Looking up the reference in Tolkien from some days back, which I got wrong, I came across the word ‘hythe’. “On the bank of the Silverlode . . . there was a hythe of white stones and white wood.” Now there’s a word, I thought. I’d never noticed it before.
If you look up hythe you’ll see it is a variant spelling of hithe and find a gloss for it: harbor. When you look up hithe you’ll see it comes from Old Teutonic to Old English: hyđ. So that probably explains why Tolkien choses the spelling. They’re in Lorien, he wants the sense of an old place, he picks an obsolete word, gives it the older spelling, and works his magic.
It is a port, or haven, a small one, and usually on a river. English place names still retain the word; you can find some near Oxford, and Lambeth is the Lambs Hithe. I don’t need to point out how interesting it is to use this word at this point in the lives of these hobbits.
Then come the ropes, and Sam’s curiosity. He is told that the ropes are made of hithlain, which coming a few paragraphs after Hythe strikes one as connected. It is not: hithlain means mist thread. Still it sounds similar, doesn’t it? And the echo makes one wonder.
It made me think of mirrors, and the odd idea that the inner landscape of a mirror, so mysterious, is connected to that of all the rest. Perhaps not so odd an idea since really they all are: they all reflect the world we get around in and you can go from one to the other. But the idea of the mirrors being connected on the inside is compelling because it can get you to places though an unguarded portal. What if I could get into a mirror at home and come out of a mirror at Target?
Of course, nobody wants to go to Target by mirror, not for anything magical and wonderful. But one would like to come out in an interesting place full of danger and magic. And I think the echo in The Fellowship of the Ring, the sound of an unknown elven tongue echoing an obsolete English word, mirroring it with the suggestion that there’s something different beyond the edge of the frame is one part of the magic Tolkien works.