Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Guest Series--Part Two--War of Words

This week, I'm pleased to feature here on the blog a dear friend, whose recent series of articles on Tolkien's fantasy world struck me deeply. With her permission, I'm sharing them here today. Even if you do not normally read fantasy, I highly recommend pondering these articles. They're thought-provoking, grounded in biblical worldview, and explain the value of the fantasy genre for Christians.

Check out Part One here.

Oath of Feanor--copyright by Jenny Dolfen

War of Words

 "I have exposed my heart to be shot at."

~J.R.R. Tolkien, in a letter to C.S. Lewis on the publication of The Lord of the Rings

             When J.R.R. Tolkien was a boy, he loved to crouch in the grass at the top of a hill and watch the road below. He was not waiting for his father to come home from work, or scheming to toss pebbles down on unsuspecting travelers—he was waiting to look at the long Welsh names on the sides of coal-trucks as they rumbled by. These names, baffling to most people, charmed him.

His first lessons in language were from his mother, who taught him the rudiments of Latin. When he was eleven she passed away, and the memory of her lessons became a hallowed thing. It sharpened his natural bent and helped to make his study of languages not only a hobby but a passion.

As a schoolboy he devoured literature so fast that his teachers were at a loss to come up with new material for him. He tossed aside the French and Spanish grammars that his schoolmates toiled over to plumb the depths of Wright’s Primer of the Gothic Language. He worked at inventing languages, too: with his cousin Mary he developed a detailed dialect called Nevbosh, "New Nonsense", in which they could speak, write, and make poetry.

During his teen years, Tolkien began to create his languages using various phonologies and grammars. His idea of an enjoyable afternoon was hours bent over a book, creating a new alphabet or expanding an invented vocabulary. He also spent hours inventing words to fill in the gaps of ancient languages which have only come down to us in fragments. “Strange as it may seem,” C.S. Lewis wrote about his friend, “it was undoubtedly the source of that unparalleled richness and concreteness which later distinguished him from all other philologists. He had been inside language.”

Tolkien once wrote that as soon as he set eyes on West-Midland Middle English, the language his ancestors had spoken over seven centuries before, he “took to [it] as to a known tongue….” He had extraordinary powers of deduction where words were concerned, and his knack for detecting almost invisible patterns left other philologists shaking their heads. Yet he did not work on instinct alone; he was technically irreproachable, ruthlessly strict with his work. His fellow scholars were often astonished by his sweeping or outlandish assertions, but they knew that his every statement rested on scrupulous research.

When it came to the emotional power of language, Tolkien's intuition was rare—perhaps unsurpassed in his profession. He would fall in love with a word for its sound, not its meaning. “Most English-speaking people, for instance,” he explained once, “will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling).  More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.” He loved listening to languages—Finnish, Greek, Welsh—as many listen to music. “Philology: ‘the love of words’…that was what motivated him,” wrote his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. “It was not an arid interest in the scientific principles of language; it was deep love for the look and the sound of words….”

Unfortunately philology was not loved in academia. In fact, it was almost universally despised. The department of Literature and the department of Language (nicknamed "Lit. and Lang." by those in Tolkien's circles) were continually at war with one another during Tolkien's years at Oxford University. This battle caused him much grief, but it was good for us, as it led, ultimately, to Middle-earth as we know it.

The issue was never really the number of students enrolling in one program or another; it was a matter of philosophy. A study of the development of languages shows that they do not evolve randomly, as one might expect, but according to identifiable laws. This means that philologists can recreate lost languages of the past using clues gathered from the languages we know. By piecing together the history of the world's languages, philology has uncovered parts of history that were hitherto unknown. It was natural to Tolkien, after years of work, to understand the world as he understood language: as a grand, majestic puzzle; sometimes inexplicable, but always intelligent; not a cacophony of chance occurrences, but a rich creation to be delighted in, wondered at, and discovered. He believed that "Lit. and Lang." went hand-in-hand—that students of literature should understand and appreciate language, and vice versa. He insisted that the texts his students studied were worth studying not merely for their technical aspects, but for their content and their artistic beauty. The literature professors, on the other hand, believed in keeping the two fields as separate as possible. The last thing they wanted their students doing was accepting ancient works on their own merit. In their minds, the literature of the past was meant to be examined and criticized, not embraced.

