Thursday, 18 December 2014

'The words linger': Christ the Arkenstone and 'The Hobbit'

Shooting a dragon (BL Arundel 91, f. 28v)

Today I want to share with you a very short extract from an Old English poem, which I hope will be of interest this week for two reasons: firstly because it's about Advent and the birth of Christ, and secondly because it contains a single word which features prominently in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. This is a pleasing confluence of events, and entirely a coincidence (somehow I don't think Advent had much to do with the timing of The Hobbit movie, except that we've replaced Advent with the commercial potential of the run-up to Christmas...)

I wrote about The Hobbit and its relation to some medieval stories about werebears and dragon-slayers last year, but today's poem offers a particularly nice coincidence because it brings us close to the Old English version of the O Antiphons, appropriate reading for the last week before Christmas. Scholars, somewhat lacking in imagination, have traditionally given the name Christ I to the untitled poem based on the O Antiphons, because it's the first poem in the manuscript and it's about Christ. The third poem in the same manuscript is known as Christ III (I bet you can't guess why...). While Christ I is about the first coming of Christ into the world, Christ III is about the second coming: it describes the end of the world in fire, Judgement Day, the joy of the saved and the misery of the damned, the terrible beauty of Christ as he returns in glory. (The whole poem can be read online in translation here.) It's in this poem that we meet our word from The Hobbit, and the title of this post has given away the clue: the word is Arkenstone, the name Tolkien gave to the great jewel of the dwarves, which he took from the Old English earcnanstan, 'precious stone'. This word appears a handful of times in Old English, sometimes in reference to a particular gemstone - a pearl or a topaz - and sometimes for jewels generally. But in Christ III (ll. 1190-8) it's used for something a bit more special:

...æt ærestan
foreþoncle men from fruman worulde
þurh wis gewit, witgan dryhtnes,
halge higegleawe, hæleþum sægdon,
oft, nales æne, ymb þæt æþele bearn,
ðæt se earcnanstan eallum sceolde
to hleo ond to hroþer hæleþa cynne
weorðan in worulde, wuldres agend,
eades ordfruma, þurh þa æþelan cwenn.

...from the beginning,
from the origin of the world, foreknowing men
with their wise wits, prophets of the Lord,
holy ones sage in spirit, spoke to men
often, not once only, of that noble child:
how the precious stone should
come into the world as refuge and comfort
to all the race of men, the ruler of glory,
beginner of bliss, through the noble woman.

The context of these lines is rather difficult to explain, because this is, quite apart from anything else, a beautifully intricate manipulation of narrative time: this description of the incarnation comes after the destruction of the world, when Christ appears in glory with the radiant Cross at his side. At the sight of the wounds he bears, sinful mankind is forced to confront the evidence of their cruelty towards him, which the poem describes; then it says they should have known who he was, because 'from the origin of the world' it had been prophesied that the earcnanstan would come. In the middle of a poem which is about the future, the end of the world and the second coming, this loops back to a moment when the first coming itself was still in the future, the subject of prophecies and hope but not yet of reality. Such a link between Advent and Apocalypse is an ancient part of the church's observance of the season before Christmas (an idea explored in an Anglo-Saxon context by Ælfric in an Advent sermon I posted recently), and this description of the incarnation, embedded within an account of the end of the world, follows that conventional association of ideas.

But why is Christ called the earcnanstan? One reason might be that this poem, like the Biblical descriptions of the Apocalypse, is studded with literal and metaphorical precious gems: Revelations describes God as appearing like jasper and ruby, enthroned upon a rainbow like an emerald, and in Christ III the stars are called tungolgimmas 'starry gems', the eyes heafodgimmas 'the head's gems'. Among all these jewels, Christ is the most precious: the gem, the earcnanstan. In the passage quoted above there's a notable emphasis on the language of nobility, drawn from secular lordship; God is called wuldres agend, literally 'the owner of glory', and both Christ and Mary are called æþele 'noble'. The word used for Mary, cwenn, can just mean 'woman', but frequently also 'queen' (it's the origin of the Modern English word, of course). The earcnanstan seems to fit with this royal context. Not only are precious stones naturally associated with kings and queens, but the first element, earcnan, seems to mean something like 'noble'; it's found in some early Anglo-Saxon royal names, such as Eorcenberht, seventh-century king of Kent, and St Erkenwald. Perhaps 'noble stone' would be a better translation - fitting for The Hobbit's royal heirloom.

