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Old 10-30-2020, 05:40 PM   #1
Rune Son of Bjarne
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1420! Etymology: Isengard and Helms Deep

Rather infuriating a Danish radioshow have been spreading the word that Tolkien was inspired by easter Jutland when coming up for place names, but offer little in the way of proof.

The very concept of the show is that a caller will make an unsubstantiated claim, and then the show will attempt to confirm or debunk the claim.

In this case the claim is that the place names Helm's Deep and Isengard comes from easter Jutland where you will find the narrow strait Hjelm Dyb and the manor house Isgård.

The consensus seemed to be that this must be coincidence, until a self proclaimed Tolkien ekspert calls in and claims that it is very likely that Tolkien got inspired by the Danish place names as he studied that area extensively. He offers no more detail, but starts talking about Tolkien's correspondence with the future Queen Margrethe II.

As a Danish Tolkien nerd this have left me perplexed. I haven't heard that Tolkien should have dedicated time to studying eastern Jutland, besides his general interest in the nordic countries.

Obviously Tolkien could have been inspired, and then altered the name to better fit in with old english, but it doesn't seem likely, does it?

What do you think?

Have you ever heard about Tolkien having a special interest in eastern Jutland (more specifically Djurs), or have you perhaps come across the origins of these place names.

As a bonus I just found a comment on reddit where a user suggest that the nearby village of Eskerod, could be the inspiration of Esgaroth.
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Old 10-31-2020, 05:54 AM   #2
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I will give the usual disclaimer that I am far from being a Tolkien scholar on the level of others.

However, it's my understanding that Isengard was simply a translation, consistent with other place names in Rohan, from the Sindarin name Angrenost.

And what's so complicated about Helm's Deep? As explained in Unfinished Tales, it was

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A deep gorge near the north-western end of Ered Nimrais, at the entrance to which was built the Hornburg; named after King Helm, who took refuge from his enemies there in the Long Winter of Third Age 2758-9.
With the myriad numbers of place names in various countries and languages, coincidence alone can easily account for similarities between 'real' locales and those in the mythos.
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Old 10-31-2020, 06:37 AM   #3
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Agreed with Inzil. Two explanations: Tolkien had the backstory in mind when picking out names (e.g. the story of Helm Hammerhand who wintered in this keep) and used fitting names, or he reeeeally liked those two places on the Jutland map and made the backstory match the names. I think the former is the simpler explanation, without being a Tolkien expert of any kind.

A google search tells me that there actually is a River Isen in Bavaria, so if there really is a specific geographical inspiration for Saruman's abode, Germany might win this round.

Personally, I tend to see coincidence in the opposite direction. Like why is there a town in Italy named after Hurin's eldest. And the poor Dunedin, which I always feel the need to spell correctly, with an "a" after the "d". Not every sound-alike or look-alike is a real reference. So unless someone finds evidence that Tolkien actually had more affinity for eastern Jutland's geography than the average map, I will remain dubious about the influence here.
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Old 10-31-2020, 10:00 AM   #4
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People have constantly come up with this sort of nonsense, based on nothing more than sound coincidence; for example "Gondor is based on Gondar in Ethiopia." Um, no. (Especially if one is aware that the original name of the South Kingdom was Ond > Ondor > Gondor). We get similar silliness wrt to places themselves, like "The Two Towers" in Birmingham, or every other rural pub in Britain being the origin of the Prancing Pony, or the Ring of Silvianus nonsense.

in the very, very early period Tolkien equated some fictional locations with real-world places - Warwick, Great Heywood etc - but the names he coined for them in Quenya were naturally entirely different ones (Kortirion, Tavrobel).
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Old 10-31-2020, 05:40 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by Inziladun View Post
I will give the usual disclaimer that I am far from being a Tolkien scholar on the level of others.

However, it's my understanding that Isengard was simply a translation, consistent with other place names in Rohan, from the Sindarin name Angrenost.

And what's so complicated about Helm's Deep? As explained in Unfinished Tales, it was



With the myriad numbers of place names in various countries and languages, coincidence alone can easily account for similarities between 'real' locales and those in the mythos.
Well, there is nothing complicated with the in universe etymology, but obviously it was something Tolkien worked a lot on and tinkered with to make fit.

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Agreed with Inzil. Two explanations: Tolkien had the backstory in mind when picking out names (e.g. the story of Helm Hammerhand who wintered in this keep) and used fitting names, or he reeeeally liked those two places on the Jutland map and made the backstory match the names. I think the former is the simpler explanation, without being a Tolkien expert of any kind.

