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Trecastell (Powys)

Trecastell is on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It is 15.7 miles (25.3 km) as the crow flies from Llangorse Lake. The name is commonly Anglicized as Trecastle.

The name means Castletown, with reference to the early eleventh-century Norman motte-and-bailey fortification, built by Bernard of Neufmarché (c. 1050 – c. 1125), “the first of the original conquerors of Wales,”1 in order to protect Brecon against attack from the west.

A motte-and-bailey fortification consists of a motte (a raised earthwork), with a bailey (a walled enclosure) on top. These terms came over with William in 1066, brought by the Norman-French who accompanied him. The word motte is French for a mound, or hillock, and the word bailey is an English spelling of the Old French baile (palisade | enclosure).

The twelfth-century author Walter of Therouanne provides a good description of a motte-and-bailey castle.

There was near the atrium of the church a fortress, which we may call a castrum or municipium, exceedingly high, built after the custom of that land by the lord of the town many years before. For it is the habit of the magnates and nobles of those parts … to raise a mound of earth as high as they can and surround it with a ditch as broad and deep as possible. The top of this mound they completely enclose with a palisade of hewn logs bound close together like a wall, with towers set in its circuit so far as the site permits. In the middle of the space, within the palisade, they build a residence, or, dominating everything, a keep.2

A number of authors cite The Bayeux Tapestry for its illustration of how earth was piled up to create an artificial motte at Hastings in 1066.

Bayeux Tapestry
Building a Motte: Detail from The Bayeux Tapestry

For the traveler in Middle-earth, Amon Ethir (Hill of Spies) is an artificial hill like a motte. Felagund caused it “to be raised with great labour” to keep a watch on Talath Dirnen (Guarded Plain). (S.168, 217-18, 315)

Cerin Amroth is another echo of this type of construction. It was an artificial mound in Lórien, “piled by the labour of many hands.” It was “designed to watch Dol Guldur across the Anduin.” (UT.246)

A check of the map of Middle-earth (F.16-17), shows that the threat for which Cerin Amroth was built came from the east. This is the opposite direction from the one for which Trecastell was built: the west. The reversal of direction matches Ponty’s discovery of the swap of east for west between the maps of Wales and Middle-earth.

The word cerin means circular mound or artificial hill (HoMe vii, 242), which, in essence, matches the definition of motte. A gloss of motte for cerin would, therefore, not be inappropriate.

The word cerin is found listed as a Noldorin form in The Etymologies under the root KOR– (round). (HoMe v, 406) This root yields the Quenya korna (round, globed). It is clearly cognate with the Proto-Indo-European *sker2 (to turn, to bend), which yields the Latin curvus (curved, bent, arched), and the Greek κορωνός (korōnós, curved, bent). It is ultimately cognate with the words ring and crown < Latin corōna (garland, crown) < Ancient Greek κορώνη (kor, garland, wreath).

The description of the trees atop Cerin Amroth evokes an image of a “palisade of hewn logs bound close together like a wall.” When Frodo’s blindfold was removed, he saw: “a great mound, covered with a sward of grass …. Upon it, as a double crown, grew two circles of trees.” (F.454) The use of the word crown in this description prompts the inquisitive linguist to ponder the question of whether Tolkien allowed—consciously or otherwise—the etymology of Cerin < crown < corōna to shine through his veil of words. His gloss of round for the root KOR– suggests that he would have been fully aware of the meaning of the Latin and Greek cognates, which evolved into the word crown.

In the natural world, aspen-trees can form a “fairy ring” of young trees around an older tree, gradually expanding the circle, as the trees at the center die, and the middle of the circle is taken over by grass and non-arboreal vegetation. The ‘new’ trees are actually shoots sprouted from the root system of the parent tree.

Coast redwoods—the tallest trees on earth—also propagate in ‘fairy ring’ circles around stumps of a felled ‘parent’ tree. These circles are sometimes referred to as a “Redwood Cathedral.” These circles of “living pillars … have become very popular settings for weddings and other events.”3

This method of arboreal propagation is one possible explanation for the “two circles of trees” on Cerin Amroth. The other explanation is that they were purposely planted in this arrangement, as a sort of living palisade, or woodhenge monument.

