Anglo-Saxon on the banks of the River Anduin

Tuesday January 20, 2009 @ 11:03 PM (UTC)

There are many chunks of writing advice that float around in the academic soup, giving and receiving flavor. (Maybe I need some about metaphor, myself.) One of these is about using Anglo-Saxon words. I’ve no idea if it originated with John Gardner’s classic The Art of Fiction, but he does put it forth:

If the writer says “creatures” instead of “snakes,” if in an attempt to impress us with fancy talk he uses Latinate terms like “hostile maneuvers” instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like “thrash,” “coil,” “spit,” “hiss,” and “writhe,” if instead of the desert’s sands and rocks he speaks of the snakes’ “inhospitable abode,” the reader will hardly know what picture to conjure up on his mental screen.

I have historically been doubtful of this stricture, especially since some teachers apply it with less discrimination than Gardner does above. Obviously your aim in writing fiction shouldn’t be to impress the reader with your vocabulary, but cutting out an entire rich swath of our hodgepodge language seems extreme. For instance, you can’t get more Latinate than ‘susurrate’, but the onomatopoeic felicities of its repeated s and soft murmur can’t be overstated. The rule does have its points – choose a word that has auditory punch when possible, and don’t use abstractions when grittiness will communicate better. Luckily, I’ve been given a meta-rule that trumps all the rules and lets me pick and choose – “Find the rules, break the rules,” per Marvin Bell – a one rule to rule them all, if you will.

Which brings me to the true topic of this post. I was tempted by the Lord of the Rings reread into undertaking that monumental task myself (thus interrupting my Aubrey-Maturin reread/read, as well as the almost 200 fresh books I have on my list.) But true to form, once I’d caught up with the group reread, I could not stop and plunged headily onwards. Ask any of my primary (and some of my secondary) school teachers about my ability to see, process and act upon a chapter break appropriately. Ahem.

I plunged through Volume One*, The Ring Sets Out and was wrapping up Volume Two, The Ring Goes South, when I ran up against a word. “That night they camped on a small eyot close to the western bank.” [emphasis mine] Now, I’ve read this book on paper before, as well as listening to it aloud, but I’ve never noticed this word before. I attribute this oversight to the fact that prior to taking “History of the English Language” in undergrad, I wouldn’t have had a frisson** of linguistic glee at the word.

You see, while I’d never noticed the word before, I was sure it was related to ‘ea-land’, the Old English word that meant stream-land. The fledgling science of linguistics incorrectly guessed this word was related to the Latin isla, and therefore we have the unphonetic standard spelling ‘island’. It’s the classic example of how goofily English spelling was standardized, and here I was running across another word sprung from that noble root. (Presumably – checking the OED shows that history is unclear as to the exact lineage of ‘eyot’/‘ait’)

Three pages later (after several more repetitions of ‘eyot’) I came across this passage:

The next day the country on either side began to change rapidly. The banks began to rise and grow stony. Soon they were passing through a hilly rocky land, and on both shores there were steep slopes buried in deep brakes of thorn and sloe, tangled with brambles and creepers.

Now, quickly, and without recourse to references, what is ‘brake’ in this context? How about ‘sloe’? I would suppose few of us know, and no more, I would guess, do or did many of Tolkien’s readers. But does it stop you enjoying the story or even make you lose the sense of the sentence? It did not for me. Part of this smooth reading experience is the way Tolkien has embedded these slightly archaic words in context, much as Patrick O’Brian embeds unusual or specialized words in text that allows the reader to gloss them. But I think another part is their very Anglo-Saxonness.

brake, the OED informs, is established in English by the 15th century, and analogous to the Middle Low German brake. It means “a clump of bushes, brushwood, or briers; a thicket.”

sloe is from the Old English slá and is the blackthorn, or its fruit.

Now, we didn’t necessarily know that. But it didn’t confuse us to read it, and I think it enriched our experience. The confusion of plants making a wilderness of the riverbank is made more complex – more literally confusing – by these inclusions. What is more, they fall upon the ear as English, similar in sound to many words we use every day. They work beautifully read aloud, as does the book as a whole. They are venerable remnants of our own language, and give an air of primal familiarity to Middle Earth. And while that’s not among Gardner’s list of reasons to use words rooted in Anglo-Saxon, it’s a beautiful effect to create. And I’m sure, for a linguist like Tolkien, it wasn’t hard to summon the magic words.

*I’m rereading my Millennium Edition copy, which separates Lord of the Rings into its six volumes, rather than the three books in which it was originally published. I like it.

**There I go using Romance languages. Sorry, Gardner and friends. I will not stop. Je refuse!



Tolkien is so tasty, and watching you pick him apart is also tasty. I fondly remember HEL and actually pull out the textbook when I excitedly want to share information with friends and family. I agree (of course) about knowing the rules and then breaking them. Variety being the spice and all that – it’s quite true in the written word. Vocab is delicious, but I think my current love is rhythm.

Thankee. I almost namechecked you about HEL, but I couldn’t find a way that flowed. Not that I always maintain a good flow on my site. I’m a parenthesisaholic. But anyway.

I think Tolkien has good rhythm as well – I think it contributes to his being so excellent read aloud.

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