A google search tells me that there actually is a River Isen in Bavaria, so if there really is a specific geographical inspiration for Saruman's abode, Germany might win this round.

Personally, I tend to see coincidence in the opposite direction. Like why is there a town in Italy named after Hurin's eldest. And the poor Dunedin, which I always feel the need to spell correctly, with an "a" after the "d". Not every sound-alike or look-alike is a real reference. So unless someone finds evidence that Tolkien actually had more affinity for eastern Jutland's geography than the average map, I will remain dubious about the influence here.
I am not disagreeing, which is why it was so infuriating that it was suggested that Tolkien did have extensive knowledge about the area, but no references were given.

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People have constantly come up with this sort of nonsense, based on nothing more than sound coincidence; for example "Gondor is based on Gondar in Ethiopia." Um, no. (Especially if one is aware that the original name of the South Kingdom was Ond > Ondor > Gondor). We get similar silliness wrt to places themselves, like "The Two Towers" in Birmingham, or every other rural pub in Britain being the origin of the Prancing Pony, or the Ring of Silvianus nonsense.

in the very, very early period Tolkien equated some fictional locations with real-world places - Warwick, Great Heywood etc - but the names he coined for them in Quenya were naturally entirely different ones (Kortirion, Tavrobel).
Isegård and Eskerod i don't find particular believable, though pronunciation wise Eskerod and Esgaroth are not far apart. The only thing that makes me raise an eyebrow is the suggestion that Tolkien should somehow have extensive knowledge about the area and the use of the word "deep".

Are there other examples of a cleft being called a deep? It is quite interesting Helms Deep and Hjelm Dyb have exactly the same meaning but in the danish translations Helm's Deep is called Helms Kløft as you would never call a cleft a deep in Danish.
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Old 11-01-2020, 03:10 AM   #6
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Probably the strongest argument against this is that Isengard didn't start out as Isengard! Its first mention (Home VII, 'Of Hamilcar...') is as "Angrobel (or Irongarth)". No Isen in sight!

Helm's Deep is even more tortured: it looks like it started out as Dimgraef, then picked up a Helm figure - as Heorulf's Clough. It took several iterations (Helmshaugh) to hit Helm's Deep, so unless Tolkien is imagined to just happen to glance up at a map of Jutland and go 'hey, that says "helm" too!' there's no plausible version of this notion.

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Old 11-01-2020, 05:45 AM   #7
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Probably the strongest argument against this is that Isengard didn't start out as Isengard! Its first mention (Home VII, 'Of Hamilcar...') is as "Angrobel (or Irongarth)". No Isen in sight!

Helm's Deep is even more tortured: it looks like it started out as Dimgraef, then picked up a Helm figure - as Heorulf's Clough. It took several iterations (Helmshaugh) to hit Helm's Deep, so unless Tolkien is imagined to just happen to glance up at a map of Jutland and go 'hey, that says "helm" too!' there's no plausible version of this notion.

hS
And this is why one should always start with the HoME when one has a theory about names: if there is one thing Christopher Tolkien does thoroughly (to the point I've seen him accused of doing it to the exclusion of other "more interesting" things), it is trace the evolution of names--and evolve they often did. If you have a theory--as this Danish radio show did--based on final forms, you have to see if that theory still makes sense in light of the documented history.

That said, the idea that Tolkien could have taken some names from a Danish map really ISN'T an outlandish theory. Place names and Scandinavian languages are both things we know he was interested in--the idea that he might have spent some time looking at Danish place-names is entirely plausible, and if this were done at a sufficient remove from when he came to write Book III, it is entirely possible that the fittingness of some names could have struck him: recasting Norse words into (Old) English forms is something he would do.

Unfortunately for the radio show, it just isn't the simplest explanation in this case.
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Old 11-01-2020, 04:17 PM   #8
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Probably the strongest argument against this is that Isengard didn't start out as Isengard! Its first mention (Home VII, 'Of Hamilcar...') is as "Angrobel (or Irongarth)". No Isen in sight!

Helm's Deep is even more tortured: it looks like it started out as Dimgraef, then picked up a Helm figure - as Heorulf's Clough. It took several iterations (Helmshaugh) to hit Helm's Deep, so unless Tolkien is imagined to just happen to glance up at a map of Jutland and go 'hey, that says "helm" too!' there's no plausible version of this notion.

hS
Thanks Huie, this is the sort of stuff I was looking for to "disprove" the theory.

