‘inversion’, since normal order is ‘They also chose helmets’ or ‘they chose helmets too’. (Real mod. E. ‘They also picked out some helmets and round shields’.) But this is not normal order, and if mod. E. has lost the trick of putting a word desired to emphasize (for pictorial, emotional or logical reasons) into prominent first place, without addition of a lot of little ’empty’ words (as the Chinese say), so much the worse for it. And so much the better for it the sooner it learns the trick again. And some one must begin the teaching, by example.
So maybe I missed something in the reading but it seems to me that Tolkien may have let slip here the idea that he tried (or perhaps by habit enjoyed) thinking in the idiom of the characters, so as to distance himself from modern idiom. In which case using words like kine and oxen may have felt more proper without requiring any special associations; that is, he wasn’t implying that there was some sort of story to be told about why he chose those words.
So Pippin looks upon wains and the modern narrative describes waggons and carts; but when the narrative mentions cattle the characters are thinking of kine. This trick of writing in the idiom of the character and then reverting back to the idiom of the reader must have been challenging for Tolkien’s editors. Recall how he struggled to prevent them from having their way with dwarves (which they constantly corrected to dwarfs in preparing The Hobbit for publication).
The significance of all this, if there is any, seems (to me) to be that Tolkien preserved some elements of the Greek dialogue format when he composed The Lord of the Rings. When we are shown the reader’s point of view he writes in modern language; but if he drops into the character’s point of view he tends to use archaisms because they — being ancient creatures of a long lost world — would not think like us. I have no doubt that the effect is not perfectly executed; I am sure we can find examples that disprove the point. Nonetheless, what we see in Tolkien’s narrative form is a modern dialogue between the character and the reader. Tolkien managed to shift the point of view transitions sideways, so to speak, so that instead of sliding between character and character he transits between character and reader (or narrator).
He makes it look so easy and yet it is so hard to do. Transition is one of the most powerful and (in my opinion) least appreciated elements in Tolkien’s fiction. There is a story in there, somewhere, a tale waiting to be told — or retold. We just have to find the right words.
Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.