Friday, April 18, 2014

Tolkien's Mastery of Words

I found the reading for class very eye opening because it finally helped me see exactly how much Tolkien’s love of philology made his writing so powerful. Before I had simply thought that he had created his own languages and wrote stories inspired by the names and places he created. But now I understand that the very fabric of the story itself is in the magic of his words.  In reference to the “Council of Elrond” chapter, T.A. Shippey in Author of the Century explains that “People draw information not only from what is said, but from how it is said. The continuous variations of language within this complex chapter tell us almost subliminally how reliable characters are…what kind of person they are” (Shippey 76). Through creating different patterns of speech for characters of different backgrounds and races, not only does Tolkien add interesting texture to the story, but he adds important insight into who the characters are.

For example, in Appendix F of the Lord of the Rings Tolkien explains that Hobbit-Speech does not have the ‘deferential’ form the men of Gondor use in their version of the Westron tongue (The Lord of the Rings 1107). Because Pippen does not know this when he arrives at Gondor, he addresses everyone in the ‘familiar’, including the Steward, Lord Denethor. The people of Gondor refer to him as the ‘Prince of the Halflings’ (750) because in their culture anyone who would speak to Lord Denethor in the ‘familiar’ must be of equal rank to him (1107). This reveals much about both the culture of Hobbits and Gondor people, in addition to the present atmosphere in Gondor and about Pippen himself. The obvious is that such a social faux collaborates the fact that Pippen is young, not well traveled, and very far from home.  The second fact is that the hobbits are a more laid back race—while they do have people with ranks and social standings (for example the Old Took, the Mayor, the servant/master dynamics between Sam and Frodo) they still are not incredibly stratified by hierarch culture (Old Gaffer lives on the same street as the wealthy Bilbo Baggins). Finally, someone who is viewed the Steward’s equal being called “Princeling” implies that the Steward has been essentially elevated fully to the status of royalty. This foreshadows he will not be too happy with the return of the king, as he no longer receives the treatment appropriate to a humble servant holding down the fort until his master arrives.
Because Tolkien understands the nuances of languages so well he can make such statements with speech alone, sometimes he intentionally makes grammatical spelling mistakes. He admits that in trying to demonstrate Pippen’s adjustments to this new world of Man, “in one or two places an attempt has been made to hint at these distinctions by an inconsistent use of thou” (1107). This reminds me of the time an old mentor of mine in high school showed me a painting with just a few brush strokes seemingly haphazardly thrown onto paper and explained the reason it was genius was that the artist in question had mastered every other form and then had specifically chosen to paint in such  a way.  In like fashion, Tolkien is such a master of language he can speak completely like an uneducated commoner, and what is amazing about this is that means what he does so it is solely by choice in order to convey a specific message across or reveal something about a character. Critics thought he could not use language correctly because at time he intentionally does not use language correctly. 
Tolkien’s mastery of language demonstrates an understanding about Ursula LeGuin’s complaints in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” on why it does not (ordinarily) work to have “Poughkeepsie” speech in heroic fantasy works. Poughkeepsie speech is where an author takes mundane, common speech and poorly inserts it into the mouths of epic heroes of Elfland. LeGuin says the problem with this is that

Speech expresses character… When I hear a man say, ‘I could have told you that at Cardosa,’ or at Poughkeepsie, or wherever, I think I know something about that man. He is the kind who says, ‘I told you so.’ Nobody who says, ‘I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero. The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sing or symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks (LeGuin 83)
When writers insert plain modern Poughkeepsie talk into a fantasy world, it disrupts the flow of the story because the average modern person is not an Elf Lord. Most of our politicians today are viewed as manipulative and often dishonest, not the type of person who could be crowned a powerful king of yesterday.
And yet, a true master of writing could intentionally use this Poughkeepsie language to make such a point about a man in his writing. Back to Shippey’s discussion on the “Council of Elrond”,
The most ominous speaker in the whole chapter is also the most modernistic, and in a way the most familiar. It is Saruman, the wizard… the idea of anyone, however wise, persuading Sauron, would sound simply silly if it were said in so many words. No sillier, though, than the repeated conviction of many British intellectuals before and after this time that they could somehow get along with Stalin, or with Hitler. Saruman, indeed, talks exactly like too many politicians. It is impossible to work out exactly what he means because of the abstract nature of his speech… The end justifies the means, in other words, a sentiment that twentieth century has learned to be wary of (Shippey 75-76).
Saruman’s words threaten not only the characters in the story, but threaten the very fabric of the story by bringing it close to the fantasy tourism that breaks the escape into Elfland and brings the reader back to the world they live in, at the time Tolkien is writing, War World II. Ordinarily this would be bad because “the Poughkeepsie style of fantasy is also written in plain and apparently direct prose…  It is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat… Its sensory cues… the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic” (Le Guin 89). However, in this case its use is genius because by Tolkien writing in this flatness he can reveal Saruman’s evil and fakeness.
This idea helps me see why we had the Mimesis reading, because read out of context, Auerbach’s words could be said to be about Tolkien. The LOTR work “speaks very simply, as if to children, on the other hand it contains secrets and riddles which are revealed to very few; but even these passages are not written in a pretentious and erudite style, so that they can be understood only by the highly educated, proud in their knowledge, they can be understood by all who are humble and filled with faith” (Auerbach 154). To a person who does not have faith in Tolkien’s mastery of language, parts of his writing could appear as the work of a novice. But believing that he knows what he is doing, and asking why he chooses to write like a novice at point, reveals important nuances about the characters and the story.
 -Emily Berez 


