Saturday, July 23, 2022



Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 272-274, with note on p. 376 (on Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major):
There is furthermore one element which seems to me a clear case of Tolkienian private symbolism, and that is the name of Smith's main antagonist throughout the work, the rude and incompetent Master Cook, Nokes. As I have said repeatedly, Tolkien was for some time perhaps the one person in the world who knew most about names, especially English names, and was most deeply interested in them. He wrote about them, commented on them, brought them up in conversation. With all the names in the telephone book to draw on, Tolkien is unlikely to have picked out just one name without considering what it meant: and 'Nokes' contains two clues as to its meaning. One is reinforced by the names of Smith's wife and son and daughter, Nell and Nan and Ned, all of them marked by 'nunnation', the English habit of putting an 'n' in front of a word, and especially a name, which originally did not have one, like Eleanor and Ann and Edward.4 In Nokes's case one can go further and observe place-names, as for instance Noke — a town in Oxfordshire not far from Brill — whose name is known to have been derived from Old English æt þam ácum, 'at the oaks'. This became in Middle English *atten okes, and in Modern English, by mistake, 'at Noke' or 'at Nokes'. There is no doubt that Tolkien knew all this, for there is a character called 'old Noakes' in the Shire, and Tolkien commented on his name, giving very much the explanation above, in his 'Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings', written probably in the late 1950s. Tolkien there wrote off the meaning of 'Noakes' as 'unimportant', as indeed it is for The Lord of the Rings, but it would be entirely characteristic of him to remember an unimportant philological point and turn it into an important one later.

The second clue lies in the derivation from 'oak'. 'Oak' had a special meaning for Tolkien, pointed out by Christopher Tolkien in his footnote to Shadow, p. 145.† In his early career as Professor at the University of Leeds, Tolkien had devised a system of splitting the curriculum of English studies into two separate groups or 'schemes', the 'A-scheme' and the 'B-scheme'. The A-scheme was for students of literature, the B-scheme for the philologists. Tolkien clearly liked this system, and tried unsuccessfully to introduce it to Oxford in 1930 with similar nomenclature (see 'OES', p. 780). But in his private symbolism 'A' was represented by the Old English rune-name ác, 'oak', 'B' by Old English beorc, 'birch'. Oaks were critics and birches philologists, and Tolkien made the point perfectly clear in Songs for the Philologists, for which see below. As must surely be obvious from chapters 1 and 2 of this work, oaks were furthermore the enemy: the enemy of philology, the enemy of imagination, the enemy of dragons. I do not think that Tolkien could ever have forgotten this.

† As often, I am amazed that did not at first recognise this, for at the time of my first comments on Smith I was still holding Tolkien's former position at the University of Leeds, and was in charge of the B-scheme, still in existence (though now no more). The B = birch equation, however, was no longer current.

4 Compare 'the skin o' my nuncle Tim' in Sam's 'Rhyme of the Troll', LOTR, p. 201. Many years before Tolkien had noted 'naunt' for 'aunt' in Sir Gawain; and Haigh's Huddersfield glossary of 1928 (see above) showed that saying 'aunt' instead of 'nont' was considered affected by his older informants. As often, old English survived only as vulgar modern English.

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