Thursday, February 23, 2017


So, I like birds. You want to make something of it? But, seriously, I do spend a lot of times watching them. Often I do so at The Bluff, which I wrote about here on 8/6/13. Lately, after my bagel with butter is done in the morning, I drive about a half mile down the road to a pond, big enough so you can't see the whole thing from one spot. It is sometimes a center for dozens, often hundreds of aquatic birds, mostly geese and gulls.

But, I've also seen some more exotic birds there too, One morning I was sipping my coffee when I saw a small flock of duck-like birds land on the water. They were far smaller than even the mallards. They were also very shy of me. Unless they are used to being fed, most birds are shy of humans. But, they know they can fly and if you stay in your car, they also seem to know you aren't coming into the water and stay put. If you get out of your car, they start moving around a bit more and if you get too close, they fly away, except for the geese who expect to be fed and can be quite aggressive. But, this flock of little birds was really keeping their distance. I do have a camera with a long lens, but I often don't keep it in my car. So, I'm left with my camera phone. It's pretty good, but not so good with distance. 

Now, I am not one of those people who thinks birds, even crows and some parrots, are smart the way people are. But, they obviously are conscious in some fashion. Everything I know about myself and other humans tells me that some behavior in higher animals at least means they think in a manner of speaking. If it is not so, then I can't imagine what their advanced nervous systems do, or why evolutionarily speaking, humans would develop this trait with largely the same equipment (even if our brains are more advanced), but not other animals at all. They just often seem to behave as if they understand things that seem like they might require some traits of human intelligence or something close to it. I'm not just talking about instinct, which can look like intelligence, but decision making.  

These birds - this particular flock I was watching - seemed like they knew I was watching them and was interested in them. They would not come near the shore and seemed to turn away whenever I tried to take a picture with my phone of the distinctive white crest on some of their heads. The birds looked like they were paired off, which I presumed was male and female. That's not unusual, of course, for birds. The males looked very different than the females, which is also not uncommon.

I thought I knew this species, but probably from a book, as they clearly weren't regular visitors to Long Island or at least not as visible to us as many other species are. Something with a weird name - but what the hell was it? I just couldn't remember. Anyway, the photo below is the best shot I could get. Even when I used the telescopic feature on the phone, it started to gray out. Not enough bits.

Still, I could now see the distinctive white pattern on its head and its pointy bill well enough for me to check in some bird books. And very quickly I found it. It is called the hooded mersander. Like many birds, it frequents quite a large area. You can see it better below in a professional picture I found online. The one with the white hood (hence the name) is the male, the smaller one with the hairdo the female. Actually, in my own picture paddling away a little behind her hooded husband was his wife. It was kind of cute. They are diving birds, which always looks so much cooler than the ones who just stick their bill or neck in the water. 

I do occasionally meet other people who think this is exciting stuff, but, admittedly, like most of my interests, not that many. Still, I have to think that's because they haven't been paying close attention. Most birds are wonderfully beautiful, and not just the ones with brilliant colors. I mean take a close look at the male and female mersander. Each in their own way is fascinating. Take even a common sparrow with which we are all extremely familiar. If you just glance at it, it is a blur of brown and gray. There are many kinds of sparrows and they are all quite beautiful if you look closely. It's neither just gray or brown but an exotic mix, often with stripes, almost like a fat butterfly, such as this one I took a picture of while waiting for my banker at a drive-in window:

I live on an island, so I come across quite a few aquatic birds. Actually, almost never a duck like the kind we occasionally eat (although on a couple of bike trips I slept near a duck farm. Noisy little bastards. They never shut up all night). But, I see many "duck-like" birds. Mallards, the males with distinctive green heads, frequent the pond.

In warmer weather I see a tremendous variety of birds at the Bluff including terns, plover, herons (a night heron once with its long toreador like ponytail), hawks, osprey, swans (normally 2 or 4, but one day over 30 of them, as if they were having a convention) and once many years ago, a bald eagle. Of course, always gulls.

Below you can see at dawn a double crested cormorant, which spans the globe but is found in America mostly on our eastern coast, sunning itself on a buoy as a swan starts to drift by. The cormorant is one of my favorites, and liked the mersander, a diver. They also spend quite a bit of time spreading their wings like this.

This is an egret, which are plentiful at the Bluff. I'm pretty sure these guys think they are invisible when they are in the bushes, being camouflaged. Maybe they are to other predators, but not to us. They are bright white and very easy to spot.

But, I go there mostly in warm weather. In the fall and winter I spend much more time down the street from where I live, watching the pond. From what I understand you call a body of water a lake or pond based on tradition and nothing else, except at a certain size I think we all say lake -  nobody calls Lake Huron a pond. The exception is the tongue and cheek reference to the Atlantic Ocean in "across the pond."

In any event, there are almost always birds at the pond and it has a quiet beauty in display in every season, although fall is most spectacular.

That includes winter, when the birds often sit on the ice in packs or float between the half frozen sheets. This is a young swan and some gulls standing on the ice. It was through my icy windshield and not the best picture. Still, looks icy.

There is regularly a breeding pair of swans at the pond. This year they had two children. The swanlings grow fast, but they look kind of like ugly duckings to tell the truth, just as in the Hans Christian Anderson fable:

Now there are only the two parents and one younger swan, although full grown.  He keeps to himself like a petulant teenager. I wonder what happened to his or her brother or sister. I call the one who stayed he and the one who left (or is dead) she. She was full grown too and one day just wasn't there.

The birds at the pond are quite amusing. Occasionally they fight - always intra-species, and I don't like that so much. One day, not so long ago I was sitting in my car having breakfast and reading a book, occasionally lifting my head to watch some mallards near the shore and a sole gull. Gulls are cantankerous and they fight with one another more than the other birds, although perhaps not given their numbers. Suddenly another gull flew over and dived at the one peacefully sitting there.  The mallards didn't budge. Wasn't their fight. I watched the gulls fight for a few seconds and decided I did not need my peace broken. It is understood I am sheriff there, at least when you come to the sandy shore, and I got out of my car and yelled - as I do more and more these days - "Hey, you guys, knock it off!"

The gulls stopped fighting immediately, as if they understood me. But the interesting thing to me was that the mallards did not react at all, even though they were just as close, as if they understood that I was yelling at the gulls and not them. Is that possible? Well, I experimented not too much later, getting out of my car and yelling at some mallards (there is no one else there to see me carry on like this) and they didn't fly off, but quickly paddled away, likely thinking, "What got into him today?"

There are more sea gulls than anything else at the pond, usually, although often many geese too. When I was much younger I read a best seller called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It is a fantasy about a rebellious individualistic bird, with lots of meaning for us featherless bipeds. I have tried the author's other books and can't do it. But, JLS was superb, in my view. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate the flying acrobatics and individual natures of all animals.

The gulls mostly co-exist, sometimes, if it is cold, all sitting on the ice bunched up close like penguins, but they do fight with each other more than the other birds, particularly over food. One day I was watching as a flock of them sitting on the ice. I notice one of them flying with something hanging out of its mouth. It was too far to see well, perhaps one hundred yards away, but it was evidently a fish, maybe 3 inches long. Behind the lucky gull was an angry one, or so I thought, chasing it to try to get the fish. I've seen this many times and it didn't strike me as unusual.

They wheeled, turned and swooped just like in JLS. It is really impressive, like watching the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds fly. Eventually, maybe 5 minutes or so later, the chaser gave up. Time and time again, he got close but couldn't quite make the other drop the little dangling fish. So, he dropped down to the ice a short distance from the bunch, perhaps to recuperate. The victorious gull, fish still dangling flew almost out of sight, but then circled back. Obviously, or it seemed to me obvious, he would land and gulp down his own prey. But, when he came to land, it was within ten feet of the other gull. Didn't they recognize one another? Didn't he know what he was in for? Atttttackkkk! And away they went again, fiercer than last time, but never even a glancing blow. Finally when the hunter was exhausted he went back down. I was exhausted just watching a demolition derby where there was always a last split second escape.

And then it happened again. And again. The fourth time I realized, either they were playing, or the first one was teasing like crazy. I did not know birds did that. If that was not what was happening, those gulls are loonier than loons.

Recently I saw a little gull swan drama too. The now full grown swan child was floating on icy water completely still. He didn't move for a long time. I wondered if he was dead. His head was coiled around his body. I have seen swans do all kinds of interesting things, including the mother carry her children on her back while swimming, but never sleep like that.

I wasn't the only one who suspected a dead duck(like bird). A gull flew over and landed on the ice about 10 feet away from it. It watched and watched, likely thinking - "Can I eat that?" But he hesitated while another gull flew over. I thought I was going to be sick if anything happened. The second gull waited a few minutes too. What was the tipping point? I don't know, but finally the second one took off in the air directly towards the swan. Just as he was about to reach him the young swan lifted his head. "Hey," he said. "Hey" said the gull and flew away. Okay, they didn't really say that, but that was my impression. The swan went back to sleep as the first gull also flew away.

One day I looked up and this big crane was just standing in the water near some other birds. I think a sandhill crane, but I'm sure of the first and not of the second. It hung out a little while and disappeared, maybe forever.

Just to give you an idea as to its comparative size:

Of course, Long Island is not the only place to bird watch. I got a feast of birds down in Florida the last year or so on two visits, mostly on the first one, which was also to an island (Marco Island). It is very old school there, just enough to do if you don't need variety, but the beaches and views are spectacular. We were very fortunate to stay in an apartment owned by friends of friends, right on a point overlooking islands, dolphins, a plethora of bird life and incredible sunrises and sets.

We were there about a week, and another few days down in the keys. But, sitting on the deck or by the pool gave you as much bird watching as you could want. If you looked up in the sky, you saw giant prehistoric looking birds floating on air currents high above the roof tops.

I couldn't get a view of the whole sky in my lens. But, the pterodactyls (what my friend, who had been there before, called them), which I soon identified as giant frigates, numbered in the hundreds easily.

