Monday 15 February 2016

The name ‘Nodens’ by JRR Tolkien

This is a rare and hard to access example of Tolkien's detailed philological reasoning, of the same kind which he applied to the Old English word Earendil, and which led to the Silmarillion legendarium.

In this piece he begins with a single Latin word derived from a Roman inscription, and – by multiple comparisons with other languages, inferences concerning sound changes, and a deeply informed and scientifically-disciplined use of creative imagination, links this word to a range of historical and mythical associations.

In other words, beginning with a word, he ends with a god and the nature of the society in which he was worshipped. I have edited this version for the general reader – so it is not word by word an accurate transcription – I have changed the punctuation, left out pronunciation accents, and added or changed the occasional word to clarify or join-up sentences.

I have also cut about a half of the length, to focus on Tolkien’s argument rather than the supporting philological evidence, which includes a lot of ancient languages and phonological script – and which, anyway, I do not remotely understand. 


The Name 'Nodens' by JRR Tolkien

The name Nodens occurs in three inscriptions from the excavation, and may also have occurred in a mosaic. The inscriptions most probably represent a Keltic stem inferred to be 'noudent'.

Now this is precisely the form required as the Old and Middle Irish form of mythological and heroic name Nuada. Nuadu was Argat-lam – King of the Silver Hand who ruled the Tuatha de Danann – the possessors of Ireland before the Milesians. 

The Tuatha de Danann may with some probability, amid the wild welter of medieval Irish legend, be regarded as in great measure the reduced form of ancient gods and goddesses. Although it is perhaps vain to try and disentangle from the things told of Nuada any of the features of Nodens of the Silures in Gloucestershire, it is at least highly probable that the two were originally the same.

That figures of British origin could intrude into Ireland is not impossible. Cuchulinn (Setana) himself is suspect. But the fact that outside Ireland (where the name figures largely) Nodens-Nuada occurs only in Britain, in the west, in one place, and nowhere else in the Keltic area, never in Gaul, has led to the more likely conjecture that Nodens in a Goidelic god, probably introduced eastward into Britain, unless one can believe that the Goidels reached Ireland by way of Britain and left his cult behind him.

It is possible to see a memory of this figure in the medieval Welsh Lludd Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’) – the ultimate origin of King Lear – whose daughter Creiddylad (Cordelia) was carried off, after her betrothal to Gwythyr vab Greiddawl, by Gwynn vab Nudd, a figure having some connexions with the underworld.

Concerning Creiddylad there appears anciently to have been told a tale of an everlasting fight, which has often been cited as a parallel to the legend in Old Norse of the endless battle of Hethinn Hjarrandason and King Hogni over Hogni’s daughter Hildr whom Hethin carried off. Gwynnvab Nudd and Gwythrare to fight for Creiddylad every first of May until doomsday, when the final conquerer shall win her.

It is conceivable that Lludd (father) and Gwynn vab Nudd (suitor) both owe something, in the late confusion of traditions, to a common ancestor. Certainly the normal Welsh form of Nuada-Nodens would be Nudd. The fixing of the father’s name as Lludd may have owed something to alliteration with his surname.

In the Scandinavian story, the father (Hogni) is one of the pair of everlasting combatants. But even if this is true, and Lludd Llaw Ereint is related to Nuada Argat-lam, it of course proves nothing concerning the place from which this legendary figure came ultimately into Britain.

Of Nuada Argat-lam it is told that he was at war with both Firbolg and Fomorians. He lost his hand in the first battle, and the royalty passed with it for seven years to Bress, chief of the Fomorians. The Tuatha de Danann made a new hand 'with full motions of a hand' for him. Hence his surname. For twenty years he regained his royalty, but finally perished in battle against the Fomorians. 

Other Nuadas appear in Irish. These may be in part scattered memories of an originally single mythological figure, though this is not a necessary conclusion, since in other cases 'divine' names are found later surviving as ordinary personal names. 

There was Nuada son of Tadg (Teague), supreme druid of Cathair the Great, king of Ireland in the second Irish epic cycle, and ancestor of the Ossianic line of heroes. This cycle purports to refer to events of the second century AD, when Nodens was already, presumably, worshipped in Britain; but the cycles are not reliable history. The Coir Anmann ('Fitness of Names) is a manuscript of circa AD 1500 in Middle Irish, but it is some centuries older than its hand, and contains much very ancient tradition...

Of Nuada Airgetlam it says: Streng mac Senghainn cut off Nuada's right hand in combat at the battle of Mag Tured Cunga, when the Tuatha de Danann invaded Erin. The leeches of the Tuatha de Danann put on Nuada a hand of silver with the complete motion of every hand. '

If not an established certainty, it is, then, at least a probable theory that there was a divine personage of whom the chief later representative is the Nuada of the Silver Hand in Irish tradition, and that this Nuada is the same as the Nodens which occurs in curious and suggestive isolation in these British inscriptions. 

Linguistic considerations unaided by other data can do little, usually, to recall forgotten gods from the twilight. The form of this name is, however, favourable.  In Gothic, the earliest recorded language of the Germanic group and preserved in a form spoken at a time when Nodens' temple possibly still had votaries, clear traces remain of an older sense. There gu-niutan means 'to catch, entrap (as a hunter)'. 

Whether the god was called the 'snarer' or the 'catcher' or the 'hunter' in some sinister sense, or merely as being a lord of venery, mere etymology can hardly say. It is suggestive, however, that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost. 

Even in the dimmed memories of Welsh legend in Llaw Ereint, we still hear an echo of the ancient fame of the magic hand of Nodens the Catcher.

Reference: Appendix One of the Report on the excavation of the Prehistoric, Roman, and post-Roman sites in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. 1932. Volume 50, Number 1. Oxford University Press: London, pages 132-7.


Anonymous said...

Delightful to see this less-well-known side of Tolkien the scholar getting attention! Curiously, Arthur Machen included an inscription to Nodens in his short story, "The Great God Pan", and H.P. Lovecraft took up the name in his fiction, as well.

The Wikipedia article "Nodens", seems well worth a look, though I am not scholar enough to evaluate most of it.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks very much for the extra information and context - I had casually assumed that nothing more had been written about Nodens than this one piece by Tolkien!

Anonymous said...

We once had a very interesting talk by Professor Alan J. Bliss at the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society surveying Tolkien's scholarly writings and work - in a certain sense, if Tolkien's fiction had never been published, and in any case before The Lord of the Rings was, how Tolkien was known, and would have gone on being known. I can't remember whether it was after we started recording meetings (when the speaker was willing) - if it was, it may still be there in Michael Ward's care. (It may have been shortly after his edition of Tolkien's Finn and Hengest appeared. I can't remember if he spoke from notes, and in a quick search now have not found anything about what happened to his papers since his sadly early death in 1985 - though I see his The Scansion of Beowulf was edited and published posthumously, ten years later.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I am no philologost - and my knowledge comes almost entirely via Tom Shippey; but within my limits I am fascinated by the discipline. It is usually forgotten that philology was, for a while in the 1800s, the queen of humanities subjects. Nietzsche was, of course, a premier philologist (Classical, rather than Teutonic), also AE Houseman - and indeed Enoch Powell!

If you haven't yet read Shippey's Roots and Branches essay collection - you are in for a real treat! It is simply superb.

Bruce Charlton said...

NOTE: THe mis-spelling 'philologost' above was merely careless and unintentional - although it does make an amusing self-deprecatory joke! (So I shall let it stand.)