Inspired by the work of Carl Lingard, who has gone into great depth at his blog, thewindrose.net looking at Tolkien’s “secret grammar” and the hidden etymologies of many names and places in The Lord of the Rings, I did a bit of research of my own into some character names, with the help of wiktionary and etymology online.
At Lingard’s recommendation, I also read Mahmoud Shelton’s Alchemy in Middle-earth, an amazing and deeply insightful book which opens up Tolkien’s legendarium to closer analysis of its real-world connections and allusions. This book, more than any out there, reveals just how deeply Tolkien considered the symbolism of alchemy and hermeticism, and how it informs the Rings.
My first stop, quite arbitrarily, was to look at the name ‘Pippin’ and its possible significance. It’s notionally a contracted form of ‘Peregrine’ which is pilgrim or wanderer, but the name ‘Pippin’ has some significance in its own right. It comes from ‘pip’ which, curiously, also indicates ‘phlegm’:
late 14c., pippe, probably from Middle Dutch pippe “mucus,” from West Germanic *pipit (source also of East Frisian pip, Middle High German pfipfiz, German Pips), an early borrowing from Vulgar Latin *pippita, an unexplained alteration of Latin pituita “phlegm”
Immediately this got me thinking about the four humours, and it seemed appropriate to me that Pippin should be associated with the phlegmatic humour – he is calm, cool and collected, but there is also a negative side to him, which rubs up against Gandalf.
I next considered Samwise Gamgee, whom it occurred to me might correspond to the sanguine humour/temperament, for he is in many ways the bravest hobbit and the most magnanimous in spite of his parochialism. Indeed, what arrested me was the closeness between his name ‘Samwise’ and the Latin sanguis (blood); Anglo-Saxon for ‘wise’ – wís – is phonetically almost identical to the ‘-uis’ of sanguis.
In Westron, his name is Banazir Galbasi, with his surname often contracted to ‘Galpsi’, and this may be an allusion to his weight, which is not mentioned directly in the book. There were two notable leaders (like Samwise, the mayor of the Shire) with the name Galba; a Roman Emperor who succeeded Nero, and a Gaulish king.
Suetonius says that in Gaulish Galba means “fat” (compare Old Irish golb, “paunchy, fat”), and Galba is usually regarded as Celtic in origin.
Most significant, regarding Carl Lingard’s theories about Tolkien’s “sacred geometry” is the ‘-nazir’ component of Sam’s name:
nadir (n.) late 14c., in astronomy, “imaginary point of the celestial sphere vertically opposite to the zenith of the sun; the inferior pole of the horizon,” from Medieval Latin nadir, from Arabic nazir “opposite to,” in nazir as-samt, literally “opposite direction,” from nazir “opposite” + as-samt “road, path” (see zenith). Transferred sense of “lowest point” of anything is recorded by 1793.
For the significance of the “opposite” plane to Tolkien’s symbolism I would have to refer the reader to Lingard’s blog, http://www.thewindrose.net/
Meriadoc (“Merry”) Brandybuck was a difficult one to tie in, since I was sure that if my assumptions were correct he should be of a choleric temperament. Looking at ‘Merry’ on etymology online I came across some curious connections:
Middle English mirie, from Old English myrge “pleasing, agreeable, pleasant, sweet, exciting feelings of enjoyment and gladness” (said of grass, trees, the world, music, song); also as an adverb, “pleasantly, melodiously,” from Proto-Germanic *murgijaz, which probably originally meant “short-lasting,” (compare Old High German murg “short,” Gothic gamaurgjan “to shorten”), from PIE root *mregh-u- “short.” The only exact cognate for meaning outside English was Middle Dutch mergelijc “joyful.”
Merry-bout “an incident of sexual intercourse” was low slang from 1780. Merry-begot “illegitimate” (adj.), also “bastard” (n.) are in Grose (1785). Merrie England (now frequently satirical or ironic) is c. 1400, meri ingland, originally in a broader sense of “bountiful, prosperous.” Merry Monday was a 16c. term for “the Monday before Shrove Tuesday” (Mardi Gras).
Obviously the sense of “shortness” caught my attention, and seemed very much an intentional feature of this hobbit’s name. Yet the association with illegitimacy also struck me as curious. There seemed to be nothing in this, however, to suggest temperament, unless it be his agreeableness. The choleric temperament contributes to an irascible, “fiery” mood, and a penchant for violence when hard pressed; and we do notice that it is Merry who is most keen of all the Hobbits to rouse the Shire against Sharkey’s men. He is the most war-like of the four.
Considering his Westron surname Brandagamba, I suspected a connection to the viola da gamba (viol of the leg) and that instrument family in general. The viola da braccio (viol of the arm) is the ancestor of the modern viola and violin, and there is also a viola da bastarda which is a kind of hybrid of the two. Tolkien has his dwarves in the Hobbit play a chest of viols – one of the book’s notable anachronisms – and he probably had at least a mild interest in the revival of “early music” which was taking off in the 20th century. And ‘viol’ is phonetically very close to ‘bile’, to which the choleric humour is attributed.
