Sunday, December 08, 2013

Tolkien and the Greeks

I have spent some writing about Tolkien since soon after I started with this meshuggeneh blog back in September, 2006, mostly once a year, but this is the third one in 2013. If anyone has actually ever read my profile (honestly, I couldn't tell you how to find it, but most people with an I.Q. over 75 are more internet savvy than I am and you probably wouldn't have any trouble), you'd know the main point of this blog is really for me to write about things that interest me and which I don't get a lot of opportunity to talk about in the real world. So, I guess just because it's fun for me, I like to review my previous Tolkien posts each time I write about him, the way we like to look over old photographs or I sit in a chair and just look at my library. I used a search function Google provides and found six previous posts I've written which are all or mostly about Tolkien or his books except one on the movie trilogy.

Here's the list and what they are about. They all presuppose that if you haven't read the books, you've at least seen the movies (but read the books, please): 

7/10/07 Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up - What was Tolkien's Tom Bombadil meant to represent?

4/10/08 The Greatest Epics ever made (in my humble opinion) - discussion of the Peter Jackson movies.

5/14/09 Fulfilling Edith Hamilton's prophecy: J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings - arguing that LOTR is the greatest book of the 20th century and far deeper than most people think.

2/21/10 Would you just finish it already, JRRT - The long and tortured process of Tolkien's writing of LOTR.

12/11/12 Tolkien's other stuff - discussing Tolkiens other books - many of which you probably never heard about. I just renamed this post, as I realized it was not mostly about what the old title suggested (it used to be called The Hobbit).

7/21/13 Oaks, rocks, stumps and stocks - from Ba'al to Tolkien - on the several thousand year life span of an earthy Proto-Indo-European expression ending with Tolkien.

11/3/13 Inspiration from Middle Earth - pretty sure that title is self evident.

Today's subject, Tolkien and ancient Greece may not seem a natural fit and there is a good reason. It's not what he was writing about for the most part. His work is suffused with Old English and Norse mythology. I make no claims that any substantial portion of the Greek classics whatsoever are represented in his work. Closer to the opposite is true. He learned ancient Greek and Latin when he was young and was in fact introduced to the Classical world through Homer. But it was not, as an adult and a professor, his area of study or forte. His work was definitively primarily concerned with northern European languages and mythology.  In fact, when I started gathering ideas for this post, I had a few items I thought I might include which I eventually discarded because I realized that though there might seem like there could be an ancient Greek connection present, it was not exclusively so, and it is more likely his inspiration came from the north. 

In some cases, I think the connections I point out are pretty clear, but there are degrees. I have to deal with some speculation because - well, d'uh, he wrote made up books about made up people in a made up era with made up histories. Nevertheless, I cut it off where I think the speculation goes too far. It's subjective to a degree, but then again, not so much. Tolkien himself, though a top philologist familiar with many languages, was quite skeptical of etymologies, which were by necessity always incomplete, and often based on homophones that might be just wrong. I agree with him. I am not convinced by many etymologies and supposed connections. Where I am trying to prove my own etymological connections, they are pretty obvious and not of the tortured variety I see in books that I've read on the subject.

Of course you can ask, if there are so few of these Greek connections, why bother at all? Mostly it's because I am interested in both ancient Greece and Tolkien I think I've found a few things that no one or certainly not too many people have noticed before. The world doesn't need this, but it didn't need Eat, Love, Pray either, and someone wrote that. I felt like writing this.  And, now, as the great Lawrence Welk would have said - a one and a two . . . .

Tolkien and Pythagoras

The connection here is not found in LOTR but in his earlier, more primitive and incomplete Simarillion (which is also sometimes boring and a little unpolished, because his son, Christopher, really patched together a number of texts after his father's death to create the published work).  At the outset of the book is Tolkien's creation myth. His "God" or Jehovah is called Eru Ilúvatar - sometimes just Ilúvatar.  Ilúvatar creates what I would call other gods but who Tolkien described as angelic.* They were called the Ainur  (plural). The Ainur create the universe in tandem with Ilúvatar, who then manifests it into creation with a single word and the Flame Imperishable - which I think you could equate to the big bang or making something out of nothing or First Cause, etc.

