Reading in ‘Lord of the Rings': Part I

The following ruminations have their origin in an explanation of the epithet ‘Unready’ given to the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred that I encountered in Eleanor Parker’s excellent A Short History of the Danish Conquest:

Æthelred has gone down in history as the ‘unready’, an epithet which was not, in origin, a comment on his preparedness, but on an irony of his name: in Old English Æthelræd means ‘noble counsel’, and unræd therefore means ‘bad counsel, lack of wisdom’.

This (inevitably) set me thinking about Tolkien, where counsel is a key theme and kings can be counselled both well and ill – Theoden under the spell of Wormtongue was ‘unready’, but with Gandalf as his counsellor he becomes ‘ready’.

I asked Eleanor’s advice on further reading on ræd and she directed me to a fascinating essay by Nicholas Howe entitled ‘The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England’ (in Old English Literature, ed. R.M. Liuzza, Yale, 2002). Howe points out that the Old English ræd predates the arrival of literacy: the word, as also its Germanic cognates, originally meant to give advice or counsel and to explain something obscure, such as a riddle.

On turning to The Lord of the Rings, we find just such an early use of ‘read’ in the words of Erestor at the Council of Elrond:

‘Then,’ said Erestor, ‘there are but two courses, as Glorfindel already has declared: to hide the Ring for ever; or to unmake it. But both are beyond our power. Who will read this riddle for us?’

Erestor is not using ‘read’ metaphorically, but in its earlier, pre-literate, sense. The same applies to the many uses of the word spoken by Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they pursue the Orcs accross Rohan. To give but three examples:

‘That is true,’ said Aragorn. ‘But if I read the signs back yonder rightly, the Orcs of the White Hand prevailed…’

‘That would not baffle a Ranger,’ said Gimli. ‘A bent blade is enough for Aragorn to read. But I do not expect him to find any traces. It was an evil phantom of Saruman that we saw last night. … ‘So I thought,’ said Aragorn; ‘but I cannot read the riddle, unless they return’.

‘There was sorcery here right enough,’ said Gimli. ‘What was that old man doing? What have you to say, Aragorn, to the reading of Legolas. Can you better it?’

Tolkien is illustrating an early, pre-literate, use of ræd. So how, in fact, did this term come to be metaphorically extended to give us our modern ‘reading’?

Howe points out that in a pre-literate society both giving counsel and answering a riddle are speech acts, that is, they entail a speaking out loud to an audience. And he further points out that the first Anglo-Saxon reading (in the modern sense) occurred in the context of the monasteries, where someone who had mastered the art of reading would read out loud a Biblical text (written in Latin) and interpret its meaning to those around him.

In a culture unaccustomed to the written text, the act of reading would have seemed remarkably like solving a riddle. For it meant translating meaningless but somehow magical squiggles on a leaf of vellum into significant discourse… The squiggles must be made to speak.

I suspect that Tolkien was invoking such early English reading practices in the scene in Moria where the Company gather around Gandalf as he pores over and reads out of a battered book found near Balin’s tomb. But at the western gate, before the Company enter Moria, Tolkien clearly plays with the etymology of ‘reading’.

‘What does the writing say?’ asked Frodo, who was trying to decipher the inscription on the arch. ‘I thought I knew the elf-letters, but I cannot read these.’

‘The words are in the elven-tongue of the West of Middle earth in the Elder Days,’ answered Gandalf. ‘But they do not say anything of importance to us. They say only: The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria. Speak, friend, and enter. And underneath small and faint is written: I, Narvi, made them. Celebrimbor of Hollin drew these signs.

Gandalf both reads and fails to read the inscription: he reads the Elf-letters in our modern sense of turning the mysterious signs into intelligible words; yet he fails (at least at first) to read the riddle made up by these words.