Equally entertaining were the pelicans, an awkward looking but graceful flying bird that dives into the water from high above and make for great photos:

I was probably able to engage my love of bird watching best while I was living in Va., mostly because I had more time to sit on my porch. Birds were very habitual, often visiting the same spot at the same time every day during a season. The variety I saw is beyond number. One of my favorites were the hummingbirds who visited the feeder my landlord hung. A scarlet tanager used to visit the garden across the street from me in Virginia at the same time every day. He loved to linger at the tall stemmed flowers. I wish this picture was mine, but I also found it online.


Many larger birds were regulars, hawks, vultures and even bald eagles. I had two eagle experiences that will likely stick with me forever. Once kayaking down the James River, I came to its most ferocious water obstacle in the area  - Balcony Falls. I went through untouched, and thought, hey, that was easy. I paddled back to the mountainous rocks in the middle of the river overlooking the falls and climbed up, dragging my kayak. Looking down, I picked a spot I thought might be more challenging and entered the water, paddling a little upstream and then letting the current pull me towards the falls. Going over a falls is easy. Gravity does everything. The problem comes when you enter the water and the high speed currents are going in multiple directions and you have to avoid rocks. But, I planned well, and headed for some shallow water I thought I would be able to just shoot over. Problem was, it was shallower than I thought when above it. As I approached as fast as you can imagine in a kayak, my mind reacted to the realization that I was going to smash into a huge rock just under the water line - perhaps and inch of draft - and I threw my paddle into the water to my left, holding it still so that I spun on a dime away from the rock. Almost. The very back of the kayak caught the rock. At that high speed (I was only a few feet from the falls) the impact sent me up in the air out of my seat, high enough so that I turned upside down as I plummeted into the water.

Hollllld everything - (readers my age will recognize the catchline from Dick Tracy uttered by the immortal Joe Jitsu). Let me take a pause here. I'm not exaggerating this at all. I made a huge mistake and risked my life, just because my first pass was so easy a mere 50 feet away. Except for the fact that you are reading this years later, you could easily imagine that I died there. But, there wasn't time to think. Back to our story. Six-two and even. Over and out.

I went into the water head first. Although I was wearing a helmet, it would not spare me if I hit a rock. But, I didn't. I smashed my hands on the rocks on the bottom of the river though, reversed course - not because of anything I was doing - and shot up to the surface, my hands still gripping the kayak as if I were still paddling, but ripped up and bleeding. The paddle bore scars too.

Holllld everything - what has this to do with birds? Be patient. Six-two and even. Over and out.

When I popped up, my head was upright and I said "Look, a bald eagle." One was flying by just as I came out of the water. Bizarre moment, at once trying to save my life, and the other part of me a spectator pointing out the majestic bird to other idiots who had spilled. It took me about a half hour to get to shore, rescue my kayak with help from some others up river, empty it, rest, and get back in. But, the eagle stayed with me, if only in my mind.

Having lived, it was a great adventure, as close a call as it was, and the eagle was a big part of it. My other eagle story is not quite so dramatic. I was driving north on the Blue Ridge Parkway (you may be more familiar with Skyline Drive, which is the northern part of the same road) which runs from Georgia to Northern Va. directly behind where I lived through wilderness. It is actually the most visited national park in the country by a large measure, although I'm sure others are better known. In any event, I decided to stop at an overlook and got out of my car.

In the distance I saw a bird flying. I thought it was a bald eagle but it was too far for me to tell. Suddenly I heard a long "creeeee." You may have had to be there, but it was a unique experience. I wish I had a picture. But I don't.

I do have a picture of a vulture in flight. They are incredibly ugly birds on the ground. Coming across a flock sitting in a dead tree or surrounding a dead animal on the ground waiting for it to rot enough to eat is one of the creepiest things in nature.  But they graceful and hawklike in the air.

I found this heron (I think) sitting at the bottom of Lace Falls at the end of the trail at the Natural Bridge like he was posing for a picture. It might be an egret, but they are usually white. Frankly, there is not a lot of difference between egrets and herons as they are in the same family, but herons vary more in shape and color. At least I think so. I didn't say I was an expert.

I do kind of have a picture of some hawks which in fall flew over my house, in their yearly migration. One day a neighbor knocked on my door, wanting me to come out and see the sky, which was magnificent.

You might be asking, where are the hawks? Well, they are there. You just can't see them. It was just too great a picture not to show off (and not for the first or last time).

Okay, that's it. After last week's lengthy footnoted entry, you deserve a break.


I was very excited yesterday to see some new ducks at the pond. Like the mersanders they were very tiny, much smaller than mallards, divers and with distinctive white markings. But, though they (there were two couples, it appeared) also kept their distance from the shore, also like the mersanders, I could just make out that the white markings were on the body, not the head and it had a more typical duck bill and shape.

I returned with my camera today and took some shots. Even with my 300mm lense, it was too far away and too small for a good picture at all, but the markings are distinctive enough that you can see it is the same bird as the professional photo. Like with the mersander, I knew I had seen a picture of this bird in a book but again did not remember the name of it (there are a lot of different kind of friggin' birds - I use to be much better with dog breeds, although there are so many of them now, maybe not anymore). It took me a few seconds to find it in one of my books. It was a ring-necked duck. Here's a close up from the internet followed by my distant shot. Look at the shape of the white plumage which shoots up vertically below the neck and the shape of the beak.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tolkien and the Immortal Expression

A few years ago I wrote the seed of this article. For whatever reason, these pasts few months I heavily researched it, found some new exciting things and decided to footnote it. I don't know why. I guess I just find it fascinating. Of course, it strikes me that I just might be the only person I know who will find it interesting. C'est la vie. That's why the subtitle of this blog is: My thoughts - what else?

I was brought up in the Classics, and first discovered
    the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.
                                                                                               J. R. R. Tolkien[1]

Tolkien and the Immortal Expression

In the midst of 2013, playing in my library, I stumbled upon something in an old language that stirred my thoughts about two of my favorite writers – Homer and Tolkien. If I had found a Thoreau connection it would have been a dream, as those are the three writers who I have been most affected by, but he wasn’t even a vague thought at the time. Yet, three years later, as I rewrite the essay, the third connection was made and a literary trail beginning in ancient Ugarit and perhaps even further back than recorded history led up to 20th century England and 19th century America.

I will very briefly summarize the argument I will develop here: One phrase[2] in a sentence in The Lord of the Rings (“LOTR”) has been suggested by a literary scholar to stem from an expression that appeared in a 14th century Middle English anonymous elegy, Pearl. Given Tolkien’s career and translation of that very poem, this was interesting, but hardly earth shaking. But, other scholars have traced the same expression from the Second Millennium in ancient Syria through Homer and other renowned ancient Greeks. Separated by so much time, distance and unmeasurable language changes – the phrase as it appeared in Northern Europe had lost its ancient metaphorical meanings and was just used, at least in Germanic languages, including English, for alliterative and more prosaic purposes. Though it may at first blush seem likely that Tolkien simply used a phrase he found sonorous in Pearl, both the textual and circumstantial evidence is extremely strong that he modeled his own use of the phrase not on Pearl, but on Homer. Tolkien used the phrase in almost exactly the same formula as it existed in Homer (which other Germanic and English writers who used it did not), and also intended it to have the same meaning that Homer and the ancients used. And that is remarkable, for it means that the use of the phrase as originally conceived can now be brought forward to the 20th century – nearly 4000 years in all. Separate and apart from Tolkien, almost a century earlier in America, Thoreau also used the phrase in such a way as to show that there was no doubt he also meant it as anciently understood.

Tolkien - Fulfilling the Prophecy

Tolkien’s fiction is so well known, he easily falls into the category of “needs no introduction.” I have no intention of reviewing his work or life here. But, I do wish to introduce him for my own purposes and in my own way through the words of another celebrated writer:

The Elder Edda is much the more important of the two [eddas]. It is made up of separate poems, often about the same story, but never connected with each other. The material for a great epic is there, as great as the Iliad, perhaps even greater, but no poet came to work it over as Homer did the early stories which preceded the Iliad. There was no man of genius in the Northland to weld the poems into a whole and make it a thing of common beauty and power: no one even to discard the crude and the commonplace and cut out the childish and wearisome repetitions. There are lists of name in the Edda which sometimes run on unbroken for pages. Nevertheless the somber grandeur of the stories comes through in spite of the style. Perhaps no one should speak of ‘the style’ who cannot read ancient Norse; but all the translations are so alike in being singularly awkward and involved that one cannot but suspect the original of being responsible, at least in part. The poets of the Elder Edda seem to have had conceptions greater than their skill to put them into words. Many of the stories are splendid. There are none to equal them in Greek mythology, except those retold by the tragic poets. All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism.” [3]

If you have only watched the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings (“LOTR”) or read the books once, you might not know your Elder Edda from your Iliad and be unaware of Tolkien’s scholarship and career. But, if you’ve read LOTR a few times, or delved into some of the many books written about the author, you may have sufficient interest to be aware of not only the linguistic aspects of his work, but also that he was intensely familiar with northern European mythology and its languages in particular. If so, there is a much better chance you have read or are at least familiar with Edith Hamilton’s Mythology,[4] first published in the early 1940s and still being re-published today. Her discussion of the Elder Edda contained that seemingly prophetic tidbit above.

You could certainly argue as to whether Tolkien qualifies as her “man of genius,”[5] although certainly he had the skill to put the Edda poets’ conceptions into words. He read Ancient Norse and other languages to varying degrees, and was also a renowned expert, perhaps the expert on Beowulf, amongst other literature. And at the time Hamilton was writing the above words, he was already writing the epic she described. Indeed it was a completion of work he had long ago started. His masterpieces, LOTR, the earlier published The Hobbit, the less celebrated and the posthumously published prequel The Silmarillion,[6] and other works also posthumously published which were edited by his son, tell the tales of ancient human and other human-like civilizations, drawing from this Oxford philologist’s storehouse of myth and language. No doubt the dark foreboding of northern myth most often influenced his writing, so much so that I can almost see putting Hamilton’s two last quoted sentences above in the mouth of one of his characters - All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women who go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism.

