Friday, 25 March 2016

Wan, dim, and pale: the OED and Tolkien

A talk given at the Tolkien Symposium at Merton College, 18 November 2014


Light and darkness in Tolkien’s works have been greatly emphasized and deeply explored. This study looks, in a preliminary way, at the intermediate state: diminution of light, both positive and negative. It starts with Tolkien’s time on the OED, where, among other words, he edited the entry for wan.

The influence of OED work on Tolkien

There are reasons to believe that Tolkien’s time on the OED influenced him deeply, and moreover that his mind continued to work on the words which he edited. We know, for example, that he commented later on the relationship of wild and wold and that he wrestled for many years with the etymology of walrus. In a more nebulous way we can trace the appearance of waistcoat and wain, and perhaps even wander, in his writings. He penned a vivid draft of the definition of wake n.¹ 4b, of which little survived into the published entry, but which testifies to his interest in the kind of rural life which surfaces in his invention of the Shire.

Focus on wan

I would like to concentrate on a single word on which he worked and for which we have a fairly complete set of slips showing the process of composition, namely the adjective wan, and which also show the alterations made by the later editor, probably Henry Bradley, before publication. (Regrettably it isn’t possible to post images of the actual slips.)

Outline of meanings of wan

Before we look at Tolkien’s work on the word, here is a greatly simplified summary of the OED entry.
1 [Obsolete] Lacking light, or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark.
[Old English to 16th century]
1b especially in conventional application in poetry to the sea (waves, etc.) or other waters.
[Old English to 19th century]
2 [Obsolete, poetic] [transferred or figurative] Sad, dismal; also awful, fearful, deadly, cruel, wicked, etc.
[late Middle English to 16th century]
3 [Obsolete] Of an unhealthy, unwholesome colour; livid, leaden-hued. Applied esp. to wounds, to the human face discoloured by disease, and to corpses.
[Old English to 17th century]
4 Pallid, faded, sickly; unusually or unhealthily pale. Most frequently applied to the human face (or to things with conscious metaphor from this application). [4 b, c pale and wan, wan smile]
[Middle English to late 19th century]
4d Applied to the (light of) heavenly bodies, etc.: faint, sickly, partially obscured. Also, of white objects, etc.: dull, lustreless.
[17th century to 19th century]
4e Of colour: ?pale, light
[only 1567]

The paradoxical semantic development of wan

The striking fact about wan is that in Old English it meant essentially ‘dark’, a meaning that died out in the Renaissance, while from Middle English onwards it meant ‘pallid’, seemingly almost a reversal of sense until you realize that the common factor is ‘diminution of light’ (a feature which could be thought to favour the disputed etymology which connects the word with wane).

Tolkien’s drafts for wan

It is evident that Tolkien thought a great deal about the separate meanings and about the overall development.

Sense 1

The published wording of the main definition is Tolkien’s:
‘Lacking light, or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark.’
However, he writes an additional sentence of commentary:
‘Applied very frequently, but not exclusively, to things regarded as ominous, unfriendly, or dangerous.’
This is not regarded as necessary by the final editor, and rightly in view of the preponderance of the published quotations.

What is important is that it gives us insight into Tolkien’s imaginative response to the word. I guess this is based on the Old English uses, which would have been readily accessible to Tolkien in Bosworth-Toller, quite apart from his own reading: wann describes night, clouds, ravens, and the devil, and is frequently used in ‘gloomy’ contexts. Indeed the first quotation at this sense is the famous line from Beowulf describing the coming of Grendel: com on wanre niht scriðan sceadugenga.

Sense 1b

Tolkien’s text is retained, partly as a main definition, partly as a further note:
‘esp. in conventional application in poetry to the sea (waves, etc.) or other waters.

[Note in small type] The original significance was perh. that of ‘dark-hued’, but the sense often approaches, or is blended with, the next.

In more recent poetry the word is probably (exc. by conscious archaism) to be understood rather as ‘grey, pale’, but the gloomy connotation remains.’
Two questions arise from sense 1b.

First, Tolkien has left this sense not marked ‘Obsolete’, implying that it was still current. wan waters seems to have become something of a literary cliché. Among the OED examples, there is a strong Scottish tradition of its use from Hary’s Wallace (1488), Gavin Douglas’s Palice of Honour (early 16th century) to the Ballad of Johnie Cock (18th century).

