As always, readers, welcome.
Teaching The Hobbit is always a pleasure and part of that pleasure is that students surprise me with new views and questions every time. This time, it was a question about a passage in Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”:
“Anyway by mid-winter Gandalf and Bilbo had come all the way back, along both edges of the Forest, to the doors of Beorn’s house; and there for a while they both stayed. Yule-tide was warm and merry there; and men came from far and wide to feast at Beorn’s bidding.”
“I know ‘Yule-tide’ from a Christmas carol,” a student said, “as in ‘Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol’, and I know that ‘Yule’ is Christmas, but what’s Christmas doing in The Hobbit?”
Tolkien himself saw The Lord of the Rings as a kind of expression of his Christianity, writing to Robert Murray, SJ, in 1953:
“The Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” (letter to Robert Murray, SJ, 2 December, 1953, Letters, 172)
But did this extend back into the 1930s when he was writing The Hobbit?
Time to do some research, clearly.
As always with The Hobbit, my first stop is my copy of Douglas A. Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit.
Note 5, next to the text, reads:
“In Appendix D (“The Shire Calendar”) to The Lord of the Rings, the Calendar in the Shire is shown to have two Yuledays, the last day of the year and the first of the next year. Yuletide is described as six days long, including the last three and first three days of each year.” (Anderson, 353)
Okay, then, we can presume that “Yule-tide” at Beorn’s
is from the Shire calendar and has nothing to do—overtly, at least—with the Christian holiday. (“tide”, by the way, is from Old English tid, which has a number of close meanings, all seeming to indicate “time” as “occasion”.)
But why is the English “Yule-tide” there at all? As JRRT explains in Appendix D:
“I have used our modern names for both months and weekdays, though of course neither the Eldar nor the Dunedain nor the Hobbits actually did so.” ( The Lord of the Rings, Appendix D)
Unfortunately, it does not appear that he then provided us with the original Hobbitish term, but “Yule” has its own ancient pedigree, appearing in the Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede’s (672-735AD) De Temporum Ratione, which is commonly translated as “On/Concerning/About the Reckoning of Time”. In 71 chapters, Bede (often referred to as “the Venerable Bede”, Beda Venerabilis—“Bede Worthy of Reverence”, a term attached to him as early as the 9th century) lays out an enormous amount of information about calendars and dates. In Chapter XV he writes about the system in use in England before his own time:
December Giuli, eodem Januarius nomine, vocatur. Incipiebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Januariarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctum, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem, appellabant, ob causam, ut suspicamur. ceremoniarum quas in ea pervigiles agebant. (Bede, De Temporum Ratione, Caput XV, “De Mensibus Anglorum” You can see the full chapter here: http://www.nabkal.de/beda/beda_15.html
“December is called Giuli by the same name as January. They used to begin the year, however, from the eighth day back from the calends of January, when now we celebrate the birth of the Lord. And that very night now so very holy to us, then they used to call in the common speech “Modranicht”—that is, night of the mothers, because, as I suppose, on that night, they used to conduct some all-night vigils of sacred rites.” (my translation)
(The calends is January 1st, and, counting backwards 8 days, gives us 25 December—but we need really to go back to 24 December to include Christmas Eve, which is clearly Modranicht. Anglo-Saxons reckoned that the old day ended at sunset, so, by their method, Christmas Eve is actually part of the 25th, rather than the 24th, as we see it.)
G followed by iu would be pronounced “Yu”, hence “Yule” and so Tolkien, placing Gandalf and Bilbo in Beorn’s hall at mid-winter, has had them celebrate a hobbit festival , as he tells us:
“The Lithedays and the Yuledays were the chief holidays and times of feasting.” (Appendix D)
using a venerable (in more ways than one) English word.
In the use of “Lithedays”, which are the midsummer equivalent of Yule-tide, Tolkien is pointing us back to that same Chapter XV of Bede, where the Anglo-Saxon months of June and July are both called lid (where the final d is said like the th in “then”—“Junius Lida, Julius similiter Lida”). Bede offers us two explanations, based upon two near-homonyms: lid (with the th at the end), “gentle/mild” and lid (with a d at the end), “ship”:
Lida dicitur blandus, sive navigabilis, quod in utroque mense et blanda sit serenitas aurarum, et navigari soleant aequora.
“Lida means soft/gentle/mild, or navigable, because in both months, both the calmness of the winds may be gentle and the seas may be accustomed to be sailed.”
In fact, if we match Chapter XV against the Shire names of the months, we find that it’s not just “Yule” and “Lithe” which have been borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but the names of many of the months, as well.
So I think that you can see now why teaching The Hobbit provides a kind of double pleasure—the fun of the story and all of the extra learning which can come from a simple—or not so simple, it turns out—question.
To which I might add a little more.
Some Christmas songs seem to date back for ever—like “Veni, Veni, Immanuel”, whose verses possibly may date from the 12th century, set in the 19th century to a 13th century melody.
But one, which, from its language, seems older, surprisingly only dates from 1862 and that’s the carol the student quoted, “Deck the Halls” (originally “Deck the Hall”), which first appeared in Volume 2 of John Thomas’ Welsh Melodies.
(For more, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deck_the_Halls )
Thanks for reading, as ever.
If so inclined, troll a carol or two,
And remember that, as always, there’s
But—there is another version of “Deck the Hall/s” which should be included here, although of an even more recent date.
It is stirringly sung, with a number of variants, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SL0lPcNwRqQ