One of Tolkien’s goals in creating Middle-Earth (a name itself is derived from the Elder Edda) was to create a modern mythology for England. “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own … Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story… which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.” (Letters, p. 144). It was no failure. Even in his own lifetime he must have known that he succeeded wildly, as, he has given longer life to traditions that would be much less known in the world today were it not for his fictional work,[7] even though relatively few people will ever crack the binding on the Eddas or The Kalevala (a Finnish work which greatly inspired him) to read from primary influences. Nor, because of the quality of his fiction, would most readers be likely to be more captivated by those older poems than his – one only has to compare the sales figures to know that.

There are numerous books and webpages on Tolkien and his work, and, many are interesting, although I have not yet found one that I would say was even close to comprehensive.[8] Most worthwhile for my purposes here is the collection of Tolkien’s letters, because his own lengthy correspondence is the most direct and illuminating source about his creations. But, I would also recommend the works of Professor Tom Shippey who started me on my path from Tolkien to the gates of Ugarit.

The Beginning of the Path - English Stocks and Stones

Professor Shippey (b. 1943), who happily lives in Tolkien’s shadow and seems to have no professional jealousy, has written several books celebrating and studying Tolkien’s works. Some years ago I was reading his The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. TOLKIEN Created a New Mythology[9] in which there is a chapter 6 entitled “When All our Fathers Worshipped Stocks and Stones.” It centers on a scene near the end of LOTR in which an Ent (meaning "giant" in Old English) named Treebeard in “the common tongue,” the eldest living
creature in Middle-Earth and half tree-half man, bids farewell to an Elf Lord and Lady who are also ancient far beyond mortal measure.[10] Treebeard says –

“It is long, long since we met by stock or by stone. . . ."[11] 

Shippey goes on to suggest "'by stock or by stone' is an echo of the fourteenth-century poem Pearl, written by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and probably the most powerful of all medieval elegies."[12]

Pearl was written in Middle, not Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), and patient modern readers can wend their way through it with just a little help. In Pearl, the grieving father speaks the following words: "We meten so selden by stok other ston. . . ."  Or, in Modern English – “We meet so seldom by stock or stone” (Gordon translation).[13] Ironically, Tolkien, who later put the stock and stone alliteration in Treebeard’s mouth, actually translated that line of Pearl less literally - "We meet on our roads by chance so rare."

Shippey’s chapter “All our Fathers Worshipped Stocks and Stones” is long and meandering (45 pages in my soft cover edition), and many points he addressed in it do not concern me here.  But, he returns to this phrase "by stock and by stone" at the end of it, asserting Wordsworth's echoing of Pearl: "With rocks, and stones, and trees!" Shippey remarks, "He should have written 'stocks', not 'rocks'. But he preferred the alliteration on r (and the tautology)."

I admit I have always been a little puzzled by Professor Shippey’s above quoted comment on Wordsworth, who he derides as "a linguistic critic of the most ignorant type." By alliteration on the “r” (see the full stanza below at p. 10) I presume he was referring back to the “r’s” starting the first two words of the preceding line, which seems rather remote and disconnected from “rocks” to be called alliteration, at least to my ear, if not technically. If Wordsworth avoided the tautology of rock and stone, and presciently followed Shippey’s advice, he would have had alliteration with “Stock and Stone,” and a tautology of sorts with stock and trees.[14] But why should he have used “stock.” Whatever he may think of Wordsworth’s flaws as a critic, he should at least credit him as a poet and knowing his own mind.

Shippey also addresses John Milton's own purported homage to Pearl in a sonnet with "When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones. . ." – from whence he took the title to his chapter. Unlike Shippey, I am not sure that Wordsworth and Milton were necessarily paying homage to Pearl in using the phrase. For one thing because there were other sources for the expression, as I will come to below, and reference to elemental material such as rocks and trees would seem to readily come to mind even to non-poets. It seems more likely that Wordsworth did not use the alliterative phrase “stock and stone” simply because he wasn’t echoing Pearl. Peruse only Evangeline and you will see that, if nothing else, Wordsworth repeatedly described nature in simple elemental forms. Nor can we be sure that Milton was not just using a phrase he knew from either his own life or readings. His time was not so far removed from that of Pearl as Wordsworth or Tolkien and he may have actually have used the phrase "stock and stone" just as all authors use a multitude of phrases while not necessarily taking it from any particular author or source. Shippey gives me no reason to believe that Milton had taken it from Pearl at all as opposed to other sources, though given Milton’s education, perhaps he had read it.  

 In English and other languages the use of “stock and stone” seemed to be widespread. From a blog,, essentially an Orthodox Christian commentary, but rich in language discussion, I found yet another stock and stone reference, this one from a 13th century Snorri Sturluson saga, Heimskringla,[15] which has St. Olaf preach that the gold and ornaments should be given to wives and daughters and never again hung upon stocks (trees) and stones. Logismoi, 8/12/2009. Snorri seems not to use it as a metaphor there at all, but rather in a straightforward fashion. The blog author (a deacon and Christian school teacher named Aaron Taylor) ponders whether the phrase goes back to Proto-Germanic poetic tradition, but does not seem aware of the even deeper Indo-European roots I will come too. But I can find very few who are.

Nevertheless, as far as English goes, logismoi is a treasure trove for "stock" references. In a follow up post on 8/14/2009, assisted by some knowledgeable commenters, he notes 14th century uses in Chaucer from Troilus and Chryseyde ("by stokkes and by stones),[16] from a 13th century Brut (Brutus) by Lazamon ("Mid Stocken & mid stanen. . ." - "With stockes and with stones. . .") and from an OED reference, to Reson and Sensuallyte by a John Lydgate in 1407 ("As deffe as stok or ston."). As with his other post, there are no Classical or more ancient references. Other prior uses can be found in a Shakespearian index.[17] When so many examples can be given of which we have evidence, experience tells us that many others likely (I do not say necessarily) existed of which we do not know. As a loose analogy, many people including myself felt very confident that there were planets circling other stars long before our scientists and telescopes could detect them. It would have been shocking to us if they were not there because they are plentiful around our own star and we had no reason to think our solar system unique. “Stock and stone” was just a generally used phrase at some point, and the only time we have proof of it is when it was written down and fortuitously survived.  

Nevertheless, the use of a phrase coupling rock and tree arose long before there was an Anglo-Saxon or even a Proto-Germanic language, even before Ancient Greek, and though evidence will peter out in the depths of time (an example of a common phrase with which I am using while not paying homage to any particular author), it can be traced back thousands of years earlier to relatively earlier descendants of Proto-Indo-European language speakers.

I don't know exactly when I read Shippey's book for the first time, but I think it was in hardcover borrowed from the library in 2003 or 2004. "By stock and by stone" was just a pleasant alliteration that stuck in my head upon reading his book, and I did not analyze his theory about it. Though I had read the scene in LOTR of which Shippey was speaking way back in the early 1980s, I do not recall especially noticing that phrase at all. I wasn't that interested in languages at the time, at least in the way I am now. But the scene in which the phrase was used did stick in my head as it represented to me what I think it did for Tolkien -- the dying of a mythologically rich and agrarian way of life and the advent of a more urban and technological one. I shall return to it shortly.


Jump ahead about a decade to 2013 when I am trying to translate some lines from The Iliad in which Hector is thinking about whether or not to fight Achilles. I came across a phrase that was rendered in the English translation of the Iliad translation I most frequently consulted[18] as: "In no wise may I now from oak-tree or from rock hold dalliance with him . . . ." Ch. 22:126-127. Professor Murray's translation is awkwardly rendered in Modern English. Perhaps it is not an easy line to translate because it makes little sense without learning the underlying meaning.[19] Some other translators just paraphrase or interpret the words.[20]

Professor Murray actually takes fewer liberties than most other translators of The Iliad I have read, in my amateur opinion, and that’s why he is my favorite translator to refer to when I (all too often) feel stuck. In this case, it appears that "from oak (tree) and from stone (or rock)" is an expression and not meant to be taken literally. Professor Murray himself notes as follows in a footnote: "This phrase . . . recurs a number of times in Greek literature, and appears to be a quotation from an old folk-tale dealing with the origin of mankind from trees or stones."[21] P. 462.

Whatever the meaning of that phrase, the words “from oak or from stone” fired a synapse in my brain when I read it in Homer. I knew I had seen something like it before and thought I knew where. The spirit of discovery upon me, I went straight to my second hand soft-cover copy of Shippey to re-read the chapter about "stocks and stones." I can't say I had anything more than an intuition when I started, but it ripened quickly into something else.  

