In his essay The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien mentions a phrase used by the Beowulf poet: "Haeledh Under Heofenum." He says this might be variously given as 'heroes under heaven' or 'mighty men on the earth' (as the earth is what is under heaven). But it's curious to me that there's no obvious descendant for the word "haeledh." "Hero" isn't it; that's of Greek extraction.

In fact, I began to wonder if any related word had survived, as the lost word "frith" is a cognate of the modern "friend" and "freedom." (For good reason! See the sidebar for a whole section of relevant links.) It looks as if there was an article by Kathleen E. Dubs that was highly relevant, but I don't seem to have access to that journal.

In a bit of research, I found a few potentially useful links, but they themselves lack important context. One is this old "glossography" of the original languages of Britain and Ireland. It mentions the word in an interesting context, but its comparative language is almost all clearly Norman impositions (e.g., 'frank' really does mean, 'having the (good) manner of a Frank,' and was brought from France by the conquest).

Here, similarly, is a French-language source that gives the reference in comparison to several warrior-related terms in French, e.g., guerrier. I find it fascinating that this Anglo-Saxon word was once well-enough known to Francophones to serve as a useful reference for them. But it also suggests that a close cognate for "healedh" may be "to hold," which would make it "those who hold."

So looking into that, it appears to be correct: the West Saxon version of the root word is "haeldan."

And now it makes sense. "Holders of the earth" or "Those who hold, under heaven," does imply the power associated with heroism in the ancient context. To take hold of a part of the world, to hold it against others, to hold the order of the land together in the face of dangers from both nature and other men -- and even against dragons, if you are Beowulf.


Anonymous said...

Ah, the modern German 'Held, Helden" or hero. So the traces linger, just in a different part of the Saxon lands.


Anonymous said...

A couple of possibilities that occur to me regarding "haeledh" are "hail" as in "All hail King Richard," and the German equivalent, "heil" (especially as, so I recall, the combination "ae" in classic Latin was pronounced like "eye" in modern English, or "ei" in Hochdeutch). So, "hailed under heaven" fits pretty well with your interpretation, too. But I can claim no official expertise in philology.

Grim said...

The etymology on hail runs both through the Old Norse ('heil,' meaning 'health' or 'prosperity') and the Old English ('hael,' meaning the same, and at the root of 'waes hael,' which was later the Christmas 'wassail').

The Old English is close. "The Healthy, Under Heaven," doesn't quite seem right; but maybe it's at least a cognate. A sense that these are the valiant, but also the prosperous, the successful, the joyous and vibrant, that is not out of place.

Tom said...

I couldn't find the Dubs article either, but I did find another article by her that looks interesting: "Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings," Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1981)

Tom said...

Reminiscent of "Those who hold, under heaven," --

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

-- A.E. Housman

Grim said...

That's a poem that has come up here a few times. Here's one instance.