Friday, April 25, 2014

Asterisk History

Part of what fascinates me most about Tolkien’s work is the concept of missing history. Actually that’s what fascinates me about history in general and what drew me to a specialty in Antiquity; the vast reaches of our past which are simply lost to us. However, Tolkien’s philological take on the problem and the ripple effect it creates throughout his work, and our reading of it, is something even more crucial to the function and realization of Middle-Earth.
In Shippey’s chapter “Lit and Lang” (Road to Middle Earth) he notes that much of philological work is about logical reconstruction of the transitional steps between known languages/words. Sometimes this can extend to the reconstruction of an entire language of which there remains no extant proof (ie Gothic). In more specific philological contexts reconstructed words are noted by an asterisk. Shippey, though, takes the notion one step further; “they are ‘asterisk-poems’,” he says, “reconstructed like the attributes of Nodens” (p29). What he means is that Tolkien took the whole logical reconstruction principle and applied it on a much larger scale and into a less defined medium. Frodo’s “Man in the Moon” poem (LotR, p158-60) is a perfect example of to what Shippey refers. Tolkien takes a familiar nursery rhyme and, as was pointed out in class, reconstructs what may have been its source in the context of his hypothetical Middle-Earth history. The reflection of “The Ruin” in Legolas’ lament (LotR 284)—where the original poem was itself on the topic of reconstructing historical events by extrapolating backward from extant archaeological remains—is yet another example. Legolas’ reference creates a sort of hypothetical lineage for a poem that we know exists, but in a time which is strictly theoretical, one reconstructed to explain from whence more mysterious remnants come.
The reality is that Tolkien’s entire work is preceded by an asterisk. He’s certainly not shy about saying as much. In Letters, 151 (p186) he makes repeated reference to his conscious effort to reconstruct an “history of a ‘forgotten epoch’” in the same way as the language ‘Gothic’ was reconstructed. For the narrative thread of his legendarium “leads on eventually and inevitably to ordinary History.” It is clear that statements like these are not a far leap from the philological practice identified by Shippey. Rather, the only difference is that they reflect a much grander scale than Shippey’s ‘asterisk poems’. And, of course, we should not be surprised that Tolkien’s love of philology so deeply permeates the very foundations of his project. His constant invocation of his task as the creation of an history for England—one uniquely English, and one which leads only to England (two intertwined, but still distinct elements)—can only be seen in these terms.
This is where his specific attention to names enters the field. I apologize for this, but it is unfortunately necessary. One is led to ask, what’s in a name? Or more specifically, what did Tolkien put in his names? and where did they come from? Well, first, we know from his ‘Rang rant’ they certainly have no origin in the various Germanic, Greek, etc linguistic sources of the primary reality.
 Except when they do. Eärendil, though clearly noted as an exception, is such a prolific character and one whose name is so oft discussed, it is not surprising to find in it a perfect demonstration of Tolkien’s ‘asterisk history’. Eärendil, like many names in Middle-Earth, is a family tree of sorts. Thus Tolkien took, to extend the (very Tolkien-esque) metaphor, a fallen leaf and reconstructed everything from the furthest branch to the deepest root around it. Tolkien had to accommodate it “to the Elvish linguistic situation, at the same time as a place for this person was made in legend” (Letters, 297). So he created the Qenya stem ‘ayar’ meaning ‘sea’ and ‘ndil’ meaning ‘to love’, constructing an artifice beneath the name to properly situate it in an Elvish historical context. Then from these arose numerous other names. To return to the metaphor, he took the leaf, built its branch back to the trunk and then from there into every other branch and leaf of the tree. Just as he took extant Medieval poetic material, reconstructed their sources from those fragments and then many more besides. Thus while Eärendil is singled out as an exception to the way Tolkien created names and language in general, it is actually a very interesting and ironically representative example of his methodology. This is perhaps why it figured so often into his works.
Yet Tolkien’s depth goes further than even his own intention. Not unlike Tolkien’s adoption of “The Ruin”, there is a matryoshka doll aspect to his own work. Eärendil is not the only place of exception. There are other places where things don’t fit, and these provide to the reader the same opportunity “The Ruin”, Earendel, and “The Man in the Moon” provided Tolkien. The secret of Dwarvish names, for example, is something Tolkien leaves unexplained/unexplored. He tells us their C.S. names are from the Voluspa and that they certainly aren’t derived in meaning from the primary reality, but the depth to which Tolkien developed every other name and naming system leads the reader to naturally extrapolate into those few areas where he leaves a system hidden.

Many of our final project ideas are investigations of these half-formed or otherwise hidden ideas. One might characterize these as the trees hidden deeper in Tolkien’s reconstructed forest. This is what brings many readers into his world, the mystery of what he has left lost and thus left for us to develop our own asterisks. This is what fascinates me at least.


  1. Dear H Goldberg,
    Well done. You’ve nicely paired some key themes of the languages discussion with those of previous weeks.
    I think you’re right to wonder about the role of those names and words that clearly do relate back to European sources – though in places Tolkien appeared to deny such borrowings. As, I think, you phrased the puzzle: “Eärendil is not the only place of exception. There are other places where things don’t fit, and these provide to the reader the same opportunity “The Ruin”, Earendel, and “The Man in the Moon” provided Tolkien. The secret of Dwarvish names is something Tolkien leaves unexplained/unexplored.” What do we make these cross-overs? Do you think Tolkien could have hoped readers would fill the gap?
    Or is the use of historical words and names (without their original referents) part of his own subcreative project? It looks like you indicate you might fall on the latter side, but I am curious how that would work.

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