On to the Ancient East
Reviewing Shippey, I quickly suspected he had stopped far too soon in the 14th century A.D. (arguably he merely stayed within his field of expertise in order to make the points he desired, but I think it is more probable he did not know of the antiquity of the expression) and that "stock or stone" could be related to the Ancient Greek "(oak) tree and stone" even if they no longer had the same meaning. I wondered if there was any evidence of it going even further back than Homer. I went online, the only way I could conveniently research,[22] and directly searched for ancient phrases concerning oak trees or just trees with stones and like words. I was rewarded by a paper by a Harvard philologist A. S. W. Forte on what seemed like a comparable phrase. It was a scholarly article which has grown with time – there are three versions on the web I’ve read, the last (2015) published in a journal being the one cited here,[23] is a treasure trove of information. Unlike scholars, who can sometimes be quite rough on each other, I am always uncomfortable summarizing a scholar’s work for fear of misstatement or misunderstanding. But I know no other way to go about it – so I will generally summarize what I learned from him that is pertinent to my topic:
- The phrase in Ancient Greek is found not only in The Iliad (Il, 22.126), but also in The Odyssey (Od, 19.163), in Hesiod (the other great poet from the pre-classical Greek Epic poetry era at Theogeny, 1.3``5) and even several times in Plato (Phaedrus, The Republic and The Apology).
- There is also similar phraseology and symbolism dating back to the 13th century B.C.E. Ugaritic Baal cycle found at Ras Shamra[24] and also a picture on a seal from the 18th century B.C. from Northern Syria which strongly resembles a pictogram of the same phrase. [I should note here that it is generally accepted that Baal has many characteristics in common with the Greek Zeus, including the aspects of lightning and thunder and there is almost certainly a transference of myth because of the proximity of the area known as the Levant to the Mediterranean, which has been well documented. As Forte notes, the tree associated with Zeus as well as other gods, was, in fact, the oak tree.] Forte reviews in footnotes the scholarship on this phrase in Indo-European literature (ps. 1-3, fns. 2-4).

- The phrase includes the idea of speech coming from oak and rock and is a metaphor for thunder and lightning, but representing divine speech (oracular or prophetic) and generative power (origins of man). That conclusion is based on evidence throughout his article. I accept it on its face as a premise for my argument.

- “There is a clear, inherited ideological system that persists from the Bronze-Age through Homer and Hesiod and is received by various, later local sources, both Hebrew and Greek." Forte, p. 30.

- The visual evidence from Northern Syria suggests that even earlier antecedents of this phrase, ‘speech from tree and/or rock,’ may be lurking in cultures of the early third millennium B.C.E. Forte, p. 31.

- There is no way to tell what access writers/poets like Homer, Hesiod or Plato had to the earlier metaphoric meaning of the phrase or precisely what it meant at any given time. He uses English examples of "by hook or by crook," "to make ends meet" and "the proof is in the pudding" to explain that we can't be sure what they meant to any one at any given time.


Presuming all of the above is correct, the phrase lasted relatively intact from circa 18th century B.C.E. through Plato in the 4th century B.C.E. or roughly 1400 years (and possibly far longer). I am suggesting here that the life of this phrase in Tolkien – “by stock and by stone” - and the phrase in Homer – “from (Oak) tree and stone” is actually much longer than most scholars believe, in fact, right up to the 20th century, though the ancient meaning has been scrubbed through time, distance and language except in two startling modern examples where the original meaning seems intact. 

            It is fair to ask, “Why are you suggesting that an ancient expression concerning an (oak) tree and stone (rock) is related to the English language ‘stock and stone’? Perhaps they only vaguely similar, but different descriptions?”

It is ultimately a quibble. The great similarity in various examples in literature that can be pointed to far outweighs slim differences between them. According to A Compendious Anglo-Saxon and English Dictionary "stoc" or "stock" was "a stock, stem, trunk, block, stick.” But, England is far from the Eastern Mediterranean and it would be more surprising if the exact phrasing was used (it is not even precisely the same in Homer, Hesiod and Plato), particularly over such a long period of time. Clearly the words will have changed. But, if there is any leap at all, a taxonomical leap from oak to tree is not a great one, the former being a subset of the latter. Similarly, from a tree to a part of a tree, like a branch or stump, is hardly a great leap either. In fact the leap one takes in finding a metaphor concerning generative myths or prophecy from an expression about stones and trees is undoubtedly far greater than the simple one from a log or stick to a tree.

Pointing to authority does not prove anything, but, it is usually the most persuasive argument you can make to readers. There is scholarship who would likely support this connection. The philologist Carolyn López-Ruiz[25] uses an example from The Gospel of Thomas in which the wooden material is translated by her as a piece of wood (“ξύλον”) which is consistent with dictionary definitions.

She also writes: “Watkins has also interpreted the appearance of ‘logs and stones’ in Homer (φιτρóς and λâaς, Il. 12. 26-27 and 21. 314) as an early instance of the “tree and stone” couple, but there referring to the transformed or finished raw materials; that is, our                   drûs and pétra would belong to the realm of nature, while phitrós and lâas to that of culture.[26]

Hence, in the literature, it is already accepted by at least some scholars that stock, meaning log or other tree part, coupled with stone or “stock und stein” in German, is a version of “tree and stone.” Why so few scholars that I have come across has made this obvious step to the Germanic writers, including in English, using “stock and stone” I cannot say, except to surmise the obvious that the scholars in one field were not aware of the scholarship in the other, or perhaps not that interested in it.

In fact, I find only one author, Michael Janda, who has directly connected the two phrases.[27] He has collated many instances of the Immortal Expression, using Stock und Stein (German for stock and stone) as his generic title and speaks of 5,000 years duration without further explanation of how he came to that approximation. His book is written in German, a language I once took a shot at without success. Nevertheless, I obtained a copy through an inter-library loan from Georgetown University. Thanks mostly to the availability of instant translation online and the similarity of some German and English words, I could translate enough of it to find out what I needed to learn from him. I bothered to get a copy of it because, near completing this article, I realized that his title might mean he preceded me in my specific connections to Tolkien and Thoreau. He hadn’t.

In fact, Janda gives only a few English examples – Milton’s, Chaucer (from Troilus) and the well-known rhyme – “sticks and stone can’t break my bones.”[28] To be fair to him, the content of the internet was far less extensive when he wrote his book. Thus, I could likely find many examples now in the time it would take Janda to decide to go to the library and I expect that there are literary databases which would find many more. There is nothing about whispering trees or prophecy, etc., in his section on English examples. He does gives many examples in other languages of “stock und stein” or analogous phrases, and he does very briefly discuss some research on the ancient meaning of the phrase, but, as Forte points out, the “work is almost entirely devoted to the linguistic reconstruction of the Ur-phrase and is generally unconcerned with overarching thematic significance.” Forte, p. 2, fn. 3. Certainly Janda does not prove that “stock and stone” is the same as “tree and stone.” He assumes it and I think with good reason. I certainly have not proved it either, but hope I have added a little towards proving something we can never know for sure, if only in pointing out what Tolkien and Thoreau wrote and thought.

Nevertheless, the difference between the Old and Middle English "stock and stone" and the ancient use of "tree and of stone" dating as far back as the early second millennium B.C. is obliterated if you just think of the phrase as referring to some type of wood and stone. Only its use seems to have changed (with rare exception).

Perhaps it would be easier to make the connection if the English stocks or stumps spoken of were said or inarguably meant to be from “oak” trees. That is certainly not clear at all, but it is hardly unlikely. In Homer, we know that drus can mean “oak tree” and can also represent a “tree” in general, as Forte mentions. What about in Britain? Pliny believed that drus comes stems from the Greek name of oak tree[29] and arguably druid stems from the Proto-Indo-European words for “oak-tree” and “to see.”[30] The connection between druids and oak trees is too well established to dwell on here. But, whether all of that is correct or not, it is still not clear what kind of trees the author of Pearl or Milton or Wordsworth were referring to, or if they had any particular type of tree in mind.  

The same goes for meaning. From the literature it is apparent that there are different meanings of this phrase among the Greeks – some are different metaphysical metaphors, some are just descriptive. When Wordsworth refers to these elemental objects, he does not appear to use them as a metaphor at all, but matter-of-factly, as common articles one would find in or on the ground rolling along with the deceased Lucy:

“No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.”[31]

Milton's poem, On the Late Massacre in Piedmont, which treats the expression as a reference to an archaic time "when all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones" readily brings imagery of Druid priests worshipping oak trees and stones. This matches the little we know about druids, who are traditionally associated with oak trees but also stones - such as at Stonehenge - particularly in Milton's time (though, as far as I know, there is no real evidence that they had anything to do with building Stonehenge). And, of course, druids were also associated with wizards and magic. Milton, like Wordsworth, was no stranger to them.

Pearl possesses some relationship to the phantasmagorical world - the father has woken upon the border of heaven. It is a religious poem which also concerns, at least tangentially, an element of prophecy, but that is clearly a reference to Christian prophecy, and not regarding the phrase we are interested in at all. It would be a stretch to view Pearl to make out of it a generative myth, or to concern thunder and lightning or prophesy. Certainly not talking or whispering trees and rocks. It seems that this phrase has generally speaking come down to us primarily as a phrase stripped of its ancient meaning in Pearl and elsewhere among the German derived languages.

What did Tolkien mean when he used the Immortal Expression?

The use of a simple phrase referencing material logs and rocks is simply not so of Tolkien’s Treebeard in this speech. It is pregnant with generative and oracular meaning.  Once you see the connection, it is difficult, if not impossible to believe that that the alliterative farewell words of Tolkien's giant human-tree, Treebeard, were merely prosodic or meant to simply give flavor to his character. Tolkien knew a phrase that had a powerful meaning perfect for his needs and he wanted to use it. Knowing his love of language it would not be surprising even that the entire scene was composed so that he could use that one phrase.

Although it would be absurd to suggest that Tolkien, a professor of Anglo-Saxon and related languages, did not know the meaning of “stock,” nevertheless, thanks to the Logismoi blog, I can readily document it. A knowledgeable commenter to that blog pointed out that in Tolkien/Gordon's 1925 edition of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the word "stubbe" is given as "stock, stump" and in Tolkien's Middle English Vocabulary (1922), he gives "stok(ke)" itself as "stem, tree-trunk."  

I cannot say that Tolkien intended Treebeard to have meant an oak tree stump by using the word "stock." The Encyclopedia of Arda, an online Tolkien reference site states that oaks are "[o]ne of the commonest trees in Middle-earth, found throughout its forests," but I do not know if that is so and don't off-hand remember any specific reference to “oaks” myself in Tolkien's Middle-Earth save for a very important one - the chief of the dwarves who accompanied Bilbo was named Thorin Oakenshield (it was figurative, as he once used an oak branch as a shield). That dwarf’s name, as with his other dwarves (and Gandalf), can be found in a list in the Elder Edda. Hence, although it might seem obvious, we can at least know that oak trees existed in Tolkien's literary world of Middle-Earth. In any event, though it would have added to the connection had Treebeard uttered the word “oak,” we do not know that Homer meant an “oak” tree either, just that the word he used could mean that and some translators use it.

