The Hobbit in Esperanto, Chapter 3: Esperanto Runes

It's like finding Elrond's yearbook picture

I've been reading the Esperanto translation of The Hobbit. In Chapter 3, Bilbo and company reach the Last Homely House (La Lasta Hejmeca Domo) and spend two weeks among the elves of Rivendell.

You know, the guys in the picture.

Maŝa Baĵenova's illustrations for La Hobito are folksy and unpretentious — but her Rivendell elves are downright strange to anyone who's read The Lord of the Rings. They look like prepubescent children — they're the same height as the dwarves, in fact — and wear flowers as hats and translucent frocks woven, apparently, from cobwebs speckled with dew. (One even has wings.)

Now, one reason I enjoy reading translations is the opportunity to see a familiar work through someone else's eyes. Baĵenova's interpretation is pretty far from the text — would you describe any of these elves as "as strong as a warrior, as wise as a wizard, as venerable as a king of dwarves" (forta kiel militisto, saĝa kiel sorĉisto, respektinda kiel gnomreĝo)?

And yet ... and yet Tolkien's elves aren't just the haughty, aloof badasses you so often see in paintings (and movies). They're merry and full of laughter. They sit around in the trees singing silly songs — "Your ponies need shoeing!" (the Esperanto is "La hufoj ferendas!"; la hufoj is "the hooves", and ferendas comes from fero, "iron", and -end-, "necessary"). "Then off they went into another song as ridiculous as the one I have written down in full," the narrator tells us. (Tiam ili ekkantis ridindan kanzonon kiel tiun, kiu mi ĵus transkribis).

Compare that good-natured frivolity to the Rivendell arrival in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, where some random elf greets Gandalf coldly before an armored elven war party, spears held high, rides up to surround the heroes. Baĵenova's choice of details is bizarre, but at least she gets the tone right.

Thorin's map in Esperanto

At the end of the chapter, Elrond tweaks Gandalf's pride by discovering the moon-letters (lunliteroj) on Thorin's map. "Kiam la turdo trilas", he reads, "when the thrush trills" —

Wait, wait, what? Tolkien actually wrote "when the thrush knocks", an odd thing for a thrush to do (since they're birds), setting up a little mystery to be solved later in the book. I'm not going to chide a translator for making a surprising choice — surprising choices are often based on interesting reasoning — but this is a straight-up mistake1.

So those moon-runes — oh, go ahead and laugh about la turdo before we move on. Thrushes are members of the Turdidae family (the scientific name for the American robin is Turdus migratorius), and the Esperanto turdo, like a lot of Esperanto names for animals and plants, comes from Latin.

Anyway, moon runes. I just wrote about Old Norse runes, and looking at the maps in La Hobito, I saw a lot of familiar symbols. The book actually begins with a little one-page essay about the runes, along with this:

Those runes spell out the book's Esperanto title, La Hobito, aŭ tien kaj reen. If you compare them with the Norse runes, most of the consonants are the same as, or at least close to, the pronunciations of the same characters in the Elder Futhark. But when we get to kaj2, "and", the first and last runes are the same as the Younger Futhark runes that would be pronounced "R"3 and "h". Why would you write k using "R" when both the Elder and Younger Futhark have "k" runes? What's going on here?

Tolkien loved Germanic mythology (and he taught Old Icelandic, a dialect of Old Norse), but his runic writing in The Hobbit was inspired by something a little closer to home. Tolkien's runes are based on Anglo-Saxon runes, which didn't always have the same pronunciation as their Old Norse counterparts4.

La Hobito doesn't provide a list of its Esperanto runes, but I worked one out from the examples. (Not all of the characters have Unicode equivalents.)

Runes used in *La Hobito*, and suggestions for the missing characters

Tolkien's runic writing in The Hobbit (largely) follows English spelling rather than pronunciation — for example, the word "high" is written as the runic equivalent of h, i, g, h, even though the "gh" is silent. The Esperanto translation has a similar one rune-one letter correspondence.

As you can see in the table, the Esperanto alphabet includes a number of letters that don't exist in English. In some cases the translator created completely new runes, or adapted runes Tolkien himself created for the same sounds.

The rune for ĉ, though, is interesting. It's the Anglo-Saxon rune Tolkien used for English "c" with two dots placed over it.

The letter c doesn't occur anywhere in the Esperanto runic texts, but if we wanted to fill in the gap, the c-rune Tolkien used would be a reasonable choice. Similarly, the only Esperanto letters that don't turn up in the La Hobito runic writing are ĝ and ĥ, but we could use the same pattern as the ĉ-rune and add two dots apiece to the g and h runes. It's not canonical, but it's not a stretch, either. We can fill out the whole table without inventing any completely new runes.

If you go through the Esperanto runes carefully, you'll also notice one rune that isn't in the table above.

The text under the pointing hand ends with the same rune repeated twice — a rune that doesn't occur anywhere else in the (admittedly brief) Esperanto runic writing.

Tolkien tells us that this map was made by Thorin's father, Thráin, and his grandfather, Thrór. Those runes are their initials. The Anglo-Saxon rune they use was pronounced like "th" in the English "think" or "there". You don't need it to write Esperanto (and the dwarves' names in the book become Torino, Traino, and Troro) — but the translator retained Tolkien's original, Dwarvish names for the dwarves' signatures.

1. When I mentioned the knocks/trills error online, an Esperantist let me know that it's fixed in the new, revised edition of La Hobito from Evertype Publishing. Later I realized that this helpful fellow was Patrick H. Wynne, who'd done the revision. (back to article)

2. kaj rhymes with "pie". (back to article)

3. Old Norse runes has two runes that both pronounced as trilled "r" in some regions. They're commonly transcribed as "r" and "R". (back to article)

4. I haven't studied Anglo-Saxon, also known as Old English, even though I own a copy of Teach Yourself Books' Complete Old English with CDs and everything. My sales resistance to language books is pretty much nonexistent. (back to article)

Written on March 18, 2016