*I think Tolkien insists that these beings are only angels (the Greek word means "messenger"- and the oldest Bibles we know of are Greek translations), because to call them gods would be offensive to himself and others who would prefer his fantastic creation at  the very least be monotheistic. As it was, some people had problems with his work being too pagan. Tolkien felt they took it all too serious, comparing some stuffed shirt (not that he wasn't one too) once to those people who complained that priests were called "father," because that title should belong only to the big guy. Nevertheless, admitting to more than one God even in a fantasy universe might have been pushing the envelope too far for him. Nevertheless, I think we would call them gods.  While angels may have some powers in the Old and New Testament, they do not on the level of creating the universe.  But the Ainur did. Moreover, they were each imbued with knowledge from the part of Ilúvatar's mind from they sprang - very godlike and they are called by Ilúvatar the "holy ones" which is also more likely to be assigned to gods, not their messengers. Even most of the Ainur who themselves entered into creation once it was done, and became the Vala (pl., sg. is Valar), seem godlike. Some of the Maia (pl.; sg. - Maiar), like Gandalf, are the servants of the Vala, and are clearly more angelic in nature, each being associated with definitive Valar but not possessing any individual powers they are not imbued with by their superiors except perhaps their spirit form.

There is an interesting side note to this side note. Tolkien might have been playing with the fact that in the Hebrew creation story, God speaks of we and us in the creation process - "Let us . . . ". He actually uses the plural. Arguably, some of it is a function of ancient Hebrew grammar (so I've read), in that the plural adjective agrees with a plural list of items, but there is also no doubt God is speaking to a group of which he is a member.  But, they are not angels, to whom God reputedly never refers as "us" or "we" in either testament. Some Trinitarians (that is, those Christians who believe God is three in one - father, son and holy ghost) find this evidence of their belief. This strikes me as a very tenuous argument, and I believe the grammar is more a remnant of the fact that the ancestors of the Jews were not monotheistic at the outset, as they were elsewhere in the Bible. But, if this is so, it is other gods who are involved, not angels or messengers. So, I say - so shall it be.

I initially wrestled with whether Ilúvatar had an ancient Greek connection, linguistically. Tolkien, who created his own languages, said at various times that it meant  "Father of all," "Father for Always" and "Sky-Father."  In fact, the last 5 letters of it are virtually identical to the Greek word for father - patēr, because linguistically speaking b, v and p  are very closely related (in fact, in modern Greek, beta or B is pronounced the way we pronounce our letter v) as is the ph/f sound - such as in father. Sky-father is especially close to the Greek meaning. Zeus was not only frequently referred to as "father," but the name Zeus is derived from the word for day or sky itself. He is literally the "sky-father." Here's where this little theory runs into problems. The Germanic (also an Indo-European language related to Greek and Latin) word is actually even closer to vatar, in fact almost exactly the same, being vater.  It gets worse because Tolkien says that Ilúvatar is actually broken up (in his pseudo language) as iluve-atar, which kind of shoots down my whole f/p/v-atar analysis.  I can argue with him, of course, and conjecture that the name was nevertheless originally inspired by his deep classical training and undoubted knowledge that patēr in Greek meant father in English. However, I suppose if I allow him to be master of his own languages (though he frequently changed his mind as to them), it becomes less easy to concretely say there is a Greek connection. I say so, but you may say not.

Damn, I get lost in these tangents. Where was I? Oh, so the Simarillion creation myth has a very Old Testament creation feeling about it. In the OT, God created the heavens and the earth. You probably know the story well enough. But, Tolkien's Ilúvatar and Ainur created the universe in a different way than Jehovah - they use music. And with that there is a very special Greek connection.

