16

In the book The Return of the King, Tolkien uses a word that is obscure and archaic, even for a philologist who reveled in obscure and archaic words. The context is that King Theoden and his Rohirrim are leaving Helm's Deep, en route to Edoras, and eventually Minas Tirith. Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn's Dunedain brethren are not joining them.

It would be a great company; for the king was leaving only a small garrison in the Burg, and all who could be spared were riding to the weapontake at Edoras.
-The Lord of the Rings; The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 2: "The Passing of the Grey Company"

From what I have gathered, the English word "weapontake" is based on an earlier Saxon or Norse term, "vápnatak". "Vápnatak" seems to have had several different meanings at different times. The most common usage, relatively late in the word's history, referred to an assembly of lords or tribunal; later still it came to mean the jurisdiction or district of an individual lord or group of lords. But originally, it apparently meant something else, though scholars seem to disagree as to what this meaning was. The possibilities include a ceremonial display of arms honoring a king or other royal figure along the honoree's procession route; or the act of distributing weapons to men destined for battle; or the act of collecting weapons for some reason; or an actual collection of weapons, akin to an armory.

Many people - mostly philologists and linguists prone to using dense technical jargon, often in unfamiliar dead languages - seem to be debating which meaning Tolkien had in mind when he wrote about the weapontake at Edoras. It was presumably one of the earlier definitions, related to distributing, collecting, or displaying weapons, or to a physical hoard of weaponry (located at Edoras). The later definitions - an assembly or tribunal, or an area of jurisdiction - don't make sense considering the context in which Tolkien uses the word.

It is even more difficult than one might expect to determine which definition Tolkien had in mind, because Theoden's and his company never reach Edoras- they stop at a fortress along the way and learn that Gandalf has instructed the rest of the Rohirrim to assemble at Dunharrow rather than Edoras, due to the arrival of winged Nazgul in the area of Edoras. Instead, the assembly takes place at Dunharrow, and the various events described in this part of the story fit each of the relevant definitions of "weapontake" - the King arrives and is greeted by great phalanxes of armed men; they have collected weapons from Edoras; the collected weaponry is stockpiled in the fields at Dunharrow; and before the Rohirrim ride out to Minas Tirith the next day, the weapons are distributed amongst them.

Is there a clear answer as to what Tolkien had in mind when speaking of the "weapontake"?

  • 6
    He uses the word a second time; "But we will speak no longer counsels of prudence. We will come. The weapontake was set for the morrow. When all is ordered we will set out." In this context it's clearly intented as an event, not a location. – Junuxx May 23 '15 at 6:26
  • 3
    @Junuxx - So it is either the display of weapons, the collection of weapons, or the distribution of weapons, but presumably the latter, since a display would waste time and the collection has already taken place. – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 6:35
  • 1
    @WadCheber FWIW The Encyclopaedia of Arda has a list of old and rare words and it includes weapontake: glyphweb.com/arda/words.html : 'a derivation of Old English wapentake, modernised in both spelling and usage. This word originally referred to a district or region, but Tolkien uses it more literally to mean the taking up of weapons.' (As Blackwood refers to below.) – Pryftan Oct 7 '17 at 21:36
14

http://wormtalk.blogspot.com/2005/11/tolkiens-use-of-weapontake-update-im.html makes a great point about how Tolkien modernized the word in a way that would be pretty straightforward for a modern audience to understand -- an occasion where Theoden would take the weapons (and men) offered to him, or where the Rohirrim would take up arms -- suggesting that he might have picked an archaic word and then tweaked its meaning to suit his needs.

  • +1, and many thanks- I was afraid that no one would answer me. – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 20:54
  • 2
    @WadCheber why not? This sounds like exactly the sort of thing Tolkien geeks love to discuss! – Gaurav May 23 '15 at 20:56
  • It seemed like a particularly obscure and trivial question to me. I don't know how many philologists there are on SE. :) – Wad Cheber May 23 '15 at 20:58
8

The "weapontake" is the "Muster of Rohan"

Aragorn refers to the weapontake as a muster.

‘I cannot say yet,’ Aragorn answered. ‘As for the king, he will go to the muster that he commanded at Edoras, four nights from now. And there, I think, he will hear tidings of war, and the Riders of Rohan will go down to Minas Tirith. But for myself, and any that will go with me …’

The Lord of the Rings Book Five, Chapter 2: The Passing of the Grey Company
Page 773 (Single volume 50th Anniversary Edition)

This is clearly intended to refer to a gathering of armed people ready to fight.

Some people of Tolkien's time would recognise that "Weapontake" referred to "Wapontake"

"Weapontake" may not have seemed quite so obscure to Tolkien (even allowing for the fact that he was a philologist).

The word does indeed come from the old Norse and was used throughout the Danelaw (the part of England under Viking rule in the late first millennium). Wapentake referred to local meetings, and by extension, the place of those meetings.

Wapentakes became administrative subdivisions of counties in the north of England (as Hundreds were in the south). They continued to exist (but with little administrative function) into the 19th century, and even after that, the names of the Wapentakes lived on in place names. It is likely that when Tolkien worked at Leeds University, he would have known that he was surrounded by the Wapentakes of Upper Skyrack and Lower Skyrack.

The "Weapontake" of Rohan is clearly inspired by the Wapentake of the Danelaw, and it seems to me that Tolkien's choice of spelling is intended to describe its purpose as the gathering of the armed men of Rohan, especially as he also referred to it (both in the quote from Aragorn above and in the title of the 3rd chapter of Book 5) as "The Muster of Rohan".

Wapentake is not the only administrative subdivision of northern England that Tolkien made use of. The County of Yorkshire was traditionally divided into three parts. The name for those parts comes from the old Norse word for "one third". The modern version of that word is Riding, and Yorkshire was divide into North, West and East Ridings.

When Tolkien divided The Shire into four parts he used the old word for "one fourth" and called them "Farthings" (also the name of an old coin worth a fourth of a penny).

The following map shows the traditional boundaries of Yorkshire divided into the Ridings and Wapentakes.

enter image description here

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.