A LETTER by J.R.R. Tolkien, the author and inventor of hobbits has been discovered after remaining unnoticed for more than 30 years, writes Christopher Howse.
The letter, which the Oxford professor wrote to the Herald in February 1945, is not included in the recently published collection of his letters*.
But it is mentioned there in a letter to his son, Christopher, beginning: "I've wasted some precious time this weekend writing a letter to the Catholic Herald. One of their sentimentalist correspondents wrote about the etymology of the name Coventry ... I have asked whether he would like to change the name of Oxford to Doncaster; but he's probably too stupid to see even that mild quip."
The correspondent. 'KM', had written: "One person suggests, 'We may dismiss the conventional idea as to the placename having originated with some convent,' and suggests a list of alternatives. I gather from this that the early convent of St Osburg was of no consequence.
"Could any reader help in the pursuit of this study of the placename — in keeping with Catholic tradition?"
This roused the passionate philologist Tolkien's blood and he replied:
SIR. — With referenee to the letter of
"H. on the subject of Coventry. I ant at u loss to know how the etymology of any place-name can be pursued "in keeping with Catholic tradition." except by seeking the truth %%shout bias, whether one ends up in a convent or not. But the consequences of St Osburg's convent is in l case in no way concerned.
f he demotion of the name Oxford Iron an incient drovers' ford in the west of the city casts no doubt on the importance of the University of Oxford in the Middle Ages. "H. D." would possibly feel happier if Oxford was called Doncaster, but the history of placenames is seldom so simple.
One thing at least has been made clear by the critical study of placenames: guessing etymologies from the modern Forms is useless. The accidental similarity of covent in Coventry to convent, or to the older form coven! (which does survive in Covent Garden), is a good illustration. For this name appears already in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the form Cofan-treo: whereas the word convent does not appear in English until after A.D. 1200.
Its earliest recorded form is Kuuent (i.e., advent). "assembly", and though it was frequently applied to religious associations, it was not in the Middle Ages limited to that meaning: the application to buildings is modern, and still more recent is the limitation to the houses of religious women.
The AngIo-Saxon word for a religious house was mynster.
Though many old names remain obscure, there is in the case of Coventry no room for reasonable doubt. 'lite Anglo-Saxon name means "Cola's tree," It may be observed that a very similar name occurs not far away to the south-east in Daventry. In this case also the earliest spellings poita to DaJan-treo, "Dallt's tree," and the fortunate absence of' any modern word doyen; has prevented glietiti-kkork.
In Cola and Dojo we have specimens of all ancient type of English personal name: a simple stem, unlike the more "aristocratic:" double-barrelled names familiar in later history. such. as E.ad-weard or AEthel-red.
But names of the latter type are also found combined with "tree." as. for instance, in Austrey (another 'Wunvickshire place-name) which has suffered more from ilk wear and tear U!. time and appears to go back to Eadwulfes treo or "Ladwulls tree." Compare also Oswestry and Allestree (Alithelheurd's tree). • • ."
The complete letter fills more than hall' a column of small print,
*The Letters of JRR Tolkien. reviewed page 6.