Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003):

There is furthermore one element which seems to me a clear case of Tolkienian private symbolism, and that is the name of Smith’s main antagonist throughout the work, the rude and incompetent Master Cook, Nokes. As I have said repeatedly, Tolkien was for some time perhaps the one person in the world who knew most about names, especially English names, and was most deeply interested in them. He wrote about them, commented on them, brought them up in conversation. With all the names in the telephone book to draw on, Tolkien is unlikely to have picked out just one name without considering what it meant: and ‘Nokes’ contains two clues as to its meaning. One is reinforced by the names of Smith’s wife and son and daughter, Nell and Nan and Ned, all of them marked by ‘nunnation’, the English habit of putting an ‘n’ in front of a word, and especially a name, which originally did not have one, like Eleanor and Ann and Edward. In Nokes’s case one can go further and observe place-names, as for instance Noke — a town in Oxfordshire not far from Brill — whose name is known to have been derived from Old English æt þam ácum, ‘at the oaks’. This became in Middle English *atten okes, and in Modern English, by mistake, ‘at Noke’ or ‘at Nokes’. There is no doubt that Tolkien knew all this, for there is a character called ‘old Noakes’ in the Shire, and Tolkien commented on his name, giving very much the explanation above, in his ‘Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings‘, written probably in the late 1950s. Tolkien there wrote off the meaning of ‘Noakes’ as ‘unimportant’, as indeed it is for The Lord of the Rings, but it would be entirely characteristic of him to remember an unimportant philological point and turn it into an important one later.

The second clue lies in the derivation from ‘oak’. ‘Oak’ had a special meaning for Tolkien, pointed out by Christopher Tolkien in his footnote to Shadow, p. 145. In his early career as Professor at the University of Leeds, Tolkien had devised a system of splitting the curriculum of English studies into two separate groups or ‘schemes’, the ‘A-scheme’ and the ‘B-scheme’. The A-scheme was for students of literature, the B-scheme for the philologists. Tolkien clearly liked this system, and tried unsuccessfully to introduce it to Oxford in 1930 with similar nomenclature (see ‘OES’, p. 780). But in his private symbolism ‘A’ was represented by the Old English rune-name ác, ‘oak’, ‘B’ by Old English beorc, ‘birch’. Oaks were critics and birches philologists, and Tolkien made the point perfectly clear in Songs for the Philologists, for which see below. As must surely be obvious from chapters 1 and 2 of this work, oaks were furthermore the enemy: the enemy of philology, the enemy of imagination, the enemy of dragons. I do not think that Tolkien could ever have forgotten this.

I am struck by the derivation of Nokes, and amused by Tolkien’s childish good-versus-evil approach to (of all things) critics and philologists. And what’s so awful about oaks? (I have omitted the footnotes, for which see the link.)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely not even Tolkien could seriously have thought that literature was the enemy of philology? I don’t believe it.

    Randolph Quirk’s Old English Grammar begins

    This Grammar is designed especially for the literary student of English, who has long been neglected in favour of his philologically inclined colleague

    Michael Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit makes a similar point, at some length.

    I doubt whether either the Beowulf poet or Kalidasa would have been thrilled at the idea that their morphology was more interesting that their poetry. (Nor do I think that Tolkien would. And what a factitious dichotomy, anyhow!)

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely viewing “literary critics” (in the 20th-century-et-seq. sense) as the enemy of philology is not at all the same thing as viewing literature-as-such as that enemy?

  3. ‘Surely not even Tolkien could seriously have thought that literature was the enemy of philology? I don’t believe it.’

    Of course he didn’t. Why would anyone begin to think so of someone whose time spent writing literature surely came at the rather serious expense of his professional philological work? Or whose most famous essay on Beowulf was, though responding to specific literary ‘critics’ of the poem, essentially a defense of the poem as a work of literature and art, which should be seen as more than a historical and philological quarry?

    ‘I am struck by the derivation of Nokes, and amused by Tolkien’s childish good-versus-evil approach to (of all things) critics and philologists.’

