I cannot fathom the fiery letters

I’m re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, and it is such a joy to re-immerse myself in Tolkien’s language–lyrical, visual, and sometimes beyond my ken. In particular, the use of archaic units of measurement has been tripping me up, so I finally looked them up:

  • league: the distance a man walks in an hour (about three miles, unless you are Aragorn son of Arathorn)
  • fathom: about six feet, literally “a pair of outstretched arms” (for a full-grown man, presumably)
  • furlong: a eighth of a mile, but originally used to describe the length of a furrow, which was the long side of a then-standard rectangular acre-plot (the short side was 22 yards or “one chain” wide). Thank you, Wikipedia!

  • I already knew that “fortnight” was “two weeks” but somehow hadn’t connected it as “fortnight” = “fourteen nights”. Wikipedia’s entry on the FFF System makes for some fun related reading.

    I remain stymied by some other words Tolkien uses, though; most are landscape words. I cannot find any reasonable definitions for “hythe” (a place where a boat comes ashore, from context?), “mew” (something on a hill), or “thrawn” (a kind of tree, from context). If you have any hints, please share in the comments. Thanks!

    6 of 6 people learned something from this entry.

    1. LearningNerd said,

      March 2, 2008 at 12:42 pm

      (Learned something new!)

      Gotta love Wikipedia. I read The Hobbit a while ago but never got around to the trilogy. Doesn’t it have some ridiculously long, detailed descriptions? I want to read it one day but I may have to skim over those parts…

      As for those last words, I never heard of them but dictionary.com has some info. Other than that, can’t help ya there!

    2. wkiri said,

      March 2, 2008 at 12:55 pm

      I enjoy all of the text, so I can’t think of parts that seem overly long on description — at this point reading it feels like walking down a familiar path, and I like lingering over favorite sights to drink in all I can of them. I think Tolkien also enjoyed painting scenes of his clearly beloved Middle Earth. On the other hand, it certainly doesn’t lack for action scenes as well. :)

    3. jim said,

      March 2, 2008 at 1:10 pm

      It is possible that Tolkein made these words up and they haven’t been adopted as quickly as (sigh) “LoL cat” vernacular.

    4. wkiri said,

      March 2, 2008 at 8:08 pm

      True, although something makes me think that it’s more likely that these are archaic actual English words that he did not make up. Generally, when he introduces words he’s made up, they come from one of the characters in speech or thought first, and then they’re seamlessly integrated into the text from there on (e.g., mallorn trees, mithril, lembas) or they’re capitalized place names. The words I listed above were instead used by the (omniscient) narrator, with no definition, suggesting to me that the reader should just know what they mean. Who knows!

    5. Silver Fox said,

      March 3, 2008 at 6:21 am

      (Learned something new!)

      Check this out: thrawn from the free dictionary. It’s Scottish meaning crooked, twisted. Maybe they have some other words, too, although I also suspect he made up a few words. I googled thrawn definition. There may be some other meanings, also.

      Lord of the Rings takes me back. I first read it many times in high school and college. I love it. And I have the movie on wishlist at Barnes and Noble.

      I found Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” (if that’s spelled right) kind of dense and haven’t gotten through it. Sounds like fun re-reading to me.

    6. Silver Fox said,

      March 3, 2008 at 6:26 am

      (Learned something new!)

      Oh, hey – also check this out, the whole Tolkien online scene. This page is for thrawn.

    7. wkiri said,

      March 3, 2008 at 10:52 am

      (Learned something new!)

      Silver Fox, thank you for the links! The Tolkien Online discussion is fascinating.

    8. Jim said,

      March 4, 2008 at 7:21 am

      (Learned something new!)

      I always thought the term “fortnight” came from the phases of the moon – the period between the two half moon phases that includes the new moon. If your duty was to guard a fort at night, those 2 weeks would be your “fortnight”.

    9. Weekly Word: Thraw « LearningNerd said,

      March 10, 2008 at 6:11 pm

      […] Tags: English, Language, Weekly Word The verb to thraw means “to throw” in British dialect, and in Scottish it means “to twist” or “to oppose”. The adjective thrawn can mean “twisted; crooked” or “perverse; contrary”. I discovered this word through a post by my internet buddy Kiri, who wrote about some of the words used in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. […]

    10. IdahoEv said,

      March 14, 2008 at 12:02 am

      (Learned something new!)

      Ahh, it’s been a couple of years. I will have to find time to read LoTR again soon…

      Fun post, btw.

    Post a Comment

    I knew this already. I learned something new!