But, there are also much clearer metaphorical elements found in this scene which precisely relate to those reckoned in Forte's paper. Tolkien was telling a riveting story and it would be easy to miss them – until you are aware of them – and then they are a beacon.

First and foremost, in Middle-Earth, Treebeard is an Ent, that is, a sentient tree with many human qualities, including speech. This brings us directly back to the Ugaritic and Greek mythic metaphoric meaning of trees speaking or whispering. This in itself would seem too clear a reference to the ancient meaning to call it likely a coincidence. Were this all there was to my argument, I would feel satisfied. But it is not.

We should remember that the entire Tolkien corpus is essentially a creation myth that ends with the Fourth Age or “age of man.” The Silmarillion begins with the creation of the universe. The Elves were indeed called “first-born,” and Treebeard was the first animate creature in Middle-Earth itself (the Elves coming from outside Middle-Earth to it). And clearly Ents were originally trees become sentient, just as elsewhere in Tolkien, we learn that the Dwarves, also speaking creatures, were created from rock.

The meeting of the Elves and Treebeard for the last time in Middle-Earth is a very meaningful and poignant one highlighting their diminishing and leaving the “real world” as the fourth age of man dawns. And, if there was any doubt, Tolkien refers to that in the very scene, having Gandalf say to the collected Elves, Dwarf and talking tree – “The new age begins . . . and in this age it may well prove that the kingdoms of Men shall outlast you, Fangorn my friend.”[32]

Prophecy also plays an important role in this parting scene as Galadriel, perhaps the most oracular character in Tolkien's books, expressly prophesizes in this very scene when she predicts that they will all meet again when the lands under the wave rise again (at a certain spot she describes). And this too speaks to regeneration.

Tolkien could use “stock and stone” as an expression devoid of this ancient meeting when he wanted. Earlier in LOTR another character (Pippin) relates a separate and unrelated use of “stock and stone” by Treebeard as part of a double alliteration, which was not noted by Shippey: “‘Hoom! Gandalf!’ said Treebeard. ‘I am glad you have come. Wood and water, stock and stone, I can master; but there is a Wizard to master here.’”[33] Here clearly, by “stock and stone,” Treebeard means the actual natural materials which he can control as opposed to a wizard he cannot. There is no evident symbolic meaning in this case. Arguably, comparing the two uses of the phrase, the merely factual one puts a spotlight on the other being drenched in generative and prophetic symbolism. And, as will be presently shown, the one imbued with symbolism is also the one that mirrors the language of The Iliad.

Thus, remarkably, all of the elements of the Ugaritic phrase’s likely meaning as described by Forte are found here in the very scene in which Tolkien uses the phrase perhaps excepting that of thunder and lightning. The scene is too well endowed with circumstances to be fortuitous, particularly when we recognize Tolkien’s familiarity, in some cases mastery, of languages dating from the ancient Near East through Homer and then to the Germanic languages. I am reminded of a Thoreau quote from his journal – “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”[34]

But, we should even hesitate before excepting out an association of Ents with thunder and lightning, for a dim memory of it sent me back to LOTR.[35] Sometimes it seems that you can almost always find some connection or association in literature if you look hard enough. Once found, it may seem revelatory, as if the author intended it or left a clue, whether it was in his or her mind or not. The probability or improbability of the coincidence and our own biases makes us believe it or not. Though some will state such an association with certainty, they are really stating their bias.

The thunder and lightning association to which I refer occurs in the second volume of LOTR, where Pippin, a hobbit, relates his hearing the destruction of an evil wizard’s keep by the Ents: “Later there was a great rumble of thunder away south, and flashes of lightning far away across Rohan.” Why thunder and lightning? Though battles are violent and usually make a lot of noise, I am not aware of thunder and lightning being a common metaphor for destruction by an army, although, arguably, it might be for a deity. Ents are mythological creatures, so perhaps they might fall under that designation. One could use this statement by Pippin to conclude that Ents were in fact associated in one place with thunder and lightning. I am cynical enough to believe that if I had a publisher to please, he or she would like me to state this association much more emphatically than I am willing to do here. But the circumstantial evidence or degree of coincidence does not seem so sufficient to me (as it does with speaking trees, prophecy and generative myth) that I can say it was very likely meant to convey symbolism. Using Occam’s razor, it is more likely Tolkien simply meant that there was a lot of noise when the Ents were breaking up the wizard’s keep. Forte does note (p. 15) that thunder was associated with the grinding of stones. Nevertheless, the fact is that the analogy was expressly made, so that I can at least raise the point here and someone else’s biases might make it more persuasive to them than it is to me.

We cannot, of course, be sure that Tolkien, who studied Greek and Latin when young, was thinking about the meaning of stock and stone or trees and rock in ancient Greece when he wrote the farewell scene or that he was even conscious of a connection. But, it certainly seems as he must have unconsciously known of it. He also might have known of some Ugaritic connection, Ras Shamra having been excavated since 1929[36] and unconsciously borrowed it. That would again be speculation, but certainly not idle speculation. Tolkien himself had been aware of unconscious borrowing in almost the very same context before, acknowledging it in 1967 in order to explain his unintentional borrowing of the Mesopotamian place name “Erech.” He comments that “naturally, as one interested in antiquity and notably in the history of languages and ‘writing’, I knew and had read a good deal about Mesopotamia.” Letters, p. 384. Whether that would include the Ugarit area, I cannot say. He likely knew something of the language, possessing a 1926 Babylonian-Assyrian grammar in transcription.[37]  I could not begin to guess as to how far along in interpretation Ugarit scholars had gotten before Tolkien wrote Treebeard’s speech, how much he knew about Ugarit or whether that knowledge included a certain Immortal Expression. We have not reached the end of possible investigation, but it is outside the limits of my capabilities and resources.

In any event, I am satisfied to stop with Homer, with whom we know Tolkien was quite familiar and only suggest he may have been aware of earlier sources.  The Indo-European origins of English from multiple sources - Germanic, Latin, Greek and their derivatives - is more than sufficient to suggest that someone so deeply learned in history, language, literature (knowledge of which he sometimes unaccountably denied)[38] and culture as Tolkien, might at least unconsciously absorb such connections, whether they were from Syria or Greece, and their meanings better than most, if not anyone else.

Textual Evidence Connecting Tolkien’s Stock and Stone with Homer’s Tree and Stone

Of course, though the evidence of his other unconscious borrowing (“Erech”) is persuasive, suggesting that an author unconsciously borrowed something from literature is still necessarily speculative. But, in this instance, the speculation can be lessened considerably by reference to a text. Indeed, the textual evidence in Tolkien is rather startlingly strong that he borrowed “stock and stone” directly from Homer at least more so than the author of Pearl or other source.[39] Compare how Tolkien uses the phrase spoken by Treebeard with how Homer has Hector speak:            

Treebeard:     by                  stock                      or                                  by                   stone         
                    [preposition] [noun] [coordinating conjunction] [repeat preposition] [noun]
Hector:         ἀπὸ               δρυὸς                    οὐδ᾽                            ἀπὸ                πέτρης

Too say it is quite similar would be an understatement. There are slight differences – Homer and Tolkien arguably uses a different preposition and Homer uses a negative conjunction. The words in The Odyssey are much in the same form, though there are differences such as an added adjective there not found in The Iliad. But Tolkien, when he borrowed from anywhere, was not slavish to sources but intent on making everything his own creation, and he made such use of language and nomenclature as he chose. I believe the evidence strongly supports my hypothesis that Tolkien’s muse for that particular phrase was Homer rather than the author of Pearl.[40] The author of Pearl, Milton, Wordsworth and the others I cite above simply do not use this formula – preposition, noun, coordinating conjunction (generally “and” or “or”), repeat preposition and noun. Homer did at least once in The Iliad and similarly in The Odyssey.[41] So did Tolkien. Perhaps some others did, but I did not come across them. Nor would it lessen the likelihood that The Iliad was Tolkien’s primary source, if I had, unless we knew Tolkien was familiar with that writing.

Even this textual evidence is circumstantial. But it is so strong, it is again like finding a trout in the milk. Homer we know was composing according to a meter and this phrase worked. Tolkien also was extremely sensitive to meter and rhythm, but I am not aware of his having used dactylic hexameter.[42] But he was so sensitive to the very words that he and others used and to the way he and others wrote that I cannot believe it was coincidence that he used the same pattern as Homer - the same parts of speech in the same order, especially given the regular word order of English as compared to the far less regular word order of Greek.

But, still even with enough evidence to convince me that Tolkien derived “by stock and by stone” from Homer, someone else might say – well maybe he was just writing a story and knew the phrase from literature and the similarities with it and The Iliad are an odd coincidence and it is not enough to convince us that “stock and stone” is the same as “tree and rock.” One would have to ignore all of the circumstantial evidence developed above to come to that conclusion. But let us say though, that it would advance my theory if another modern writer had used the same phrase and told us precisely what he meant by it. And one did.

