Our Own Dear John Ronald: Copyists’ Ignorant Errors

‘Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’

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Balrogs owe a part of their existence to an editorial problem.  There is an Old English poem called EXODUS, like several Old English poems a paraphrase of a part of the Bible.  (…) [Tolkien] thought on linguistic grounds that it was older than BEOWULF, and he thought that like the BEOWULF-poet, the EXODUS-poet had known a good deal about the native pre-Christian mythology, which could with care be retrieved from his copyists’ ignorant errors.  In particular, the poet at several points mentions the SIGELWARA LAND, the ‘land of the Sigelware’.  In modern dictionaries and editions, these ‘Sigelware’ are invariably translated as ‘Ethiopians’.  Tolkien thought, as often, that that was a mistake.  He thought the name was another compound, (…) and that it should have been written *SIGEL-HEARWA.  Furthermore, he suggested (…) that a *SIGEL-HEARWA was a kind of fire-giant.  The first element in the compound meant both ‘sun’ and ‘jewel’; the second was related to the Latin CARBO, soot.  When an Anglo-Saxon from the pre-literate Dark Age said SIGELHEARWA, before any Englishman had ever heard of Ethiopia or the Book of Exodus, Tolkien believed that what he meant was ‘rather a son of Múspell [the Old Norse fire-giant who will bring on Ragarök] than of Ham, the ancestors of the Silhearwan with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks, with faces black as soot’.

The fusion of ‘sun’ and ‘jewel’ perhaps had something to do with Tolkien’s concept of the SILMARIL.  The idea of a fire-spirit re-emerges in the brief glimpse of the orc-chieftain who stabs Frodo, with his ‘swart’ face, red tongue and ‘eyes like coals’, but it also gave Tolkien Durin’s Bane, the Balrog. (…)  The clash of Gandalf and the Balrog produces (…) feelings of mystery: we hear of, but do not understand, the opposition between ‘the Secret Fire … the flame of Anor’, and ‘the dark fire … flame of Udûn’.  What Tolkien does in such passages is to satisfy the urge to know more (the urge he himself felt as an editor of texts so often infuriatingly incomplete), while retaining and even intensifying the counterbalancing pleasure of seeming always on the edge of a new discovery, looking into a world that seems far fuller than the little at present known.  If gold and greed and mastery are ‘the desire of the hearts of dwarves’, then words and links and inferences are the lust of philologists.  Tolkien had that lust as strongly as anyone ever has, but he felt it was one which could be strongly shared.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien.  Author of the Century.

balrog and gandalf movie

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