Everyone who’s read “The Hobbit” probably knows the map pictured here above, as well as the Moon-Letters that appeared on it. Some might even know exactly what they say in English and that it’s called Thror’s map, but few probably can recognise the actual runes. I had to be about 14 or 15 when I first read “The Hobbit” (I did read “The Lord of the Rings” multiple times before that) and got intrigued by that particular writing system. So I did what every self-respecting nerd would do, and tried to decipher it. I had a few things to go on by the introduction to the novel, namely that the runes for I and J are the same, and U and V share the symbol as well. It also told me what rune represented the letter D (though on the map it’s actually a square with an X in it as well as the regular shape), and that the two runes at the end of the text next to the pointing hand where the initials of Thror and Thrain. However, that rune represents not the T, but TH. It also told me the runes for Q, X and Z which don’t appear among the Moon-Letters.
Just by looking at it, I could also guess some other letters. The B, H, I, R, S and T are pretty much the same, and I also thought that the M-rune was, of course, M itself. However, that soon proved incorrect when I looked at the compass on the map. Now, most of our maps are oriented with North pointing up, but if you read the descriptions on the edges of the map, the top is East. You can of course also assume that the S-shaped rune is actually S and therefore probably points South. So now I also had the runes for N, E and W, meaning that the M-shaped rune is NOT M, but E. Note that the runes for W and TH are a bit similar, the difference being that little extension on top.
So I had some decent amount of letters to start with. This is what I wound up with for the text next to the hand:
_ I _ E _ _ T H I _ H TH E D _ R _ N D TH R _ _ _ _ W _ _ _ _ B R E _ S T
For the longer text, I got this:
S T _ N D B _ TH E _ R E _ S T _ N E H W E N TH E TH R _ S H _ N _ _ _ S*
_ N D TH E S E T T I _ S _ N W I TH TH E _ _ S T _ I _ H T _ _ D _ R I N S
D _ _ W I _ _ S H I N E _ _ _ N TH E _ E _ H _ _ E
Now, it was clear there were actually errors in the symbols. “Hwen” is not actually a word, so something went wrong there, they obviously meant “when”. For the word with *, on the picture provided this would actually be _ N _ R _ S, which would also be an error, but one I’ve only found on this particular version of the map, all other maps show another yet unknown rune where the R is.
So we got a little further, and can probably guess a few more words like “high”, “and”, “stand”, “stone”, “setting”, “sun”, and “Durins”, giving us the G, A and U as well as NG, which like TH is just one single character (this was also mentioned in the introduction). Now, we also know that U and V are the same rune, giving us another possible letter to fill in. We wind up with:
_ I V E _ _ T H I G H TH E D _ R A N D TH R _ _ A _ W A _ _ A B R E A S T
S T A N D B _ TH E G R E _ S T O N E W H E N TH E TH R U S H _ N O _ _ S
A N D TH E S E T T I NG S U N W I TH TH E _ A S T _ I G H T O _ D U R I N S
D A _ W I _ _ S H I N E U _ O N TH E _ E _ H O _ E
I actually read the book in Dutch first, which is why I didn’t know “thrush” was a word, and couldn’t guess it before. Anyway, we can now easily deduct a few more letters, I think “by” is apparent, and so are “grey”, “last”, “light”, “of”, “day”, “will” (two of the same runes next to each other, what else could it be) and with going through the whole alphabet, “upon”. So now we also have Y, L, F and P, meaning we get:
F I V E F _ T H I G H TH E D _ R A N D TH R _ _ A Y W A L _ A B R E A S T
S T A N D B Y TH E G R E Y S T O N E W H E N TH E TH R U S H _ N O _ _ S
A N D TH E S E T T I NG S U N W I TH TH E L A S T L I G H T O F D U R I N S
D A Y W I L L S H I N E U P O N TH E _ E Y H O L E
The last word, probably “keyhole” give us the K, filling in “walk” in the first sentence, and showing “K N O _ K S” in the second, so now we also have C. There’s also that “_ A Y” in the first sentence which can’t be anything but “may” anymore, since we already have most other letters and somehow that’s the only M in the whole text. So we are left with “F _ T”, “D _ R” and “TH R _”. One vital piece of information that I overlooked back then, was that EE is ALSO a single symbol, instead of just two times the M-shaped rune. So now we have “feet” and “three” and the rune for EE. But what about “D _ R”? Well, the most logical word is “door”, of course, but it never mentioned that OO is another single rune. But it had to be, so I trusted my instinct. And I was correct, of course. The complete overview is this:
This script is called Cirth, and is something that Tolkien himself devised, basing it on existing rune writing. The reason to why sometimes only one runic character is used for two actual letters, is because runes rely on sounds. NG, OO, EE, TH, they are all single sounds (like the CH in Dutch), but represented in the Latin alphabet through more than one letter. This is the same reason that Gaelic is a mess written in the normal alphabet, it’s not adequate to represent the sounds you need to pronounce a particular word.