Woodhenge is a Neolithic timber circle about 2 miles (3.2 km) north-east of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. Woodhenge is similar to Stonehenge in that their diameters are similar, and their entrances are oriented to provide an alignment with the midsummer sunrise. A similar, prehistoric timber circle in the county of Norfolk with an upturned tree root in the center is known as Seahenge.

The Druids worshiped in sacred groves known as nemetons, but whether these were natural or planted is unknown. Tolkien could have modeled the two rings of trees atop Cerin Amroth on any of these arboreal phenomena: a nemeton, a timber circle, or a natural “fairy ring” of trees.

The role of ‘towers set in the circuit of the palisade’ seems to be played by the flet, or talan (pl. telain) “high amid the branches of a towering tree.” (F.454) The word flet, which Tolkien uses to gloss talan in-line comes from Old English, where it meant “the ground; the floor of a house; house; dwelling.” It is cognate with the British word flat, in the sense of an apartment.

In the Index at the end of Unfinished Tales, the word talan is glossed as “the wooden platforms in the trees of Lothlórien on which the Galadhrim dwelt.” (UT.465)

The article for the root TAL– (foot) in The Etymologies identifies the word talan as a Quenya form. The article continues that the form TALAM (floor, base, ground) is “related” to TAL–. (HoMe v, 435)

The form TALAM is identical with the Irish word talam (earth, ground, land), spelled tala (with a dot over the ‘M’) in the old orthography, but spelled talamh in modern orthography.4 In mediæval Irish, there were two types of ‘M’: a strong ‘M’ (pronounced much like the ordinary Modern English ‘M’), and a weak ‘M’ (a spirant, somewhat like a nasalized ‘V’). The weak ‘M’ was written as a single ‘M’ with a dot over it, or by the letter ‘Mh’. A single ‘M’ without a dot was ambiguous, being used indiscriminately for both kinds of ‘M’.5

The word talamh is the fourth word in the first sentence of the Irish translation of The Hobbit.

I bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar hobad.
In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

The Irish tala | talamh is pronounced [talav], which matches the Noldorin form talaf (ground, floor).
Compare the Latin Tellūs (the Goddess Mother Earth), the Latin tellūs (earth, ground), the Anglo-Saxon thelu (a board, flooring), the Sanskrit tala (a level surface, the sole of the foot, storey of a house), and the Proto-Indo-European root *tel- (ground, floor).

The Etymologies remark that the element tal “is often used for ‘end, lower end’,” giving the example of Rhamdal (Wall’s End): Rhamb6 (wall) A> ram + tal L> dal, literally Foot of the Wall. (HoMe v, 427, 435) The same element shows up in the name Celebrindal (Silver Foot), the daughter of Turgon, king of Gondolin. The Quenya tallune (sole of the foot) < *talrunya is also derived from TAL–.

The element tal is extremely common in Welsh place names. There are, for example, Tal y Bont (Foot of the Bridge): Tal (Foot) + pont (bridge) L> bont; Tal y Sarn (Foot of the Roman Road), and Tal y Llyn (Foot of the Lake).


1 Lynn H. Nelson, The Normans in South Wales: 1070–1171, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press 1966., p. 123.

2 Quoted in: Kelly DeVries & Robert Douglas Smith, Medieval Military Technology, second edition, University of Toronto Press, 2012, pp. 212-213.

3 Dan Brett, Hike America: Northern California, Globe Pequot Press, 2001, p. 89.

4 Edward O’Reilly, An Irish-English Dictionary, Dublin: John Barlow, 1817, unpaginated, p. ‘TAI-TAL.’

5 Kemp Malone, “More Etymologies for Hamlet,” The Review of English Studies, volume 4, No. 15, 1928, p. 266-7.

6 Spelled ram and Ramdal in The Silmarillion, p. 363.


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