Note: The following is an updated version of a post I wrote and published elsewhere on March 13, 2009
Dumbledore and hobbits.
By now, we are all familiar with Dumbledore as a character in the Harry Potter series.
While surfing through the Oxford English Dictionary yesterday I happened to notice an entry for this word. Since the dictionary was published in the early 20th Century after 30+ years of compilation, the entry has nothing to do with Harry Potter–even if J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the contributing editors to the dictionary.
In Hampshire and Cornwall, and probably elsewhere, dumbledore was a local name for the humble-bee, better known to most of us in North America as the bumblebee. The word may have originated from imitations of the sound of the buzzing bee.
A quote illustrating the usage of the word in context is from 1799 and goes
“Is it not the humble-bee, or what we call the ‘dumbledore,’– a word whose descriptive droning deserves a place in song?’
Another quote, from 1837 states:
“Of bees, however, let me be likened to a Dumbledore, which Dr. Southey says is the most good natured of God’s Insects.”
The last statement is accurate: bumblebees aren’t known to sting, unlike honey bees.
The latest quote to show a usage of the word is dated 1880, but that may simply mean the entry was compiled shortly after that date, and it may have been used more recently.
Now, about those hobbits. As I’ve stated, (Prof.) J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the assistants who worked on this magnificent dictionary. His time of participating in the project was toward the end of the time it was edited by a man named Bradley, so somewhere between 1901 and 1923.
One of the entries in the OED is hobbits. It turns out this word evolved from ‘hobbitzer,’ which in turn is a dialectical English pronunciation of howitzer.
A howitzer is the kind of small canon pulled around by a horse or, later, behind a jeep.
Yeah, an odd thing, that.
Tolkien, a renowned language scholar and expert in older forms of English and Germanic languages, would have spent much time doing research using the dictionary- which when the final volume was published in 1921, ran to 10 volumes and 15,487 pages. So he certainly would have come across this and used it as the source of the name for Bilbo and Frodo’s folk-kind.
After reading about Dumbledore, I looked to see if Gandalf might be listed.
The only listing close to this is gander, meaning either a male goose, or the act of wandering around, generally in an apparently aimless manner. However, in earlier times gander might have had the more specific meaning of ‘wild goose.’
Because of this, I think it is plausible to assert that Gandalf is short for ‘gandering elf,’ a phrase which has a deeper layered meaning which could be translated as an elf who is a ‘wandering wild goose.’
That certainly is an appropriate description of this character, and no doubt most of his mysterious wanderings would appear to be aimless to most folk who saw him pass by.
There is also the probability that in the distant past wild geese in flight would sometimes have been viewed as some kind of pantheistic spirits, as omens. As Coyote and Raven often were and, by some, still are. Tolkien could well have drawn on this colouring in choosing this name.
It is okay to assume Gandalf was/ is an elf. Santa Claus is, and in his present form, has his origins in the character Puck. For a long time in Germanic and Nordic folklore, elven folk, fairies and many of the other pantheistic beings were about the same size and form as the mortals of middle earth (i.e., humans…) They just had other abilities- or sciences- we don’t have, sciences which appear to us as magic.
Alongside all this is a larger process of re-fashioning elements from the native pagan religious traditions of Northern Europe- and elsewhere – into entertaining folklore and literature. Other examples of this process are behind the concept of fairies, who originally appear to be drawn from Peris, a part of the religious traditions of Zoroastrian and other Mesopotamian religious traditions as adopted into Arabic folklore. Another (formerly) pagan elemental being included in Lord Of The Rings is Tom Bombadil, the caretaker of the Ents, if you view him- or the Ents- as a reworking of The Green Man and/or The Wild Man Of The Forest.
I quite appreciate that Tolkien had these deeper layers of meaning and symbolism in his writing. It reinforces my belief that The Lord Of The Rings is one of the greatest works of the English language in particular, and World Literature in general, and the ultimate distillation of (mainly) Northern European folklore and legends.
NB: Since I wrote this, in 2009 I learned of a Norwegian tradition which dates back thousands of years. Norwegians carve joined wedding spoons from, usually, birch. These would be engraved with incised decorations called kolrosing. From the blog I discovered this on, linked below:
“Kolrosing looks a bit like scrimshaw. A drawing is made by scribing into the wood with a knife. The fine line is nearly invisible until powdered birch bark is rubbed into the cut, darkening the lines. This is sealed with oil, and then sanded to knock down the burr from the knife cut.”
The author says that the lines in kolrosing are
“ … like invisible ink being exposed. In fact, kolrosing is used on these joined wedding spoons. The spoons and the chain that links them together are carved from a single piece of wood and then inscribed with decorations.”
She goes on to say
“The decorations remain invisible until the bride and groom both eat pudding from the same bowl with these spoons, and the fat in the pudding darkens the lines. Presto magic! “ (Italics mine)”
These two quotes, by California woodworker and artist Ashley Jameson Eriksmoen, are from her August 2006 posts at:
It is possible that Tolkien, an expert in Nordic languages and folklore, knew of this cultural tradition and that The One Ring To Unite Them All is based on The Wedding Spoons To Unite Them.