Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Of Tongues and Trees

Thinking back to my comments in class about the relationship between Tolkien’s tree of languages and the distancing process from the Valar’s original vision, I was too hasty (no reference to Treebeard’s frequent advice intended) to jump on the idea of potential connection between the Tower of Babel story and the Sundering of the Elves as reflected through the languages they used. After all, Tolkien—and his elves, too—are first and foremost a lover of words, and the divisions in tongues on Middle Earth very much reflect the love of naming things, words, the sound and nuances of language on Tolkien’s part as well as the Elves’. While the linguistic division in Middle Earth does in part plays into the level of closeness to Eruvatar’s will (the emergence of Quenya and Sindarin among elves who had and had not made it to Valinor, respectively, coming to mind), it’s nonetheless a reflection of a far more organic process—much like the image of a living, growing tree that Tolkien calls upon with the name “the Tree of Tongues.”

When I first read The Lord of the Rings, and eventually, The Silmarillion, one of the first things that endeared me to the books is the attention and care Tolkien paid to the languages in his lengendarium, not only in his extensive work on the Elven languages but also the snippets and comments about the dwarves’ use of a modified cirth system (Angerthas Moria and the mode of Erebor) or the hint that English is merely a substitute for the ancient and foreign tongue of Westron that suggest a much wider canvas of languages that form a internally consistent reality in his secondary reality—or should we say, alternative history to our primary reality. Reading his body of works, I was made very aware of the fact that Tolkien was, first and foremost, a philologist. In his stories, languages carry the weight of history and legends. While Tolkien’s languages doesn’t invoke powers of incantation in and of themselves like in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, utterances of Eärendil’s name and hymns to Varda (A Elbereth Gilthoniel) are nonetheless not spoken lightly. It’s true that the passages in English themselves represent the “lost” legend of “the Great Years” at the end of the Third Age through the eyes of Frodo and Sam, the “little people” with their down-to-earth ways and unornamented language, and it was “originally written” in Westron, so one can’t exactly make a case for instances of the Elven Tongues—or any other languages particular to Middle Earth—as something completely different in nature and intent from the English/Westron passages. For the reader (namely myself, since I can’t speak for anyone else), however, the “untraslated” names (the Galadriels and Caradhrases, as opposed to the “Englished” Shires and such) and actual quotes of Quenya and Sindarin, when invoked, suggest a deeper layer of history and spiritual reality tracing back all the way through the events of The Silmarillion to the very beginning, the.

Which brings up back to the topic of the Tree of Tongues with Valarin at its roots. As one of my classmates mentioned a few posts down, regardless of whether the branching-off of languages is considered a gradual distancing from Ilúvatar’s original in-universe, it’s not Tolkien’s intention to create a “perfect language,” so to speak. If he did, the Tolkienian languages enthusiasts around the world wouldn’t exactly be geeking out over Quenya and Sindarin, and would’ve been pouring over Valarin instead. But, even with that in mind, I couldn’t help but be struck by the first branch springing from the Valarin original, which was that of Melko, “the tongues of the Orqui (Goblins) & other evil things,” to quote the comments on the Tree of Tongues. Also, the division between different Elven Tongues closely resembles the Sundering of the Elven Kindreds, and one can easily trace the divisions between the Elf clans described in The Silmarillion through the branches of the Tree of Tongues. But as my mind ventures again into the realms of seeking connection between the emergence of different languages on Arda and an underlying spiritual/religious source, I’m reminded of Tolkien’s quote of Sæmundsson in English and Welsh:

“Languages are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own.” (Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” 166)

With that theory in mind, it becomes apparent that even putting aside Tolkien’s love of words and creating words, the variety of different tongues in Middle Earth is still absolutely essential because with such a multitude of Peoples that inhabit the land, it’s simply counterintuitive for them to all speak one unifying language of Valarin, or at least even Westron for all the Atani. The diversity of language seems a point of celebration for Tolkien, not one of lamentation, despite all the sorrow and weight of history that the languages themselves carry for their speakers.

To reconcile the celebratory tone toward diversity and any potential underlying spiritual connotations behind the branches on the Tree of Tongues, the languages of Middle Earth, especially the Elven Tongues, do in part reflect a spiritual reality on the part of the speaker. In the case of the Elves, for example, Quenya and Sindarin derive from those who have seen the light of the Two Trees of Aman and those who have remained in Beleriand, respectively. And of course, the Orcs’ lack of coherent language, more or less, speaks volumes toward their depravity. The very act of language-making and creating literature and legends in those languages, however, represents a process of sub-creating that rather resembled the voices of the Ainur in Ainulindalë responding to “the mighty theme” that Ilúvatar unfolds and “fashion[ing] the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music” (The Silmarillion, 3-4)—an act that praises God/Ilúvatar through bringing to life something harmonious to Ilúvatar’s original intention. Metaphorically speaking, a branch is no less beautiful just because it’s farther from the roots; what matters is that the core isn’t rotten like that of Melkor. 



  1. You make a very good point here about the relationship between language and peoples, language and spirituality. I would have liked to hear more about how the Tree of Tongues differs from the Tower of Babel, particularly what the different metaphors imply!