But did this use in fact survive to the time of the composition of the OED entry? The last examples given are both from 1865 (one from Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake, a work that has been shown to have influenced Tolkien significantly). We don’t have the official OED’s answer because this entry has not yet been revised for the Third Edition. But unofficial research shows that use with reference to water, the sea, and so on, did in fact survive in poetical use into the twentieth century; for example:
1912 John Masefield Widow in Bye St. ii. xxxix, The wise shipman puts his ship about Seeing the gathering of those waters wan.

1929 John Todhunter Selected Poems 4 A girl’s clear voice, o’er the wan waters ringing, Beats with its wild wings at the Gates of Dream.
Secondly, is this really all one sense, or has the meaning‘dark’ actually been lost under the influence of the more recent uses? Just the fact that there is continued application to water does not guarantee continuation of the same meaning. Tolkien virtually admits this, but is keen to show the continuation of this negative association of water, particularly that of the sea.

What, for example, is Lang saying in 1872?
1872 Andrew Lang Twilight on Tweed in Ballads & Lyrics of Old France: with Other Poems 91 Wan water from the border hills.
He’s very attached to the water of the Tweed and by no means gloomy, though he is nostalgic. Or take this more recent historical novel:
1975 Nigel Tranter The Wallace x, The loom of a large building materialised before them, vaguely, against the wan sea, with the moon now lost behind clouds.
So why does Tolkien insist on the ‘gloomy connotation’? Again, I would draw attention to Tolkien’s interest in the emotional and atmospheric connotations of the word.

Sense 2

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have a copy of Tolkien’s draft. I guess this is likely to be his wording, as it is stylistically similar to his other drafts in the use of numerous near-synonyms:
transf. or fig. Sad, dismal; also awful, fearful, deadly, cruel, wicked, etc. (Cf. uses of dark, gloomy.) Obs. poet.’
It’s apparently a minor sense with only three quotations. They are rather a ragbag:
c1440 ‘warkes wanne’
1535 ‘wan werd’ (i.e. weird, fate)
c1540 (?a1400) ‘wan teres’
But for this number of examples, the synonyms offered seem rather numerous. And they are entirely words of subjective response rather than of objective appearance, almost all negative in tone.

Sense 3

His definition is retained:
‘Of an unhealthy, unwholesome colour; livid, leaden-hued. Applied esp. to wounds, to the human face discoloured by disease, and to corpses. Obs.’
He has composed an additional comment:
‘This sense passes into, and is often indistinguishable from, 4. Some of the earlier instances there placed (esp. with reference to the effects of emotion, etc.) possibly refer rather to a livid or sallow hue than to a white pallor.’
Here we have Tolkien identifying the point of transition from ‘dark’ to ‘pale’, but again, the comment is not retained. Admittedly, commenting on a use at a different sense, as the second sentence does, is not correct OED practice; but the comment doesn’t get moved to sense 4.

Sense 4

Most of Tolkien’s definition is kept:
‘Pallid, faded, sickly; unusually or unhealthily pale. Most frequently applied to the human face (or to things with conscious metaphor from this application).’
Again, part is not used, although it’s not shown as deleted here:
‘…but also less often, to anything paler in colour or less brilliant than normally.’
This again represents his effort to show the transition between the meanings.

(He also supplies the lemma ‘a wan smile’ with definition, but this is moved to its own subsense and defined as ‘a faint or forced smile (as of one sick or unhappy)’ (Tolkien actually wrote ‘a faint or bored smile (as of a sick or unhappy person)’.)

The examples here include the expected wan face, wan cheeks, person who has these, and also wan, colourless hangings and wan dawn, plus figurative applications to envy, despair, and regret.

Sense 4d

(Tolkien had this as e.) The first part of Tolkien’s definition is kept:
‘Applied to the (light of) heavenly bodies, etc.: Faint, sickly, partially obscured.’
An additional part is added by the final editor:
‘Also, of white objects, etc.: Dull, lustreless.’
This replaces, and paraphrases with less analysis, a deleted follow-on comment drafted by Tolkien, which reads:
‘This usage is transitional. Application to the sun, sunlight, etc., belongs here, but applications to the moon, stars, etc. frequently to 5. [probably meaning sense 4] as there is often no diminution of radiance implied, but at most an implied comparison with the brighter sun. The distinction is often difficult to make accurately.’
Tolkien is at pains to point out that the pallor of the sun is a diminution of its normal light, and therefore strictly a separate sense, whereas that of the moon or stars is merely a normal brightness lesser than that of the sun.

