Sunday 24 March 2013

A Philological Journey Down Lake Windermere

Lake Windermere - England's Largest Lake - What Secrets Does It Hold?
David and I just returned from a very restful week holiday up in the Lake District on the southern shores of Lake Windermere.   Lake Windermere is the largest natural lake in England in the county of Cumbria within The Lake District National Park.  On the days when the weather was fairly decent we boarded a boat and went down the lake passing by where Arthur Ransome's adventures of the Walker children in Swallows and Amazons took place (and according to the tour guide on the boat a new version of the adventure is to be filmed there this summer). 

But as we sailed down this majestic lake I could not but help thinking about the name 'Windermere' and what it means.  Perhaps this is one of the very beneficial (among many) effects that intense study of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien has done for me.  For Tolkien a story started with a name ('To me a name comes first and a story follows.' - Letters, p. 219) His imaginative language work has heightened my awareness of names and the inherent stories each proper name carries within it - a potential micro-narrative waiting for its story to be unearthed.  So on my first night back at the hotel I started thinking about what Windermere meant and to do some linguistic sleuthing Tolkien style - and along the way encountered several interesting connections to Tolkien himself! 

I found two key sources online to start my search.  First is a book  Walter John Sedgefield's 'The Place Names of Cumberland and Westmorland' from 1915 which is available on line.  In this work Sedgefield states -

The first element according to Wyld L. Pl. s. p. 266 appears to be a pers N. with the Old Norse genitive ending with -ar Wyld notes that though O.N. *Vigandr does not seem to be recorded, in exact OE Equivalent Wignoth occurs several times (Searle).  The second element is O.E. mere 'lake' 'pool' 'sheet of water'

H.C. Kennedy Wyld's Universal Dictionary of the English Language

The first reference Sedgefield is making is to the 1911 'The Place-Names of Lancashire' by Henry Cecil Kennedy Wyld (1870-1945).   From 1904 to 1920, Wyld was Baines Professor of English Language and Philology, Liverpool University. From 1920 to his death in 1945 he was Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford and seems to have been one of J.R.R. Tolkien's great allies in the bringing together of the literature and language curriculum at Oxford. According to Hammond and Scull's Chronology - Tolkien knew Wyld and on 20 May 1929 (while at Pembroke College)  Wyld, Tolkien and C.T. Onions signed a letter to the Secretary of Facilities asking the University to appoint a lecturer in 'English Language' (Chronology, p.149).  Tolkien also mentions him in a letter to Christopher when he learns that Wyld has died 'god rest his soul' and he needs to work on finding a replacement for him as Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford (Letters, p.108).   

The second reference is to W.G. Searle (1830-1913) who was a Professor at Queen's College.  The listing is in Onomasticon Anglo-Saxonicum: A List of Anglo-Saxon Proper Names from the Time of Beda to that of King John (Cambridge, 1897). 

These earlier works are referenced by the Swedish philologist Eilert Ekwall (1877-1964) who wrote many books on the history of language but is probably best known for his work on English Place names and personal names.  Tolkien definitely read and was inspired by Ekwall's works on place names (a topic that I am currently in the process of researching). When Tolkien was a Reader at Leeds University he reviewed several of Ekwall's key works in the journals - The Years Work in English Studies 1923-1925. 

In his 1922 'The Place Names of Lancashire' Ekwall gives a 2 page focus to the name Windermere and brings in the earlier works noted above.  This, so far, is the fullest philological treatment I can find on the meaning of the name 'Windermere.'

Ekwall first suggests that the name Windermere must be identical with that of the name of a place near Great Asby in Wilmington called Winderwath [near Penrith in Cumbria]. 

But Ekwall quickly dismisses this idea due to the fact that both place names are far apart and must have been named independently of each other.  'This shows' says Ekwall 'that Windermere can not have as its first element an old name of the lake as might be supposed

Then Ekwall suggests that Winder is a personal name as has been supported by Wyld and others (as above).  Ekwall supports this theory by saying that it is all the more probable as personal names are the first element of the names Thurston Water and Ullswater in Cumbria.  

The Germanic God Ullr

The two examples Ekwall gives are interesting because both of them are examples of the English countryside having imprinted on them the names of past lost gods of England. One of the best studies of this is Brian Branston's The Lost Gods of England (Thames and London, 1957) which shows how they key Germanic gods worshiped by pre-Christain Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of England can be found in the name of English places.  

After Lake Windermere, Ullswater is the second largest lake in The Lake District.  The first part of its name, according to website for the Lake, may come from the  Germanic God Ullr as their is also evidence of the remains of a viking settlement nearby cammed Hodgson Hill.  Ullr is very interesting - he seems to have been a great Germanic god who diminished and was replaced by Thor (becoming Thor's step-son in some of the Edda accounts).  His name may be connected to the concept of glory.  If indeed this is the meaning of Ullswater as the second lake it must go way back to the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons from the North where the legend of Ullr may still have been dominant. 

