Review of Hobbit Place-names
The following review was published in Mythlore 31.3/4, Spring/Summer 2013 and is reproduced here with kind permission of the editor and review author.
Mythlore is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal published by the Mythopoeic Society that focuses on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and the genres of myth and fantasy.
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HOBBIT PLACE-NAMES: A LINGUISTIC EXCURSION THROUGH THE SHIRE. Rainer Nagel. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2012. $24.30. ISBN 978-3905703221.
RAINER NAGEL'S BOOK, HOBBIT PLACE-NAMES, is divided into four parts, the first of which contains general discussions relevant to the book's topics, and the latter three giving Nagel's analyses of the place-names in the Shire and Bree-land.
The first part of the book, the "Introductory Remarks" contains much that is relevant to the study of Tolkien's names, 'Tolkienymics,' into which tradition this book places itself. In the Introduction Nagel discusses the roles within Tolkienian linguistics of name studies and studies of Tolkien's use of Old and Middle English. The importance of the Hobbits as cultural mediators is also stressed in relation to translation studies. In the following sub-section, Nagel discusses "Principles of Place-name Giving" starting with actual English place-names; he then moves on to argue that Tolkien followed real patterns in his place-names.
Nagel then moves on to Tolkienymics, starting off with what is perhaps the most studied Tolkienian name, 'hobbit.' In the sub-section "Concerning Hobbits," Nagel takes us through various theories and conjectures, including rabbits and howitzers, and then to the internal etymology of Holbytla and Kûd-dûkan (the latter of which Nagel tells us is "pseudo-Gothic"), and finally he shows the natural changes in pronunciation that would take the Hobbits from 'Holbytla' to 'Hobbit.' The next subsection deals with "Hobbit Migrations as a Mirror of Real-world Language Change," which looks into the movements (and etymology) of Harfoots, Fallohides and Stoors compared to Jutes, Angles and Saxons. Nagel identifies two groups of Hobbit place-names, a "Hobbiton-cum-Bywater perspective" (31) and a "Celtic substratum" (30) centered about Buckand and the Marish. The etymology of 'The Shire' has its own sub-section, which leads on to "A Few Choice Hobbit Names," in which Nagel looks at a small selection of Hobbit personal names: Baggins, Bilbo, Frodo, Brandybuck, Meriadoc, Gamwich, Samwise, Hamfast, and Took. He also mentions the theory of Helmut W. Pesch who sees, in the families mentioned here, a model of a four-level British class society with the Gamwiches at the bottom followed by Bagginses, Tooks and finally the Brandybucks as a representation of the nobility.
The final few pages of part one are taken up with "A Brief Note and Old and Middle English Dialects" which focuses on dialects that had, in Shippey's words, "defied Conquest and Conqueror" (qtd. 55).
The last three parts of the book contain, as mentioned above, the individual place-name analyses. All entries follow the same pattern, starting with a quotation from the books (if one can be found), followed by a discussion of the role of the place in the books and/or on the maps, the etymology of Tolkien's name, followed by discussion of the various available German translations.
This structure works remarkably well despite necessitating some repetition and a certain amount of cross referencing (the etymology of 'downs' is, for instance, only explained once). My familiarity with German is such that I can recognize some of the more common elements in the names, but that is about all. Nagel manages, however, to keep the discussion of the German names interesting, and I kept thinking of possibilities for a new Danish translation of The Lord of the Rings (a new translation of The Hobbit has recently been published, but nothing is known about The Lord of the Rings). Even if you have no interest in translations, you may still find yourself interested in some of Nagel's comments on what Tolkien mainly intended to signify with the place-names.
The last of the three sections is set aside for place-names from outside the Shire – mainly Bree-land place-names, but also a few Hobbit names for places in the general area. The two preceding sections split the place-names of the Shire, such that the first section, part two, lists "all settlements and habitation names" (though not individual houses), while part three contains everything else: rivers, woods, hills, houses, etc. This is likely to cause some confusion as not all of Nagel's decisions will seem obvious to every reader – either because the reader has misunderstood Tolkien's texts (I did, for instance, earlier mistake Woodhall to refer to the "wide space like a hall, roofed by the boughs of trees" (LotR I.3.82) where the Hobbits rested together with Gildor's company), or because Nagel's reading differs from the reader's, such as is the case with his and my reading of both Haysend and Crickhollow, which Nagel claims are settlements (more than a single house) despite there being more than a mile from the house that Frodo bought "at Crickhollow" to the nearest other house, and Tolkien explaining Haysend simply as "Sc. the end of the hay or boundary hedge" in his "Nomenclature" (772).
In his entry on the Bonfire Glade, Nagel mentions the possibility of a Hobbit tongue-in-cheek joke referring to a celebratory fire, and I would offer the idea that, with the sentient trees of the Old Forest, we could possibly speak of funeral fire, or even of a fire made of the bones of the trees, taking us back to the original meaning, "bone-fire" (161n) which Nagel also mentions. When discussing, in the entry for Buck Hill, the difference between downs and hills, Nagel suggests that the Hills of Scary may be an exception, which surprised me somewhat, as I wouldn't think that "downs" would be appropriate for any hills in rocky country (presumably granite), as Nagel had already described the area around Scary and Quarry.
Despite referring to "the many philological jests found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings" (3) Nagel is more hesitant to claim to have found one of these than some other Tolkien linguists, for which I would praise Nagel: I sometimes find that claims to have discovered yet another such "philological jest" stretch believability beyond breaking-point. Instead Nagel lets the reader share his joy of these clever and amusing word-games for their own sake (and I certainly do that), without feeling the need to justify his love of convoluted, and sometimes multilingual, philology.
The only grievous deficiency in this book is the lack of an index – or rather, indices. The lack of indices prevents a reader from using the book for quick reference. This is aggravated by Nagel's decision to split the place-names of the Shire into categories such that the category is not always obvious. With a set of indices for Tolkienian names, for real-world names, for name elements, and for the German names, this book would have been a sure addition to the 'within reach' shelves of my Tolkien collection as I would certainly have found myself referring often to its pages. As it is, I will not find it near as useful, though I still expect to refer to it occasionally and perhaps with increasing frequency as my familiarity with the book grows.
Despite this grievance, I nonetheless found the book enjoyable, and will recommend it to anyone interested in Tolkien's application of his philological specialty in his sub-creative writings, or anyone who just love words and the games we play with them.