The examples, which begin in the 17th century, relate to the sun, moon, stars, sky, glimmerings of sunshine, and air.

We need to note that there’s a real question here about where to place examples that show neither the pallor of human skin nor the effect of diminished natural light. As we shall see presently, these are well to the fore among Tolkien’s uses of the word.

Slip with preliminary drafts

Interestingly, another dictionary slip has been preserved carrying preliminary attempts at writing definitions of parts of what became sense 4.
5. pallid. unhealthy l pale esp. of the human face or body under disease.
also of other things paler than their wont but often with consc. transf from the appl.
to faces.
a transitional appl. is that to luminaries of heaven
Cases of appl to Sun itself belong here—the moon largely to 5c.
5b phr. pale & wan b. pale faint white part-white of things naturally so (but often pale used with connot. of fading faculties
[?] unnatural pallor[?]
What is important is his close interest in the light quality of objects, especially heavenly ones, and in the connotations—the notions of unnaturalness, sickliness, and fading.

Etymology slip

Finally we have the etymology of wan. Here, first of all, is the published OED1 etymology. The bold part corresponds to the text on a slip we have bearing Tolkien’s drafts.

Relationships to win v.1 (Old Germanic *winnan to strive, toil, suffer, etc.), or to wound n., or wen n.1, present difficulties of sense-development or form. Relationship to wane n.1 etc. is possible (compare Celtic *wanno-, Old Irish fann, Welsh gwan faint, weak, feeble), but association of the two words in later (Middle English and ModE.) periods is more probable than ultimate connection.
In addition to this association the application to heavenly bodies, when obscured, or when compared to others more bright, possibly aided the general application to pale things. The application to the human face etc., when of unwholesome or unusual colour (through various emotions, disease, or death), also provided a possible occasion of sense-change. The senses ‘livid,’ ‘sallow’, and ‘pale, sickly’ are often indistinguishable.

Tolkien’s final draft was quite similar to this, but its final sentence was discarded:
of the two words in later (ME and ModE.) periods is more probable than ultimate connection.

In addition to this association the application to heavenly bodies, when obscured, or when compared to others more bright (e.g. the moon as compared with the sun), probably aided the general application to pale things so that instead of meaning darker than usual the word now means paler. Nonetheless the connotation of the word still largely implies that a thing is paler than normal.
The earlier drafts of the central sentence, which are hard to disentangle, go roughly:
when less brilliant than usual probably aided the change of general sense The sun was called wan when less light than usual or the moon as being less brilliant than the Sun etc. and so this word became applied to things naturally pale or whitish.
In the etymology Tolkien is still grappling with the semantic shift. His thoughts survive into the published version in a more generalized form: Tolkien’s draft is very much more graphic in its references to the sun, moon, and stars.

Since Tolkien’s draft appears to reach a conclusion, it’s not clear who the last two sentences of the published etymology come from. They may be Bradley’s; they may have been based on Tolkien’s drafts for some of the definitions.

wan in Tolkien’s Glossary to Fourteenth-century Verse and Prose.

It’s important to remember that on leaving the OED for his lectureship in Leeds, Tolkien did not immediately abandon lexicography. He spent an unknown amount of time—but surely not less than a year—compiling the Glossary to Kenneth Sisam’s Fourteenth-century Verse and Prose, which was published in 1922 as A Middle English Vocabulary.

The adjective wan occurs four times in the texts selected by Sisam. One of these occurrences also appears as an example in the OED entry. This is from piece VII, The Destruction of Troy, line 140 in EMEVP:
With blastes full bigge of the breme wyndes, / Walt vp the waghes vpon wan hilles.
In the OED entry—Tolkien’s entry—this quotation exemplifies sense 1b ‘in conventional application to the sea or other waters’, inheriting from sense 1 the gloss ‘dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark’. This, even though the noun modified is hilles.

Here, in the Glossary, Tolkien glosses it simply ‘gloomy’. It’s as if he’s taking the opportunity to rethink the meaning that this quotation exemplifies.

The other three examples are all in OED’s sense 4, and Tolkien’s gloss is simply ‘sickly’.
II. Sir Orfeo line 108 Allas! þi rode, þat was so red, / is al wan as þou were ded; / And also þine fingres smale / Beþ al blodi and al pale.

IVa. Richard Rolle Love is Life line 10: Þe settel of lufe es lyft hee, for intil heuen it ranne; / Me thynk in erth it is sle, þat makes men pale and wanne.

