Jul 2 2022

On “Fellowship” (A Literary Meditation)

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

On “Fellowship” (A Literary Meditation)

I’ve been studying Chaucer lately, and soon stumbled on to some of his usages of the word fellowship.

For wher-so men had pleyd or waked,
Me thoghte the felawship as naked
Withouten hir, that saw I ones,
As a coroune withoute stones.
(The Book of the Duchesse, ll. 977–80)


Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.
(Tales of Canterbury, General Prologue, ll. 25–34).

And, in describing the Wife of Bath, Chaucer’s Narrator notes:

In felawschip wel coude she laughe and carpe.
(General Prologue, ll. 474)

In a time of frequent mass-shootings, controversial court decisions, and pandemic supply chains … a turn toward fellowship might not be so much an exercise in idleness, but one of escapism.

So fellowship is the root word fellow with the added suffix –ship.

For fellow, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says it’s Anglo-Saxon (Old English) but borrowed from Scandinavian:

The early Scandinavian etymon is a derivative formed on the compound reflected by Old Icelandic félag , Norwegian felag, Old Swedish fælagh, Old Danish fælagh (Danish fællig ).

Likewise, the suffix –ship is Anglo-Saxon:

Added to adjectives and past participles to denote the state or condition of being so-and-so. Such compounds were numerous in Old English, and many survived (or were re-coined) in Middle English, but few have a history extending beyond the 15th century; e.g. Old English árodscipe briskness, dolscipe folly, druncenscipe drunkenship n., drunkship n. (Middle English), glædscipe gladship n., gódscipe goodship n., láþscipe hardship, prútscipe pride, shendship n. (Middle English), snelscipe boldness, wildship n. (Middle English), wódscipe madness. The only survivals of this formation now in common use are hardship n. (first in Ancren Riwle), and worship n. (Old English weorþscipe).

But fellowship as an entire word, according to OED, doesn’t show up till the 1200s, that is, about a century before Chaucer.

In his book The Idea of the Holy (1917), German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) lists fellowship as one of three types of spiritual silence:

Devotional Silence may have a threefold character. There is the numinous silence of Sacrament, the silence of Waiting, and the silence of Union or Fellowship.

(Das Heilige. Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational) (1917), trans. John W. Harvey, (Oxford UP, 1923), p. 216)

Otto here admits that he found these ideas in the works of George Fox (1621–1691), founder of the Quakers, who formally call themselves The Society of Friends—that is, literally an organization devoted to fellowship. And the silence in fellowship that Otto mentions is what Mrs. Mia Wallace was trying to explain to Vincent Vega oh-so-many years ago:

In the Prologue to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954), one finds a casual, cozy fellowship:

‘How Old Toby came by the plant is not recorded, for to his dying day he would not tell. He knew much about herbs, but he was no traveller. It is said that in his youth he went often to Bree, though he certainly never went further from the Shire than that. It is thus quite possible that he learned of this plant in Bree, where now, at any rate, it grows well on the south slopes of the hill. The Bree-hobbits claim to have been the first actual smokers of the pipe-weed. They claim, of course, to have done everything before the people of the Shire, whom they refer to as “colonists”; but in this case their claim is, I think, likely to be true. And certainly it was from Bree that the art of smoking the genuine weed spread in the recent centuries among Dwarves and such other folk, Rangers, Wizards, or wanderers, as still passed to and fro through tat ancient road-meeting. The home and centre of the art is thus to be found in the old inn of Bree, The Prancing Pony, that has been kept by the family of Butterbur from time beyond record.’

Though the word fellowship isn’t used in this particular passage, the idea of it bleeds over from writer to reader, for fellowship is a prominent theme in Tolkien’s very big book.

And I find a deeper, more formal fellowship than that above in both the Nine adventurers who constitute the Fellowship of the Ring, as well as between reader and writer, such as when Gandalf (but let us imagine author-professor Tolkien speaking in his stead), explains the fellowship-like task of the writer, (in this case, a historian):

And Gandalf said: ‘This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended.’

(“The Steward and the King,” The Return of the King, VI, v)

Gandalf-Tolkien goes on to explain that the task of the reader, with regard to fellowship with the writer, is to be a sapling (for the writer is a planter):

And Gandalf coming looked at it, and said: ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telpherion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake.  Remember this. For if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar.’

(“The Steward and the King,” The Return of the King, VI, v)

Nor is fellowship limited to the realm of readers and writers. Fellowship can extend to religion, as Walter Kaufman (1921–1980) once pointed out, for fellowship is meant to counter loneliness:

Religions do not so much offer truths as a common language in which to express truths as well as superstitions. Whitehead once said that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” This definition tells us more about the age in which it was written than about religion. Religion offers man a way out of his solitude. Even when it does not lure man into church or visible fellowship with others, religion offers man a language which makes real loneliness impossible. The language of religion may be ritual, prayer, or an idiom based on Scripture: the man who speaks this language breaks out of the solitary confinement of his mute emotions, transcends the isolation of his boredom or despair, and becomes part of a community. He belongs.

(Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958), p. 350)

And fellowship may even extend to nationhood:

Justice Felix Frankfurter spoke of the need “to shed old loyalties and take on the loyalty of American citizenship,” which is a kind of “fellowship which binds people together by devotion to certain feelings and ideas and ideals summarized as a requirement that they be attached to the principles of the constitution.”

(Benjamin R. Barber, “Constitutional Faith,” For Love of Country? ed. Martha Nussbaum, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; ed. Joshua Cohen, 2002), p. 32)

Aug 20 2010

New Zealand Lecturer identifies “new” Chaucer works (Sydney Morning Herald)

New Zealand lecturer identifies new Chaucer works.