Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Attendance is Mandatory!

When I read the very first lines of Tolkien’s letter to Mr. Rang, I realized that I had just stumbled upon that which would best help me to describe to others my interpretation (and our class’, as far as I can tell) of the way in which Tolkien is operating and the motivation behind this mode of operation. Tolkien explains to Mr. Rang, “I am honoured by the interest that many readers have taken in the nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings; and pleased by it, in so far as it shows that this construction, the product of very considerable thought and labour, has achieved (as I hoped) a verisimilitude, which assists probably in the ‘literary belief’ in the story as historical” (Tolkien 379). While it has been clear for some time that Tolkien endeavored to create a and alternate or additional history for the world of men, never has the seriousness and magnitude of this task seemed so believable and important to me as when I read in his own words, that he was trying to achieve “verisimilitude.” I cannot quite explain why that word jumps out at me the way it does, but I tend to attribute it to Tolkien’s ability to craft not only his own languages, but to flesh out what he wants from English, as well, and to elicit a powerful reaction from his readers. Without ever knowing that I would read this letter that wasn’t even sent to its addressee, Tolkien was able to sculpt his words into an explanation that resonated with me, moved me with its importance. I think that Tolkien’s innate understanding of languages, both of his creation and otherwise, that yields a strong personal attachment from readers of The Lord of the Rings.

In his obituary for Tolkien, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Strange as it may seem, it was undoubtedly the source of that unparalleled richness and concreteness which later distinguished him from all other philologists. He had been inside language” (Carpenter 133). Tolkien was so taken with language, by the “taste” that each language held for him, that he was able to go about his work with language with such passion that others are sucked in, as well. The reaction one might have to Tolkien’s work could be very similar to the one Frodo had when listening to Bilbo’s song in Rivendell: “At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven worlds in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them” (Tolkien 233).

It seems that many people are introduced to Tolkien’s work when they are children. They might not understand the story upon first reading or hearing The Lord of the Rings, nor the depths of the labor that went in to creating an entire history for the world, complete with languages and mythology. Yet somehow, there seems to be an innate appreciation of this in his readers. Certainly enthusiasts will read and reread his work and, as they “begin to attend to them,” as Frodo did Bilbo’s song, they too understand better and better what is being done within the work. Some are taken to learn Elvish, that they might be able to delve even more deeply into Tolkien’s mythos. I believe that the verisimilitude provided by the existence of Tolkien’s languages plays a great role in prompting this reaction in his readers.

In his biography of Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter draws a beautiful parallel between Tolkien’s work in philology and his works of fiction, using C.S. Lewis’s obituary as a launching pad. Where Lewis said that Tolkien “had been inside language,” Carpenter explains of Tolkien’s role as a storyteller, that “[h]e had been into the dragon’s lair” (Carpenter 139). The importance of this parallel in seen in the verisimilitude of Tolkien’s work, the feeling of realness that The Lord of the Rings holds for so many of its readers who truly attend to it. To make fiction into fact, to assist “in the ‘literary belief’ in the story as historical,” a visible evolution is required. While that evolution is apparent in Tolkien’s mythos, it is given life through the apparent evolution of his languages, and in the case of characters like Gandalf, Aragorn and Treebeard, names.

Furthermore, even when writing in English to represent the Common Speech, one can feel the existence of other languages of Middle Earth in the slight miscommunications that occur between characters of different backgrounds. For example, when Gandalf demands to know of Sam how long he had been eavesdropping on his conversation with Frodo, Sam replies, “Eavesdropping, sir? I don’t follow you, begging your pardon. There ain’t no eaves at Bag End, and that’s a fact” (Tolkien 63). From what readers know about Sam, it is clear that he would not sass Gandalf, and that he is truly trying to piece together a phrase that is alien to him and simply does not compute. This is a technique that broadens the breadth of both Middle Earth and its verisimilitude as Tolkien’s characters encounter language barriers and get lost in translation just as his readers are inevitably likely to do, both in their primary reality and when reading The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien has created a verisimilar history, but it is up to his readers cement the verisimilitude into the history. That is, he has explained how to go about reading between the parallels of this history and our own. Tolkien has blurred these lines as, while one may question the reality of Middle Earth, the existence of the languages Tolkien created is undeniable. They traverse the barrier of the covers of the book and fill spaces in our primary reality. As long as one allows Tolkien’s languages and names to be what they are, his creations relevant and comparable to other things in the verisimilar reality Tolkien created for them, not to our own, as long as one attends to his languages in this way, then his goal of achieving verisimilitude will be achieved (and no one need fear a curt letter from the author).



  1. Very nice description of the effect that Tolkien's languages and story-telling have, but why "verisimilitude" exactly? What is it about his having "been inside language" that makes his world seem real? This seems to me to be the big question!


  2. I believe that the languages, and the development that they ultimately underwent, were as much meant for helping Tolkien write the story as for the readers to immerse themselves into Middle Earth. We can understand his creative process as beginning with language (especially elvish) and from there the names and places make sense in the course of events. This was certainly not the only way to write such a story, but it was the way a philologist like Tolkien wanted to go about it. The result is that even if one only read LotR, the names, the smattering of history, the poems, and especially the appendices lead the reader to understand that there was more behind the tale than what was on the page. Remember, so much of what Tolkien imagined was never published until after his death and so was inaccessible to all but is inner circle before 1977 or so.

    However, I do wonder how much of this cacophony of language is dealt with practically. How many other examples of difficult communication can you spot? I’m not so sure that Sam does not understand the word “eavesdropping?” Frodo did not seem puzzled by the expression either (he didn’t suddenly speak in Numernorean). Sam was trying to play dumb, to get out of whatever trouble he thought he was in. I don’t think people give Sam enough credit for how shrewd he could be, in a hobbit sort of way.

    Westron, or the common tounge, is Tolkien’s universal translator. Everyone who matters knows it, and knows it well. It is remarkable how little language comes up a barrier to communication. There are a number of cases where language could have been a problem, but seemed to go quite smoothly eg. Eowyn and Faramir, Gimli and Legolas, all of the people at the council of Elrond, Treebeard and the hobbits. Regarding the latter, Treebeard understood the hobbits well enough the just didn’t remember the word “hobbit.” Likewise, the hobbit understand him perfectly well, when he is conveniently speaking Westron or whatever it was they were speaking amongst themselves at the time. The difficulty was that they did not know what each other were rather not knowing what each other were saying. Surely, common languages help as a narrative device. Otherwise, he would need to explain who was interpreting things for whom.

    -Jason A Banks