XVc. Alisoun line 22: Nihtes when y wende and wake, / Forþi myn wonges waxeþ won, / Leuedi, al for þine sake / Longinge is ylent me on.

How Tolkien used wan in his writings

Sense 1.

First, what Tolkien did not do; he did not attempt to use wan in its original Old English sense ‘lacking light.., dark-hued’. You can imagine the attractiveness of the connotations that he noted in his deleted draft: ‘applied to things regarded as ominous, unfriendly, or dangerous’. Nonetheless, he abstained. This can be tested in the 1926 translation of Beowulf. There are five occurrences of parts of won(n) and all are translated by modern English equivalents, none by wan:
651 wan under wolcnum = 531 dark beneath the clouds

702 on wanre niht = 574 in darkling night

1374 won to wolcnum = 1147 darkly to the clouds

3024 se wonna hrefn = 2542 the dusky raven

3115 weaxan wonna leg = 2617 the smoking flame be fed
In other words, Tolkien applied the doctrine which he preached in the ‘Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf’ of using ‘literary and traditional language’ and eschewing ‘antiquarian sentiment and philological knowingness’, just as Professor Andy Orchard has recently reminded us (‘Found in Translation: Tolkien’s “Beowulf”’, Oxford English 3 (2014), 16–19).

Sense 1b.

But in contrast Tolkien does use wan in line 1638 of his version of Beowulf to translate, in line 1950, ofer fealone flod as ‘over the wan waters’.

He is here, presumably, making use of his sense 1b in OED, the sense exemplified in The Destruction of Troy, of which he wrote ‘In more recent poetry the word is probably (exc. by conscious archaism) to be understood rather as ‘grey, pale’, but the gloomy connotation remains’? And, it is to be presumed, not with conscious archaism, but in the sense ‘grey, pale’. Is he taking a bit of a liberty with ‘fealu’, which normally means ‘pale yellow’? If wan is to be understood as implying ‘gloomy’, or even ‘pallid’ as with sickness or deprivation of light, is this a true translation of the Old English word? Or is he just taking advantage of the fact that wan waters alliterates?

The fact is that Tolkien, in his early works, was quite partial to the use of ‘wan’ applied to waters, using at least five examples; it is not so used in LR.

I wonder whether Tolkien was at all influenced by William Morris:
1870 Eiríkr Magnússon & William Morris Völsunga Saga xiv. 47 Find me the wan waters flame.
Reginsmál stanza 1 finn mér lindar loga (explained as lindar logi ‘fire of the well’ = ‘gold’)
Morris has gratuitously introduced wan here. In The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, p. 68, Tolkien leaves this line untranslated!

But all this is to some extent beside the point. What we must notice is Tolkien’s interest in the atmospheric and emotive content of this word. Its literal sense, diminution of light quality, is important to Tolkien for its connotations of the ominous, the hostile, the dangerous, and the gloomy. For example, in Leithian the shade of Gorlim, coming to confess his betrayal to Beren, quivers over the wan waters, and in Gudrún Tolkien makes Gudrún kill herself in them (this is not paralleled in the Icelandic tradition).

Sense 4.

Tolkien uses the word a fair number of times in sense 4, but in some cases it is difficult to decide whether the sense is 4 itself (unhealthily pale of or like the face) or 4d (the light of heavenly bodies or objects normally white).

‘pale face’ examples are somewhat rare (about 4). The main cases relate to Túrin’s two tragic lovers, Finduilas and Níniel. A notably positive use occurs in his translation of Pearl, line 212 ‘Her ble more blaȝt þen whalleȝ bon’, rendered as ‘and her hue as rewel ivory wan’.

Sense 4d.

There are about six examples of ‘wan’ applied to (the light of) heavenly bodies. One of these occurs in LR, just before the Company’s attempt on the Redhorn Gate:
LR II. iii. [(2004) 286] There was a black look in the sky, and the sun was wan.

Sense 4?

There are a number of other applications, the placing of which among the OED senses is uncertain. For our purposes this doesn’t matter; what is interesting is the use to which Tolkien put the word. In most of these, wan literally indicates diminution of normal brightness. In a few cases, it has to do with indistinctness, the inability to make things out clearly, as in a twilit scene with flitting moths; the appropriate synonym would be dim, e.g.
Lay of Leithian (1925–1931) in HME III. 154–329: 532–3 and moths in moving garland flew / above her head went wavering wan.