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And this is why one should always start with the HoME when one has a theory about names: if there is one thing Christopher Tolkien does thoroughly (to the point I've seen him accused of doing it to the exclusion of other "more interesting" things), it is trace the evolution of names--and evolve they often did. If you have a theory--as this Danish radio show did--based on final forms, you have to see if that theory still makes sense in light of the documented history.

That said, the idea that Tolkien could have taken some names from a Danish map really ISN'T an outlandish theory. Place names and Scandinavian languages are both things we know he was interested in--the idea that he might have spent some time looking at Danish place-names is entirely plausible, and if this were done at a sufficient remove from when he came to write Book III, it is entirely possible that the fittingness of some names could have struck him: recasting Norse words into (Old) English forms is something he would do.

Unfortunately for the radio show, it just isn't the simplest explanation in this case.
Now I do feel rather silly for starting a thread, rather than simply dusting off the old HoME series. Though I don't think I have it in complete form... I seemed to give up a few volumes in, for even though i fin imaginary etymology interesting it is not exactly what I would call "an easy read".
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Old 11-01-2020, 05:11 PM   #9
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To argue the devil's advocate here, though, it is possible for an influence to appear late in the history of name changes. Going from one name to another, not hitting quite the right one, and then seeing a name that sounds like exactly the thing. Hypothetically a connection is still possible - though again, more than a simple sound-alike would be required as proof of influence, because there are simply too many sound-alikes to treat each one seriously.
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Old 11-01-2020, 06:20 PM   #10
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To argue the devil's advocate here, though, it is possible for an influence to appear late in the history of name changes. Going from one name to another, not hitting quite the right one, and then seeing a name that sounds like exactly the thing. Hypothetically a connection is still possible - though again, more than a simple sound-alike would be required as proof of influence, because there are simply too many sound-alikes to treat each one seriously.
While obviously Tolkien were inspired by real-life place names and history, he doesn't strike me as the kind of man to just outright copy/paste a name. I imagine him tinkering away, trying to make allsorts of linguistic ends tie together in a way that he found pleasing, but nobody else on this earth would understand the significance of (save for possibly Christopher).

Anyways, I agree it is entirely possible, but as Formendacil said it isn't necessarily the simplest explanation in this case.
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Old 11-03-2020, 02:18 PM   #11
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Now I do feel rather silly for starting a thread, rather than simply dusting off the old HoME series.
But if you don't post the inaccuracies of Danish radio commentary for us, how will we get to demonstrate our vast and superior knowledge?
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Old 11-08-2020, 09:56 AM   #12
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Well, as CT commented with regard to a possible link between the athel- in athelas and Anglo-Saxon æðele "noble, royal" - it wouldn't have still been an Anglo-Saxon word by the time he was done with it! Rather like A-S ent "giant" became something rather different....

I think the history of "Isengard" is well enough attested that it's pointless to look around for alternate histories. AFAIK Tolkien only ever lifted one name wholesale from a RW language, aside from Shire/Bree names (and The Hobbit's dwarf-names), and that back at the very beginning: Earendel. This isn't to say that certain elements weren't borrowed: ond "stone" he consciously used, as being what apparently is the only known word from the language of Britain's pre-Celtic inhabitants. And he admitted that he might have subconsciously been influenced by Gaelic nasc ("ring," but also "bond") when BS nazg came to him.
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Old 11-08-2020, 10:25 AM   #13
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But if you don't post the inaccuracies of Danish radio commentary for us, how will we get to demonstrate our vast and superior knowledge?
Speaking for myself, I always love leafing through HoME to find out if a question is answerable. I run into all sorts of stuff that I'd otherwise gloss over. ^_^

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This isn't to say that certain elements weren't borrowed: ond "stone" he consciously used, as being what apparently is the only known word from the language of Britain's pre-Celtic inhabitants.
Waitwhat?

[Five minutes of book-diving later]

Huh! So, after being sent by Tolkien Gateway to both Letters (where Tolkien indeed claims this, and says he remember it from when he was eight) and The History of the Hobbit, I've landed on Wikipedia's Ivernic/Ivernian language page. Or rather section, because sadly the theory - that ond ("stone") and fern ("good thing") entered Irish from proto-Celtic British invaders - has been generally discredited.

I really should read the Rateliff History again at some point...

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