A Last Startling Discovery

By the time I had finished most of my research on Tolkien and Homer, it struck me that Thoreau, another man intoxicated by nature and more familiar with Homer[43] and even Milton than most people, might have used some form of the phrase himself. Thoreau, like many 19th century intellectuals schooled in Greek and Latin, was enamored with Homer, as his frequent references to him in his writings show. Coming upon an expression anywhere that we’ve also read in Homer, we might naturally wonder whether Homer was the source and probably be biased to think that he was. But, we have to be careful. Not every mention of stones in conjunction with trees by him would signal a reverberation from the distant past. Thoreau noting that apples were “frozen on the trees and rattle like stones in my pocket,”[44] is no more indicative of his knowledge of the Immortal Expression than was Wordsworth’s reference to the elements in the earth near the grave of Lucy. And at another time Thoreau practically shouts:

“What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,--daily to be shown matter, to come in contact it,--rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! That solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”[45]

But still, it could not be plainer that he again meant real rocks and trees. However, that was not always the case. It startled me to come upon such a glaring example:

“It would imply the regeneration of mankind if they were to become elevated enough to truly worship sticks and stones.”[46]

The use of “worship” here tells us that he was referring to Milton’s Late Massacre poem. You need not read much about Thoreau to know that, like many if not all Harvard graduates at the time, he had studied Milton extensively.[47] That Thoreau used “sticks” rather than “stocks” is not important. It likely just shows that either he knew what “stock” meant or perhaps was going by memory.

He expressly states the ancient theme of “the regeneration of mankind.” If I can be as giddy as the proverbial schoolboy for a moment – Eureka! He says it right there in the same sentence! He uses the phrase and tells us he means by it the same thing as the ancients meant by it. Arguably, he therefore also suggests that Milton used it for those purposes, but I am not persuaded of it.

 With Thoreau, the meaning is expressly announced – it is the very point of the sentence. Thoreau had no audience at the time, and no reason to coddle or explain further. But, if there were to be any readers (and, if few now, it is still over a century and a half of them) he expected them to understand the allusions he made. This is more than another trout in the milk, circumstantial evidence so strong it cannot be ignored. It is a plain statement of meaning with very little if any circumstantial evidence even necessary. And whatever circumstantial evidence is necessary, our knowledge of Thoreau’s study of Milton and Homer easily provides it.

It also stood to reason that if Thoreau used this expression – Emerson may have too. And so he had.[48] It took seconds on the internet to find the same phrase in Emerson’s journal, possibly also stemming from his reading of Milton. And in seconds more from Emerson to “über stock und stein” in Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a tale known as The Golden Bird.[49] I cannot say the Brothers’ source. I doubt very much it was reading from Milton or Pearl,[50] but far more likely it was already part of the story from whatever source they received it from, or, perhaps they borrowed it from Goethe, who had the devil and his witches “über stock und stein springen.”[51] Perhaps they just knew it as we know “sticks and stones can break your bones. . . .” Though probably seen by many people today as mere collectors of stories, the brothers were extremely accomplished philologists themselves and their source might even be unknown to them if they had seen it enough.[52]  

Suffice to say here that Old English or Anglo-Saxon was a Germanic language, and unless shown otherwise, we would expect that the words likely traveled north-west with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes and not the reverse – but again, it is possible. I am not going to research it further, for I fear if I continue on this path it will lead me around the world to many languages all of which I would need great help to read, and I will never finish this. Suffice to say that a quick internet search reveals that “über stock und stein” is a phrase commonly used in German even today as it probably was in the Grimm’s and Goethe’s time.

Nor is there a great reason for me to search (though some scholar might wish to), because to find infinite repetitions of variations of sayings about rocks and trees or sticks and stones in English, German, Latvian or Hebrew is only a starting point in finding a connection between the ancient world and the modern unless the some ancient symbolism is present: regeneration, talking or whispering rocks and trees, prophecy or even thunder and lightning.

I merely have refer to the use of the expression by Emerson, Grimm and Goethe to show the expression is a traveling one, even when stripped of its ancient meaning. If we cannot say for a certainty that the “stock and stone” of Pearl and Milton, the Bros. Grimm and many others is the very same phrase as the “rocks and trees” scholars have met in Homer, in the Bible and in ancient Syria, we can at least say that Thoreau and Tolkien believed it so. They were not writing those words for pedagogical purposes but to entertain us and express themselves with all the power and wisdom of their learning. For us, they are virtual time machines.

Some Personal Remarks

I am not a historian, linguist or philologist but a lawyer who wishes he was. Admittedly, I barely understand the arcane notations and methodologies of linguists. I have learned the difference between concepts like voiced and unvoiced speech and what sibilants and fricatives are, but to tell you the truth, I cannot maintain very much interest in it and that is about as far as my knowledge goes. On the other hand, I have waded through enough sentences like - "The dissimilatory loss of the labialization in the environment of u . . . , common to all Greek dialects, is illustrated qoukoro - gwoulolos 'cowherd' ˂ *gwouqwolos, and kunaja = gunaia. . . ."[53] that there are times though when the mist briefly lifts and there is some clarity. Philologists are much generally easier for me to understand than linguists, when they are not being linguists themselves, and historians generally do not have a specialized lingo impenetrable to the unenlightened. Rare is the day I do not spend at least a moment in grateful praise of the scholars who enlighten my life. They do more to preserve our heritage and enrich our lives than probably anyone else and I am baffled that so few people have an interest in it.

To the best of my memory I was taught to read by my mother with two books, the first being Joy Adamson’s Born Free and the second Hamilton’s Mythology. I suspect that this led to my overriding interest in nature and myth. History eventually surpassed the first two interests. Thus, it is no great surprise that my three favorite writers have been Homer, Thoreau and Tolkien, all of whom are awash in the natural world and myth. Though always a reader, language itself was something I found myself adept at, but, for many reasons, did not apply myself at when young, and became interested in it much later in life.

I started out on this project, as I explained above, with the sudden association I made between Tolkien and Homer in 2013. Only in 2016, when I began rewriting this article, did I indulge myself and bring Thoreau into it as a mere lark, actually challenging myself in the first draft to try to find a way to connect him to the essay. And it stayed that way until, suddenly, it dawned on me that he might actually have used the expression himself. I had no idea I would find anything so on point as I did.

It is too late for me to determine if my affinity for Thoreau colored my philosophy of life or if my philosophy of life explains my affinity for Thoreau (though I think the latter), but he comes closer to expressing many of my beliefs than anyone else I have ever read and of course did so much more eloquently than I could hope to accomplish. If by some trick, we could cajole Thoreau’s spirit to read Tolkien, I believe he would have been enamored with him too – even if by temperament he might refuse to acknowledge it[54] - and be almost entirely in sympathy with him except for his ardent Catholicism.

It is hard for me not to see Thoreau behind every stock and stone in Tolkien, though this is purely my imagination, having no reason to think Tolkien ever read him. But just reading Emerson’s obituary for his friend,[55] one cannot help thinking that Thoreau, had he a single martial bone in his body, would have made an excellent Ranger. Or that he was a model for the minor character Radagast. Even more so, it is not hard to imagine that Thoreau’s companions, could they have read Tolkien, would not have suspected that Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil was modeled in part after him. The similarities are remarkable and perhaps even worthy of an article. Emerson, noting Thoreau’s lack of ambition in his eulogy, described him a little too critically for a eulogy as “captain of a huckleberry party,” which I took to mean that Emerson believed he was capable of much greater things. That would also seem an apt if understated appellation for Old Tom, who was immensely powerful but remained in his small domain and doted on his simple tasks. In fact, as with Bombadil, I suspect the One Ring would have had no power over Thoreau. And, had the Ring been entrusted to his safekeeping, he might lose it, which was what the Wise feared would happen if they gave it to Bombadil. In the same way, I am sure Tolkien, reading Thoreau, would have recognized a kindred spirit, again in all but religion, with whom he could take many walks in the countryside, where, no doubt, they would discuss rocks and trees, Thor and Homer. But I do not know if he did read him.

These remarks about Tolkien and Thoreau have a purpose. They demonstrate that it is no great surprise that I found what I believe are the same phrases spanning many millennia in the writings of those three writers, as they too are infused with the same love of mythology and nature as I am and I have read them all quite a bit. It is perhaps the only places that I would have found it.

I learned right away when I started studying Homeric Greek in my middle age that what I most enjoyed was finding the many connections between Ancient Greek and modern languages – mostly English, but also in the little French and German I knew - the way some people enjoy dancing or ice fishing. It felt as if I had put on a ring of power finding more English root words in the opening lines of The Iliad than I could in the opening lines of Beowulf, which, after all, though archaic, was still an early form of our own language. It was the discovery early on that I would be able to fairly easily remember some Greek words by association with their English counterparts that gave me confidence that I could at least substantially learn the ancient language, even in middle age. Of course, I could. It just takes discipline like learning anything else that doesn’t come to us naturally – and I was well past the age where it came naturally. Still, translating Homer, although an end in itself, was what led me to the connections between the modern and ancient world I speak of here.

Some might argue that there is nothing proven here. But this is so with almost any hypothesis in the humanities and the more so the further one goes back in time. Perhaps it is just that way with everything, including science. Certainly I have gone with the facts no further than many professional linguists and philologists I have read. Philological and related works are often and should be laden with words indicating that they are speculating, though professionals do not seem to like to use that particular word. Sometimes their arguments are very strong, but sometimes not any stronger than those still current about where exactly Rama lived or if the palace they uncovered near Jerusalem a few years ago was really King David's (if Rama lived; if David lived). Many times it turns out they have just been wrong. But, that is part of the process. And in most cases, there is no answer.

Having said that, I am enamored of history, sometimes foremost when it is associated with language or nomenclature, [56] but also quite cynical about purported discoveries. I have doubted myself the whole way through. But, in the end, there is almost nothing here that is not tethered to established facts or in the case of ancient interpretation and translation, the work of scholars, and what is speculation I have taken pains to acknowledge. Like everyone, I am undoubtedly biased to confirm what I first suspected, but I really think the evidence is very strong.

Whether the Immortal Expression passed down through centuries and many hands and lips across distant lands to make its way to become “stock und stein” in Germany and then from Germany to England to become the “stock and stone” of Pearl and Milton and then last to Miltonists and Thoreau at Harvard and separately to Tolkien in Oxford - or - whether similar phrases simply sprang up from time to time in different places out of man’s affinity for the tools nature has provided, or through some Jungian collective conscience,[57] I cannot present as a certainty, any more than a biologist can show you the creature by creature march that turned a fin into a hand or wing. Nevertheless, with enough education in evolution, most of us are convinced of it, and though human language is far more mutable than that of DNA, I believe there is sufficient evidence to strongly support my conclusion.

