Monday, November 14, 2005

Tolkien's Use of 'Weapontake' 

Within the last week or so a discussion has arisen about the use of ‘weapontake’ in The Lord of the Rings. The discussion seems to have been started by Horace Jeffery Hodges, progressed to Scott Nokes, and then on to Mike Drout.

What follows will be rather lengthy because I’m reproducing a fair amount of my comments on Drout’s blog and Drout’s further discussion. Here is what Drout had to say:

The context of 'weapontake' in Tolkien is the "Muster of Rohan," when all the men able to bear weapons are assembled in preparation for the ride to Minas Tirith. It seems from the passage (RK, V, ii, 72) that Tolkien is using the word to mean the assembly of all the able-bodied men of Rohan in companies. Although a folk etymology might construe the passage as meaning that the king provided the weapons--i.e., the able-bodied men arrive and are issued weapons from the king's armory-- (as was the case in Peter Jackson's depiction of the Rohirrim in both The Two Towers and The Return of the King), I don't think Tolkien intended that meaning, and I don't think that would be accurate for Anglo-Saxon England (I could be wrong here).


The etymon for the word seems to be ON "vápna-tak," though this is used in a different sense. It is, according to Bosworth-Toller, a Northern word; in the south "hundred" was used (which is why I think that folk-etymologizing the word and assuming that it means that men showed up somewhere to "take" their weapons is probably wrong), and its being Northern would explain the ON etymon. Bosworth-Toller gives the primary source as the laws of Edward the Confessor.

The point here is that Tolkien is likening the Rohirrim to the Anglo-Saxons yet again (even though the "Northern" word is a bit of a curve ball here, since the Rohirrim are linguistically Mercian), suggesting that at the king's call, all the men of Rohan were expected to assemble for military service and form themselves into companies that were, apparently, led by the professional soldiers of the king's household. This practice is in contra-distinction to the customs of Gondor, where a large, standing, professional army was in place.

The larger point is that Tolkien is not merely being archaic for the sake of archaism: he is being particularly precise, using exactly the right word (both in terms of definition and cultural connotations) that he needs for this particular situation. Tolkien's sense of the "right" word, which includes sound and etymology, is actually more 'theorized' than the word choices of the great Modernists to who he is often unfavorably compared (do you really think Faulkner, or Hemingway, or Woolf knew anything of the History of English; they were great talents, but they were working by gut instinct. Joyce is a somewhat different case, but he was no historical philologist--although knowing and sampling so many languages made him more sensitive to the interconnections of European languages).

For the sake of completeness, I also reproduce my own comments here:

Here are some thoughts on weapontake. The Old Norse use of vápnatak seems to have involved the confirmation of a vote at an assembly. In England, the word came to be used for the assembly itself and was, in areas with heavy Danish populations applied to the local judicial body. It was probably also used for the place where the assembly met. As the administrative and judicial boundaries within English counties became more stable, the sense was extended to refer to areas of jurisdiction in addition to the bodies themselves, rather than just the body or the place of the court. We can thus see a sort of evolution in the word from the taking up of weapons to an area of jurisdiction, and it might be possible to locate Tolkien’s usage on this timeline.

It seems to me that, when Tolkien writes that ‘all who could be spared were riding to the weapontake at Edoras’, he could mean a point of assembly, but probably not an official jurisdictional unit for the region of Edoras (the precise meaning of which is also quite interesting, especially given its use in two different senses in Beowulf 1035-1045). In other words, it’s in the middle of the timeline. But, of course, there is no necessity to assume that the weapontake of the Rohirrim accurately reflects the wapentake of Anglo-Saxon England, since the Rohirrim do not exactly match the Anglo-Saxons. Tolkien modernises the spelling (unlike Edoras), which, conceivably takes it in a new—or an alternative—direction consistent with a possible folk etymology: a taking up of weapons as part of a military gathering. The modernisation of the spelling curiously gives the word a more archaic effect by restoring the original connection to weapons. Perhaps this was necessary. Words like Edoras don’t seem particularly archaic to anyone who doesn’t know Old English; they’re simply foreign words like Minas Tirith. But if Tolkien wanted to give the sense of something familiarly English, but archaic, the term weapontake worked pretty well.