  1. I appreciate how much a language can represent a culture. It is neat that the hobbit language uses a more familiar address towards people regardless of class, contrasting with the language of Gondor men as you noted. The Hobbit culture is a rather amorous, touchy-feely, and familial one. Perhaps Tolkien had a message here; as hobbits are main players in the story of The Lord of the Rings, their culture is also very prominent. Perhaps this highlight family or societal ideals that Tolkien revered.
    Curiously, I did not get the impression of a master-servant relationship between Frodo and Sam as you did. Rather, I saw Sam as simply incredibly loyal. Rather than having the ‘status’ of servant, he takes the role and demeanor of a servant. Yet in many ways, Frodo relies on Sam in ways that one would not expect a master to rely on a servant. While a master may rely on a servant for assistance, such reliance usually does not demonstrate vulnerability. Throughout their journey, Frodo seems to rely on Sam most when he is incredibly vulnerable (such as when he needs a keeping an eye on Gollum, requires assistance in climbing Mount Doom, and needs rescuing from the tower of Cirith Ungol). Although they can be seen as a master and servant in some regards, to me they appear more as comrades. In a way, the hobbit language highlights a deep sense of comradery that hobbits feel towards their fellow peers.

  2. You draw attention to Shippey’s characterization of Saruman, and mention his “evil and fakeness,” connecting it to the thin veneer of fantastical setting that some writers place upon Poughkeepsie in an attempt to write “relevant fantasy.” I definitely think this an interesting comparison, but I wonder whether or not it really threatens to bring the story into the realm of fantasy tourism. As we know, Tolkien was committed to providing a mythological background for England, complete with expanded versions of present-day artifacts. In fact, I wonder if the speech of Saruman is not a sort of artifact in itself. It seems possible to me that his ability to magically manipulate language and persuade his listeners that the Enemy into a partner who must be appeased might have been preserved and passed down through the ages in many forms, emerging later in politicians with no magic skills except good speechwriters. Indeed, many of Saruman’s other innovations also appear in the modern world, including many mechanized gadgets, so it may not be so much of a stretch to include his speech in this group of artifacts. In short, I am unsure if Saruman’s “modern” style threatens the magic of the story, or rather deepens its connection to the land it is intended to be linked with.


  3. Emily,

    Thanks for the post. It’s well argued, uses the readings well, and expresses well some considered opinions. Saruman’s diction is a topic worth looking into—or incorporating into a project.

    Like Tolkien’s stated distaste for allegory—accompanied by any number of tales that look very allegoric (if not schematically so)—I think we can regard the modernity of Saruman’s use of language to be one of those ties between the Perilous Realm and the very perilous realm Tolkien lived in (the “low, dishonest decade,” as Auden said, of the 1930s). Or a continuity between the Third and Fourth Age, if you will.

    If Saruman was sort of a sub-villain of the Third Age, as Sauron was of the First, as Morgoth’s lieutenant, emerging as the primary threat in the Second and Third Ages, perhaps Tolkien is foreshadowing the evils of the Fourth Age in which intellectuals in towers (ivory or otherwise) and politicians use the art of language to craft seductive narratives to corrupt people into arrogating their will and unlimited political power to them.

    A tip, though, if you look into it, invest in earplugs…

    Bill the Heliotrope