Even so, it strikes me as an unusual name for Christ in this particular situation (the incarnation is Christ becoming flesh, and what's less like flesh than a precious stone?) but that very strangeness makes it a richer image, something which rewards extended thought. The Old English translations of the O Antiphons meditate on some of the mysterious titles given to Christ: key, cornerstone, craftsman, king, daystar, 'God mid us'. This creative poetic naming comes, in that instance, from the liturgy and ultimately from scripture, but it's just the kind of variation and allusive titling and re-titling which harmonised with Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, and in which Old English poetry abounds. Just look at the different titles by which Christ is called in the few lines quoted above: noble child, precious stone, ruler of glory, beginner (in the sense 'author, source') of bliss. The Old English version of 'O Emmanuel', a poem especially concerned with Christ's name and titles, offers even more examples. In medieval tradition precious stones were not only beautiful but powerful, that is, they were considered to have the ability to heal; so to call Christ a precious stone is fitting in more ways than one. Somewhere behind this is an echo of the 'pearl of great price', for which earcnanstan is used in an Old English translation of Matthew 13:45-6: Gelic is rice heofunas menn ceape sohte gode ercnanstanas... The Virgin Mary, too, is addressed by God as min meregrot... min eorclanstan 'my pearl, my precious stone' in one of the Blicking Homilies. The pearl is the central image of a later medieval poem with which Tolkien was deeply engaged, a text of dazzling complexity in which the pearl stands for a multiplicity of things. (It's worth noting that the Middle English poem Pearl is often linked to a poem in a similar style about St Erkenwald, and they're sometimes ascribed to the same author; the pearl and this earcnan- name thus have an additional tie for anyone who has worked on both texts.)

All this is a resonant context for Tolkien's Arkenstone. This stone, which has its own alternative title ('heart of the mountain'), shines 'of its own inner light', like Earendel/Christ who tida gehwane of sylfum þe symle inlihtes 'of thine own self ever enlightenest every age'. Remembering the apocalyptic context in which the word appears in Christ III, the title of the short chapter in The Hobbit which deals with Bilbo's bartering over the Arkenstone is particularly striking: 'A Thief in the Night' refers to the little burglar himself, of course, but it is a reference to St Paul's description of the second coming in 1 Thessalonians 5: 'the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; for when they shall say, peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.' All this is the subject of Christ III; in fact the poem opens with this very image, saying that 'the great day of the Lord' will come like

...sceaða fæcne,
þeof þristlice, þe on þystre fareð,
on sweartre niht...

...a crafty burglar,
a bold thief who moves in the darkness,
in the black night...

(sceaða means 'robber, criminal' so I don't think burglar is too inapposite a translation...) Bilbo's nighttime deed of daring with the Arkenstone brings about a day of judgement of sorts - and certainly sudden destruction.

The Second Coming, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Add. 49598, f. 9v)

If you look for the Arkenstone in some of the many guides to Tolkien's use of Anglo-Saxon literature, you'll be informed that the word appears in Beowulf, in the form eorclanstan ('the word appears in Beowulf' is usually the hand-wave of someone who's never read any Old English poems except Beowulf, but in this case it's actually relevant...). There the stones in question are not just any gems, but the most famous jewels of Germanic mythology: the necklace of the Brísingamen, treasure of the goddess Freyja, forged for her by dwarves. It is mentioned in Beowulf because after killing Grendel, Beowulf is presented with many rich rewards for his labours, among them a precious neck ring. The narrator says that he has never heard tell of any greater treasure – except, that is, for the 'necklace of the Brosings', which he calls þa frætwe wæg, eorclanstanas 'the ornamented thing, the precious stones' (1207-8). Unlike the earcnanstan of Christ III, these jewels are a dangerous treasure: in Norse tradition they are the product of sexual bartering by Freyja, constantly coveted and stolen, and the object of immoderate desire and dragonish lust. Thorin never had a chance against this kind of arkenstone. (For the idea that Beowulf has an ambivalent or disapproving attitude towards these darker elements of Norse myth, read this recent book. Or just read it anyway; it's wonderful.)

