Monday, 28 January 2013

Tolkien and the runes in his books

Those enigmatic and puzzling runic inscriptions at Avebury (see my last post) jogged a memory in my mind that concerned J R R Tolkien, the learned author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the book that explains the general background to both of them, The Silmarillion. (Nor overlooking several other works that touch on the deepest meanings of life, and not necessarily in a fictional way, such Tree and Leaf)

Tolkien was of course fascinated with languages, and he based his University career on them. From 1925 to 1945 he was the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, and then from 1945 until his retirement in 1959 he was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. No wonder the horse-obsessed people of Rohan in LOTR, his personal realisation of an heroic Anglo-Saxon society, seem to be his best creation. The 'eo-' element in some of the Rohan royal names (Eomer, Eowyn) is an echo of the Old English word 'eoh' which was a poetic term for a steed.

I would say that he thoroughly relished inventing all the fictional names and languages and traditions needed for each of the peoples mentioned in The Hobbit and LOTR, to the point of gross self-indulgence. But he did it so well, and with such obvious scholarship, that I can easily forgive him and simply enjoy the depth and beauty of his epic vision.

He was a good mapmaker and calligrapher too, and I'm not surprised that the runes of the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon peoples cast their spell on his imagination.

Let's leave aside their spurious magical significance, and concentrate on what runes were chiefly used for. They are just a form of our ordinary Roman alphabet, modified for scratching and carving on wood and stone. It's easiest, if your cutting equipment is crude, or your material is a bit uneven, to carve letters using only straight lines. And since you might wish (as a stylistic device) to enclose these letters between long parallel lines - as if written on the long body of a winding serpent - you need to morph the Roman letters into something based on upright or slanting lines, with twiglike projections, and with no horizontal lines at the top or at the bottom. Here for example is a repainted cast of a Swedish stone that I saw at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford only last October. I've heightened the contrast a bit, to make the runes stand out better. As you can see, they are written in a meandering fashion on a red ribbon that turns this way and that:

Obviously without paint these centuries-worn letters would be very hard to see, so I think it's perfectly excusable for the museum to apply it. And I think you can appreciate my point about the difficulties of carving on semi-natural lumps of stone, and why the majuscule letters of Rome, with their refined curves and graceful serifs, had to be ditched in favour of these much simpler characters. Such is the case at Avebury and many other places in Northern Europe, and indeed anywhere that the Vikings went, even Iceland and Newfoundland.

As I said, although they look strange, these runes are just an ordinary alphabet, albeit with variations from our own because they were used to write in a whole family of languages and dialects: Old Norse, Frisian, Anglo-Saxon and so forth. If a language or dialect had sounds that the rest didn't have, it had to invent extra letters accordingly. So there is variation in time and place, and not a lot was fixed. Tolkien knew all about this.

If you are interested enough, the Wikipedia article on 'Runes' (see will tell you all about it. And if you scroll down (quite a way - it's a longish article) there are tables showing the correspondences between our own alphabet and the main runic variants, the Elder Futhark, Anglo-Frisian, and the Younger Futhark. All very Tolkienish! You can easily use these tables to 'translate' any runes you come across into the local vernacular of the time, and you can often tease out the rough meaning of the words without the need for a specialised course in Old Norse. The basic words of modern English are substantially derived from the ancient language of the Norse invaders who came here in waves after the Romans left.

Here's a general table of correspondences, which is useful for any inscription, at any time and place, up to the year 1100 or so, including Avebury:

Now: Tolkien and his use of runes. I will select two examples. The first comes from The Hobbit, where on a map showing The Lonely Mountain and The Desolation of Smaug (called 'Thror's Map') we have this:

Doesn't it look terribly authentic? Thror is a not a modern English chappie, and so this must be written in a strange Middle-Earth tongue. But when you transcribe each letter above into our own alphabet it comes out as:

Hmmmm. Not as expected! So Thror spoke English. Odd that. You know, for decades I took it for granted that these runes on the map were in a Middle-Earth language, and not in English. Rather a let-down to discover otherwise.

Example two. In LOTR, the Fellowship of the Ring have been travelling underground through Moria for days, and not far from the eastern exit reach a chamber containing the tomb of Balin, Lord of Moria, a dwarf of great renown. On the slab is carved the following, 'in the tongues of Men and Dwarves' according to the wizard Gandalf, who buzzes off a rapid translation of a jolly impressive set of runes, even though some of the letters seem to be non-standard. I've substituted the closest equivalent for these non-standard letters, marking the substitutions in RED as a warning that they are my own guesses:

Which, if transcribed using the normal alphabetical correspondences, becomes:

What's this gibberish? It's supposed to mean:


I expected something that resembled Arabic, seeing that many of the Dwarvish names have a middle-eastern ring to them: Khazad-Dûm, for instance. Even if you play around with those letters in red, trying other letters instead, it still doesn't seem like any kind of proper language. Which is odd, when you consider Tolkien's enthusuasm for inventing tongues (such as Elvish, which I think has strong affinities with Welsh and Finnish). Or the fact that the firey script on the One Ring itself is written in the Black Speech of Mordor, and looks like a proper language, albeit a barbarous one:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul

This meant:

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them

But the tomb inscription is just a meaningless - or nearly meaningless - jumble of letters, with few obvious words. I suppose 'Wokizon' is perhaps 'son' or 'lord'. But the rest? And why is Balin called Runiz? Of course, it's meant to be carved in 'Daeron's runes', and perhaps he wasn't familiar with the Elder Futhark...or maybe he was dyslexic...or his chisel slipped...or it was all a massive typo that the publishers didn't pick up on. What man (or dwarf) can say? Another thing for Tolkien experts to unravel, I suppose.