In about ten other cases it has to do with a sinister or baleful lack of normal colour in an object or the environment, and the nearest synonym would be pale. But it is chosen for an emotive effect. Here belongs one of the other occurrences of wan in LR:
LR IV. viii. [706] All that host was clad in sable, dark as the night. Against the wan walls and the luminous pavement of the road Frodo could see them.
This is a most important moment of the highest tension and dread: the word wan has been chosen to convey the gloomy ghastliness of Minas Morgul; given the modern understanding of the word, it seems to bestow personality on the place.

wan is a very rare word in modern English (about 1 occurrence per million; the 30-odd examples in Tolkien’s works greatly exceed this) except with reference to the complexion, which is the sense in which Tolkien uses it least. The extent to which he uses it in other meanings is therefore quite surprising.

But although Tolkien used wan more than one might have expected in his writings up to 1937, it does not seem to occur in The Hobbit and occurs only four times in LR. Here, his preferred adjectives for diminished brightness were instead pale and dim.

wan’s semantic overlaps with pale and dim

I would like to investigate further the semantic areas brought to our attention by Tolkien’s uses of wan in senses 4 and 4d:
(i) pallor of the skin,
(ii) diminution of natural light,
(iii) indistinctness, and
(iv) diminution of colour.
The commoner synonym of wan for (i), (ii), and (iv) is pale, and for (ii) and (iii) is dim.

Diagrammatically (the numerals are OED1 senses):

semantic field
pallor of the skin

diminution of natural light
diminution of colour
1b, 1c

An outline of the semantic history of pale

pale a. in OED2:
1. Of persons, their complexions, etc.: of a whitish or ashen appearance; not ruddy or fresh of complexion; pallid; wan (either naturally, or temporarily as a result of fear or other emotion).
[early Middle English—present]
[person, skin, face, complexion]
1b. (generally) Of a shade of colour approaching white; lacking intensity or depth of colour; faintly coloured. [Middle English—present]
[horse, streams, sun, primrose, writing, lime]
1c. Qualifying adjectives (or nouns) of colour. [16th century—present]
[pale green, etc.]
2. Of something luminous or illuminated: wanting in brightness or brilliancy; of faint lustre; dim.
[Middle English]
[daystar, light, lantern of the night (=moon), daylight, day]
Notice that ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ are in different senses
3. (figurative) (with various implications): dim, faint, feeble; lacking intensity, vigour, or robustness; fearful, timorous, etc.
[16th century—present]
[kingdom, policy, name, health]
Note that as a purely historical fact, pale, a French loanword, ‘inherits’ senses 1 and 2 from wan.

pale in Tolkien’s Glossary to Fourteenth-century Verse and Prose

All the examples are from extract VII, Destruction of Troy
100 Was past to the point of the pale wintur.
116 the perellis to passe of the pale windes.
125 Thai past on the pale se.
Tolkien’s gloss is: ‘wan, chill (connoting “fatal”, “ill-omened”)’

There are two things to note here:

1. Tolkien’s connotation ‘fatal, ill-omened’ is not mentioned in the OED entry (which Tolkien would have referred to), even though one of OED’s examples for sense 1b is from this same work: 
c1400 Destr. Troy 2004 ­Euer in point for to perysshe in the pale stremys.
2. What appears to happen here is that Tolkien treats these uses of pale as equivalent to earlier uses of wan, so that pale ‘inherits’ the ‘gloomy’ connotations of wan in this kind of context.

Tolkien seems to have carried over this attribution of some of the symbolism of wan to pale into his writings, and especially, as I shall argue, into LR.

Tolkien’s use of pale

According to the Oxford English Corpus pale’s frequency in current English is somewhere in the region of 10.9 occurrences per million. According to Google Ngrams its frequency is 16.6 per million now, and in 1900 nearer 40 per million.

Pale is very frequent in Tolkien’s writings. There appear to be about 38 instances in roughly 142,000 words of the Book of Lost Tales, Parts 1 and 2, which gives a rate of 267 per million words.
  1. Beside about 7 examples of sense 1, 2 of 1b, and about 12 of sense 2, some of the remainder are used in contexts which suggest that an emotive component is as important as the literal sense. Pale waters occurs three times; the pale swords or blades of Ecthelion’s people; and even pale voices.
  2. Instances are spread relatively evenly except in the chapter dealing with the creation of the Sun and Moon, in which there are no fewer than 12 occurrences. The application of pale to light and heavenly bodies is prominent.
Occurrences in other earlier works:
  • Legend of the Children of Húrin, parts I and II: 11 times.
  • Lay of Leithian: 24 times. 
  • The early versions of The Hobbit: about 21 times.

pale in The Lord of the Rings

LR is around half a million words long and pale occurs about 160 times, so the rate is 320 per million, at least 8 times as frequent as would be expected. It seems reasonable to assume that there is some significance in this.