Virgin and Child (BL Additional 34890, f. 115)

But Beowulf aside, the connotations of the word are generally positive. The cognate Old Norse word is jarknasteinn, and this too is applied to a human being in one memorable instance - in the Poetic Edda, as a comparison for the great hero Sigurðr the Völsung. After Sigurðr's death, his wife Guðrún mourns him with a moving lament:

Svá var minn Sigurðr hjá sonum Gjúka
sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn
ða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.

So was my Sigurðr, compared to the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
like a green leek growing up out of the grass;
like a bright stone threaded on a string,
a precious stone among the princes.

Sigurðr was by far the most famous dragon-slayer of Germanic legend (it wouldn't have taken him three movies to kill Smaug), and there's not as big a gap as you might think between Sigurðr and Christ; the scene of Sigurðr killing the dragon appears on early carvings in a Christian context, which are difficult to interpret but may show Sigurðr's triumph being cast as a battle between good and evil. Tolkien, of course, produced his own version of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, though he did not include this poem, so we don't know how he would have rendered Guðrún's word jarknasteinn. (The Edda contains several different variants of Guðrún's story; this lament comes from Guðrúnarkviða I, and Tolkien instead based his telling on Guðrúnarkviða II. For versions of the scene by Tennyson and William Morris, see this post.) Tolkien's Sigurðr is a very noble figure indeed: 'sun-bright Sigurd', he is called, 'golden Sigurd / glorious shining'. After he is killed he goes to Valhalla, to await the war with which, in Norse mythology, the world will come to an end:

There feasts he long
at his father's side,
for War waiting,
the World's chosen.

Perhaps there is an echo of this in Thorin's words as he lies dying: 'I go now to the halls of waiting, to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed'. (This is omitted from the film, for reasons which pass understanding.) Thorin is buried, within the mountain, with the Arkenstone on his breast. But Sigurðr, the jarknasteinn, will have a second coming:

In the day of Doom
he shall deathless stand
who death tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Óðin:
not all shall end,
nor Earth perish.

On his head the Helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
When war passeth
in world rebuilt,
bliss shall they drink
who the bitter tasted.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: Harper Collins, 2009), pp. 179-180.

Tolkien was working on this poem, according to Christopher Tolkien's recent edition, in the early 1930s, during which time he was also teaching and lecturing on the Poetic Edda at Oxford (as well as on Beowulf and his other medieval interests, of course). This is also the period when The Hobbit was written, so the Sigurðr story must have been at least in the back of his mind. The Hobbit's most obvious debt to the Poetic Edda is in the names of the company of dwarves, which come straight from a list in Völuspá, the first poem in the Edda, but there are some other elements of the story strongly reminiscent of the Sigurðr legend. Sigurðr (in the Norse poems and in Tolkien's translation) seeks his dragon through misty mountains, Mirkwood, and withered heaths; he famously learns to understand the language of birds, like the helpful speaking thrushes and ravens which swoop through the last pages of The Hobbit. The final section of the book leans heavily on an equivalency between dragon-fire and literal and figurative 'rivers of gold', which is a key part of the story of Sigurðr's treasure-hoard. And Thorin's rapturous list of similes for the Arkenstone - 'it shone like silver in the firelight, like water in the sun, like snow under the stars, like rain upon the Moon' - is structurally not unlike Guðrún's lament for Sigurðr: 'like a green leek growing up out of the grass, like a bright stone threaded on a string, a precious stone among the princes...'

In his edition of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Christopher Tolkien quotes his father saying in a lecture on Guðrúnarkviða II that he (unlike many readers of the Edda) was more interested in Guðrún, 'usually slighted, and considered as of secondary interest', than in her rival, Brynhildr, contrasting the long agony of Guðrún's grief to Brynhildr's 'brief and terrible storm' of passion. Guðrún lives for many years after the death of Sigurðr, forced to marry again to a man who develops an all-consuming lust for Sigurðr's dragon-won treasure. This terrible greed brings about destruction in which Guðrún loses her brothers, is a second time widowed, and kills her own children. Tolkien's version of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun ends with Guðrún's grief:

While the world lasteth
shall the words linger,
while men are mindful
of the mighty days.
The woe of Gudrún
while world lasteth
till the end of days
all shall hearken.

Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, ed. C. Tolkien, p. 305.

'The words linger'. No one did more than Tolkien himself to make this come to pass; every time you hear the word 'Arkenstone', even amid the sound and fury of the Hobbit movies, you're hearing a word of Guðrún's lament.

Dragon-fight (BL Additional 34890, f. 158)

You can make up your own mind on how much all this tells us about the Arkenstone of The Hobbit, but it's a reminder, I hope, of how complex a history any single word 'borrowed' from Old English or Old Norse really has – what a deep well of legend and poetry Tolkien was drawing from as he created his mythology. There is a tendency in some quarters (usually among people who know a lot about Tolkien but not much about medieval literature) to talk as if Tolkien just went around cherry-picking words from other texts and languages, uprooting words from their original context(s) and planting them anew in Middle Earth, carrying nothing with them. Many authors do this kind of thing without much thought, but not Tolkien; words and names bear meaning and history, and who knew this better than Tolkien the philologist? A word which can be used as a name for Christ and for the pre-eminent dragon-slayer of Germanic legend, for the kingdom of heaven and for one of the most perilous objects of Norse mythology, for the Virgin Mary and for the necklace of the goddess Freyja, is a word located at the centre of an intricate web of literary traditions. Perhaps you think that to investigate these contexts is excessively pedantic, but it follows a good example: Gandalf's very first words in The Hobbit are a philological quibble, insisting to know what, out of a four possible meanings, Bilbo means by his polite 'good morning'. If we imitate him and ask what 'arkenstone' means, we have to take all these many medieval contexts into account. Lots of people have a lot to say about Tolkien's use of medieval literature, especially whenever a new film comes out, but these opinions aren't always particularly well-informed: take this article, for example, in which the journalist is under the strange impression that 'humour and lightness' and 'comical understatement' are characteristic of Old English verse, and that the comedy bits of The Hobbit are therefore more like Anglo-Saxon literature than The Lord of the Rings is. (Where do you even start with that? And I've read so many articles like that this week...) Actual ignorance is entirely forgivable, but there are rather too many people around who pride themselves on understanding Old English literature because they once read a translation of Beowulf. Having only the haziest ideas of what other poetry exists in Old English - if they know there's any at all - they yet feel qualified to pronounce upon its characteristics, style, and quality. (The last is the most irritating.) To such people I might gently suggest a little humility: it's wise to remember there's much, much more to Old English literature than Beowulf – wonderful as Beowulf is – and whatever you or I may think we know about the immense treasure-hoard of medieval literature, there's always more still to learn.


Itinérante said...

This is poignant!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Wonderful! Thank you! (Your closing words about humility, saying "whatever you or I may think we know about the immense treasure-hoard of medieval literature, there's always more still to learn" make me think of the wonderful humility and assiduousness of Bruce Mitchell which enabled him to produce his Old English Syntax (1985).)

Incidentally, humour in Old English verse sounds like an interesting subject, but the author you link does not impress one as a likely guide. (Perhaps he is thinking of certain Exeter Book riddles?)

An Old Mertonian

Tim said...

I loved this post, I knew that the dwarves names and Gandalf's name were from old texts but I had no idea there was such a history behind the arkenstone. Thank you for sharing! said...

an intelligent post. I learned a lot.

Clive Luke said...

I follow you on twitter and your work has blessed me so firstly; thank you! I just wanted to comment on Christ the arkenstone. He fits both aspects of the stones history, a precious stone to some and a stumbling block of offence to others. A blessing or a curse. 1peter2:6-8 ..a stone chosen and precious and a stone of stumbling .

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful article. Yet more grist for the fact that Anglo Saxon adds to anyone's appreciation of all types of English Literature

Jeff Gill said...

And is it not also interesting that the inversion of all this in Gollum's twisted love for "The One Ring" results in his obsessively calling it "my Precioussss."