Looking, moreover, at Merry’s parentage, it is notable that the names of his father Saradoc (“scattergold”) and his mother Esmeralda (Emerald) correspond to the colours yellow and green, which are the colours of the bile of the choleric. The last piece of this puzzle is his Westron name Kalimac, which is remarkably close to Greek Kalimakhos – “fighting nobly”, from κάλλος (kállos, “beauty, nobility”) + μᾰ́χη (mákhē, “fight”) + -ος (-os, masculine nominal ending). This seems to me the strongest indication of his warlike temperament.
Finally, I knew that Frodo must correspond somehow to the melancholic temperament. This humour underwent a “revaluation” in the Renaissance, from being regarded as the least desirable, to the humour of divine “furor” or the frenzy of inspiration which produced men of genius. There remained in it a dual aspect which informs Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, who is the literary exemplar of this temperament.
In the Rings, I think we can pair Frodo and Gollum as melancholiacs, since they share the attachment to the one ring. The negative side of the melancholiac made him avaricious, lustful, and anti-social. Gollum is all three with regards to the ring and even prior to discovering it it is clear from Gandalf’s account that he was something of an outsider in his community. Frodo, similarly, receives little recognition in the Shire for his role in the destruction of the ring, a fact which grieves Samwise. He is prone to bouts of despair, but also to inspired dreams, and is recognised from the beginning by Gandalf as ‘the best’ of the hobbits.
The melancholiac was typically swarthy, and this seems to be reflected in Gollum’s complexion (even if it is not natural to him), and had a love of numbers and treasure. In the beginning of Fellowship, various hobbits discuss the rumours of the Bagginses’ great wealth, of gold and ‘jools’ which are supposed to be holed up in Bag End.
Direct, linguistic connections at first appear more tenuous. There is the fact that Frodo is frequently called ‘my lad’ and ‘lad’ by Bilbo, and Samwise calls one of his sons ‘Frodo-lad’. The speech-sound ‘lad’ does correspond distantly with lead, the metal associated with melancholy:
lead (n.1) – heavy metal, Old English lead “lead, leaden vessel,” from West Germanic *lauda- (source also of Old Frisian lad, Middle Dutch loot, Dutch lood “lead,” German Lot “weight, plummet”), a word of uncertain origin. The name and the skill in using the metal seem to have been borrowed from the Celts (compare Old Irish luaide).
There is, perhaps, a connection with Lotho Baggins here, and even with Frodo’s father Drogo, who is rumoured to have sunk a rowing boat with his weight, thus drowning himself and Frodo’s mother. The origins of ‘lad’ are themselves obscure:
OED hazards a guess on Middle English ladde, plural of the past participle of lead (v.), thus “one who is led” (by a lord).
“One who is led” or “one who is lead”? Recall that Tolkien worked on the OED for a couple of years.
Yet the real key to the humoural connection is Frodo’s Westron name – Maura Labingi.
Mavra is a girl’s name meaning “swarthy, Moorish, dark” and is of Russian and Latin origin. This name comes from Latin “Maurus,” meaning “belonging to the people of the Moors.” It was a word for the people who lived in a region of Africa called “Mauretania,” which extended from Algeria to Morocco and northern Mauritania. The Romans probably gave them the name because of the dark colour of the skin. The Latin term derives from the Greek word Amauros, meaning “moor, dark,” or Amaurosis (αμαύρωση) Browning, burnishing (burned or tanned).
The melancholy temperament is connected to the “dark” complexion, to black bile, and etymologically it comes from Greek melas (genitive melanos) “black”. Another meaning to the name Mavra is ‘star of the sea’, an epithet for the Virgin Mary. The importance of stars and the sea in Tolkien (and of the Blessed Virgin) hardly needs to be stressed. Consider the end of Frodo’s story in the Rings.
The -bing- element of Labingi also suggests the following:
From Middle English bing, binge, benge, from Old Norse bingr (“heap of corn; bed; bolster”), cognate with Scots bing, Swedish binge (“heap”), Danish bing (“bin; box; compartment”).
Compare also Scottish Gaelic binnean meaning a small hill or slag heap.
This calls to mind the heaps of treasure which formed the dragon Smaug’s hoard. It should be noted also that Frodo’s original name in drafts of the Rings was Bingo.
What does all this indicate for the wider purpose Tolkien had in mind for these characters? I would suggest that, just as it is hinted that Frodo was ‘meant’ to find the ring, (by Eru, ultimately), the four hobbits are in some sense chosen by Eru for their complementarity. Together, and not singly, they are balanced and blended harmoniously, such that they can rescue the Shire from its near-destruction in the end of the Rings. They have undergone, individually and collectively, a process of alchemical purification and transmutation, and are ready to face the challenges of the world on their own – without the help of Gandalf.
‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’
This investigation could next be taken in the direction of the elemental correspondences with the four humours and the four hobbits. For instance, if the choleric temperament corresponds to fire, we might wonder how (and whether) Merry is associated with fire? There is, for instance, his cry:
Awake! Awake! Fear, Fire, Foes!
Awake! Fire, Foes! Awake!
What of Pippin and water? Samwise and air? Frodo and earth? I think we have only begun to scratch beyond the surface of this great work of literature, and it is to be hoped that the research will keep on going uncovering greater and greater depths to The Lord of the Rings.