Distribution of pale among chapters in LR

It is notable that pale is concentrated in certain chapters (low frequency in a few, and absence from several). There are no examples in I.1 A Long-expected Party, I.5 A Conspiracy Unmasked, I.10 Strider, III.10 The Voice of Saruman, V.3 The Muster of Rohan, V.10 The Black Gate Opens, VI.7 Homeward Bound.

There are between six and ten examples of pale in the following chapters: I.8 Fog on the Barrow Downs, I.11 A Knife in the Dark, 1.12 Flight to the Ford, II.6 Lothlórien, II.9 The Great River, III. 2 The Riders of Rohan, III.3 The Uruk-hai, IV.1 The Taming of Sméagol, IV.2 The Passage of the Marshes, IV.6 The Forbidden Pool.

Analysis by chapters partly disguises the fact that examples of pale are several times closely clustered within an episode and may appear repeatedly on the same or successive pages. This might have been due to the very human tendency to repeat a word one has used in a nearby context. But this seems unlikely. Tolkien rewrote and revised. He surely would have noticed stylistic infelicities of this kind. Tolkien often uses pale to describe the sky or weather conditions, and he could have done this in almost any chapter, but in fact he doesn’t. It seems a reasonable hypothesis that Tolkien deployed pale deliberately, and it is worth pausing to investigate how he did it.

Distribution of pale among senses in LR

Setting aside the minor senses 1c and 3, represented by 10 examples, we find:
  • sense 1: 27 uses including face 15, Frodo 4
  • sense 1b: 59 uses including sky 21
  • sense 2: 53 uses including light 25
  • dubious between 1b and 2: 11 examples with eyes (more on this later)
It is especially interesting to see how frequently the word collocates with sky and light (and with other light-suggesting words such as gleam), but a sense analysis doesn’t fully show how the word is 
deployed to convey atmosphere and emotion.

Examples of the use of pale in LR

In book I, for example, there are very few occurrences of the word in the chapters (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10) dealing with hobbit activities, the house of Tom Bombadil, and occurrences at Bree. The largest number occur in 8 (Fog on the Barrow Downs), 11 (A Knife in the Dark), and 12 (Flight to the Ford), in which Frodo is in the greatest danger. Curiously, the Barrow episode contains the highest number (10) and it happens to be the time which Gandalf judges to have been ‘perhaps the most dangerous moment of all’ (II.1 [219]). The first and last uses of the word in the chapter describe gold. In the build-up to the crisis it is the Forest, the river Withywindle, the shadow, and the sun, which are pale; when the crisis breaks, it is the light of the barrow-wight’s eyes, twice the light in the barrow, and once the faces of the hobbits which are described as pale. Perhaps this patterning is accidental. It is nevertheless extremely effective.

In chapter 4 of book 2, Frodo becomes aware of ‘pale points of light’ in the gloom of Moria, followed by a glimpse of ‘pale eyes’ on the borders of Lothlórien in chapter 6, and ‘pale lamplike eyes’ on the Great River in chapter 9. Collocation of pale with eyes would normally be expected to represent sense 1b. But these are one of the central uses of pale and have to be taken as sense 2, since Gollum’s eyes shine with their own light, and it is baleful. This motif recurs repeatedly throughout chapters 1 to 8 of book 4 recording Frodo and Sam’s journey with Gollum. It’s a very early association, too. Back in the pre-publication drafts of The Hobbit, pale is used to describe Gollum’s eyes four times on a single page, including ‘pale lamplike eyes’ (Mr. Baggins v.155).

Space forbids detailing other such baleful deployment of the word, but I can quickly point out that all but one of the 15 occurrences of the word ominous in LoR occur in close proximity to clusters of the word pale. (The frequency of ominous is much higher than the 3 or 4 per million indicated by Google Ngrams.)

Coming to Lothlórien (chapters 6 to 7), by contrast, everything described as pale is wholesome—‘the evening light lay pale upon the dim lands of distant plain and wood’, a pale roof of quivering leaves, the sky, the day coming pale from the east, the pale-blue sky, the pale eddying water of Celebrant, the pale gold of the mallorn trees, flowers white and palest green, the pale niphredil, the pale gleam of Anduin, the pale evening sky—culminating in the appearance of Galadriel by night, tall and pale.

