Ellen has been an online writer for over twelve years. Her articles focus on everything from gardening to engineering.
The "Angerthas" or "Cirth" Runes
Tolkien's Elvish Scripts
The Lord of the Rings betrays its author J.R.R. Tolkien's true passion from cover to cover: words. He was a philologist, a language scholar, and his favorite form of procrastination was inventing languages with etymologies, histories, grammar and vocabulary, then creating fantasy worlds to give those words context.
That's what The Lord of the Rings really is: a world and story Tolkien invented so he could play around with his Elvish languages. At least, he was fond of saying so.
The Elves wouldn't use Roman letters, so Tolkien also had to create a writing system. As usual, he couldn't stop fiddling, so he invented two writing systems.
Cirth and Tengwar
The runes in the above chart are Cirth or Angerthas, also called "Daeron's Runes" after the Elf who invented them. They look a little like Norse or Anglo-Saxon runes, which Tolkien studied, but they aren't the same. In the backstory of The Lord of the Rings, the Cirth is the oldest writing system in Middle-earth, adapted early on by the Dwarves. In the films, they appear all over Moria and Gimli's gear. These runes were first used to carve wood, stone, and metal.
Later, a brilliant Elf from the Undying Lands, Fëanor, invented a new writing system, the Tengwar. This elegant, uncial-like script could be written in many ways and was primarily used for book-writing and handwriting.
You can learn about these writing systems in Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien adapted them in different ways to write different languages: Sindarin Elvish, Quenya Elvish, Dwarvish, and . . . English!
The Lord of the Rings Title Page: One Line of Runes
So that's the background behind the two writing systems that appear on the title pages of The Lord of the Rings. Now let's take a look at the actual inscriptions. At the top, there's a line of runes in—you guessed it!—the Cirth script.
Surprise! It's actually English written with Elvish characters.
~ THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRANSLATED FROM THE RED BOOK ~
- The sounds th, ng, oo are each represented by one character (certh). So "the" is written with two characters: a th rune and an e rune. Similarly, the word book is written with three characters: b + oo (which looks a little like an M) + k.
- The rune that I transliterated as th in "the" is more properly transliterated dh. They are two distinct sounds, even though we use th to represent both of them in English. What's the difference? The dh sound is a hard th, as in this, while the true th sound is a soft th as in thin. Tolkien's Elvish scripts always distinguish them with different characters.
- The "e" sound in "the" is pronounced differently from the "e" sound in "red," so Tolkien uses a different character for those two sounds. Also, the "e" sound in "the" can be written with a mark that looks like an apostrophe to save space ("translat'd").
- As Tolkien fans know, The Red Book of Westmarch is the Hobbits' name for Bilbo's book about his and Frodo's adventures.
- In most editions of The Lord of the Rings, this line of runes at the top of the page is followed by two more lines in Tengwar at the bottom of the page. Before we can go on, we need to pause and understand how Tengwar works, because it's a little more complicated than Cirth runes.
The Red Book of Westmarch
The Lord of the Rings Page Title: Two Lines of Tengwar
Tengwar script is a bear to learn because there are several different modes, using slightly different characters and notations to represent different sounds! Some Tengwar modes use special characters for short words like "of" and "the," the way we use & for "and." Also, some Tengwar modes don't write out vowels; instead, they indicate vowels with small marks or accents placed over the nearest consonants. These marks are called "tehtar."
When Tolkien writes English, he uses tehtar. Specifically, he puts the vowel-marks over the following consonant, or a placeholder (it looks like an "i") if the next letter isn't a consonant.
So let's take this slowly, using this helpful guide to English written with Tengwar letters.
The next line is:
"of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth"
- I've added spaces between the words; there aren't any in the original.
- "of" is represented by a single special character that looks like an m sitting on a T turned sideways.
- Tengwar has no capital letters.
- The letter e is represented by a tehtar that looks like an acute accent (´). I couldn't fit it quite where Tolkien did, but it's over the s in "Westmarch." The letter a is represented by three dots over the r. The ch sound is one Tengwar character which looks a little like a y.
- In the word "by" the tehtar for y is set above that placeholder character I mentioned.
- I'm a little puzzled why Tolkien put the curly o-tehtar over the n at the end of "John." I suppose the h-sound isn't really a consonant.
