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Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 2 – 24 February

“… and storms beat these rocky cliffs,
falling frost fetters the earth,
the harbinger of winter; then dark comes,
night-shadows deepen, from the north there comes
a rough hailstorm in malice against men.”

These lines have been in my mind recently—not because they’re the latest weather report for Caithness, though they might as well be, given how generally grim and end-of-the-world-ish things have been up here lately; no, these lines are from the Old English poem The Wanderer (and yes, that’s about as cheerful as it gets). The poem is splendid in its own right, of course, but it’s also fascinating to me how Tolkien incorporated elements of it into The Lord of the Rings.

Down to Earth

For example, there’s a line in the poem about the eald enta geweorc, which translates as “the old work of giants”, i.e., the prehistoric remains in the English landscape. But Tolkien took the word enta, giants, as his inspiration for the Ents, the wise old sentient tree creatures that are the moral heart of his ecology. Or take these lines: Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?/ Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? (which translates as, “Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?/ Where the giver of treasure?”). He adapted these for the moving poem of the Riders of Rohan: “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?” Of course, it’s this level of detail that gives Tolkien’s universe such a feeling of authenticity, and makes it so hard to imitate: the roots of his fiction go deeper than his imitators can hope to follow.

Spring Snowdrops

This, of course, is a familiar feeling to anyone who’s attempted to recreate the more complex ganseys of the past, which brings us to my latest project, the Hebridean gansey. One advantage of horrible weather is that you don’t feel the need to get up and do something more energetic instead. So I’ve been cranking up the heating and beavering away, making good progress up the body: alternating starfish and tree panels, divided by narrow two-stitch cables. I’m using cables rather than seed stitch (which I used last time I knit this) to delineate the pattern panels for a couple of reasons: firstly, because they fit the number of stitches better; secondly because I like them; and thirdly because this is a new batch of yarn, and I won’t know my exact stitch gauge until I’ve knit a bigger sample. (This is important, because it’s intended as a gift, and I don’t want it to be too big or too small. A small variation in stitch gauge can make a big difference over 300+ stitches: but the purl stitches either side of the cables act rather like pleats, and give a degree of flexibility to the ultimate width of the garment.)

Rare Creature

In parish news, while we’ve all been talking Judit has quietly finished another gansey: this one in blue (darker than the photos suggest, but not navy; which is not a colour ideally suited to fine knitting over long winter evenings). The pattern, a fetching diamond and ladder combination, is based on one from Rae Compton’s book, Mrs Mainprize’s pattern on page 56. Many congratulations once again to Judit! (And when is someone going to reprint Rae’s excellent book?)

Finally this week, in my Anglo-Saxon reading I came across the concept of a holmgang, which was literally an “island-going”, viz., a way of going to a special place (usually an island, or holm) to settle your differences “though formalised and circumscribed violence”. I don’t know why this should come into my mind as I prepare to settle down to watch another rugby international. My team usually loses, too: but as the poet of The Wanderer philosophically observed after a particularly disappointing England vs France game: Wyrd bið ful aræd! or, “Events always go as they must…”

11 comments to Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 2 – 24 February

  • =Tamar

    You and Judit make magnificent progress, while I sit here and look at undone and unbegun projects. This time of year it’s about all I can do to wash the dishes. By the way, I am suspicious of that “rare creature”.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, my advice is to get a dishwasher and start casting on! It’s almost light when I get up now (sunrise 7.20 am), and light when I walk home, so all I need is for the rain, sleet, snow and gales to stop and I might even get a life…

  • Laura Kinnane-Brew

    Ah the Riders of the Rohan.This is inspiring me to read Lord of the Rings yet again. I have read it several times but not for a few years. I shall search my house for the book.
    This weather is a good excuse to do nothing but read. Snowing in the early hours here in Cumbria. Ice forecast for tomorrow. The gansey looks amazing Gordon.

    • Gordon

      Hi Laura, I can recommend Tom Shippey’s book on Tolkien, Author of the Century, for a fascinating insight into the sources of many of Tolkien’s ideas and words.

      Most of my reading these days takes the form of audiobooks while I knit, and there’s nothing like ice and snow to encourage both!

  • Judit M./Finland

    Hello Gordon, many thanks for your comment on my gansey. I love the book of Rae and knitted at least 6 garments using the patterns of this excellent book. Happy knitting !

  • Jane Callaghan

    Never noticed that your OE word for treasure is the same as the mathoms the hobbits give each other. Sneaky old JAR. Thank you for that.

  • Jane Callaghan

    JRR not JAR stupid machine. Sorry

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, those are the sorts of details I love. Like the fact that Tolkien named Smaug the dragon after the OE verb “smugan”, to squeeze through a hole; what he called a “low philological jest”

  • Dave

    Gordon, you neglect to mention that the same origins also influence the seminal work: ‘There was a young man from Nantucket…’

    • Gordon

      Far sailed she over the ice road,
      Across the whale road, scrying her wyrd,
      Plaything of Fate, daughter
      Of an impoverished man,
      Alone of all her clan –
      Come, skalding, and sing
      That all men may know the saga
      Of Nan and her bucket

      Of course, it loses something in translation from the original Old Norse…

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