In the same episode, numerous instances of the word dim are intertwined: the dim lands, the dim light of the stars, the dim pools; Frodo dimly seeing the grey forms of the elves, the Moon gleaming dimly, and at the end, the dim shadow of the Elven-lady. But right in the middle of his vision in Galadriel’s mirror, Sam sees Frodo with a pale face under a cliff and himself going along a dim passage.

So finally we turn to the subject of dim.

An outline of the semantic history of dim

dim, like wan, has not been revised for OED3, but comparison with MED suggests that its first dates are not far out, except in one important case which we will come to.

1. Of a light, or an illuminated object: faintly luminous, not clear; somewhat dark, obscure, shadowy, gloomy. The opposite of bright or clear. [Old English] [ME: Dryf ouer this dymme water]
1b [figurative] especially of qualities usually clear or bright. [Old English]
2. Not clear to the sight; obscured by an intervening imperfectly transparent medium, by distance, or by blurring of the surface; scarcely visible, indistinct, faint; misty, hazy. [Old English]
3. Of colour: Not bright; dull, faint; dusky or dark; lustreless. [early Middle English] [1535 O, how is the golde become so dymme?]
5. Of sound, and esp. of the voice: Indistinct, faint. [Middle English]

dim in Tolkien’s Glossary to Fourteenth-century Verse and Prose

dim occurs once as an adjective and once as an adverb in the texts selected by Sisam.

The adjectival use is from piece II, Sir Orfeo, line 285, that celebrated passage:

The king o fairy with his rout Com to hunt him al about, With dim cri and bloweing; And houndes also with him berking. (In Tolkien’s translation of Sir Orfeo the line becomes ‘with blowing far, and crying dim’.)
We will come back to this shortly, but one thing of some interest is that the first edition of the OED failed to include this quotation. In MED at the equivalent sense (4), this is the earliest example (c1330).

The adverbial use is from piece XIIb, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, line 31:

He [Bardus] herde a vois [Adrian’s], which cride dimme (and it may be of Tolkien-related significance that when Bardus pulls the monkey instead of Adrian out of the pit ‘he wende al had ben a iape Of faierie, and sore him dradde’)
Tolkien glosses these ‘faint’ and ‘faintly’.

Tolkien’s use of dim and its link to the Legendarium’s imaginative world 1917–1937

According to Google Ngrams, the rate of occurrence for dim in 1900 was 14 per million, and now is 5 per million.

In The Book of Lost Tales, parts 1 and 2, Tolkien uses dim at least 18 times. This doesn’t seem a lot until one realizes that it represents something like a rate of 126 per million.

The associations of dim in these stories are:

  1. with the literally dim world before the rising of the Sun (example: x. 232 [the Hisildi = the twilight people] might follow very faint paths in those dim days)
  2. with the mysterious magic zone that surrounds Valinor and enchants anyone who tries to approach (example: ix. 209 [webs] lying even upon the bosom of the Shadowy Seas until the Bay of Faëry grew dim)
  3. with the fading of the Elves so that they become both indistinct to sight and insubstantial to memory (example: Epilogue [History of Eriol] 288 Who are these fairies? And some few shall answer: Memories faded dim, a wraith of vanishing loveliness in the trees, a rustle of the grass, a glint of dew…)
In the Lay of Leithian (1925–1931) in HME III. 154–329 dim occurs 8 times. We need to pay attention to this, because the story of Tinúviel is centred on the realm which came to be called Doriath, the preeminent region of faerie magic, ruled by Thingol the archetypal faerie king and his consort Melian the Maia. Melian’s enchantment diverted Thingol from seeking Valinor so that he became the ruler of the elves of the twilight. Melian is associated with twilight and the nightingale. This realm is the main locus of dimness in Tolkien’s faery sense. Hence it is striking to encounter, in the narrative of Celegorm’s wolf hunt, the deliberate echo of Sir Orfeo not once but twice; at line 2298-9 ‘there are dim cries and horns blowing, and barking hounds through the trees going’ and at line 2348-9: ‘There were dim cries and horns blowing, and barking dogs through the woods going’.

