Ing - or Sheave - or Scyld? (Artist: Emil Doepler)

Richard Rohlin on ‘King Sheave’

  • The following is a guest post by Richard W. Rohlin:

I’ve been taking a close look at Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ poem (you can read the full text here). This poem has completely captivated my attention and I’ve come back to it several times over the course of the semester when I really should have been working on other things.

As I detail in my research paper ‘Men out of the Sea: Corn-kings and Culture Heroes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,’ the ‘King Sheave’ poem is an effort on Tolkien’s part to connect the “corn-king” and Sceaf/Sheave legends of Northern Europe with the Númenorean cycle of his mythology. All right, so that’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the point is that it was part of an evolving effort to engage with the Sceaf legend. You can read all about this in The Lost Road, volume V of The History of Middle Earth. What I’m more interested in for purposes of this post is the way that Tolkien engages with the mythical past of Northern Europe, not just through his subject matter, but through his diction.

King Sheave is written in Germanic alliterative verse – one of many such poems Tolkien wrote throughout his life. As you may know, there are several different styles of alliterative verse, and Tolkien seems to have been comfortable with most of them. ‘King Sheave,’ however, is written in a specifically Old English form of alliterative verse, which makes sense since at this time Tolkien was still very much taken with the idea of a “mythology for the English.” The subject-matter too is strongly tied to the exordium of Beowulf, that gnarled great-grandaddy of English poetry. In many ways, Tolkien’s treatment of the King Sheave legend can be seen as very similar to what he was doing (as a fairy tale, instead of a myth) with ‘Sellic Spell’ (Tolkien’s re-imagining of the “Bee-boy” fairy tale on which he believed Beowulf to have been partly based) – giving us the story behind the story, as it were.

Illustration from Fredrik Sander's 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda

Illustration from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda

In any case, ‘King Sheave’ is an inherently Northern (and English) poetic form treating on an inherently Northern (and English) poetic substance. But Tolkien goes beyond mere form and subject to give us something which is also distinctly English in a linguistic sense.

Modern English (in which ‘King Sheave’ is of course written) is a hodgepodge of influences from older languages – both Germanic (Old English, Danish, Old Norse, etc.) and Italic (Latin, Old French, etc.). It’s virtually impossible to compose any lengthy work of literary art without using a heavy dose of words originating in any and all of the above. According to Wikipedia, while 97% of the first 100 most common Modern English words originate in a Germanic language, that number drops to 57% in the first 1000 and 39% in the second 1000. A computerized survey of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary estimated that only 25% of the words in Modern English have a Germanic (including Old English) origin.

A survey by Joseph M. Williams in Origins of the English Language of 10,000 words taken from several thousand business letters gave this set of statistics:

– French (langue d’oïl): 41%
– “Native” English: 33%
– Latin: 15%
– Old Norse: 2%
– Dutch: 1%
– Other: 10%

(All statistics shamelessly borrowed from Wikipedia)

All of this means that it’d be a very difficult thing indeed to write a work of literary art – say, a poem – using an exclusively Old English or even Germanic vocabulary. Yet, in ‘King Sheave,’ Tolkien comes very close to doing just this.

Parsing through the nouns and verbs found in the first stanza of the poem, I identified 57 root words, then researched the etymology on each individual word. What I found is as follows:

– 42 words are of direct Old English etymology – a staggering 72.4%.
– 6 words are of direct Old Norse or other Scandinavian etymology – 10.3%.
– 9 of Itallic (Latin or Old French) etymology – 15.5%.

In ‘King Sheave,’ Tolkien also gives us an inherently Northern (and English) diction, on which we would not find in just any poetic work (for instance, Pope’s translation of The Illiad). This survey is in no way intended to be exhaustive, however it furnishes us with an example of something which Tolkien did (and probably did more or less subconsciously) very well: he could choose words that belonged to their subject matter. For, as C.S. Lewis once said of him, “He had been inside language.”

  • This post was written by Richard W. Rohlin for sharing in the Middle Earth Google+ Community and is reposted here with permission. Richard is a software developer, author, and aspiring Inklings Studies scholar, currently pursuing an M.A. at Signum University. He has also published four works of modern superhero fiction through Grapple Gun Publishing.