    This is a matter of departmental/disciplinary politics in what Tolkien called ‘the little world of academic English studies’. In intellectual terms, this is what Tolkien had to say, in his childish way:

    ‘In such a range [in what ‘English’ covers] divergence of interests, or at any rate of expertise, is inevitable. But the difficulties have not been helped, indeed they have been bedevilled, by the emergence of two legendary figures, the bogeys Lang and Lit. So I prefer to call them, since the words language and literature, though commonly misused among us, should not be thus degraded. Popular mythology seems to believe that Lang came from a cuckoo-egg laid in the nest, in which he takes up too much room and usurps the worms of the Lit chicken. Some believe that Lit was the cuckoo, bent on extruding her nest-fellow or sitting on him; and they have more support from the actual history of our School. But neither tale is well-founded.

    In a Bestiary more nearly reflecting the truth Lang and Lit would appear as Siamese Twins, Jekyll-Hyde and Hyde-Jekyll, indissolubly joined from birth, with two heads, but only one heart, the health of both being much better when they do not quarrel. This allegory at least resembles more closely our older statute: Every candidate will be expected to show a competent knowledge of both sides of the subject, and equal weight in the examination will be attached to each.

    Language and Literature appear as ‘sides’ of one subject. That was harmless enough, and indeed true enough, as long as ‘sides’ meant, as it should, aspects and emphases, which since they were of ‘equal weight’ in the subject as a whole, were neither of them normally exclusive, neither the sole property of this or that scholar, nor the sole object of any one course of study.

    But alas! ‘sides’ suggested ‘parties’, and too many then took sides.

    I took a liking to Lit as soon as I had joined the side of Lang. Certainly I joined the side of Lang, and I found the party-breach already wide … WE no longer meant students of English, it meant adherents of Lang or of Lit. THEY meant all those on the other side: people of infinite guile, who needed constant watching, lest THEY should down US. And, the rascals, so they did!

    For if you have Sides with labels, you will have Partisans. Faction fights, of course, are often fun, especially to the bellicose; but it is not clear that they do any good, any more good in Oxford than in Verona.’

    –Tolkien, ‘Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford’, published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, pp. 230-231.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    No(a)kes reminds me of various Anglicisations with English plural of Irish placenames with Na + hVOWEL:
    Na hIalla (plural of iall ‘strip of land’) > Naheellis
    Na hAillt (plural of ailt ‘steep-sided glen’–the second l is from an obsolete spelling, in you can see it was introduced by someone in 1991!) > Alts
    Na hUlú (g. of n. plural Ulaidh ‘Ulstermen’ with Uladh > Ulú) > Halls;
    This last one is strange, (a) genitive makes name look unfinished (b) Dineen has
    ulaidh, -e, -eacha, f., a stone tomb, penitential station, charnel house, a pile of bones in a churchyard, maybe this is not possible in Leitrim or there is some local connection with Ulstermen; (c) expected Anglicisation would seem to be Hulls, but maybe this is pronounced the same as Halls in Leitrim.

  5. Lars Mathiesen says

    Just before my latest long train journey, I managed to get my hands on the Copenhagen bookstores’ last copy of Tolkien og det mytiske Jylland by Casper Clemmensen. It turns out that Tolkien the Elder had extensive notes on Beowulf and Widsith and Hengest and other such matters, tying it all together into a story about why exactly and how the Jutes settled Kent or rather Sheppey — the which notes the younger Tolkien didn’t think he could monetize and so gave (redemption!) to a scientist who published a lot of it in the late 80s or so. (There is a proper reference to that publication in the book, but the book is not here). Tolkien’s project is said to have been to establish a founding myth for the British nation, so it could be on a par with Rome, Greece, Sumeria and even Finland.

    The Danish book is 80 percent what looks like a faithful, but slightly dramatized, account of Tolkien’s life during and after the Great War and his ideas about the Jutes, and 20% woo that tries to establish the actual location of some of the Migration Age tales on an island in the Aarhus bight. Thankfully the woo is in a chapter by itself.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I can’t imagine that Tolkien would have thought Britain to lack a founding myth?

  7. John Cowan says

    And what’s so awful about oaks?

    Grrrrreat aiks from wee tae-corns grow, as they say.

    Here’s one of the poems from Songs for the Philologists:

    “Lit’ and Lang'”

    Once there were two little groups [3x]
    Called Lit’ and Lang’.
    Lit’ was lazy till she died [3x]
    Of homophemes.
    ‘I don’t like philology’,
    Poor Lit’ said,
    Psychotherapeutics failed,
    And now she’s dead.

