Issue 195, page 1

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Middle Earth (an "encore" presentation)

How many fans of "The Lord of the Rings" realize that the name of its world, Middle Earth, is not an invention of its author?  J. R. R. Tolkein taught Old English (then called "Anglo-Saxon") at Oxford University and was well-versed in many other languages (even Finnish!).  His fluency in those languages and his delight in ancient myth is evident in the names used throughout his fiction. [See also hobbit, Issue 49.]

Middle Earth is a rather obscure term and itsTolkein's own painting of Hobbiton earliest appearance (in 1275) is clearly a misunderstanding of a much older word.  Middle-erd meant "middle enclosure", the -erd being Old English for "yard", not "earth", and is a direct descendant of the Old English  middangeard (or middan-eard).  The "middle enclosure" in question was the world, thought  to be midway between heaven and hell.  In poetic use, middle earth came to mean the mortal realm as distinct from the land of faerie...

But stay, I smell a man of middle earth.

- William Shakespeare, "The Merry Wives of Windsor", 1598

While the Anglo-Saxons' middangeard was suspended between heaven and hell, the Midgard of their northern neighbors had a somewhat different design.  According to the "Prose Edda" by the Icelandic scribe Snorri Sturluson, the world is a circular island on whose shores live hostile giants.  To keep these giants at bay, the gods built a ring of mountains from the eyebrows of a giant called Ymir whom they happened to have slain.  They then called the inner part Midgard, created humans out of trees, and at the very center they built Asgard, their own stronghold.  The gods made the sky from Ymir's skull which is held up by four dwarves called North, South, East and West.  "Clouds" are the remaining fragments of Ymir's brains.  Unfortunately, Snorri breaks the mood of remote Northern barbarism a little by explaining that Asgard was "called Troy by later generations".

The -geard of middangeard is believed to derive from the Indo-European root *gher- which had the meaning of "to grasp" or "to enclose".  Both are implied in girdle, another *gher- descendant.  Garden, garth and yard all derive from the "enclosure" sense of *gher-.  In Latin this root became hortus ("garden") and entered Old English as the ort- on the front end of ort-geard.  The -geard in this word is the same -geard ("yard", "enclosure") as in  middangeard, so ort-geard (which we now pronounce "orchard", by the way) is descended from *gher- on both sides of its family.

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