Purveyors of the Magic of Imagination
Llyfrawr: Home of the Mathomium
A Tolkienian Mathomium
What is a Mathom?

Mathom is an extinct Anglo-Saxon word that Tolkien brought back to life with a new meaning in the form that it would have had, if it had survived the transition from Anglo-Saxon to English. The new (March 2001) article on the word Mathom in the Oxford English Dictionary On-line (OED)[4] lists a number of examples of its use with Tolkien’s new meaning in modern English, demonstrating Tolkien’s direct impact on the vocabulary of the English language. The article also points to the word’s Anglo-Saxon antecedents.

Most commentators—including the OED and Companion— limit themselves to a brief gloss of the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon mathum (“a precious thing, a treasure, a valuable gift”), spelled here with a ‘U’, following Christopher Tolkien’s lead in HoMe, to distinguish it from the modern meaning his father created, spelled with an ‘O’. This gloss, however, would hardly have been satisfactory to Tolkien, who loved the stories that words tell, and undoubtedly knew the story behind the word mathum well, as it is used numerous times in Beowulf, a work with which Tolkien was very familiar. In a letter to The Observer in 1938, Tolkien listed Beowulf as being “among [his] most valued sources” (L.31). He would have wanted the story to be told in addition to the gloss. A reader without an understanding of the context of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Gift Giving (mathum-gifu, Beowulf, line 1301), which was bound up in the culture of the time in which the word mathum was actively used, misses the comic irony that Tolkien planted in his story by redefining the word mathom in Hobbit terms. It is only in contrasting the two meanings that the humor of Tolkien’s ‘low philological jest’ becomes apparent.

In his article entitled “The Social Context of Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England,”[5] Dr. Richard Underwood explains the significance of mathums, which in his modern text are referred to as gifts.

[W]arriors were rewarded for their service with gifts, particularly of weapons and armour, and, after long service, with grants of land. These warriors were in no way mercenaries, however; the relationship between lord and his warband was long term and was considered to be honourable for both parties. Personal prestige was considered extremely important. The value of gifts given by the lord therefore lay not only in their monetary worth but also in the prestige they brought. Gift Giving was both public and formal, and reflected well on both the lord, who demonstrated his ability to provide gifts and the warrior who earned them.

In return for their lord’s generosity the warriors accepted a number of social obligations. The most important of which was the duty to fight in the warband and, if their lord was killed, to avenge him or die in the attempt.

Tolkien’s knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Gift Giving is clearly present in The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien points to the ancient horn given to Meriadoc by the Lady Eowyn as an example of “the word mathum used in Rohan for a ‘treasure’ or a ‘rich gift’” (HoMe XII p. 39, p. 53). In the scene that Christopher Tolkien is referencing, Éomer also uses the modern word gift(s) in his address to Meriadoc.

Kings of old would have laden you with gifts that a wain could not bear for your deeds upon the fields of Mundburg; and yet you will take naught, you say, but the arms that were given to you. This I suffer, for indeed I have no gift that is worthy; but my sister begs you to receive this small thing, as a memorial of Dernhelm and of the horns of the Mark at the coming of the morning (R.316; VI.6, emphasis added).

The reason that Éomer is prepared to shower gifts (mathums) on Merry is that Merry had fulfilled the social obligation placed upon him by entering into King Theoden’s service (R.59; V.2), and by the previous bestowal of mathums of war gear (R.90; V.3). When all the other King’s men had been killed or carried away by their terrified steeds, Merry had indeed come forward to fight with Eowyn as she stood between the Nazgûl and his prey, prepared to avenge Theoden’s death, or die in the attempt (R.142-143; V.6). Merry’s steadfastness in the fulfillment of his duty to the King had increased his honor and prestige beyond Éomer’s ability to bestow a gift worthy of it.

The narrator concludes Tolkien’s exposition on the tradition of Gift Giving in this scene, with the explanation that “Merry took the horn, for it could not be refused” (R.316; VI.6). The gift was not merely a kindness, but a traditionalized obligation that bound the bestower to present it and the recipient to take it.

In Beowulf, the hero’s defeat of Grendel is followed by a mathum-giving (mathum-gifu, line 1301). The four mathums given to Beowulf (lines 1021-1023) are worked with gold and silver (lines 1030-1031). They are echoed in Tolkien’s tales in the gifts (mathums) that the members of the Fellowship received.

The “white gem like a star” hanging upon a silver chain that Queen Arwen took from around her own neck to give to Frodo as he departs to return to The Shire (R.312; VI.6) is another example of a mathum in the Anglo-Saxon sense. This gift is recalled in Beowulf (line 2757) in the word mathum-sigla (mathum + carcanet[8]).

All the mathums described above are of inestimable monetary value, but, as Underwood pointed out, that is not where their true worth lies. They are not symbols of wealth, but rather symbols of honor, prestige and respect; and herein lies Tolkien’s subtle comic irony. In olden days (“beyond living memory”), the Hobbits, “though they have never been warlike or fought among themselves” (P.25), had once considered mathums tokens of esteem for feats of arms and valor. This is suggested by Tolkien’s comment that the Hobbits had “been often obliged to fight to maintain themselves in a hard world” and by the fact that a relative of the word mathum had survived in the vocabulary of the ‘modern’ Hobbits.

To the Hobbits of the end of the Third Age mathoms were things that they “had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away” (P.25). Weapons “were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls,” or collected in the Mathom-house (P.25), a word that is another Anglo-Saxon revival. In Anglo-Saxon mathum-hus meant ‘treasure house’ or ‘treasury.’ In The Shire, it is only a museum.

The ‘low philological jest’ contained in Tolkien’s re-definition of the word mathum into mathom is, therefore, a subtle variant of Bilbo’s throw-away line in The Hobbit: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them” (H.18; I). The mathums of old, earned by being late for dinner because of nasty disturbing things, had turned into mathoms, that modern Hobbits had no use for, except as dust catchers in the Hobbit Museum in Michel Delving (F.414; II.4).

Bilbo Baggins donating a corslet of chain mail to Mathom House

Mr. Bilbo Baggins, esq. and the corslet of chain mail he is donating to Mathom House: courtesy of The Hobbiton Daily News: Drawn by JWD

End Notes

4 - http://dictionary.oed.com LVO 12/15/2005.

5 - www.millennia.demon.co.uk/ravens/context.htm. This is the web site of Ravens Warband, a re-enactment society of the early Anglo-Saxon period (circa 500 A.D.). LVO 12/15/2005.

6 - In Anglo-Saxon, Theoden is the King or Leader of a theod (a nation or people).

7 - An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Based on the Manuscript Collections of the late Joseph Bosworth, D.D. F.R.S, edited by T. Northcote Toller, M.A., Oxford: At The Clarendon Press. 1898.

8 - See Tolkien’s “Eärendil, the Mariner” for a use of carcanet in context (F.309 II.1).

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