    Doctors cut up all the corpse [3x]
    But searched in vain.
    They couldn’t find it anywhere [3x]
    They couldn’t find the brain.
    Did Lang’ go into mourning weeds?
    I don’t think!
    He quickly wiped away a tear
    And had another drink.

    The collection includes poems in Old Norse/Icelandic, Swedish (“Gubben Noach, gubben Noach var en hedersman”), English Old, Middle, and Modern (“This is my faith, I do maintain, until the stars shall fall, Sir! / Let other lands be what they claim, is England best of all, Sir!”), Gothic (“Brunaim bairith bairka bogum / laubans liubans liudandei”), Latin (“Vivat academia / Vivant professores / vivat membrum quodlibet / vivat membra quaelibet / semper sint in flores”); some are set to tunes traditional, others modern (“Su klukka heljar hryngur-ryngur-ryng / Fyr þjer en ekki mjer”).


    But not all the poems are actually by Tolkien, and near the end the “Valedictory Address” becomes most emphatic:

    If we consider what Merton College and what the Oxford School of English owes to the Antipodes, to the Southern Hemisphere, especially to scholars born in Australia and New Zealand, it may well be felt that it is only just that one of them should now ascend an Oxford chair of English. Indeed, it may be thought that justice has been delayed since 1925.

    There are of course other lands under the Southern Cross. I was born in one; though I do not claim to be the most learned of those who have come hither from the far end of the Dark Continent. But I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all, I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.

    As for the Matter of Britain, it is either Welsh or French: what Tolkien-Suffield wanted was a founding myth for England, the most distressful country (in that respect) that ever has been seen.

  8. Lars Mathiesen, that’s a rather significant distortion of some things that are true, so I suspect the ‘woo’ goes rather deeper…

    What Tolkien did do was write rather copious lecture notes, which he never seems to have thought of publishing. After his death, these came into the hands of another scholar, Alan Bliss, who edited them up into a book: Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode. It is not at all an easy book to read, even for those very familiar with Beowulf and the Fight at Finnesburg (the two Old English poems that the lectures were on), but does have a lot of useful observations if you care enough about the subject to slog through it.

    Tolkien does, among other things, weave together a theory that the Hengest of Beowulf and the Hengest who settled Kent were one and the same: a Jute who ended up as a ‘wrecca’ (an exiled aristocrat), and who eventually ended up in Kent in a manner more or less as recounted by Bede. He was not, of course, presenting this as a new founding myth, since this basic form of legend was already the standard one during the Old English period (as anyone who’s read Bede or Brunanburh knows).

    Tolkien did have some ideas that England (rather than Briton) lacked a ‘national mythology’, but this wasn’t a matter of founding myths as such. It was also arguably more of a pretense for him to justify weaving in bits of early English legend and mythology into his own fictions.

  9. (‘Briton’ should of course be ‘Britain’, as I see too late to correct it.)

  10. @J.W. Brewer: I would guess that he found The Matter of Britain too late and/or too French. As that Wikipedia page points out, “Matter of Britain” itself is a high medieval French name.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Vivat academia / Vivant professores / vivat membrum quodlibet / viva[n]t membra quaelibet / semper sint in flores

    Gaudeamus igitur, iuvenes dum sumus!

    (Bursch(e) < bursarius, BTW.)

    As for the Matter of Britain, it is either Welsh or French: what Tolkien-Suffield wanted was a founding myth for England, the most distressful country (in that respect) that ever has been seen.

    Frankly, England should try to get a parliament instead.

    (Cameron promised one. And then he resigned in the same speech.)

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Weren’t they offered one and didn’t want it?

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I imagine that they would regard having an English Parliament as conceding that the one in Westminster is actually British rather than English, and that would never do. It might give the Fringes ideas above their station.

    The English may not have a foundation myth, but they have plenty of other myths to be going along with. I don’t see why they should be greedy about it. Lots of people don’t have foundation myths. (I don’t have one myself. I am simply autochthonous.)

  14. January First-of-May says

    I imagine that they would regard having an English Parliament as conceding that the one in Westminster is actually British rather than English, and that would never do.

    “Скорее уж нужно отложить от Британии Англию. Если кому-то интересно мое мнение. Да только куда ж ее теперь отложишь!..”

