Saturday, 23 May 2009

middle earth - not just for hobbits

Apparently Channel 4 in the UK has been showing a dramatisation of the events of 1066, called 1066 the battle for middle earth which seems to have had mixed reviews and excited some medievalists.

Well, like Sam Wollaston in the Guardian, I had previously associated the phrase 'middle earth' with hobbits, tolkein, drippy hippy crap, and a seriously bad marketing idea by New Zealand. But being of a curious nature I type the phrase 'middle earth' into wikipedia. Doing this brought up a hobbit related entry but also a link to midgard of Norse mythology, which could be translated as middle garth where garth can be translated as meaning enclosure. So the middle enclosure was the area where mortal humans lived. Doubtless this view was one that converted well into Christianity, hell below, heaven above, humanity in the middle. And building this idea out is quite simply fascinating etymylogically speaking. Why? For a start it tells us about their world and how they thought about things.

Garth is also the root word for yard, for earth, and for garden, as for example in the Scots term kail yard for vegetable garden, or more literally a yard or enclosure in which you grow kail or cabbage (kale). Just as in anglo saxon a vegetable patch was sometimes called a leac tun, a fenced off area where you grew leeks. Tun is of course the word that gave us town, the anglo saxons needing to have a word to describe the ruined walled towns of Roman Britain, just as you see the use of gard in Micklegard (Great or Large City) the viking name for Byzantium which was sequestered behind its impregnable walls.

(Kale was of course the sole green vegetable eaten in quantity in rural Scotland, David Kerr Cameron in his books on rural life in nineteen century scotland records how the hired farm workers were fed on oats, potatoes and cabbage mostly. (Shades of Dr Johnson). Kail yard was of course also a term for a school of Scottish writing idolizing peasant life and also used to refer to a lot of the vernanacular north eastern Scots prose of the time.)

Anyway, back to the point. The middle earth of the title might be more properly translated as middle domain, and I suppose that's really what 1066 was, the change from when England was a domain of peasants, priests and saxon lordlings and somehow more disconnected from the changes on mainland europe, to somewhere that was much more in the mainstream of european history, and as a place apart could be thought of as a separate enclosure.

Perhaps the title shows some unexpected subtlety on the part of the programme's script writers?

(*) Of course being in Oz we'll probably see it on SBS at some totally obscure time in about two years from now

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