New Tolkien letter(s) at auction, with an interesting quote being given from one letter…
“I can only hope that the ancient proverb (attributed to King Alfred): ‘When the bale is at the highest, then the boot (betterment) is ever highest’ may prove in your case true.”
Old English bale appears to have been mostly a shorthand for ‘tormenting woe, caused by deliberate mischief and wickedness – usually arising from hate, envy and similar’. Could also include actual wounds and bodily binding arising from the same.
It was obsolete by the mid 1500s, but the use of baleful survived in poetry and today that word can still be used and understood in poetry and fantasy literature. Usefully in the descriptive context of a character or animal only having one eye, and that eye having a ‘baleful’ aspect to it. Or a star of ill-omen having a similar ‘baleful’ aspect to it.
Boot is interesting. We still have something like boot in the modern ‘booty’, meaning gathered-up and taken-away treasure. The getting of which would of course lead to betterment, enrichment.
But boot is not in Bosworth-Toller, and instead one needs to search for bót, ‘mending, repair, remedy, improvement’ (also compensation).
The original saying is found in the The Complete Harley 2253 Manuscript, Volume 3…
When the bale is hest,
Thenne is the bote nest.
Which indicates that it’s one of the sayings attributed to a wise-man named “Hendyng”, who thrived in the mid 1200s in what is now the West Midlands.
Some of the Hendyng translations at ‘The Complete Harley’ seem a bit off, seemingly skewed by the later interpretive verses that precede each saying. For instance, the horse one makes more sense and is wiser and more wryly Midlands-y as: “He is free of his horse, who never had one.” But the “boot” saying is translated there as:
“When the pain is highest,
Then is the remedy nighest”
The word bale here is presumably being translated as ‘pain’ due to the context supplied by the preceding words. But that seems only partly justified by the context, which is evidently using ‘pain’ as a shorthand for what is expanded a few words later as treye ant tene, ‘trouble and grief’, rather than as a precise pain-word meaning ‘bodily agony’. Thus the translation of bale as ‘pain’ risks misleading the modern reader. Given this, and Tolkien’s suggestion of ‘betterment’ for boot, a translation might better run:
When the woe is worst,
Then betterment is not far off.
In modern parlance, something like:
When things are really bad,
It can only get better.
Which means it’s not quite the same in sentiment as the similar modern saying…
“Every cloud has a silver lining”.
It’s a little more active that that. The ‘betterment’ here comes from the anticipation that there will soon be ‘action in-the-world’ to fix things and to actively restore things to how they were before. On the other hand the modern understanding of “Every cloud has a silver lining” suggests more of a time-delayed ‘mental reconsideration and re-framing’ of, and ‘learning from’, the misfortune. Something which then potentially leads to the discovery of a new unexpected element in the resolving situation. The addition of this unexpected element then actually makes things better than they were before.