    (from Anna Korostelyova’s Carmarthen School, which I very much recommend to anyone capable of reading it; though TIL that Avva gave it a 3/10, and I guess if you don’t like it from the first 10% or so you probably won’t like it later either)

  15. There is a sort of “English parliament”. It is the part of the Westminster parliament which was elected by English constituencies. It remains to be seen what happens if and when the majority of the “English parliament” is in opposition to the British government.

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Nelson Goering, most of the difference between what you write and that book is in my summary. A ‘national mythology’ is indeed what it says that Tolkien wanted.

    The Danish book does go on for a bit trying to analyse Tolkien’s state of mind while in the WWI trenches and while recuperating from PTSD (“grenade shock”), and how he thought that a national mythology would have made things better. That part may also be woo, and not having read Bliss I can’t know if the treatment of that part is tendentious as well, but at least it had 100+ references to literature. (English mythology is not a big interest of mine, otherwise I might try to track down Bliss).

  17. ‘A ‘national mythology’ is indeed what it says that Tolkien wanted.’

    But not something he tried to achieve through his discussion of Hengest… And if you go looking in Finn and Hengest mainly for ‘English mythology’, you’ll be mostly disappointed. Tolkien was simply arguing that there was a larger backstory to Hengest, and that this was reflected in Beowulf and connected to the geopolitics of the North and Baltic Seas during the 5th century. As I said, he wasn’t proposing anything remotely new (or even particularly emphasizing) on the ‘national’ mythology side of things. That was there already since Bede (at least), who had told the story of Hengest and Horsa sailing over in their three ships to aid Vortigern, and turning on him once they realized they had all the power in the situation. This myth was extremely popular throughout the Middle Ages, and is told and retold in all sorts of places — the Mayflower story of medieval England. (It was also folded into the ‘New Troy’ mythology of the Britons, with which is was entirely compatible.)

    Tolkien’s feelings on what the modern English might have lacked in terms of mythology (of any kind) was not closely connected to any of this. Tolkien had an interest in the Old English ‘national’ mythology (which he had no need to invent). He also had an ambition (he says) to ‘restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own’. These two strands are very much not the same. Some of the seeds of his Silmarillion writings were taken from his philological work, but this was a fundamentally creative enterprise, not one of philological reconstruction. Philological analysis and reconstruction is what his Beowulf lectures were all about. (They very occasionally stray into speculations so groundless they can be called fantasy, but this is a very different kind of fantasy than his fiction.)

    Clemmensen, from what I’ve been able to gather (yours is not the first report I’ve had), errs especially in trying to make Tolkien’s philological speculations on Hengest something they’re not: they are not Tolkien finding a ‘mythic’ dimension where there was none previously, and they are not all that closely or essentially connected with his actual ‘mythology for England’ impulse. Something like the following is grandiose exaggeration, at best:

    ‘Bogen dokumenter Tolkiens specifikke forhold til særligt Jyllands ældste historie. Her finder Tolkien en tabt saga, en glemt fødselsberetning om Danmark, Holland og England. Den glemte saga fortæller om Jyllands fald under danernes erobring. Den fortæller om jydernes episke vandringer og om grundlæggelsen af den Angel-Saksiske England og dermed selve fødslen af den vestlige civilisation 350 år før vikingetidens begyndelse.’

    It takes Tolkien’s actual scholarly activities, and distorts them almost beyond recognition. It smacks of a parochial desire to give Jutland some kind of ‘mystic’ significance Tolkien certainly never began to attribute to the place.

    ‘Ordet, det hele handler om, er eotenum. Det er altid blevet oversat med monstre eller kæmper i ældgamle sagaer, men Tolkien fører bevis for, at oversættelsen er forkert. Eotenum betyder jyde.’

    There’s a debate about this word, of course, and Tolkien was on the ‘Jutish’ side, but he was hardly the first, or even the most influential defender of that theory. That the Ēotan were Jutes was the view presented in Klaeber’s long-standard edition of the poem, and was the received wisdom in Tolkien’s day. This is a problem I’ve seen elsewhere: that Tolkien’s fame means that his status as ‘the’ Old English philologist gets comically exaggerated.

    Quotes from:

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    Thanks, @Nelson. So it’s 80 percent woo, but woo with references to published stuff. Or at best cherrypicking. I’m not going to defend Clemmensen — I knew that if I brought it up here someone would know where the research ended and the woo began.

