Friday, April 25, 2014

Dream Tongue

To begin as Tolkien began with his mythology, by following a path laid out by beauty, one thing from class discussion that I found beautiful was the idea that things don't need names, that the names we assign to things fail to figure out, fail to grasp the thing named.  The poem "Words" goes "The world does not need words…one words transforms it into something less or other…"  We mock things by attempting to perfectly understand them through words.  Our pathetic attempts to explain things merely conceal the things we talk about.  A single word betrays what we are talking about.  

Names are a pretty big deal in the Lord of the Rings, each name has some meaning, kind of reminiscent to me of Native American names in our world.  In the myth, Legolas means "greenleaf", Nazgul means "Ring-wraith", et al.  And names for a single person can be manifold.  Gandalf was Olorin, Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim…Each name means something separate, but each alone and all together fail to completely express Gandalf's actual personality.  

Names and the meaning of names and the addition of names and the growing of names express the existence of a person in history and in community.  They describe aspects of the person, commemorate their deeds (Thorin Oakenshield, for when in battle he used an oakenshield!), expressing what a community knows of a person, and shaping how that community relates to that person.  All the different names of Gandalf are given to him by different peoples, for each has their own experience of him, and thus a different knowledge of him.

Names can be handed down, like the ancestral line of people whose names translate as Elf-friend or Bliss-friend, as it is told in The Lost Road.  And in the handing down of the name it happens in some way that the personality is handed down as well…Tuor gave to his son both the name Earendil and the longing for the sea that made him give him that name.  The dwarves say that Durin, the father of their race, has actually reappeared again and again throughout history.  In his case names provide a living remembrance of something that belongs to a people, the ancient father Durin, showing that one consequence of people receiving names is that their belonging to a community is expressed.  

So while we see that Tolkien made things so that names are given to people and things that fit them and are related to the stories and legends that they are part of, at the same time, things don't need names and can't be perfectly named.  But it is through these phrases and names, that Tolkien creates his world, letting his creative energy flow through the name out into the context that created it, providing us with the very linguistic history of the word, accounting for prefix, suffix, alteration of consonant groups, as well as the history of the people that would speak such a language, utter such sounds, speak in such meter and rhythm (as explained in Appendix F)  The process of "going back" to these people is sort of depicted in the Notion Club Papers. 

In the Notion Club Papers, broken phrases of ancient, thought to be unreal, tongues burst out of Lowdham and another.  Lowdham spends much time telling them of how bits of two tongues have visited him in dreams, and that from these bits he has constructed a fuller language.  Although it seems purely invented, it seems to Lowdham that it must be real in some sense, perhaps extremely ancient and now forgotten, only remembered through dreams.  Especially looking at the quotation: 

"Eala Earendel engla beorhtost
         ofer midangeard monnum sended!"

"Hail Earendil, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men!"  The phrase is moving, but he attributes its attraction to something deeper than itself, to some uncoscious association, formed due to something ancient sitting in his bones.  Some ancient language and ancient context gives splendour to the name, Earendil, that this phrase alone cannot explain.  Just from the aesthetic experience of this word, Lowdham has a sense of what context, what grand context, the word must belong to.  The living memory of that context breaks into his being as water through a barrier when later in the passage, Lowdham lives the rainstorm over Oxford as if it were the drowning of Atlantis.  

In a parallel manner, Tolkien recalls that he (explain here how although the name earendil is here in a christian poem, Tolkien dreamed a significance for the very sound of the name…thinking that a name of such sound must belong to the grandly significant context that he creates for it…)   In letter 297, Tolkien describes how pleased he was by the sound of this Anglo-Saxon word, Earendil, which he took to refer to a star, the morning star, what we now call Venus.  So, he adopted Earendil into mythology as a man who sailed his ship into the heavens become a star and sign of hope to men.  But as he notes, he first had to adopt the word into an elven linguistic context, showing how it arose from the inner principles of the ancient world which he sub-created.  Tolkien was convinced that the different elements of modern reality, handed down to us from ancient times, shaping our consciousness, especially language, provide us with windows back into potential histories of the world, almost as good as the real history of the world, if not better.  



  1. I really enjoyed your discussion in the first few paragraphs, talking about how things really don’t need names and cannot be perfectly named. However, I am not entirely convinced that we are mocking things and shielding their true meaning when we try to attach names, as that seems like a rather cynical view to take. Rather, I think that names given to things help us to try and understand them to the fullest extent that we possibly can. Language is limited in its ability to describe things in a single word, but there is enough in a word to give us a sense of what the thing is. I do not see how a single word can betray what we are talking about, perhaps if an example was provided I could see your point better. I agree that things cannot really be perfectly named, as there is no doubt any name would miss something. However I believe that we can attach names to things and that these names will point us in the right direction of understanding. Maybe we cannot perfectly name them, but we can try to get really darn close, and I do not think there is anything mocking in doing so.

    That sounds kinda messy, but in short I don't think that names are inherently degrading to a thing and our understanding of a thing.

    Kevin P.

  2. I agree with Kevin on this point: to me, names have always been things of affection. If you name something, you are investing time, energy, and love into forming a concrete conception of the thing in your mind. It represents an imperfect attempt to address a concept or state of being that is beyond us. We do not call a child's artwork mocking because it is imperfect. The child is trying to present its understanding of the world in a medium that it does not have complete mastery over. We ourselves do not have complete mastery of language or total understanding of the nature of all things, but we give them names in order to address the aspects of them that we do understand.

    I think mockery comes into the equation when we think that our names are the only names that can or will ever be, but I think the act of naming itself is not inherently spiteful. It can be perverted, as when you attach a name to something which you know is not 'true' to its nature, but this is an aberration, not the baseline of the concept of naming.

  3. LRB III,

    I think you’re on to something in that, from one vantage point, there’s a huge (some would say unbridgeable) gap between language and the reality it attempts to describe. I don’t think Tolkien, however, would have fallen into this camp. For him, as you describe, names are not merely descriptors but betoken important aspects of their bearers (as with the different epithets given to Aragorn and Gandalf) or may simply be traditional or not particularly charged with meaning (as I think we’re meant to see many of the hobbit names).

    You’ve good a good job of recounting and synthesizing the reading and discussion. Thanks!

    Bill the Heliotrope