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The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Anglo-Saxon Elves

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the parallels between Tolkien’s elves and their counterparts from early medieval England.

Old English elf glosses

Grey elves, green elves, wood-elves, sea-elves; in his fiction, Tolkien distinguished between various types of elves. A similar variety of elf types can be found in early medieval England. A case in point is the following, curious list of Old English elf names that appears in a ninth-century manuscript:

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Old English elf glosses in Leiden, University Library, VLQ 106, fol. 10r

Nimphae aelfinni eadem & muse ‘elves’
Oreades duun-aelfinni ‘mountain elves’
Driades uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’
Amadriades uaeter-aelfinne ‘water elves’
Maides feld-aelfinne ‘field elves’
Naides sae-aelfinne ‘sea elves’

This list of elf glosses was added to the manuscript by the scribe who copied the table of contents to a series of Latin riddles, but found he had some space left over (and, apparently, he did not want to waste this blank spot on the parchment). Helpfully, the scribe provided Old English names of elves as translations for Latin words for types of nymphs: Latin driades ‘wood nymphs’ equals Old English uudu-aelfinne ‘wood elves’, etc. A similar list of elf names was added to the lower margin of an early eleventh-century manuscript; here the Amadriades are wylde elfen ‘wild elves’  rather than uaeter aelfinne ‘water elves’:

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London, British Library, Add. 32246, fol. 21r

It is not unlikely that Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford and particularly interested in elves, was aware of these lists of elf names. The variety of elves in this Anglo-Saxon manuscripts certainly seems reflected in the various sub-types of elves of Tolkien’s fiction: Sea-Elves (the Teleri), Wood-elves (the Silvan, like Legolas) and so on.

The ambivalent nature of elves: dark and shiny.

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The Psalmist harassed by elves (though more likely demons) in the Eadwine Psalter. Cambridge, University Library, MS R.17.1, fol. 66r.

While Tolkien’s portrayal of elves is generally very positive, the Wood-elves of Mirkwood are described in a more ambivalent manner. On the one hand, they are characterised as distrusting strangers, and “more dangerous and less wise” than the High elves of the West. On the other hand, Tolkien remarks “[s]till elves they were and remain, and that is Good People”. In Anglo-Saxon England, we find a similar dual attitude towards elves. Their dark and dangerous side is attested by Old English words for nightmare and physical ailments, such ælf-adl ‘elf disease, nightmare’, ælfsiden ‘elf’s influence, nightmare’, ælf-sogoða ‘hiccough’ and wæterælf-adl ‘water elf disease’. These last two words suggest that elves might cause diseases and this idea also turns up in Old English medical texts. The ‘Charm against a sudden stitch’, for example, attributes a shooting pain or cramp to ‘ylfa scot’ [elves’ shot] and another text provides instruction on what to do if your horse was shot by an elf (for some of these remedies, see this online edition by Karen Jolly). That elves could be considered malevolent creatures is also found in Beowulf, ll. 111-113a, which describes the elves as monstrous descendants of Cain, akin to giants and orcs: “þanon untydras ealle onwocon: / eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas / swylce gigantas” [thence (from Cain) all monsters awoke: giants and elves and orcs/monsters, as well as giants].

While some sources thus attest to a rather negative connotation of elves, there is also some evidence that the Anglo-Saxons considered the elves to be a positive presence. An example of this is the word ælf-scyne ‘bright as an elf, beautiful, radiant’ which is used three times in the extant corpus of Old English poetry to describe two Biblical women: Judith and Sarah. The element ælf- was also used in personal names, which equally suggests that early medieval English parents considered elves a force for good or atleast suitable for their babies: Ælf-red ‘elf-counsel’;  Ælf-noth ‘elf-brave’; Ælf-thryth ‘Ælf-powerful’; Ælf-here ‘elf army’; and Ælf-ric ‘elf-powerful’. Like Tolkien’s Wood-elves of Mirkwood, then, the Anglo-Saxon elves were both feared and respected.

Elf-Friends in Anglo-Saxon England

Various characters in Tolkien’s fiction, including Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are given the honorary title of ‘Elf-friend’. The title commemorates those who have proven themselves as valuable allies to the Elves in times of need. This much becomes clear from Elrond’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor:

But it is a heavy burden. So heavy that none could lay it on another. I do not lay it on you. But if you take it freely, I will say that your choice is right; and though all the mighty elf-friends of old, Hador, and Húrin, and Túrin, and Beren himself were assembled together your seat should be among them.

The Old English equivalent of ‘elf-friend’, Ælfwine, was not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon England: various abbots and bishops bore this name. One of these Ælfwines is closely connected to an 11th-century manuscript, known as ‘Ælfwine’s prayerbook’. The book was likely composed for Abbot Ælfwine of New Minster, whose name appears, in code, in one of the manuscript’s inscriptions:

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Inscription in London, British Library, Cotton Titus D.xxvi, fol. 13v

Here, some of the vowels have been substituted for the consonant following them in the alphabet: AFlfwknp mpnbchp > Aelfwino monacho ‘for Ælfwine the monk’ (if you want to learn more about this type of encoding, read Anglo-Saxon Cryptography: Secret Writing in Early Medieval England).

An equally mysterious Ælfwine is depicted in the Junius Manuscript, one of the four main codices of Old English poetry:

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“Ælfwine” depicted in a roundel. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, p. 2.

It is unclear who this young man named “Ælfwine” is – it has been suggested that he may have been the patron or the scribe of the manuscript. Perhaps it was even the poet of some of the Old English poems in the Junius Manuscript: GenesisDaniel, Christ and Satan and Exodus. Tolkien himself was keenly familiar with the last of these Old English poems: an edition and translation of the Old English Exodus, on the basis of Tolkien’s notes, appeared in 1982 (you can watch me lecture about this here: Tolkien keynote lecture: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Old Englsh Exodus)

Given that Tolkien worked on the Old English Exodus, he must have spotted the Ælfwine roundel in the Junius manuscript (which uniquely contains the Old English poem). Perhaps this mysterious Ælfwine inspired Tolkien in developing the conceit, found in the earliest drafts of The Silmarillion, of an Anglo-Saxon man called Ælfwine who travelled west and ended up in the lands of the Elves. As some versions of Tolkien’s mythology would have it, this Ælfwine later returned to Anglo-Saxon England and wrote down the stories of Middle-Earth in Old English (resulting in, e,g, the Old English annals of Valinor).

Clearly, from various elf types to ambivalent Wood-Elves and elf-friends, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth has close connections to early medieval England.

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You can find my academic publications on Tolkien here; in the first semester of 2019/2020 I teach an MA course on Tolkien’s medieval sources (see Teaching). ASElvesBanner