Purveyors of the Magic of Imagination
Llyfrawr: Home of the Mathomium
Tolkien and Welsh
Henneth Annûn
The published gloss for Henneth Annûn is Window of the Sunset (T.358, S.355), but earlier Tolkien considered Window of the West. (HoMe, viii, 164) Henneth Annûn was built behind a waterfall, “the fairest of all falls in Ithilien.” (T.358) It was the longest guarded and manned of the secret refuges of Ithilien that were built by Túrin (R.416), who lived in the First Age from 465 to 501.

Converted to Welsh orthography, this name would be spelled Hennedd Annwn. [i] Spelled this way, it is an easy dictionary look-up in Welsh. A Welsh gloss should come as no surprise, because Henneth Annûn is located in Ithilien, the home of other Welsh Tolkiennyms: Pen-arduin, and Arnen, for example.

The first part of the name is a compound, comprised of hen + nedd. The adjective hen (old, ancient) is the only one in Welsh that precedes the noun. The element hen is part of the Welsh honorific gorhen dad (great-grandfather) that Tolkien gave to the founder of the Brandybuck clan. The second element (nedd) means a dingle, a resting place, an abode. The Welsh word for dwelling is annedd (an [definite article] + nedd). The gloss for hennedd, therefore, would be the old resting place, which matches Tolkien’s description. It is old, because it dates to the First Age, and Faramir describes it as a “refuge,” “not a place of great ease,” but one where they “may pass the night in peace.” (T.358)

The second part of the name (Annwn) is more than a dictionary look-up, it is a Welsh cultural concept. Annwn is the enchanted Otherworld of Welsh mythology. It is home to the Gwragedd Annwn, the Welsh water maidens, like Goldberry. In pre-Christian times, Annwn was paradise, a world of eternal youth without disease, of plentiful food and delights. With the arrival of Christianity, the old pagan gods were banished to Annwn, and it was transformed into Hell.

Annwn has three semantic tangents with the tale of Henneth Annûn: 1. the west, 2. a cave, and 3. water. Henneth Annûn is a cave behind a waterfall, and its name is Window of the West/Sunset.

The Encyclopedia of Religion says that the Celtic Otherworld “could be reached through a cave, the waters of a lake, a magic mist, or simply through the acquisition of heightened insight.” [ii] In The Mabinogion, with which Tolkien was academically familiar, the gateway that Pwyll uses to reach Annwn is a cave.

In Celtic Researches, Davies remarks “Annwn, or the west, was the peculiar land of the dead.” [iii] In his Philosophy of Ancient Britain, Daniel observes that while carrying the meaning “the deep, or the low part,” the primary meaning of Annwn “was the west, or a westerly situation, where from the setting of the sun, there appeared to be a sinking, decline, or declivity. The declension into a lower state of life was, therefore, associated with the west.” [iv]

In The Etymologies, Tolkien uses the same vocabulary to describe the meaning of the roots NDŪ- and NŪ-. NDŪ- carries the meaning “go down, sink, set (of Sun, etc).” In Quenya, numen means west, and numenya means western. The Quenya nuta glosses as “set, sink (of Sun or Moon).” In Noldorin, annûn (sunset) is the opposite of amrûn (sunrise). (HoMe, v, 419) The adverb nún signifies “down, below, underneath” in Quenya. (HoMe, v, 422) The Sindarin word for Westron is Annúnaid. (HoMe, xii, 316)

Flieger observes that Tolkien "made extensive notes on the etymology” of the word Annwn, [v] “a key word” in The Mabinogion that is “usually translated ‘Otherworld’ but carrying connotations also of ‘abyss,’ therefore, ‘Underworld’.” [vi] In “English and Welsh,” Tolkien translates Annwn as the Underworld. (MC.173)

In his The Ancient World of the Celts, Ellis says that intrepid travelers most popularly reached the Otherworld “by voyaging across the great sea to the south-west or west.” One of the Irish names for the Otherworld—Hy-Breasil (Breasil’s Island)—was so well accepted as fact that it was included on medieval maps, and when the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral came upon South America in 1500, he believed that he had found Hy-Breasil, so he named the place where he landed Brazil. [vii]

In The Mabinogion, continues Davies, Annwn is depicted “as lying somewhere off Dyved, or Pembrokeshire; and the Irish acknowledge Annan, or Annun, as the old name of their country.” [viii] The silhouette of Annan is suggestively close to that of the Tolkiennym Aman, the Blessed Realm of the Valar, in the Ancient West. Since plot elements in Tolkien’s own tales of sailing to the west in search of the Otherworld fit well with the Celtic tales of similar voyages, the similarity of the names may have been intentional. The logical Welsh gloss for Henneth Annûn above makes this all the more probable.