There are always loose ends and the answer to a question always leads to more. The absence of loose ends over the course of almost four millennia would be a far greater mystery than finding an expression that appears immortal. How far back it goes I do not guess. Proto-Indo-European speakers? Pre-Proto-European speakers? If Lucy or a Neanderthal could speak, and if there was one phrase one would guess they used, it would probably be a wise bet that it concerned rocks and trees.[58]

There are few things we can be as certain about as that ancient mankind spoke about rocks and trees and probably in conjunction. They were all around our ancestors lying on the ground or growing out of it. I need believe nothing speculative I’ve read of Proto-Indo-Europeans to know for certain that these objects were everywhere in their world and undoubtedly on their minds and tongues. They built their shelters with them, tripped over them and conked each other over the head with them, dug them up, burned the logs for fuel in circles of stone and made decorations from stones and trees. They were undoubtedly as important in their lives as the rain and livestock. It would be more far more unlikely if rocks and trees had never been written about in tandem so often than it is that we notice it centuries or millennia later.

There are also few things with which modern humans, communing with nature, have more in common with the ancients than rocks and trees. Perhaps, having read this, readers of literature, particularly older literature, will start seeing phrases about “rock and tree” or “stock and stone” everywhere in their texts, for it is doubtful this phrase was transmitted through time and space because just a few writers we coincidentally still read, happen to use it. Without proof, I presume, as with extra-solar planets, they are out there.  In fact, I have come across many other examples that I simply have not commented upon.
What makes it interesting?

It is only when there is something more than just the mention of rocks and trees that we get really excited. I asked myself as I was working through all this – when is it more than just interesting to come upon a phrase like “by stock and stone” or “from rock or tree” and instead truly meaningful? The only answer I can come to is necessarily vague and subjective. Thoreau wrote, “A fact stated barely is dry. It must be the vehicle of some humanity in order to interest us.”[59] I’d put it another way, if not so pithily - When there is enough evidence from the circumstances of a writing, whether from the text itself or our knowledge of the author or the author’s times to let us feel a connection between the ancient and the modern, is it exciting and an advancement in our collective knowledge.

I recognize that for many people, maybe almost everyone, the literary connection that I’ve spent so much time on here is not meaningful at all. Without the knowledge I received from Shippey and then Forte and others, I would not have even focused on what Treebeard said or the context he said it in, and never bothered to search out whether Thoreau wrote anything about it. But knowledge is not enough. Personal interest is necessary too. I remember some years back the feeling I got walking through ancient ruins in the Greek Island of Delos, while my friend – who was half Greek and had been to Greece many times – was relatively unaffected. The difference was obvious to me – I had an emotional connection to the island from reading and was thinking of Leto and her twin children almost as if they were real. I felt a connection to the past he did not. I have had the same experiences walking where Michelangelo, da Vinci and Donatello worked. I was able to see that same feeling in someone who is disinterested in history, in general, but was enthused when I pointed out that her grandfather had once walked and played on the very same spot we were then standing on in a small town in Ireland.

Though I am not a religious person, I call these feelings “spiritual.” By spiritual I do not mean to imply visits from a spirit world or that I had a Pearl like dream. My own definition of spiritual is “a feeling of connection to the universe that many people identify with a deity.” Although I cannot know for sure, I believe the feelings I and others get thinking about the distant past are similar or identical to those someone else might experience as religious. The words sublime, sacred, etc., work too. It is enough for me to feel that connection by communing with men and women who lived thousands of years ago or by reading mythology or staring at an obelisk or mountain. For others a creative and/or binding presence, i.e., a deity, is necessary.

While scholars in this field have more knowledge and their interest is a given, I do not think it is conceptually different for them in the abstract as when a lay person comes upon any information in his life that interests them. The difference is that when scholars find something new, they yell – Eureka – “I found it,” at least metaphorically, and they write about it.

This is how I feel right now. I found a connection or association between two strands of research that has enabled me to see a path leading from the far distant ancient literate world through my favorite ancient writer to my two favorite modern writers, one who died only in my lifetime. And finding these links is sublime for many of us. As usual, nobody quite explains it like Thoreau:

“The age of the world is great enough for our imaginations, even according to the Mosaic account, without borrowing any years from the geologist. From Adam and Eve at one leap sheer down to the deluge, and then through the ancient monarchies, through Babylon and Thebes, Brahma and Abraham, . . . down through Odin and Christ to—America. It is a wearisome while.—And yet the lives of but sixty old women, such as live under the hill, say of a century each, strung together, are sufficient to reach over the whole ground. Taking hold of hands they would span the interval from Eve to my own mother. A respectable tea-party merely,--whose gossip would be Universal History.”[60]