Pythagoras, who most people know from the geometric theorem named after him (possibly not even knowing there was such a person), was an early and influential philosopher, geometer and religious figure about whom there isn't enough room to write about here with any substance. But, one thing that Pythagoras was undoubtedly known for, and was the first to consider, at least in cultures in which Tolkien would have been interested, was that the universe was not only mathematical but musically harmonic. From Pythagoras we get the so-called music or harmony of the spheres (meaning the sun, moon, earth, etc.) At least it was attributed to him. But, there are no other contenders with whom Tolkien would likely be very familiar. There may be some evidence that Pythagoras was preceded in this in Indian and Mesopotamian cultures, but these are more recent, speculative theories and they were not special areas of study for him. 
The connection here is fairly clear, though Pythagoras left no writings and we cannot take the connection any further than the general theme of the harmonic nature of creation. Of course, Tolkien put his own spin on it, particularly adding a musical battle between Ilúvatar and his version of Lucifer named Melkor. But, the overlaying concept is unmistakably Pythagorian and there is no reason to think it was not JRRT's inspiration. Others have noted it before me. Indeed, once you are familiar with Pythagoras' theory, it is impossible not to see it.
Radagast, the friend of birds
This one is pretty clear too.  Radagast was one of the five wizards who came to Middle Earth, and one of the three who stayed in the west. He was not very important and Saruman mockingly referred to him, among other names, as "the bird tamer." But Radagast had a name in another Elvish language, Quenya - which pseudo-language Tolkien had said was in part inspired by Greek. That name was Aiwendil - Aiwe ([bird) + ndil (lover or friend).   Here's the connection. In ancient Greek, a root word for bird is oiwn-.  The closeness of oiw- to Aiwe in Quenya, also meaning bird, seems way too close to be a coincidence, particularly as in the only example of it in LOTR, the letter "n" shortly follows as it does in Greek.

As with the Pythagoras connection the Aiwe-ndil/oiwn connection also seems obvious, because that odd combination of letters would be too much of a coincidence to ignore, particularly as it means the very same word. However, unlike with the Pythagoras connection, I haven't found anyone published or on the internet who has noted it before, though it is always possible it is out there somewhere, unnoticed by me.  

The Istari

Tolkien has said that Gandalf was an angel and I can go along with that. His powers are impressive for a mortal, but, not on the god-like level, even when he returns from the dead. He was of the Maia, as were balrogs and the great eagles. They were of the same order as the Vala, but they were helpers and servants of them and usually not as powerful. We know from a touching story in the corpus that Christopher published after his father's death that when the Maia who became Gandalf was in Valinor, where these spiritual beings dwelled, and went by the name Olórin, he was asked to go to Middle Earth to aid in defeating Sauron (another Maia, but belonging to Melkor).  Olórin said he did not want to go because he was afraid. This does not speak to great power. In fact, though I think Gandalf sometimes clearly violated his rules, he was not to dominate men by force, but to teach and inspire them.

He was not alone of his order. As mentioned above, there was Radagast (Oiwendil) and also Saruman, who was actually the chief of the group, and whose name is derived from Old English("OE") for cunning-man. There were also two more known as the Blue Wizards who went into the east and do not otherwise come into his stories. I have a feeling that someday, when the copyright expires, there will be many tales about them.

In any event, as a group Tolkien gave them a name -- the istari. I liked the name when I read it but never gave it any thought, presuming it was one more name that Tolkien made up, perhaps with some connection to OE the language of Beowulf and of which he was an acknowledged leading scholar. OE derivatives are used throughout Tolkien's corpus.

Imagine my surprise when reading The Iliad, I come across virtually the exact same word, with a very appropriate meaning. Keep in mind that in OE, Greek, Latin and all the Scandinavian and other Germanic languages, nouns are declined or changed depending on how they are used in the sentence. We don't really do this modern English except to put an s on the end of nouns to show it is plural. We also still conjugate verbs, like most other languages, but we do very little of, most often just slightly changing the present third person singular). Also, in German, Greek and Latin vowels and consonants are frequently changed by a gradation system that hurts to even think about. I went through all that to explain that when reading The Iliad, I did not come across the word istari but istōri. This is plenty close enough under the circumstances, as you will see. Tolkien warned us that just because words in different languages looked similar, that doesn't mean they are derived from the same ancestor word, and it is wise to heed him. However, when the words also have similar meanings, it is also wise to pay attention to the likelihood of a similar derivation and not unwise to make some inferences. One of the ways we can know an actual connection exists is when the meaning of the words or word/invented name is the same or very similar. Without getting too technical, the way the root word istōr- is used in The Iliad, an "i" (iota) was added. For reasons that I don't need to go into, it could have ended otherwise. But it has to be significant that Tolkien's word ends with the same vowel. Coincidence? Hardly.