Miesel [ix] was one of the first (1973) to remark on Tolkien’s use of “Celtic elements, particularly with reference to the Otherworld, the Valar, and the Elves.” She calls Annwn the “Celtic Elysian island,” and “the Welsh prototype of Avalon.” “Its ruler,” she observes, “was the supernatural huntsman King Arawn” from The Mabinogion and The Spoils of Annwn. In Tolkien’s tale, she notes, the Great huntsman of the Valar, Oromë, also borne the name Rings Araw.

Jim Allan seconds Miesel’s analysis. In his 1978 An Introduction to Elvish, [x] he glosses Annûn as sunset, west, making the association with the Welsh Annwn, which he defines as “an otherworldly realm, ruled by Arawn: see Araw.” In the article for Araw, Allan makes the connection with the Welsh “Arawn, a supernatural being, ruler of Annwn [see annûn ], pictured as a huntsman.”

The similarity of the names Arawn and Araw makes the association between Aman and Annan even stronger.

The presence of identifiable Welsh word forms and legends does not, however, make Tolkien a copyist, but rather, as Miesel so sagaciously points out, “Tolkien’s orderly mythological adaptations are as creative as his own original inventions for The Lord of the Rings. He is no plunderer quarrying an ancient palace for stones to build a hut but a master jeweler recutting and repolishing old gems for new settings.” [xi]


[i] Tolkien considered the letter combination ‘Dh’ to be “uncouth,” and therefore substituted ‘D’ for ‘ð’ and ‘Dh’ in names. (L.426) In modern English, the ‘ð’ has commonly become ‘Th,’ compare: liða > lithe . Because Henneth Annûn  is the form of the name used in Gondor, where the primary language was Westron (modeled on English), to paraphrase Tolkien from “English and Welsh,” its “appearance in a markedly anglicized form” must be due to its having been being borrowed as a name, and to its “accommodation like ordinary loan-words to English speech-habits.”(MC.169) The anglicized spellings of Welsh names invariably substitute ‘Th’ for ‘Dd,’ for example: Carmarthen , Leckwith , Merioneth , and Gwyneth are spelled Caerfyrddin , Lecwydd , Meirionnydd , and Gwynedd in Welsh. In “The Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor,” it states that when Gondor was settled the places of the new realm were named anew in Sindarin, or older names were adapted “to the manner of Sindarin. … But mistakes were likely to be made.” There is no Welsh word spelled *neth , or one that ends in *-neth in Yr Odliadur (the Welsh dictionary in reverse alphabetical order).

[ii] Mircea Eliade, The Encyclopedia of Religion , Macmillan, 1987, volume 13, p. 314.

[iii] Edward Davies, Celtic Researches, on the Origin, Traditions & Language, of the Ancient Britons; With Some Introductory Sketches of Primitive Society , privately printed, London: J. Booth, 1804, p. 175.

[iv] John Daniel, Philosophy of Ancient Britain , Williams and Norgate, 1927, p. 199.

[v] Given here as annwvn , but in Welsh sources commonly as annwfn , and in the Guest translation of The Mabinogion as annwn .

[vi] Verlyn Flieger, Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien's Mythology , Kent State University Press, 2005, p. 60. Thanks to Jason Fisher for prompting me to look at Flieger, and Allan.

[vii] Peter Berresford Ellis, The Ancient World of the Celts , Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1998, p . 181.

[viii] Davies, p. 175.

[ix] Sandra Miesel, Myth, Symbol & Religion in The Lord of the Rings , T.K. Graphics, 1973, pp. 35-36.

[x] Jim Allan, An Introduction to Elvish: And to Other Tongues and Proper Names and Writing Systems of the Third Age of the Western Lands of Middle-Earth as Set Forth in the Published Writings of Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien , Bran’s Head, 1978, p. 72.

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