Thurston's Water is the third largest lake and is better known now as Coniston Water - the name 'Thurston' is derived from the Norse god Thor. (Thunor)  As Branston indicates Thor (or Thunor) - along with Woden, Tiw and Frig - was one of the main gods that Anglo-Saxon used to name places in England with (Thanet, Thundridge, Thunderfield)

But then Ekwall takes exception with Sedgefield and suggests another linguistic route - the  name Vinandus which he suggests is a name from the Low German or Old Swedish.  Ekwall suggests that this name may stem from the Old Norse vondr 'staff'. The vondr connection is interesting given a page found at the back of Cleasby/Vigfusson's Old Norse dictionary called 'A List of British Rivers'
which list the roots for a series of rivers in Scotland and North England which are also found (and possibly have their origins) in Edda literature. 

About a hundred in number, contained in old Icelandic alliterative memorial verses (inscribed á-heiti, i. e. names of rivers) from MSS. of the Snorra-Edda (ii. 479, 480, of the 13th century; the verses themselves may well be of the 12th century). Most of these rivers seem to belong to the northern Scottish counties, Caithness, Ross, Moray, Sutherland, and to the north-east of England.

Included in this list is - 'Vind (Vönd, Gm.)' 

The ON word 'Vönd' is found as the name of a river in the Poetic Edda in The Grimnismal (The Says of Grimnir) which describes a series of rivers that issue from Hvergelmir - the bubbling boiling spring or well in Nifelheim from which all cold rivers sprang.  

28. Vino is one, | Vegsvin another,
And Thjothnuma a third;
Nyt and Not, | Non and Hron,
Slith and Hrith, | Sylg and Ylg,
Vith and Von, | Vond and Strond,
Gjol and Leipt, | that go among men,
And hence they fall to Hel.

According to a commentary on this passage in Grimnismal there is a suggestion 'that the name is most likely a nominalization of the feminine singular of the ON adjective vandr 'difficult.' Cf., for example, the Norwegian river Meina  probably derived from the ON verb meina 'to harm, hinder.' Another possibility is that it is related to ON vöndr m. 'wand, switch.' Cf., for example, the river names with the stem gand  the district name Gand and the lake called Gjende (Indrebe, 1924, p. 71), all related perhaps to Norwegian dialect gand m. 'thin stick,' as well as the river names with the stem stav-to ON stafr 'stick, stave' and probably referring to rivers which flow in a straight course for a considerable stretch. A similar meaning may be possible here  And certainly have gone down Lake Windermere several times in the last week I can assure you it follows a fairly straight course for ten miles

This commentary comes from a very interesting site that has many of the early versions of the Eddas and other materials from Norse mythology - quite a treasure trove. 

And this idea also suggests another link to Tolkien - if vondr is related to gandr in terms of  a wand or switch this possibly means that the WINDER- is related to the same world that forms the name of our good friend the Istari Gandalf - coming from the Old Norse (and right from the Dvergatal list in the Eddas -  Gand-alfr - wand or magic staff elf.  But there is more work to be done here as according to Cleasby/Vigfusson the exact meaning of Gandr and Vondr is quite vexed (ah a linguistic crux for further exploration!).  Towards this research there is an interesting passage in a book by John McKinnell Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend
in which he explores the concepts of gandr and possible linguistic connection to vond (although I am still not entirely convinced by the linguistic movement from ge-vond/gand - more work to be done here). 

 Ekwall concludes his study of Windermere by stating that the Winander- part represents the genitive singular of an Old Scandinavian name Vinundr the genitive form Vinandar.  The Mere of Vinandar

So if Vin = vond could in some sense mean either stick (describing the straightness of the lake) or magic there is also a suggestion that the second element UNDR also has a fantastical sense.  Undr is the Norse world for 'wonder' and forms the verb 'undra' to wonder at, be amazed - an 'undra-sjonir' was a wonder to see a spectacle.

So clearly there is a sense that this lake the largest in the area would have been significant to the inhabitants of the area.  I find it interesting that the other two largest lakes, as we have seen above, are both names that have within them echoes of the Lost Gods of England (Ullr and Thor) and it seems odd that Windermere would not as well.  Perhaps the Undra part of the name is pointing to some element  of wonder or amazement that may have its origins in a lost god of the area.  

As I was doing this preliminary investigation into the meaning of Lake Windermere and the mysteries that the understanding of the name might disclose - I thought about what it must have been like on 24 September 1914 when the young J.R.R. Tolkien while staying at his Aunt Jane Neave's farm in Phoenix Farm in Gedling near Nottingham discovered the name Earendel and from his linguistic exploration - his 'finding out' what the name and the story behind it was - gave birth to an entire new mythology. 

As a great teacher (master in the Latin magister sense) who I very much respect and admire recently said to me 'Words can lead you into uncharted territory - both literally and figuratively Sleuth on!'  

A crux for exploration begins - all from England's largest river! 

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