But wait. There's more. What did Homer mean by istōr-? He meant technically - "one who knows." An istōr is also a judge of sorts, which is the role he played in Homer.  But, we know from all history that this means, in classical and traditional societies - an elder. And Gandalf was nothing if not elderly, even in his human appearance.  I am not going to bother to explain how well the description "one who knows" fits Gandalf and the other wizards. If you know the story it's obvious. But, the word "wizard" itself is partially made up of the word for "wise," a word frequently used by Tolkien, and is also related to the almost identical Old English words for "to see" and "to know" (which meanings can also stem from the same word in ancient Greek).

Thus, this Homeric word seems like an obvious connection to me. Yet, I have found no reference to it online or from anywhere in works by or on Tolkien. Nor in etymological reference books. I haven't read everything, of course, and there are people who spend a substantial part of their lives thinking and writing about Tolkien and his work (I can spare a few days a year, collectively), so there may be. I like to think I am first (if unread) for the same reason we all like to be first. It makes us feel good. But Gandalf would tell me in the common tongue of Middle Earth what was much later rendered in Ecclesiastes - there is nothing new under the sun, so don't get too cocky.


Tolkien not only made up his own words, he made up his own etymologies. I have never studied them, actual etymology being much more interesting to me. But, when he warned against believing a word might be related to a similar sounding one in another language he used the name sauron and the Greek word for lizard - sauros (or actually sauron when it is the direct object) as an example.

Can we reasonably question Tolkien's own opinion when it comes to his work? I say we can. However much I revere him, he was a man, and as subject to arrogance, bad temper and mistake as were his characters. He was thought by some biographers to be an emotional man (though I'm  more skeptical than most when it comes to character assessment in biographies - it is too much dependent on what others think and that is often more about them than the subject) and he was naturally proud, protective and jealous of his own work. He was in love with nomenclature - the naming of things - and quite passionate about defending it. Sometimes he was quite direct about his borrowing from languages. I have no reason to believe that he was not always intentionally so, i.e., I do not believe he consciously took from others. But he cannot always know what he has unconsciously borrowed or what previously read word caused his synapses to connect that led to giving something the name he did. The best example of this is the word hobbit itself, which he expressly said was not a combination of rabbit and the British philosopher Hobbes, as some speculated, but that the word that just came to him when writing the first words of The Hobbit. That might be true. But not long ago, after his death, an old listing of names was found for various types of spirits. And, sure enough, there on the list, was the word - Hobbit. It is quite possible Tolkien had read this list at some point. Did he know he did this and hide it from us? I seriously doubt it. He was too interested in words to do so. Could he have hit upon the same word by accident? He might have but I doubt it too. I think he read it once and forgot about it. It popped into his head for a reason, just as his characters might get an idea which was actually planted in them by the ring or a more powerful being.

By stock and by stone

I can be brief with this one as I recently wrote a whole post on this expression which dates back thousands of years in the ancient near east and made its way through Indo-European languages until it probably for the last time ever, wound up in a speech by the giant tree-man or ent, Treebeard, in LOTR (see above, 7/21/13). I have no intention of going through it here again. But, I will say this. I did find it more than coincidental that the exact type of words used by Tolkien mirrored the same type of words used by Homer in The Iliad in the same order. Take a look at that post if it interests you.
The Eagles
I have to stretch a little further with this one because I don't have linguistic evidence or a dead on literary match like with Pythagoras. In both The Hobbit and LOTR, the eagles play an important, sometimes decisive role. They are rescuers, fierce fighters and messengers. We learn from other sources that like Gandalf, the great eagles are also Maia. These super-eagles presented Tolkien with a problem he couldn't settle. They were so powerful and they could fly. So, why couldn't they just fly Frodo and a small group to Mt. Doom in the first place?  Tolkien felt he could never satisfactorily explain this. Why wasn't it even thought of by the counsel of the wise as a possibility to reject. Probably there is no reason other than he felt it would have made too short a story. I have to tell you though, I think Tolkien was too hard on himself. There are many potential explanations. Just as Gandalf was not permitted to force men to follow him, the other Maia may have been instructed not to interfere with the fate of men and elves or, at least, too much. 

