What the Ell?

I was re-reading Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when I came to the description of the chlorophyllic ka-nig-it’s weapon of choice. Coming in at the 10th stanza:

10 And yet he had not a helm, nor a hauberk either,
not a pisane, not a plate that was proper to arms;
not a shield, not a shaft, for shock or for blow,
but in his one hand he held a holly-bundle,
that is greatest in greenery when groves are leafless,
and an axe in the other, ugly and monstrous,
a ruthless weapon aright for one in rhyme to describe:
the head was as large and as long as an ellwand,
a branch of green steel and of beaten gold.”
[J.R.R. Tolkien, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, emphasis mine]

I was drawn to ellwand, of course. I’ve read the poem before, but I clearly glossed over this word, focusing on the primary tale, and not the finer details. I read poetry a bit more closely now (that’s not saying much), and I do make it a habit now to look up words I don’t know. What’s an ellwand?

I was put in mind at first of Dumbledore’s Elderwand. The two words are so similar, it was an understandable false connection to make. Plus, Elder trees have a history of mystery and and occult. Yet somehow I knew this couldn’t be what the poet was driving at.

A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions, and led me back to an interesting passage in The Lord of the Rings which always grabbed my eye. This term I had previously looked up:

‘A pity I didn’t think of bringing another length,’ said Frodo; ‘but I left the Company in such a hurry and confusion. If only we had enough we could use it to get down. How long is your rope, I wonder?’
Sam paid it out slowly, measuring it with his arms: ‘Five, ten, twenty, thirty ells, more or less,’ he said.
‘Who’d have thought it!’ Frodo exclaimed
‘Ah! Who would?’ said Sam. ‘Elves are wonderful folk. It looks a bit thin, but it’s tough; and soft as milk to the hand. Packs close too, and as light as light. Wonderful folk to be sure!’
Thirty ells!’ said Frodo considering. ‘I believe it would be enough. If the storm passes before nightfall, I’m going to try it.’ [LotR, IV, 1, ‘The Taming of Sméagol’, emphasis mine]

As it turns out, an ellwand is a rod which measures one ell in length. And what’s an ell? That a bit trickier, as the official size varies depending on what country is doing the measuring and at what point in history. Wikipedia tells us that the Vikings had an ell that was the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow, or about 18″/46cm. It additionally tells us that during the 13th century, they had a standard unit called a stika, which was the equivalent of 2x English ells (making one English ell at the time approximately 36″/91.44cm, or just about a meter … near as damn it for our purposes).

Now since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight dates to the 14th century, and considering it’s an Old English poem, we can be fairly confident that the ell being described by the Gawain poet is indeed a 13th-century English ell. Now, “large” and “long” may mean different things. It could be height of the axe blade (long) and the distance the axe head projects from the shaft (large). Or it could be using two terms to describe just one of those measurements. And other interpretations are available as well.

Any way you slice it, that’s an enormous weapon. I suspect we should not be considering a typical one-handed battle axe, or even a typical 2-handed battle axe. It’s probably something much more in-line with a bardiche. Wiki tells us that the bardiche was a heavy-bladed weapon that developed through several variants over time, and was eventually used often as a weapon by butchers to behead an ox. Would fit right in our story as an axe to remove the the head of a great, green knight, no?

Medieval Polearms, via http://www.weapons-universe.com/Swords/Medieval_Polearms.shtml

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