Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
Because we so dislike the huge amount of electronic criticism which exists—what does it help, after all?– with very rare exceptions, we’ve always made it our policy to write about things we admire and they are, we are thankful to say, so many that we don’t think that we will ever run out—or at least we hope not!
In the past, our rare exceptions have included Jackson’s Hobbit films, of which a friend once said, “Might have been fun as films, but only if you had never read Tolkien’s The Hobbit.” And that’s about what we now would say about them, but there is, as well, a scene in the film of The Two Towers which we’ve always found out of place. It occurs after the great victory at Helm’s Deep, in which Saruman’s forces are defeated by a combination of Rohirrim and Ents.
(This is an absolutely amazing Lego version—see this LINK for a little more: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/lego-battle-helms-deep-is-647177 )
The main protagonists return to Edoras, the Rohirrim capital,
(image by Alan Lee)
to Theoden’s hall, Meduseld.
(another Lee—what wonderful details—and you can immediately see one of his inspirations, the so-called “stave churches” now found almost entirely in Norway—here’s the reconstructed Gol Stave Church from the 12th century. If you’d like to learn and see more, here’s a LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stave_church )
In the original novel, this is a time for counsel and planning, as everyone is well aware that the defeat of Saruman is not the defeat of evil in the world, but the film shows us a giant party, including a drinking bout between Gimli and Legolas, which ends with Gimli drunk and passed out, while Legolas doesn’t appear to be in the least affected.
We imagine that the director and writers included this scene because they wanted to release some of the tension from what had been, previously, a very fraught situation, but, for us, the usually grim Gimli, belching and falling over with crossed eyes, seemed completely out of character.
Drinking in a place like Meduseld, however, could seem very appropriate, given its name, which is based, as so often when it comes to Rohirric, upon two Old English words, medu, “mead” and sele, “hall”.
This, of course, brought us immediately to another Old English source for Tolkien, Beowulf and Hrothgar, the Danish king’s, mead hall (in the poem, it’s called a medoærn, which combines “mead” with a word meaning lots of things in Old English, including “house”).
|magodriht micel· him on mód bearn||into a mighty battalion; it came into his mind|
|þæt healreced hátan wolde||that a hall-house, he wished to command,|
|medoærn micel men gewyrcean||a grand mead-hall, be built by men|
|þone yldo bearn aéfre gefrúnon||70||which the sons of men should hear of forever,|
|ond þaér on innan eall gedaélan||and there within share out all|
|geongum ond ealdum swylc him god sealde||to young and old, such as God gave him,|
|búton folcscare ond feorum gumena·||except the common land and the lives of men;|
|ða ic wíde gefrægn weorc gebannan||Then, I heard, widely was the work commissioned|
|manigre maégþe geond þisne middangeard·||75||from many peoples throughout this middle-earth,|
|folcstede frætwan. Him on fyrste gelomp||to furnish this hall of the folk. For him in time it came to pass,|
|aédre mid yldum þæt hit wearð ealgearo||early, through the men, that it was fully finished,|
|healærna maést· scóp him Heort naman||the best of royal halls; he named it Heorot,|
|sé þe his wordes geweald wíde hæfde·||he whose words weight had everywhere;|
|hé béot ne áléh· béagas daélde||80||he did not lie when he boasted; rings he dealt out,|
|sinc æt symle. Sele hlífade||riches at his feasts. The hall towered,|
|héah ond horngéap·||high and horn-gabled…|
(This is from Benjamin Slade’s Beowulf website (https://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html ), which is rich in annotation, as well as having a very interesting attempt to translate not only the words of the poem, but the feel. We have no idea, by the way, why, when we move the text from that site to our blog, it turns into this box thing.)
This place is named Heorot, which means a “stag”—that is, a male deer. We can certainly understand why it would be named something like “drinking hall”, but why “stag”?(Another word for a doe, a female deer, is a “hind”, in case you’d like take match them.)
In the annotations to Slade’s version of the poem, he suggests that the hall is named that because stags are a symbol of royalty in the ancient Germanic world, and cites this object, from the 6th-century Sutton Hoo ship burial, where the top of it is clearly a stag.
We call it an “object” because there’s a good deal of scholarly discussion as to what it actually is. Two suggestions: a whetstone (a stone used to sharpen blades)
and a sceptre (the baton royalty carries to show that they are, indeed, royalty).
We have no opinion, but would add that the poem says that the hall “towers” (from the verb hlifian) “high” and is what Slade translates as “horn gabled”. We are not Old English scholars, but others have translated this “wide/broad between the gables”, seeing geap as meaning “wide” (among other things—see the modern English word, “gap”—as well as its cousin, “gape”)—so “horn wide” perhaps? Thinking about what this would look like, however, we prefer Slade’s idea—as in this rather dramatic illustration—
or in this lower-key illustration of an Iron Age house, with its trophy—
or this reconstruction of a Viking longhouse.
As this is a “mead hall”, it would seem that the drink of choice is mead, which is made from a combination of fermented honey and water.
It’s a very old word (just look at the entry in Etymonline: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=mead ), suggesting that, once people tried it, they never put it down. (We confess to being partial to it ourselves, but you have to be careful—the sweetness conceals the fact that it can be pretty powerful!)
It’s also a very appropriate word for Beowulf, if his name means what has been suggested. “The “wulf” part is easy, of course, but the “beo”? Some scholars suggest that it’s derived from beadu “war/fighting”, so the hero is “warwolf”. For us, however, there is another possibility, easily linked with mead and its main ingredient: beo means “bee”, suggesting that, rather than being a “warwulf”, our man is a “beewolf”—that is, a bear.
Thanks, as always, for reading, stay well in our current mad world, and know that there’s
If you’d like to have a little Old English dictionary fun, use this LINK: https://www.oldenglishtranslator.co.uk/ Type in modern English words and see their equivalent, if any. An endlessly interesting site, in our opinion!