What started last week and has been keeping me busy and happy is my literature class on The Hobbit. It’ll run six weeks, and the students range from devoted fans taking the class purely for fun to poor, downtrodden middle-schoolers being forced to drudge through worthwhile art and write about it for actual English lit and composition credit. Homework assignments vary per the student (at the parents’ direction), which promises to make grading much more interesting and the class less of a slog for everybody.
I’m not a Tolkien expert, I’m a writer, so that’s how we’re looking at the book. I do think one of the most important parts of studying literature is making sure that the kids understand what the heck they’re reading. So before each reading assignment we go through two sets of vocabulary. The first set is Landscape of Middle Earth, because if you don’t know what laburnums are, how can you possibly visualize them? Wikimedia is my fast friend in finding images for the tour.
The other set of vocabulary is non-landscape words that the kids are unlikely to know, or for which they might not know the intended meaning in context. (The fender on a fireplace rather than one on a car, or a porter that you drink, not one that you hire.)
In looking up vocabulary, I’ve noticed Tolkien is assumed to have created a few words that he didn’t invent, or didn’t quite. A few that get attention:
Flummoxed – bewildered, confounded, confused. Not a Tolkien-built word: Merriam Webster notes its appearance in The Pickwick Papers.
Confusticate – (slang) – to confuse, perplex, bewilder. Notes on the presumed origin (American) are here and here. Where the word came from is not very clear, but it’s quite clear it wasn’t Tolkien’s invention.
Bebother – to bring trouble upon (someone). Wicktionary has citations from 1896 and 1908.
Bebother follows the same pattern as bewilder, as in the famous description of Bilbo as being “bewildered and bewuthered.”
Bewuther, the fan pages tell us, is a fabricated word that means the same thing as bewilder. I disagree.
Look up the word wuther:
verb (used without object), British Dialect. 1. (of wind) to blow fiercely. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/wuthering
1846; variant of dial. and Scots whither, Middle English (Scots) quhediren; compare Old Norse hvitha squall of wind
Someone who was, say, a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature, would know the word wuther. Such a person would also know how to use the prefix “be-” to build related words, such as bewilder, bedraggle, bespoke, bespeak, become, bemuse, and so forth.
Bewilder, if we look at its etymology, has a sense of someone going astray or getting lost. Think of it as being led into the emotional wild-lands.
We should infer, using the logic that Tolkien knows what English words mean and that he builds English constructions accordingly, that bewuther means something slightly different than bewilder. It means to be wuthered – to be blown about.
→ Bewuthered is to be blown about, in a figurative sense in this case.
One can therefore be both bewildered and bewuthered, but one is not necessarily both at the same time. You might be thoroughly bewuthered and yet entirely sure of where you’ve landed, for example — not bewildered at all, just well-tossed and reeling a bit from the blow.
Or, if you take my literature class, hopefully you end up neither. In addition to going over tricky words before the reading, we’ll do a plot summary at the start of class each week to make sure the kids understood the reading. There’s no sense talking about writing techniques and stunning poetry until you know who did what, when, where and how. After that? Bring it on.
My partner in crime came up with a project for the fankids, writing their names on stones in runes. It was pretty cool. This artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.