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Max Mechow, a German linguist, suggests in his book Deutsche Familiennamen als prussischer Herkunft (‘German surnames of Prussian origin’; Dieburg 1994, p. 99) that in spite of what Tolkien said on the matter, his family name may be of East Prussian origin, and the Poles may be said to have a Tolkien family nest in their own country!
J.R.R. Tolkien said many times that his ancestors had come to England in the middle of the 18th century from present-day Saxony. According to his family’s oral traditions (or, maybe, to Tolkien’s own theory), they had supposedly fled the Prussian invasion of Saxony in 1756. The name Saxony meant a lot for Tolkien, and was dear to him, for it stems from the name of the Saxons, an early medieval people, who migrating from the Continent during the Migration period created – together with the Angles, Jutes and Frisians – an Old English culture of the British Isles, being an object of admiration, and material of research of the Professor. In the Dark Ages, the Angles sent many Christian missionaries to visit the lands inhabited by the pagan tribes of Old Saxons (one of those was Saint Boniface, born Wynfreth).
In an autobiographical note made in 1955, Tolkien demonstrated that the name Tolkien is an anglicized form of the German nickname/surname Tollkiehn, derived from the adjective tollkühn, which means “daring”, “rash”, “foolhardy” (literal translation is “madly bold”). He accepted no other arguments concerning this issue, though there were some. In a letter of March 8, 1973, addressed to Mrs E. R. Ehrardt (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 349), Tolkien wrote that no other etymology of the name was convincing to him. The letter concerned the deriving of his last name from the Slavonic word *tъlkъ, which can be rendered as “meaning, translation, interpretation, explanation”. Vasmer, a Russian etymologist, wrote that directly from the Old Russian form тълкъ are derived the following loan words: the Lithuanian tùlkas (“interpreter”), the Latvian tul̃ks, the Estonian tulk, the Old Low German tolk, the Old Icelandic tulkr (“translator”), the Dutch (Low German) tolk. In his letter, Tolkien also mentioned the Finnish tulkki; more about the related words can be read in the appropriate topic (in Polish) in the “Elendili” internet forum: “Nazwisko “Tolkien” a słowiańskie *tołk/*tłok” (‘The name “Tolkien” and the Slavonic *tołk/*tłok‘).
In Germany, we meet people with the last names “Tolkien”, “Tolkiehn”, and “Tollkiehn”. The map below shows a distribution of the name “Tolkien” all over the Federal Republic of Germany (click on the map to enlarge it):
However, German linguists and genealogists propose other explanation for the origin of the writer’s last name, and locate its beginnings in the Prussian (Baltic) linguistic area. It is described both by Georg Gerullis in his work Die altpreußischen Ortsnamen (‘The Old Prussian place names’; o.V., Berlin/Leipzig 1922, p. 184) and by Max Mechow in his Deutsche Familiennamen als prussischer Herkunft (Tolkemita, Dieburg 1994, p. 99). Today, the above-mentioned area is situated in Poland, and it is represented by a small village in Masuria. Since 1945, the village has been known by the Polish name of Tołkiny.
Tołkiny is a village in the administrative district of Gmina Korsze, within Kętrzyn County, Warmian-Masurian Province. (Before the World War Two, the village was called Tolksdorf and lay within Rastenburg County in Ostpreußen, i.e. East Prussia.) The village lies approximately 10 km (6 m) northwest of Kętrzyn (before the War called Rastenburg in German, and Rastembork in Polish), not far from the Regional Road 592 (from Kętrzyn to Bartoszyce). The former name of the village, Tolksdorf, had been created from the last name of a noble family of Prussian origin – the Tolk family. It had been written down in the existing documents as Tolksdorf (1410), Tolkynen (1440), or Dolksdorf (1528). In the earliest period, Tołkiny are believed to have been a Prussian village, lying on the edge of the Krakotin Forest; that area had previously been inhabited by the Prussian tribe of Barts (in the former Diocese of Warmia – to learn more about Bartia, click here). Remains of the Forest have stood the test of time, and are situated south of the village, near a hamlet Krakocin (previously called Krakotin) and round the Tołkiny Lake. As for the location of the village itself, little can be said for sure; for a nearby village of Starynia (Altendorf in German) was known in the Middle Ages as Alt-Tolksdorf (and Neu-Tolksdorf in 1698). One can therefore presume that the first residence of the Tolk family was located somewhere around present-day Starynia, whereas Tołkiny was not established until the foundation of the new village on the Prussian or Kulm Law. In the foundation document issued on February 10, 1344, by the Commander of Balga, Gottfried von Linden, there appears, among others, the name of Mathes (Matheus) Tolc. (More about the history of Tołkiny can be read here.)
The analysis of the names from before 1945 shows that already in the 15th century there functioned in Masuria the name *Tolkyn (the German form Tolkynen being the plural of this name). It is from this word that German historians derive the name Tolkien.
To be continued…
Translated by Jarosław “Noatar” Schramel
Below a photo from the Tołkiny/Tolksdorf area.