As a side note, Higden’s definition is very interesting. Here it is in John of Trevisa’s 1387 translation (with the thorns changed to ‘th’ and yogh to ‘y’): ‘Wepentake and an hondred is al oon, for the contray of an hondred townes were i-woned to yilde vppe wepene in the comynge of the lord.’ I take this to mean: ‘A wapentake is the same as a hundred, for the country of a hundred towns were wont to present weapons at the coming of the lord’. Clearly the word was prone to folk etymology, and it is not impossible that Tolkien had something similar in mind; i.e. Théoden would take the weapons offered by those who owed fealty to him.

Drout draws attention to a little thread at The One Ring, which refers to the discussion and queries the importance of such philological knowledge in the interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, questioning Nokes’s observation that “a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study” of Tolkien.

Drout responds:

I think this raises a very interesting literary-theoretical question (one which I tried to deal with in my essay "Towards a Better Tolkien Criticism," which should be out any day now in a collection called Reading The Lord of the Rings): which reader's interepretation is more likely to be correct? I can come up with a number of types of readers, each of whom will have slightly different information with which to interpret. What is the authority of each reader?

Drout points out that a philologist with training like Tolkien’s is more likely to have insight into Tolkien’s mind and to possess more information (like the meaning of the historical meaning of “weapontake”) with which to read his work than is fanboy/girl. The philologist’s interpretation is therefore theoretically “richer and more likely to be correct than that of fanboy/girl.” However, he also points out that empowering the philologist in this way privileges author intent as the only meaningful type of interpretation. Furthermore, “even if we do accept author intent, we have to take into account the very insightful comment by Curious [on the One Ring that] ‘Tolkien did not write LotR for an audience of philologists’.”

I want to take up a couple of the issues raised here. First, I don’t entirely agree with the statement that Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings for an audience of philologists. After all, he does state explicitly that in the foreword to the second edition and elsewhere that the story took shape according to his own tastes; and Tolkien was a philologist. However, I do accept that Tolkien was thinking about the use to which philology could be put in reaching a non-philological audience. If I’m right, then philological knowledge is essential to our understanding of his intent. That is not to say that it provides the complete picture—just that it should not be ignored. The same is true for other fields, so I agree with Drout’s suggestion that we foster multiple perspectives. How Tolkien intended his philology to affect a non-philological audience is a fascinating and worthwhile question, which may require us to adopt multiple fields of knowledge. But what if we wish to abandon authorial intent altogether? What if we just look at reader response? Do we need to abandon philology, which is unknown to the majority of readers? I believe that Tolkien’s use of “weapontake” provides an interesting test case.

Let’s look at my analysis of “weapontake” more closely. A philological analysis reveals some interesting data to start out with. The element –take is not a native English word; it was borrowed from Old Norse taka perhaps as early as 1000, and occurs first in northern and eastern England, more or less in areas where they had wapentakes instead of hundreds. The first element, however, is derived from the southern dialect form of Old English wæpen (with a long vowel in the root). In other words, Tolkien’s “weapontake” is a hybrid word, not the historical wapentake. As a philologist, I can say this much. Now comes the difficult bit, where I have to put myself in the shoes of a nonphilologist. I take as my framework for speculation two possibilities. First, an intelligent reader, one who makes a serious effort to understand the literature, even if they do not share Tolkien’s background. Such a reader, coming across the strange word “weapontake” would, logically, go and look up the word. Because of the spelling, they might not find it. If they did, they would begin speculating about whether Tolkien’s matches any historical one. All sorts of questions would be begged about the relationship of the Rohirrim to the English past. I’m not sure what the answers would be, in part because I can’t divest myself of my philological perspective enough to put myself in the shoes of this reader. On the other, by this point, the reader would already be trying on one of my shoes. In other words, whether Tolkien intended it or not, the use of the word “weapontake” prompts the reader to begin speculations of a philological nature even if they’ve never had a course on philology.