Tolkien actually had multiple ‘versions’ of runic alphabets, so if you would try to translate the runes carved on Balin’s tomb or in the Book of Mazarbul, you’d get nowhere. The shape of the characters are generally reused, they just represent a totally different letter this time. For example:
Actually, the runes Tolkien used for Thror’s map are the least frequently encountered, as well as the simplest because they were only used to write in English, making it pretty much useless to know in the world of Middle-Earth (not that useless knowledge ever stopped me). They apparently also appear on the stone floor of Meduseld in Rohan and the men of Dale also used this simple script. However, if you were to encounter runes in Middle-Earth, you’d might be able to read the letters, but there’s a pretty big chance the language would be in any possible Dwarven or Elvish variant and while decipherable, it would remain incomprehensible. Gondolin had its own set for example (found on Glamdring and Orcrist) which are now forgotten by everyone but Elrond. And to return to Balin’s tomb, the actual runes on the grave were this:
Each system of runes has its own history, just like the real world runes. I won’t go into detail about this fictional history though, as even I am not completely familiar with all the different sets. You can always read the wiki-page on Cirth yourself if you want to know more.
That concludes the geeky part of the story, now for some real history. Cirth as it appears on Thror’s map, is very similar to something called Futhork. Futhork is the Anglo-Saxon variant of the runic alphabet, but better known is Futhark, which is the Scandinavian set. As with the different versions in Tolkien’s works, most symbols are the same and even mean the same, but with some switches and original symbols in between. Left is (Elder) Futhark, right is Futhork:
As you might be able to tell, the sets are named after their first few letters. Futhork also has more symbols, 29 to 33 (depending on the time period) characters to Futhark’s 24. Of these two, the runes in “The Hobbit” are closest to Futhork. By now, I doubt I would be able write flawlessly in Futhork or Cirth, since I generally use Futhark whenever I feel like being a total dork again. I actually tried to write a complete history class solely in runes. It wasn’t the best idea, since it does take a little more time and keeping up was a little harder. In any case, it did cement my reputation as professional weirdo. I’m not sure why I prefer Futhark, since Futhork is more useful when writing in English. Both are adequate but when it comes to the more special sounds, Futhork has it covered more so than Futhark. To be complete, Futhark also has two main branches, Elder and Younger Futhark. The Younger actually has even less characters, only 16 of them. There’s even more of a subdivision within Younger Futhark in long-branch and short-twig runes, the reasons not entirely known, but possibly found in functionality, the long-branch type used for stone carving and short-twigs for messages on wood. There are even more versions of rune alphabets, like Marcomannic, Medieval and Dalecarlian. If you want to know more about these, I refer you to the wiki-page.
The use of runes was just like our Latin alphabet, a writing system for the Germanic people, going back as far as the first century AD. They were derived from one of the Old Italic scripts, so it actually has its origin in Italy. Germanic people often served as mercenaries in the Roman Army which is probably how the cultural contact mainly happened, next to possibly trade. This formation of the Futhark alphabet went gradually, being completed somewhere by the early fifth century. The typical angular shapes that all runic alphabets have in common are due to what they were usually carved in, stone and wood. It also has vertical strokes but (almost) no horizontals, this due to properties of the grain of wood. On a flat stick, horizontal strokes wouldn’t be as clear or just outright split the wood. It’s also thought that initially, runic inscriptions weren’t used as a writing system, but used in magical charms. After all, in some stories it was Odin who gained the knowledge of runes when he was hanging from Yggdrassil. And we probably all know about rune tossing to predict future events. Each rune does have its own name and origin, the character for U for example is referred to as Ur, or Uruz, meaning aurochs. supposedly its two-pronged shape resembles the horns of the ancient ox. In rune throwing, this then refers to power and strength. I’m not sure how well supported this is in a historical context, but it’s quite neat to use this in a story nonetheless.
Today runes can be found on historical objects in museum, but also on rocks. There’s plenty of those in Sweden, and I visited one of the more famous ones, the Rökstenen (a tautology) in Rök (who would’ve guessed).
It’s longest known runic inscription and seen as the first piece of written Swedish literature. You can read what it says on the wiki.
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