Saturday 18 November 2023

A note on the silver-handed Nodens and Tar-Telemmaite - resonances across the decades in JRR Tolkien

From The name Nodens by JRR Tolkien - 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.

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... 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... 

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... 

It is suggestive, however, that the most remarkable thing about Nuada was his hand, and that without his hand his power was lost.

From Tar-Telemmaite, 15th monarch of Numenor. In "The Line of Elros" in JRR Tolkien Unfinished Tales, 1980. 

The date of this writing is not given, but adjascent material on Numenor is dated to after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, around 1965.  

...The King was so called because of his love of silver, and he bade his servants to seek ever for mithril. 

Note 31 and Index entry concerning Tar-Telemmaite by Christopher Tolkien: " said to have been called so (i.e. 'silver-handed') because of his love of silver..." "Fifteenth ruler of Numenor, so named ('Silver-handed') for his love of silver".

An etymological note from Paul Strack states that his name is a compound of an assimilated form of telpĂ« ("silver") and the adjective element maitĂ« ("handed").    

JRR Tolkien's "The name Nodens" is an early and little known publication; an appendix concerning an inscription, following an archaeological excavation report. In this, the ancient Celtic god Nodens is described as "silver-handed"; with a magical hand made from silver from which he derived great prowess. 

Perhaps thirty-plus years later, Tolkien described one of the Kings of Numenor as again "silver-handed"; but this time, because of his love of the precious metal silver - particularly of the 'true silver' mithril. 

Different kinds of being, different reasons for the name; but surely Tolkien's early description of an heroic silver-handed Celtic god resonated in his mind with the covetous Numenorean?



William Wright (WW) said...

It seems probable that both the Celtic God myth as well as the Numenorean King's desire to be known as Tar-Telemmaite are both based on the character of the original 'Silver Hand': Celebrimbor.

The 'power' becoming associated with the hand would possibly be derived from two Tolkien story elements:

First, the power that this God-like Being (Celebrimbor) had in creating, with his own hand, power from true-silver/ mithril, as with the Elessar, the ring Nenya, and other things.

Second, the power that any wearer of these artifacts was granted from the artifacts themselves. Thus, the wearer of Nenya (Galadriel) drew power from the fact that she had this silver and jewel upon her hand. A hand clad in silver becoming a source of power. In later myths, such as those with Nodens, the ring became confused with the actual hand itself, which makes sense since the ring was invisible to most, with any onlooker attributing any shining or power to the hand, as Sam remarked to Galadriel: "I saw only a star through your fingers".

As the Numenoreans became more afraid of death and the shadow, perhaps knowledge of such things drove them to covet them? Meaning, it wasn't just covetousness of riches for the sake of riches, but the potential power that could be obtained. One could potentially imagine Telemmaite and the other King's Men fashioning many such rings in a vain hope to replicate the power said to be contained in other things of mithril.

But Telemmaite was no Celebrimbor - just shared the name, and likely for all the wrong reasons as you suggest.

Anyway, just wanted to add that there is that third, and most important in my opinion, silver-hand reference.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William W - Yes indeed! - there is another echo of the same idea. Paul Strack has "silver-fist' as the main gloss, but "hand of silver" as an alternative (

This time the silver handed one is a craftsman, primarily - yet another interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Excellent - thank you (both)!

I too little have thought of Tolkien as a Celtic scholar - also a distinct aspect of The Notion Club Papers, I have come to realize (my apologies if you spelled this out years ago, and I missed - or worse - somehow dumbfoundingly forgot it).

Listening to Andy Serkis's LotR recording, how many hand references strike me - including Aragorn and Treebeard.

And I have a growing sense of the fineness of Tolkien's resonant word-choices, uniting his scholarship and fiction - and this is another.

How does - or might - that famous 'combination' of hand, artifact, and brightness - the Silmaril in Beren's bitten-off hand, fit in, here?

David Llewellyn Dodds