Of course, there’s another type of reader, one who doesn’t have the same intellectual curiosity. This reader is more likely to pass over the word and not enquire of its meaning. Of course, it’s even harder for me to put myself in the shoes of this reader. Does a word like “weapontake” have no effect at all on this reader? Does it induce a sense of disorientation? Other effects? Does these effects influence broader views of the book? Suggestions are welcome.

I came to LotR relatively late for an sf reader; I was fifteen or sixteen, and worried that it'd been overhyped. Anyway, old enough that I kind of remember what I thought about it--

I figured Tolkien knew what he was doing, though at the time I'd little idea what that might be. His coinages (as they seemed) felt solid and deliberate in ways that other writers' generally didn't. Insofar as one can self-analyze, I think words like "weapontake" had chiefly a cumulative effect. Nothing in Tolkien, even my then-baffling appreciation for Silmarillion, drove me immediately towards additional material. Finding Shippey's Road to Middle-Earth four years later was pleasing, but by then I'd read Maldon untranslated and had built a bit of context for myself.

I suppose "weapontake" and its ilk felt well enough assimilated to avoid triggering my research proto-impulse. By contrast, L'Engle's New England deposit of pre-1620 Welsh in Swiftly Tilting Planet had me chasing hares, and Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper got me eventually to Graves's White Goddess and the Everyman Mabinogi translation. Why Cooper and not Tolkien? Not lexis, surely....
You raise some interesting points, Sharon.The precise meanings of individual words, don't necessarily provoke the curiosity response because their effect is cumulative (that is, in combination with other examples). But precise effect itself can be either one of familiarity or strangeness. How this manifests, and the reader's response to it, probably has something to do with the explicitness of the relationship between the world of the text and the real world. All of the texts Sharon cites have some explicit relationship to the real world (Alexander's denial that Prydain is Wales nevertheless draws the reader's attention to this relationship). The Lord of the Rings just has the dubious connection of the "author's" possession of the Red Book of Westmarch. Hence, if a word like "weapontake" looks like (or is identifiable as) a real world word, it may provoke a sort of philological curiosity. If it doesn't, it adds to the fantasy by contributing a greater depth of invented detail.
Thanks for the response, Scott. At work, my comments head for rank simplicity and stay there.... Anyway, I think you're right about degrees of familiarity. What I'm now prompted to ponder is why "weapontake" failed to seem even a tiny bit familiar. It's like "carpet" and unlike "bluebird" in not capitalizing upon compound-components, for a reader conversant only with modern English. But then we've something like this:

Checkpoint one: does the word make immediate sense in modern English to a monoglot / is it already familiar? If yes, end. If no--
Chkpt two: can the word be analyzed by common means (say, SAT-level vocab. tricks)? If yes, end. If no, or if the results fail to make sense--
Chkpt three: is the word obviously in another language that the monoglot can place? (Needn't know Spanish properly to understand "playa del rey," e.g., and yes, this oversimplifies again because at what point do words like "playa" become regional imports?) If no--
Conclude unfamiliarity.

But that doesn't help to distinguish fantasy coinages from, hmm, evolved reflections. It's almost as though things that look as though they should be familiar end up being sorted as wholly unfamiliar, whereas patently made-up words (patently to an ModEng monoglot) are classed as "familiar fantasy crap." Or whatever.

I'm not getting anywhere with this. :)
I am so glad people have discussions like this! Before I go on I must first make it clear that I am the former type of non-philologist reader you mentioned. Now, going on, I must say that without discussions like this I would probably never know what words like weapontake are supposed to mean. For the most part unless I see that an unfamiliar word is actually a transparent compound, like how seacoast is sometimes written for sea coast (weapontake did not seem to fall into that category for me, since weapon take does not make any sense in the context), I will look it up. And as a reader I know how difficult it is to find the meaning of made-up or non-modern-English words, so I have vowed never to use any myself without explaining it. As for the latter type of non-philologist readers, I think some of them would try to figure out the meaning of the word from the context.
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