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Posts Tagged ‘the Silmarillion’

JRR Tolkien reported that he discovered his stories and the world of Middle Earth.  Bilbo’s complaint that Gandalf took him home from the Lonely Mountain by much too direct a route is perhaps a testimony of Tolkien’s own experience with the Hobbit and subsequently the Lord of the Rings.  Even though the legends of the elves were sprawling through Tolkien’s imagination long before either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings were published, we know that Lothlorien and Fangorn – and the stories swirling and marching out of them (respectively) – were unexpected developments that Tolkien met as he traveled with Frodo and his companions to the War of the Ring.

To many people, Tolkien’s description of his sub-creation is merely a metaphor for the creative process.  An idea wasn’t in mind before and then unfolds faster than we can write it or say it aloud, as though the whole were in existence before we thought of it.  But for Tolkien, there was more literal (and literary) truth to discovering his characters and stories than I would have guessed.  Especially in the Lord of the Rings, peoples and places were dynamically inspired by meditations on words.

The lore-master of Middle Earth discovered that fantastic age in the associations and nuances of English.  English being only the top level.  He didn’t just borrow an archaic term to sound old or fantastic (as so many pretentious fantasy-novelists do today).  Involved in the study was a lot of Old English, Old Norse, Germanic and even Celtic derivations.  Tolkien hoarded word-mathoms, specimens of language passed around and hidden in old literature, buried in place-names.  Believing that language bore record of a people with creativity, wisdom, and art worth recovering, Tolkien studied and meditated on this vocabulary.  Meanings all-but-forgotten, he restored them, often telling a story in which multiple definitions took living form.  Or if the meaning really was entirely lost, like the purposes of some mathoms, Tolkien upcycled them, making all new but deeply appropriate uses of obscure terms.

One of the easiest examples may be Ent.  In Tolkien’s mythology, Ents are shepherds of the trees, ancient forest-keepers.  They do many things, but most importantly they bring down the corrupted wizard, Saruman, by destroying his stone city, Isengard.  Ent comes from an old English word from which we also get the word “giant.”  The word is also associated with trolls, the large stone-people.  Giants in old mythology were credited with writing the pre-historic epics and constructing the marvelous architecture known to the medieval people only as mysterious ruins.  Tolkien pulled all of these things together in the character and origin of the Ents, and in their stone-dominating assault on Isengard.

Perhaps Lord of the Rings was so successful because Tolkien tapped our own imaginations, our nightmares and our memories, our own ways of talking about those things.  We feel that Middle Earth is part of us because it came from the same places we did.  The Hobbit was nursery-fable, not entirely devoid of the word study that made Tolkien’s other work great, but mostly a hodge-podge of mythology and adventure.  The Silmarillion studied not only the English words and Germanic epics at the root of English and American imagination, but also delved into Greek myths, and more obscure stories (like the Finnish Kaelevala).  The Elvish languages have more to do with Celtic.  All those sources were more remote than the wights and wargs and farthings and elves that resonate with the first audience of Lord of the Rings, the English.

Enormous creativity is required to make stories – especially as complex as Lord of the Rings – out of word definitions and roots.  But it also takes genius to hold so many facts and references in mind at once, seeing comparison and contrast, projecting backwards, remembering how the ancient form of the word was used in some obscure poem.  Thomas A. Shippey’s biography of Tolkien first alerted me to this aspect of his work some years ago, but The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary goes much farther.  A word can be a poem or a story or a mythology or just a really-neat sound.  Tolkien delighted in and brought out all of these.

For more information, look to the Letters of JRR Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth (a series of books containing early manuscripts of Middle Earth stories and also containing glossaries and word-explanations for the languages of middle earth).  I highly recommend that you pick up The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It contains over a hundred studies of words either invented or revived by JRR Tolkien or associated with him and his work.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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