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Letter 324

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 324
RecipientGraham Tayar
DateJune 4-5, 1971
Subject(s)Word-origins for Gamgee and Gondor

Letter 324 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.


Tayer had asked about the name "Gamgee" in The Lord of the Rings and whether Gondar in Ethiopia had suggested the name “Gondor”.

Concerning Gondar/Gondor, Tolkien said that this was a difficult but interesting matter involving the nature of "linguistic invention". The facts regarding Gondor were that he had no recollection of ever hearing of Gondar before Tayar’s letter and that Gondor was a name that sprang from Sindarin style and phonetics. Its sense was "Stone-land" as in "Stone (-using people's) land". People ignorant of Sindarin understood the meaning, as when Théoden and Ghân conversed.[1] It was probable that the Númenóreans adopted the name from the primitive inhabitants of Gondor and turned it into Sindarin.

Tolkien said that the name was a very early element of the whole story. In his linguistic construction Gondor and Gondar would be two distinct names and the latter would have no precise sense. However, the "leaf-mould" of memory contained submerged names that rose to the surface at times, and they might provide the bases of "invented" names. Ethiopia had been prominent in the Italian war and Gondar may have entered his memory through this route, but no more than Gondwana-land (which Tolkien called a rare venture of geology into poetry).

Tolkien then recalled the reason why the element *gon(o), *gond(o) became a word-stem meaning "stone": When he was 8 year old he had read a book that stated that nothing of the language of primitive people before the Celts or Germanic invaders was known, except perhaps ond meaning "stone", which seemed fitting to Tolkien. The prefixing g- came later: in the history of the relation between Sindarin and Quenya the primitive initial g- was lost in Q so that in later Q the word was ondo.

In Tolkien’s early days gamgee meant "cotton-wool". A recent English Place Names Society volume noted Gamgee as a variant upon the common surname Gamage (Gammage, Gammidge). The name ultimately derived from de Gamaches, but early forms of Gamages, de Gamagis, de Gemegis might have provided a variant Gamagi > Gamgee.

Tayar’s reference to a Samson Gamgee was very interesting. He was mentioned in a book on Birmingham Jewry so perhaps his family was Jewish with an altogether different origin for the name, although a French form was not impossible as a Jewish surname. Tolkien noted that this might explain why his name was so often misspelt as TOLKEIN, but it was from Saxony and not Jewish in origin, though he would consider it an honor if it were. Currently Jewish names were associated with German or Yiddish, but the common language of medieval Jewry was French.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Ride of the Rohirrim"