    But if I hadn’t seen a similar blurb in another paper (or possible the same publisher-provided one) I wouldn’t have known that it was possible to connect Finnsburgh with Widsith, for instance. (Or that Finnsburgh existed, for all that). Also I read an actual book on the train to Berlin instead of looking at my phone like everybody else. That’s a win. (He does have a quote from someone saying that if Tolkien had read and published those lectures when he wrote the notes, a generation or two of scholars would have focused their research differently).

    Also the fairy-tale parts about how Tolkien almost wasn’t allowed to marry his Edith and how she was probably his model for Varda (or was it Galadriel) — new to me and a nicer story than what they print in the papers these days. (A low bar, admittedly).

  19. If you found the accounts of Tolkien’s early life interesting (and I think it does make for a pretty good story), I’d highly recommend John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. It’s both readable and well researched, which is always a pleasant combination, and I think does justice to Tolkien’s most formative years—including the various romantic elements (in several senses of the term).

  20. Lars Mathiesen says

    Thanks, @tolkien!

  21. John Cowan says

    It is not at all an easy book to read, even for those very familiar with Beowulf and the Fight at Finnesburg

    Perhaps it is difficult to read for those who are very familiar and less so for those who are not; I didn’t find it hard at all. In any case what was novel to me is the “Jutes on both sides” theory about the Fragment by which some Jutes (including Hengest) are pro-Finn and others are anti-Finn.

    vivat membra quaelibet

    I am pretty sure that is a dog-Latin feminine of the vivat membrum quodlibet that precedes it: ‘long live any (male) member whatever, long live any female member whatever’. But the copy I was looking at is not a facsimile, and you may be right. Quaelibet is properly a variant of quālibet ‘anywhere (lit. where it pleases)’ or ‘anyhow (lit. how it pleases)’, though.

  22. @Lars Mathiesen: Edith was Luthien. It’s right there on their grave.

  23. David Marjanović says

    I am pretty sure that is a dog-Latin feminine of the vivat membrum quodlibet that precedes it:

    Not at all. As I posted, it’s vivant membra quaelibet, the plural of the neuter (not masculine!) vivat membrum quodlibet.

    It’s a students’ song (performed in full at the link I added) – written by men who had had a Humanist education and spoke Latin every day. Women are only mentioned at the very end, as virgines formosae rather than unthinkably as membra.

  24. ‘“Jutes on both sides” theory’

    That was Tolkien’s real contribution to the subject (and I think a pretty good one). I think one of the difficulties of the book comes from the rather scattered nature of this argument. He lays out the main thesis at one point very clearly, but if you want to compare what he says to the texts in detail, it takes a bit of running around the book. It’s also a general textual commentary, so Tolkien regularly gets sidetracked by unrelated textual tangents. (I’m not really complaining, since he’s usually got something interesting to say, but again, if you’re trying to follow the ‘main’ argument you have to sift through those bits.)

    I’m not quite sure why my last comment was posted under the name ‘tolkien’…

  25. Odd, but I’ve added your actual name in brackets there to make the thread more legible.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    To D.O.’s point, for a few years in the quite recent past a system was apparently pursued in which the blessing of a “Grand Committee” of only the M.P.’s representing constituencies in England was required for legislation that would affect only England rather than the U.K. as a whole.

    It does seem rather more efficient to convene an all-England legislature by just taking the existing Parliament and having the Fringe MP’s step out of the room for a while rather than to elect a whole separate set of legislators. There was an instance back in the 1920’s where legislation specifically regarding the Church of England was defeated in Parliament because of the votes of MP’s from non-English constituencies and would supposedly have passed if only the English votes had been counted. The practical upshot of that, however, was for Parliament eventually to broadly delegate legislative authority over C of E topics to the church’s own General Synod (which also made sense because you could no longer rely on MP’s from English constituencies to be practicing Anglicans representing a primarily Anglican group of constituents) rather than to grapple with the so-called “West Lothian” question more broadly.

  27. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Brett, I’m in the sorry state of not being able to tell all Tolkien’s characters apart, though I mostly remember the gender when I see the name. I suspect that trivia about how exponentiation is defined in the surreals has usurped that position in my memory. As evident, that doesn’t keep me from nattering on.

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