[1] Carpenter, Humphrey, editor. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Press, 2000 (“Letters”), p. 172.
[2] Which I grandiosely call the “Immortal Expression.”
[3] “Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real.” Letters, p. 264.
[4]  Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1999, p. 316. My present copy, is a paperback reprint of the hardcover original. I checked the quoted language against an original edition to make sure the language quoted was in it.
[5] Inarguably, unless we are measuring IQs with an arbitrary standard, “genius” is subjective. If we use it in the loose way we usually do, I think he qualifies. I base my opinion on his mastery of or familiarity with many languages and his groundbreaking Beowulf scholarship, but mostly on his having written what I and many others consider the greatest literary achievement of the 20th century. And if you think books that include dragons are too puerile to merit such distinction, you should read his Beowulf and the Critics and other essays. If you think he was merely wrote a precursor for Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, I can only wince.
[6] Brought into publishable shape by his son – Tolkien could not interest his publishers in it during his lifetime.
[7] I am unfamiliar with any scholarship which might distinguish mythology qualitatively from just very old fiction. I admit most modern fantasy fiction does little for me unless there is a good dose of actual mythology in it or I can ferret out the derivation on reading it. A good friend of mine finds it hard to understand why it is that I enjoy fantasy stories made up hundreds or thousands of years ago but not written now. Put like that, it is hard to formulate a logical response. It just comes down to interest. As I develop below, for some people, making connections to an older time in our history is a sublime thing, akin to a religious experience. I am one of those people.
[8] Of note I would include Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings (Ballantine Books, 1969) by a not so good fantasy writer but better editor named Lin Carter, which concerns, among other things, Tolkien’s influences and the development of fantasy literature. There is also a now lengthy series of books by Tolkien’s own son, Christopher, himself a scholar, who has chronicled his father’s development of Middle-Earth. As well, Christopher has edited other of his father’s books and also translations which were unpublished at the time of Tolkien’s death, including one of Beowulf. Speaking purely as a reader, I find some of it riveting and some stultifying.
[9] Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
[10] I am hoping that any philologist familiar with the Immortal Expression who may read this sits bolt upright at the mention of the talking tree speaking these words.
[11] Shippey, p. 178. He cites p. 959 of “the corrected one-volume edition of LOTR, with ‘Notes on the Text’ by Douglas A. Anderson, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.” I cite to the individual paperback volumes in my own library, in this case, The Return of the King. Ballantine Books, 1978, p. 320.
[12] Tolkien's translated Pearl himself. Tolkien, J.R.R. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Ballantine Books, 1992. It is likely the best known of the translations, though I would hazard a guess that it is because of his more popular writings than its merits. It was first published posthumously in 1975 when he was already quite famous. However, he and his student, then colleague, E.V. Gordon, had begun a scholarly edition in 1925, which Gordon took over. However, he died young in 1938 with the work unfinished. It was then given to Tolkien to finish, but it was finally passed back to Gordon’s wife, Ida, also a philologist. It was published in 1953 under Gordon’s name. Anderson, Douglas A. “An industrious little devil: E.V. Gordon’s Collaboration with Tolkien.” Tolkien the Medievalist, edited by Jane Chance, Routledge, 2003, p. 20.
[13] Shippey at ps. 180-181 uses the Gordon Pearl translation without reference to the line numbers, but the phrase is found at line 380.
[14] Since 2013 I have felt a little haunted by the possibility that I misunderstand him in some way as I initially made some errors in characterizing his points.
[15] Was Tolkien familiar with Heimskringla? He apparently never mentioned it in his writings but it is inconceivable for a number of reasons that he wasn’t very familiar with it. Fisher, Jason. “Sourcing Tolkien’s ‘Circles of the World:’ Speculations on the Heimskringla, The Latin Vulgate Bible, and The Hereford Mappa Mundi,” p. 4, in Middle Earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kascakova, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010, ps. 1-18. Of course, he knew the Old Norse language well. See, e.g., the Index to Letters, p. 473 under “Icelandic Languages and Literature.
[16] Tolkien considered himself a “student” of Chaucer. Letters, p. 39. “Chaucer as a Philologist,” read at a meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford in 1931 can be found at
[17] Dent, R.W. Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language: An Index. University of California Press, 1981, p. 219. He lists, “As deffe as stok or ston [OED 1c].  c1587 (1599) Greene, Alphonsus, King of Aragon 4.2 1258: Some as dead as either stock or stone. 1598 (1616) W. Aughton Englishmen for my Money iv (MAR) 772): What Stocks, what stones, what senceles Truncks be these? 1599 (1600) Dekker Old Fortunatus 5.2.55: You stocke, you stone, you logs end. Shakespeare: JC 1.1.35, Ven. 211”
[18] Homer. The Iliad. Translated by A. T. Murray, Vol. 2. Loeb-Harvard University Press, 1976, no. 171.
[19] Many years ago I was visiting Sweden and speaking with some Swedes, all like myself in their 20s at the time. They spoke English to varying degrees and some quite well. At some point I used the expression – “a piece of cake,” which resulted in riotous laughter from the group. In their own language there was no association between “a piece of cake” and something being easy to do.  I have since learned that the expression originated in 19th century America from the practice of giving a prize cake to the most graceful couple at a competition and that Ogden Nash, whose poetry I was raised on, was the first to use it in print in 1936. The point is that phrases with meanings other than the obvious ones sound even stranger to those speaking a different language who are not familiar with the peculiar usage.
[20] Sometimes the only way to make sense of a line in another language is to change it grammatically or add or subtract a word(s) or even a phrase. Professional translators do this all the time in order to give us the best sense of what they think the author meant and/or to make it more readable to those speaking another language. It does not make it wrong. Martin Luther, the fiery 16th century Protestant reformer, fuming about critics complaining that his insertion of the word for “only” in a German translation of The New Testament was an impermissible addition, wrote in An Open Letter on Translating (1530): “I also know that in Rom. 3, the word “solum” is not present in either Greek or Latin text – the papists did not have to teach me that—it is fact! The letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these knotheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text—if the translation is to be clear and accurate, it belongs there.”
[21] Iliad, p. 462.
[22] In 2005-6 I taught some constitutional law classes as an adjunct instructor at Stony Brook University. It was, subjectively, the best thing I have done as a professional, and I miss it. In fact, I so enjoyed it I become at least a little disturbed when I hear a professor state he has no interest in teaching, or worse, a student say that his professor does not. But I also miss easy access to a university library. I can still visit it and even borrow a book from it through my own local library, but it is not the same.
[23] Speech from Tree and Rock: Recovery of a Bronze Age Metaphor, American Journal of Philology 136, ps. 1–35 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). At least two earlier versions are available on the web. The first, dated 2012, was the one which I relied in my earliest version of this paper.
[24] The ruins of the city once known as Ugarit are on the northern coast of modern day Syria. The discovery of it is one of the greatest in 20th century archaeology, but it is too deep a digression.
[25] López-Ruiz When the Gods Were Born: Greek Cosmogonies and the Near East, p. 62, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2010), referencing the “Oxyrhychus papyrus 1, lines 27-30 (=Coptic logion 77).”
[26] López-Ruiz, p. 63, referencing Watkins, C. 2002 “Some Indoeuropean Logs, in Pugliese Carratelli, G. 2002. Anatolia Antica. Studi in Memoria di Fiorella Imparati (2 vols), 879-884. Regrettably, I could not locate a copy of that journal. But, from what I can tell from López-Ruiz’s work, there has been no connection made to “stock and stone” by Watkins or in her own work.  I do not spend time on those other two references to The Iliad as it seems to me that in both of those cases (or the one usage found in two places) Homer uses logs and rocks in the purely material sense as blocking tools and not symbolically. Similarly Forte notes (p. 2, fn. 2) that Watkins’ example was probably not used as a metaphor but rather a “cognate collocation” (what scholars call words frequently used together). But, I refer to these examples simply to emphasize that in philological literature, scholars have been quick to associate logs and similar items with trees. The association is the same as it is for laypersons – logs, trunks, twigs, etc., come from trees. We must always remember that we are dealing with other languages, and especially with long dead ones, and there is no “perfect” translation.
[27] Janda, Über Stock und Stein (Dettelbach, Verlag J. H. Röll, 1996). There may be others who have made the association without reference to Janda. If so, I am not aware of them.
[28] Ibid, 127-128.
[29] Pliny, Natural History Book 16, Chapter 95.
[30] American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, App. 1, “Indo-European Roots.” I have delved a bit into the fascinating research that seeks to find one of the proto-languages from which so many other languages, including our own, sprang. Undoubtedly, there is some truth in these deductions and some of them seem nothing less than brilliant to me, but how much truth there is in it cannot be reliably said. My cynicism naturally increases as the argument drifts backward in time and no less a scholar than Tolkien has warned us to be cautious before we believe too much about word origins at all, however enticing it may be. An inquirer of the original meaning of certain “holy” words received a long letter back from Tolkien chock full about the difficulties of etymology. Letters, ps. 268-270. I will not quote from it here, but it is very worthwhile reading. Just as I find myself often wishing our Congress would read Washington’s “Farewell Address” more than once a year, so many times I find myself reading some etymology and wishing the author had read and heeded Tolkien’s cautions.
31 Wordsworth, A Slumber did my Spirit Seal, lines 5-8.
[32] The Return of the King, p. 318. Fangorn is another name for Treebeard. It is so well established in Tolkien that the Fourth Age is that of Men, I do not feel compelled to recite chapter and verse here.
[33] The Two Towers. Ballantine Books, 1978, p. 192. Shippey did not discuss this other use of “stock and stone” in his book. There may be others in Tolkien that I do not recall.
[34] Thoreau, Henry D. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (“Journal”), Vol. II. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Peregrine Smith Books, 1984, November 11, 1850, p. 94.
[35] I surprised myself when I confirmed this dim memory. I have read LOTR many times, and while my knowledge of it is hardly encyclopedic (I’m not one of those people who can tell you all the names of the Elves or read any of the languages in it), apparently some things unexpectedly stuck. It is probably no different than when one person says to another during a conversation – “Remember in Seinfeld when . . . .”
[36] Claude Schaeffer, who led the Ugarit excavation, lectured at Oxford (The Cuneiform Texts of Ras Shamra-Ugarit, Schweik Lectures, 1936) and Oxford had its own experts Tolkien may have known. For specifics, see, Birns, Nicholas. “The Stones and the Book: Tolkien, Mesopotamia and Mythopaeia.” Tolkien and the Study of his Sources: Critical Essays, edited by Jason Fisher. McPharland & Co, 2011, p. 45-68. I have reviewed some of the books about Ras Shamra that preceded LOTR, but have found no reference to the subject expression. I must confess, my French, the language in which they were written, is weak and my Ugarit, of course, non-existent. Nonetheless, I do not have any evidence that Tolkien could have been aware of the Immortal Expression from these sources. I simply note his familiarity with work in the near eastern area and it being within the realm of possibility for reasons stated in Stones.
[37] Now housed at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M. University.
[38] E.g., in the same correspondence in which he states being raised on Greek classics. Letters, p. 172.
[39] I have found that some of Tolkien’s creations are more likely borrowings from ancient Greece rather than Northern Europe, although tree and stone is probably one of the most interesting examples. The North may have captured his spirit, but there were promptings from Greece as well that I have noted in other private writing, some which might surprise and virtually none, if any, of which have I seen noted or expressed by others before. His Greek roots seem untouched.
[40] Or Chaucer’s Troilus or Snorri’s Heimskringla. As shown above, he may have known the phrase from all of them and other sources as well.
[41] I am of course not prepared to say whether the words we are now told are in The Iliad or The Odyssey were there in the original or very early stage or if they are a later interpolation or redaction. Nevertheless, whenever those words were fixed in the order we use, it was so two to three millennia before Tolkien.
[42] My understanding is that it has been tried in English, Longfellow’s Evangeline being an example. Neither Tolkien nor any of his commentators with whom I am acquainted has suggested he did anywhere.
[43] Thoreau, Henry, D. Walden, or, Life in the Woods. The Portable Thoreau. The Viking Press, 1947, ps. 352-356.
[44] Journal, Vol. V, November 11, 1853, p. 494. Nor would the statement Shakespeare put into Mark Anthony’s speaking to the plebians satisfy our requirements– “You are not wood, you are not stones, but men.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 3, l. 121, in the original). I so quickly came across other examples just in Thoreau that I believe it is simply a ubiquitous combination for him and other nature writers. Someone else may prove me wrong.
[45] Thoreau, Henry D. The Maine Woods, edited by J. J. Moldenhauer. Princeton University Press, 1972, p. 71.
[46] Thoreau, Henry D. Wild Fruits. Edited by Bradley P. Dean. W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, p. 168.
[47] To my surprise, the importance of Milton to Thoreau and others in early America is well documented. Van Anglen, K. P. The New England Milton: Literary Reception and Cultural Authority in the Early Republic. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993, ps. 60, 189-228.
[48] “I am not a stock or stone, as one said in the old time. . . .” is found in a July 28, 1838 letter to Henry Ware, Jr.  Myerson, ed., Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 186.
[49] Grimm Bros. Kinder und Hausmärchen. Verlag der Dieterichschen Buchhandlung, 1857, p. 292.
[50] The brothers were apparently quite familiar with and admired the English language. “When we consider the richness, good sense and strict economy of English, none of the other living languages can be put beside it.” Mencken, A New Dictionary of Quotations. Alfred A. Knopf, 1977 attributed to “Jacob Grimm: Ueber den Ursprung der Sprache, 1851”.
[51] Valentine, William Winston. New High German: A Comparative Study, Vol. II – Syntax, edited by A H. Keane. Isbister & Co., 1894, p. 189.
[52] See, generally, Peppard, Murray B. Paths through the Forest: A Biography of the Brothers Grimm. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
[53] From Palmer, Leonard. The Greek Language. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. A modern work on the Ancient Greek language I still struggle with after reading the chapters on Homer and some other authors at least three times.
[54] Thoreau read voraciously, but not novels. “For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into man weather-cocks, as they used to put heroes among the constellations, and let them swing round there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks. The next time the novelist rings the bell I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down.” Walden, ps. 357-358. Arguably, like Tolkien, he could be a literary snob. I say “arguably,” because they have earned the right.
[56] I was delighted to find that this was also true of Tolkien, although even more so than with me. He once wrote to his son, “I suddenly realized that I am a pure philologist. I like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names!” Letters, p. 264.
[57] A concept in which I believe not at all – but which appeals to the imagination all the same.
[58] As Forte puts it, a “linguistic ‘universal’” P. 2, fn. 3.
[59] Journal, Vol. XIII, February 23, 1860, p. 160.
[60] Thoreau, Henry D.  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Doer Publications, 2001, p. 211.

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 . . . .