Now we come to the drafts of The Hobbit, as presented in John D. Rateliff’s two-volume History of the Hobbit. In Mr. Baggins there are 6 occurrences of dim. All but one of them relate to Mirkwood. Rateliff has argued that originally Tolkien probably conceived the Elvenking as, in a vague way, Thingol himself, and his realm as Doriath (Mr. Baggins, p. 409). This makes good sense when we encounter the invisible hunt depicted in the late episode ‘The Enchanted Stream’ (page 350) ‘they became aware of the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound as of dogs baying far off…it seemed they could hear the noise of a great hunt going by to the north of the path’: again, a conscious echo of Sir Orfeo.

dimness in the Etymologies

Now by the time of LR, Thingol’s name is rather prosaically explained as ‘greycloak’ (Quenya sindi + collo). The element thin- in his name has no necessary further associations, and indeed looks much like a synonym of mith- in Gandalf’s Sindarin name Mithrandir, Grey Pilgrim (compare his sobriquet Greyhame). But the entry for THIN- in the Etymologies (which date from the pre-LR era) make it clear that this root was originally intended to encapsulate the quality of dimness associated with the faerie realm. Although the word ‘dim’ does not appear, ‘pallid’, ‘pale’, and ‘wan’ are all there (HME V. p. 392; my bold):
THIN- (cf. TIN). *thindi pallid, grey, wan: Q sinde grey.
Sindo name of Elwe’s brother, in Telerian form Findo, Ilk. Thind, later in Doriath called Thingol (i.e. Thind + gôl wise, see ÑGOL) or Torthingol [TA] King Thingol, also with title Tor Tinduma ‘King of Twilight’ [TIN], N Aran Dinnu.
N. thind, thin, grey, pale; Ilk. thind.
Q sinye evening (N †thin); N thinna.
Q sinta- fade (sintane), ON thintha.
Additionally, this root is said to have affinities with the root TIN- (pp. 393–4):
TIN- (variant of (?) and in any case affected by THIN, q.v.) sparkle, emit slender (silver, pale) beams. Q tine it glints, tintina it sparkles; *tinme sparkle, glint: Q tinwe sparkle (star),..tin-dóme starlit dusk (see DOMO)…
N...*tindumh, tindu, tinnu, dusk, twilight, early night (without moon).
Cf. Aran Dinnu King of Twilight, name given by Gnomes to Thingol, called by Ilkorins Tor Tinduma
N. Tindúmhiell, Tinnúviel, Tinúviel = ‘daughter of twilight’, a kenning of the nightingale…, name given by Beren to Lúthien daughter of Thingol. …
The ‘twilight’ sense was largely due to THIN, q.v.

Tolkien’s use of dim in LR

In LR dim occurs about 100 times. This again is a very high frequency, equivalent to 200 per million.

As with pale, there are concentrations of dim in some chapters, and a complete or almost complete absence of it in others. The word is not especially noticeable in the first book. Its greatest frequency is in book V. chapter 4, the Siege of Gondor, and the first three chapters of book VI. This is predictable and straightforward, given that all the action takes place under the gloomy pall of smoke sent out from Mount Doom. But these vapours do not bring merely shadow but emotional gloom.

The associations of dim that we have noted in the earlier writings are essentially limited to the sojourn in Lothlórien, ‘the heart of Elvendom on earth’. There are, however, two throwbacks to the celebrated Sir Orfeo passage; one, in book V. chapter 1, when Denethor tells how he heard Boromir’s ‘horn blowing dim’ upon the northern marches and the other, in book V. chapter 9, when Legolas describes the Shadow Host: ‘faint cries I heard, and dim horns blowing’.

What dim symbolizes in Tolkien’s earlier work is the quality of half-light three ways associated with faerie: with the unreachable oversea realm, with the hidden realm in Middle-earth, and with their fading under the dominance of humans. When we reach LR this aspect of the elves is scarcely any longer conveyed by language relating to light quality.

Perhaps a hint of it remains in Galadriel’s lament:
Ar sindanoriello caita mornie i falmalinnar imbe met
But this is translated as
‘and out of a grey [not dim] country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us’
Even though pale is used in describing Lórien, it appears to suggest a delicate light quality, not a dim one. If anything a stronger light is associated with Lórien and Elvenhome. Two factors are in play, I suggest: the much greater realism of LR; and the distance of the Legendarium in time to our world. In LR the faerie quality is suggested by removal from the narrative’s world in time and space: Lórien is portrayed as being in a kind of time warp, unregainable in their later lives by either Frodo or Aragorn, and Elvenhome as being removed from the circles of the world altogether.

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