- "Reuel" presents a mess: it's got too many vowels in a row, so the vowel-placeholder shows up twice. Also, if you look at your copy of The Lord of the Rings, you'll see that Tolkien had fun turning the e and u tehtars into fancy flourishes.
- "Tolkien" shows the i-tehtar, a dot, over the vowel placeholder. The combination looks like a letter i! Then there's an e-tehtar, which looks like an acute accent (´), over the n at the end of "Tolkien."
- "is" uses a special character that's actually the letter z, since it's a hard S. Again, the i-sound is represented by a dot over the s.
- In "forth," Tolkien extended the o-tehtar from the r-sign (which looks like an English n) over the th sign (which looks like an English h), making a fancy swoosh.
The final line of the sentence is:
"the history of-the War of-the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the hobbits."
- Once again, "the" is represented by a single character, and "of the" is the same character with a bar under it. (This is very like the bars used in real-world medieval manuscripts, where one might write "sp" with a bar under it to mean "spiritus.")
- The r in "history" is a trilled or rolled r-sound, distinct from the "r" at the end of "war" (which appears to me to be written wor, with an o-curl instead of the three dots of the a. As usual, the Elvish script represents the sounds of the English words instead of just substituting letter-for-letter.)
- "and" stumps me. The long-mark over the d is an n, since Tolkien thought of nd as a "nasal d" rather than two separate sounds. So far so good. With the long-mark, there wasn't room for the a-tehtar above, so he placed it below. But why is it one dot (i) instead of three (a)?
- "as" has three dots (a) over the Tengwar sign for z, since the s at the end of as is a hard "s."
- "Seen" is a little surprising: There are two vowel placeholders for "ee" to make the long "e" sound.
- "Hobbits" is very compact. The double-b is represented by a single-b character with a squiggle under it to double it, then the o-curl is placed over it (h-o-bb). Then, instead of writing out the letter s at the end, Tolkien uses a fancy curl under the "t" to make "ts", and sticks the i-dot above it.
So the whole title page inscription, starting with the runic line and ending with the two lines of Tengwar, is:
The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book
of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth
the history of the War of the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.
Which is, of course, an allusion to the Red Book's longwinded title in the "Grey Havens" chapter of The Return of the King:
LORD OF THE RINGS
RETURN OF THE KING
(as seen by the Little People; being the memoirs of Bilbo and Frodo of the Shire, supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise.)
Phew! I was going to tackle the Ring-inscription, but I think I'll save that for another webpage. Instead, in closing, I'll just note that when Tolkien gives the two different G-signs for Gandalf's name in the "Long-Expected Party" chapter, the first one is a Tengwar letter G and the second is a Cirth/Angerthas G-rune.
© 2012 Ellen
Daniel on August 06, 2016:
" The dh sound is a hard th, as in this, while the true th sound is a soft th as in thin. Tolkien's Elvish scripts always distinguish them with different characters."
Remember that Tolkien was an Oxford professor of philology, with an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon literature. Old English makes this same distinction, using the letter eth (ð) for the sound of th in "these" and the letter thorn (þ) for the sound in "thick".
parwatisingari from India on January 06, 2014:
really enjoyed reading this.
Susan W from The British Isles, Europe on January 06, 2014:
I have read The Lord of The Rings (me being an avid reader) before and I enjoyed it very much. I have also read The Hobbit too, with the release of the films this and last year. I always wondered what those rune symbols meant, I thought they meant nothing in particular but now I realize that they are actually real translations! Very interesting, thanks for sharing this.
Voted up, awesome and useful.
Katie Lineback on December 02, 2013:
That was cool. Good work. I kind of want to learn it now.
KrisL from S. Florida on October 20, 2012:
You are very welcome. Two of my followers have already favorited my tweet :-).
Ellen (author) from California on October 20, 2012:
Le hannon: thank you! :)
KrisL from S. Florida on October 20, 2012:
Wowza! I'm impressed.
I had a friend in high school who taught herself to write in tengwar, but I was never so advance. Voted interesting, shared, and tweeted.
tmbridgeland from Small Town, Illinois on June 13, 2012:
Thanks. Never even really looked at the writing on the cover before, or thought what it might mean. Just assumed it was decoration.