Since the era known as the Enlightenment, scholars have been in love with the idea of intellectual progress. In their quest for higher knowledge they often cut ties with the "unenlightened" past, believing that men of bygone days should not be admitted as our equals in their understanding of the world, and certainly not as our superiors. If an ancient view of life differs from ours, the ancient is assumed to be wrong—an illogical assumption, for ideas should be weighed on their own merit, not automatically accepted or rejected because of their source. At Oxford the Literature camp, eager to set themselves apart intellectually, lashed out at the Language camp, criticizing their dreadful tendency to enjoy the skill and beauty of old literature.

Throughout his career Tolkien faced violent criticism for his attempts at reuniting the two sides. He upset the school bullies (yes, grownups have them, too) by being conventional while the rest of the intellectual world was busy making themselves unconventional. Tolkien was talented, and he was at the forefront of his chosen field, but his colleagues scoffed at him. After all, how could an intelligent man believe that Anglo-Saxon poetry might be relevant in the modern world?

Tolkien saw the reasons for his antagonists’ fury more clearly than most of them did themselves, and he felt their attacks on his work keenly, for philology was not merely a career to him, a job to pay the bills. It was a thing bound up in the very fibers of his being. In his Essays, he admitted to feeling “a grievance that certain professional persons should suppose their dullness and ignorance to be a human norm, the measure of what is good; and anger when they have sought to impose the limitations of their minds upon younger minds, dissuading those with philological curiosity from their bent, encouraging those without this interest to believe that their lack marked them as minds of a superior order.” His efforts at the university to bring Lit. and Lang. to reconciliation were valiant but largely unsuccessful.

Yet his fiction had the power to do what his scholarly work could not.

More than once Tolkien claimed that his languages were not made for his stories, but his stories for his languages. “The invention of languages is the foundation”, he said. The "invention"—or, as its Latin root invenire suggests, the discovery of languages—is also the foundation of philology. This was Tolkien's quiet way of telling the world that philology itself, and what he had learned from it, was at the heart of his extraordinary work. After explaining how writing “grows like a seed…out of the leaf-mould of the mind”, Tolkien went on to say, “No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter."

The influence of philology on Tolkien's fiction is usually underestimated because its influence on Tolkien himself is underestimated. Most remarks by critics on this subject fall neatly into two categories: firstly, those who say (usually tartly) that because Tolkien's works are founded in philology, they have no significance for the rest of life—they are merely the byproduct of an eccentric professor’s hobby; and secondly, those who claim (kindly but wrongly) that his fiction could not be rooted in something so shallow and dry as philology because it is obviously rich, full of imagination and feeling and wisdom. This view, taken by even some of his most well-meaning critics, must have distressed Tolkien, for it showed yet again that the field he loved was an utter mystery to most of society—and not only that, but a supremely dull mystery not worth looking into. One Tolkien critic declared confidently that no one ever exposed the deepest core of their being for the sake of philology: it would be both needless and insane. Yet we have evidence to the contrary.

J.R.R. Tolkien may have failed to make his Oxford colleagues see the joy in philology, or to gain anything more than a temporary ceasefire between Lit. and Lang., but through his books he brought the beauty of words back to the tongue and ear of the common man. According to Professor Corey Olsen, "The works of Tolkien are by far, absolutely without exception, the best introduction to Medieval literature that exists." And one might easily expand that category beyond Medieval literature. Because of Tolkien's writings, the poems and stories of our ancestors no longer knock dully on the outside of our hearts, but ring true, like an echo of something we have known and loved well.


J.R.R. Tolkien, by Humphrey Carpenter
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, compiled by Humphrey Carpenter
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien
The Road to Middle-earth, by Tom Shippey
The Tolkien Professor, www.tolkienprofessor.com

About the Author
Elisabeth H. (a.k.a. the Philologist) is a born-again, homesick Christian who happens also to be a music teacher and an avid student of history. Research and poetry are her cup of tea, and she has a special place in her heart for old languages, bittersweet endings, and John of Bedford. She does her writing from a humble homestead surrounded by beloved family, somewhat less-beloved chickens, and more than ten thousand books. 

1 comment:

  1. It amazes me what a genius Tolkien was. ;) This was such a fascinating post!! It makes me want to study all this stuff more. :)


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