Tolkien himself does explain something about Dwarvish names in Appendix F of the third volume of LOTR. He says (speaking of the 'real' names of individual dwarves) 'Their own secret and 'inner' names, their true names, the Dwarves have never revealed to any one of alien race. Not even on their tombs do they inscribe them'. Aha! So 'Balin' wasn't his proper name then, just a nom de guerre. But the rest of the carved inscription should have looked like a real language. In late 1940 Tolkien was super-busy combining his University and wartime duties in Oxford, and finding them onerous, so that he had to push aside his LOTR manuscript with a sigh, and remain standing a whole year by Balin's tomb. Maybe, when he was at last able to resume, there were no dwarves on hand to explain the secret of their language, all having perished in battle, and he just had to fudge it as best he could. After all, what person would care what the runes might really mean?

He surely thought wrong. LOTR proved very popular, and I'm sure that Tolkien's old college colleagues and his students examined his major work with a fierce academic rigour. Even so, I don't imagine that very many have tried to work out what the runes on Balin's tomb say. Despite their clear importance. I mean, it's got to be a cricial insight or prophesy of some kind, hasn't it? A prophesy of more relevance than the Mayans', I'll warrant. Certainly worth a concentrated attack by a team of fine minds.

I'm not personally competent to undertake the task, but I can at least lobby for a temporary revision, so that in the interim ordinary English readers won't get driven to despair by the runes that presently grace the tomb. As mentioned above, these runes should read (in English, as if Thror carved it):


Which in 'correct' runic characters will now be:

And that's my contibution to Tolkien scholarship. 

In my next post I'll turn to something completely different. None too soon for some, I suspect.


  1. I have nothing to say - I couldn't understand what you were saying - I mean doesn't everyone speak elvish? LOL. Quite fascinating although I have to admit that when I read his books I was content to believe the 'runish' language was simply a fictional representation of elvish or dwarfish language that couldn't be translated because it was fictional but you have shown me that it can. It kind of spoils it a little knowing the runes had real meaning and were not just there for atmosphere.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I had no idea that people could actually read his books. Obbits give me the heebie jeebies...

    I have enough trouble dealing with reality that I give fantasy a very wide berth.

  3. When I was at school we used to communicate in the Runes from Lord of the Rings. One of the boys was the son of an archaeologist and they craked the code. I knew the rune alphabet so well when I was 16...

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  5. I am not a Tolkien scholar, indeed, I am only a 16 year old Germanic and Tolkien enthusiast (I found your blog completely by accident!), so forgive me if this sounds arrogant (as well as being very late) but this is quite wrong. You are correct when you say that the ‘Hobbit’ runes are simply the English text rendered phonetically in the Futhark. However, the runic inscription on Balin’s tomb is not the Futhark, which is why it comes out as gibberish. It’s actually in a runic alphabet Tolkien devised himself (with , as you so correctly note, certain identical characters to the Futhark although with completely different values assigned to them) called the Cirth or the Angerthas Daeron in the Moria form –the original runic alphabet of the Angerthas Daeron was adapted by the Dwarves – Tolkien does not say why, although we know that the oldest Cirth only provided for the sounds of Sindarin. From that, I suspect the new characters and new values were introduced to adapt Daeron’s Runes to the orthography of the Dwarvish tongues spoken in Moria and later by the dwarves of Erebor (like the Elder Futhark, Younger Futhark and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc), Your substitutions are thus completely incorrect. It’s described in Appendix F to the Return of the King. The inscription reads:


    If you remember, Khazad-Dum is the Dwarvish name for Moria. I also suspect that –u is probably the genitive ending (-ul, son of, -u is presumably plain of) and with Tolkien’s own translation that gives us:


    The remaining inscription on the tomb is also in the Angerthas Moria but it’s much easier to translate as its just phonetic English (in line with Tolkien’s insistence that the Westron be translated into English):


    The sole omission I cannot find in Tolkien’s table (certainly my error) is obviously ‘O’, giving us phonetically:


    The whole inscription in the tongues of men and Dwarves then reads:


    Thank you, anyway - it was a very interesting post to stumble across. I am sorry I haven't a photograph!
    Patrick Gray

    1. Thank you, Patrick! I really am grateful for your additional information, which solves the Balin Tomb Rune Inscription Puzzle. I've copied your reply into a Word document for future refernce.

      No doubt you detected that to some extent I was being playful in this post, and indeed in the preceding one 'Avebury and other stones' (I invite you to work out what the runic inscriptions on the Avebury stones actually say in Futhork!). Even so, I respect Tolkien's scholarship and was genuinely puzzled as to why he used English (disguised in Futhork runes) in The Hobbit.

      Lucy Melford


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