Eagles, of course, have a role in many mythologies, but, more importantly, also in Norse mythology, to which Tolkien was most deeply involved. There we must look first. But, the main references to eagles in Norse mythology do not bear much of a resemblance to Tolkien's mighty eagles. The primary reference is a creation myth. An unnamed eagle sits in the creation tree, Yggdrasil. He sends messages to the wyrm (dragon) that lied beneath the giant ash tree's roots, carried to him by a squirrel (no, not Rocky, but it is fun to think it is). It is a grim and weird picture and it is hard to get a vision of a Tolkienesqe mighty soaring eagle from it.

Much closer to the giant, noble and powerful eagles of Tolkien are Homer's version in The Iliad. Take the following lines from the Iliad from a translation by the noted Victorian novelist Samuel Butler (whose most well known novel was Erewhon) whose Iliad and Odyssey translations are still referred to by classicists today. Butler wrote:

"Forthwith he sent an eagle, the most unerring portent of all birds that fly, the dusky hunter that men also call the Black Eagle. His wings were spread abroad on either side as wide as the well-made and well-bolted door of a rich man's chamber. He came to them flying over the city upon their right hands, and when they saw him they were glad and their hearts took comfort within them."

This last line reminds me of the relief sounding in LOTR when the eagles were seen coming to the rescue at the battle before the gates of Mordor - "The eagles are coming!"

It is also interesting that the eagles in LOTR are associated with one of the Vala in particular, whose name is Manwë, who was associated with the sky and weather - clearly a representation of Zeus. To the contrary, we cannot easily associate Manwë with Thor, the Norse sky god, with whom you might think would be the first one that would come to mind with the Norse obsessed Tolkien. Thor was not associated with eagles and Zeus was. Also, Manwë, like Zeus, also lived on top of the highest mountain (Zeus was associated with Mt. Olympus and Mt. Ida) and like Zeus but not Thor, he was the leader of his group.
Hence, the great eagles were Homeric, not northern, in nature.

The Ring
That the ring is a very important concept in LOTR cannot be denied. The giving of rings is known in many ancient societies and most certainly in northern mythology. There is also the Germanic stories of Wagner that might give pause. You might wonder then why I feel confident enough to claim Tolkien was certainly most influenced by the Greeks. I'm going to tell you.

Did you know Plato had a brother? His name was Glaucon. He was not just a literary device used by Plato in a few of his dialogues, but real. We know this because he is also mentioned by a contemporary writer, Xenophon, as being Plato's brother and also by at least one famous biographer of the Greek philosophers later on. Anyway, in one of Plato's dialogues, his brother Glaucon tells a story about a ring. The similarities to the One Ring in Tolkien are unmistakable:

It was a golden ring.
It was found in a cave.
It rendered the wearer invisible.
It was used by Plato to discuss whether someone who has the ring becomes enslaved to it by abusing its powers (wearing it) or remains himself by refusing to use it.

The parallel to LOTR is so striking as to be unmistakable.
The ring, if you want to look it up, is often called the Ring of Gyges, a Lydian king who was an important character in a story told by Herodotus, but in Herodotus, without the ring.  If you are interested, I wrote an earlier post about this tale from very tale from Herodotus (6/20/10).
Quenya and Greek

By the way, someone has written a very in depth comparison of Quenya and ancient Greek at I have glanced at it, but not gone in depth. I will leave him to explaining his own work.    

That's enough, right? I can't think of anything else right now and I am watching football. May you all find your ring of power and have the strength to resist (at least a little bit). 

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .