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I have often wondered how I should translate the Old English term middangeard.
Sadly the online Dictionary of Old English (DOE) has only reached the letter G, and I have doubts of seeing M at all in my lifetime with the plethora of H-words ahead. Bosworth-Toller defines middangeard as ‘the middle dwelling (between heaven and hell), the earth, world’, but what exactly is this ‘dwelling’ – a house, a land, a country, a space? If you look up geard in the online DOE, you’ll find an assortment of answers to that question, the primary definition being ‘dwelling-place, enclosure; home, abode’, but also including ‘the habitat of the Phoenix’, ‘enclosure, enclosed land’ and ‘country, region’. ‘Enclosed land’ gives the impression of agricultural pursuits and the sectioning off of land for planting. As an enclosed space it either protects its inhabitants from the outside or imprisons them within. Is the geard sanctuary or jail? And just to confuse things a bit more, it is also home to a mythological beast.
With a term so rich in meaning, it is no wonder that Anglo-Saxonist J. R. R. Tolkien decided it would make a nice addition to his Lord of the Rings. This epic three-part novel, along with The Hobbit and much of The Silmarillion, takes place in ‘Middle-earth’, a land of elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards and hobbits as well as humans. This fantasy world, while cut off from the world of our reality, is central to (indeed, the middle of) its inhabitants’ understanding of the world – kind of like our own planet earth until astronomy came along. (And, of course, it was some time after that before people stopped being persecuted for their belief in a non-earth-centric cosmos.)
The Online Etymology Dictionary says that in Germanic cosmology Midgard is the ‘world inhabited by men (opposed to Asgard, the abode of the gods)’, first used in 1882, originating from the Old Norse miðgarðr. Middangeard, its Old English cognate, was ‘folk-etymologized as middle earth’ in the late 13th century. Geard comes from Proto-Germanic *gardoz, meaning ‘enclosure’ or ‘tract’; the soft G means it is pronounced almost the same as our modern English ‘yard’, and its definition ‘enclosure’ is pretty much the same today. The ‘middle yard’ or ‘middle enclosure’ was the earth – the dwelling at the centre (for humans are always in the centre of things). However, people forgot the original meaning of geard and translated it as ‘earth’, hence ‘middle-earth’.
The more I think about this, the more confused I become. Originally I didn’t want to translate middangeard as ‘middle-earth’ because it sounded too Tolkien-esque and hobbity. Now I realise that translating it ‘middle-earth’ is simply inaccurate – the middle enclosure is the earth, but it’s not a ‘middle earth’. And really, how I see it or how Tolkien saw it or how 19th-century Anglo-Saxonists saw it is irrelevant to the question of ‘What did middangeard mean to the Anglo-Saxons?’ And that question itself is too broad – do I mean the pre-conversion Anglo-Saxons who would still be operating under a pagan Germanic understanding of the world, or do I mean the Christianised Anglo-Saxons who no longer believed in the Norse miðgarðr?
Whether or not ‘middle-earth’ has pagan undertones, it is without a doubt steeped in the imagination of Tolkien, and given the recent popularity of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, the Middle-earth of hobbits is what first comes to mind, even for this Anglo-Saxonist. In the Old English poem The Wanderer, the exiled man moans, ‘Swa þes middangeard ealra dogra gehwam dreoseð ond fealleþ’ (ll. 62b-63). While I would like to translate this, ‘So this middle-earth each and every day perishes and falls,’ I cannot do so without imagining Sauron wreaking havoc on the little people, and this somewhat diminishes the severity of the (very human) exile’s anguish. Plain old ‘earth’ doesn’t seem poetic enough, however, so I guess I’ll have to stick to ‘middle-world’, inaccurate though that may be. Yes, ‘middle-world’ shall have to do…at least until the next fantasy writer comes along and deposits their baggage on that term as well.
This particular blog post is offering far more questions than answers, and so I shall end with a question: What does middangeard mean to you?