  2. I, too, think the point about the relationship between language and spirituality is a good one. Yet in my mind it also opens the door to an interesting kind of anxiety about language, which Dana Gioia captures in the poem we received in class. Gioia argues that, although language helps us make sense of the world around us, the world (and everything in it) is still what it is, regardless of whether it’s named. Yet the use of language invites a peculiar risk: it seems that our names for things might somehow diminish them (or our understanding of them), just like Gioia says the word “kiss” betrays the essence of the act it hopes to describe. This is the result of a kind of mismatch between the word and the thing, where the word fails to grasp the power or grandeur of what it signifies. I think a fine example is Treebeard’s consternation at the word “hill.” An Augustinian sort of response to this problem might advise that the best sign (or word, name, etc.) is that which helps us to engage with the signified (the thing it describes) in such a way that we glimpse in it the glory of its Creator.

    I think you are right to liken the making of language to Tolkien’s notion of sub-creation. But Tolkien reminds us that, since all sub-creation is produced by imperfect beings, it itself is imperfect. To return to Gioia’s anxiety, how might we make sense—in spiritual and effective terms—of the use of our inevitably imperfect descriptors to make contact with the divine?


  3. This is an important question: to what extent does the Tree of Tongues look like the Tower of Babel? To a degree, it’s a question of perspective, a question of whether the cup is half-full or half-empty. For my own part, I don’t think we’re called to adjudicate on this definitively. Many myths record tensions and instabilities in areas where rational, discursive commentary is fruitless. A myth is not an argument. Do we have such a thing here? There may be something bittersweet about linguistic branches forming from Valarin, as it recognizes both a primal unity and a wondrously complex diversity. Tolkien informs us that there are compromises of language in his transmission, that expressions in one language are impossible in another. Thus imperfection. I think you’re right about Orcs. They represent one extreme, where incoherence seems to bespeak moral degeneration. But we also feel Tolkien’s fascination, and his characters’ fascination, with expression. Thus perfection. But to make linguistic perfection a retrospective reality would lead to verbal inaction as much as would resignation at imperfection. Tolkien was also being true to a historical reality, the multiplication of language that has at least some connection to peoples. He knew there could be no historical stasis on this point. Is a language ever still so long that it can be reduced to value judgment? I do believe you’re right: the Tower of Babel, while a parallel image, may be accounting for a different experience altogether. I think Tolkien understood that languages are expansive and maximal, an aspect of creation (or subcreation as you point out) that mirrors something infinite in the human person. Words may one of the primary ways of unlocking this infinite.

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  5. In response to J.R.'s comment, I think you raised an interesting question in regards to the imperfection of language. I don't think there are easy answers because after all, like you point out, our subcreations are just that--not the original creation of Iluvatar--and imperfect because we are imperfect. Nonetheless, I think it's more important to look at the intent behind the subcreation, because the objective here is to share in the joy of the created world and participate in the Story/Song of Iluvatar/the Creator through language and subcreating. Going back to Aulë and him creating the dwarfs, what separated his deed from that of Melkor's is that his actions were driven by a desire to create (his name, which means "invention" in Quenya, isn't just a coincidence) and and a longing for creatures in Arda to share in the beauty of the world. I think the anxiety that our linguistic signifier for a particular thing of creation does not capture the the full power and beauty of "the thing itself," or that it might even diminish it is very real, but at the same time, the potential for language to be a pathway to the infinite as well as something imperfect that can diminish the thing it described is just something else that alerts us to the fact that we live in a fallen world.
    In response to Professor Fulton's desire for me to elaborate more on the comparison between the different metaphors in the Tree of Tongues and the Tower of Babel:
    I think these two metaphors are interesting to look at in comparison to each other because in a way, they can be thought of as exact opposites. If we think of Valarin as the "root" of the tree, the subsequent languages grow and branch out in an upward direction towards the sky (which is often associated with the divine because people usually think of God/Heaven/the-divine-sphere-of-choice as being above our usual sphere of existence). On the other hand, in the Tower of Babel story, the people are scatted to different corners of the Earth from the tower, and the relevant verses in the King James version make reference to God descending to confound the language of the people ("let us go down, …" Genesis 11:8). As a result, while the Tower of Babel is a vertical structure just like the Tree of Tongues, the part of the story that's directly relevant to the emergence of different languages resembles a top-down movement. Also, in terms of progression, the Tree of Tongues, being a tree, grows and branches out in natural time, whereas in the Tower of Babel, the scattering of people and division of languages seem to occupy a single moment within the timeline of the story. Granted, the Biblical verses did not claim that it happened in an instant, but the division nonetheless emerges all at once as the consequence of one misdemeanor and didn't come about naturally. Also, on a slightly more spiritual level, the imagery of a tree as a metaphor for languages immediately recall the two trees of Valinor, so one can draw a positive connection between languages and the divine from there. In the Tower of Babel story, however, the emergence of different languages can be thought of as the punishment for an indiscretion on the part of men. Therefore, it's both a separation on a man-to-man, group-to-group level and another wedge in the man-to-God relationship.
    (reposed because I forgot to sign with my initials)