Friday, April 7, 2017

Language and Legends

 According to his own descriptions, Tolkien’s writing process seems to have been inextricably linked to language; indeed, it seems quite clear that language was a pivotal stepping stone that allowed Tolkien’s initial forays into Middle-Earth. In a letter, Tolkien writes that “legends depend on the language to which they belong; but a living language depends . . . on the legends which it conveys by tradition” (Letters 231). Tolkien seems to suggest that languages depend on the existence of stories told in those languages for life and, vice versa, that legends somehow exist as a product of a particular language. In what sense did Tolkien mean this suggestion? How did Tolkien conceive of the relationship between legends and language?

Tolkien’s experience of language seems to have been both sensory and emotional. He cites the unique “flavour” of different languages, comparing Finish to a “complete wine-cellar” filled with wine of a “flavour never tasted before” (Tolkien, Letters 214). Tolkien, thus, ascribed sensory experiences to language beyond merely the meaning of words, taking what he calls “acute aesthetic pleasure” in language “for its own sake” (Letters 213). At the same time, his letters indicate that he also was attracted to particular languages for personal reasons, gravitating toward those languages to which he could make some sort of connection. Gothic, he writes, was the first time he had “[studied] a language out of mere love” (Letters 213), Welsh he associates with sights from his childhood, and Spanish he ties to a guardian. His varied “linguistic tastes” were thus a product of sensory enjoyment and a sense of underlying personal significance or connection. Critically, Tolkien seems to have considered this connection a “test of ancestry” (Letters 214) in some sense, conceiving of his linguistic tastes as a reflection of an ancestral past.

Tolkien’s association of language with both sensory experience and an ancient or ancestral past provides a framework in which to understand the power he gives language when describing his writing process. In The Lost Road, Tolkien’s character Alboin learns particular languages because he likes their “flavour,” which was related to “the atmosphere of the legends and myths told in those languages” (Lost Road 42-43). A language’s flavor—the sensory experience it provides to a listener—thus generates an atmosphere in which legends exist.

What is most interesting about Tolkien’s claim that language can create an atmosphere for legend is a possible resultant conclusion: that language can directly give rise to legend in some way. Evidence for a belief in this concept can be found expressed at least by Tolkien’s character Alboin in The Lost Road. Upon first coming upon the name Númenor, Alboin reflects that “[he] could think of a long story about Númenor” (Tolkien, Lost Road 42); the name seems to have preceded knowledge of the legend itself. To Tolkien’s character, names and languages not only precede legends, but words in and of themselves can hint at some underlying story or mythical reality. In a language “[y]ou get echoes coming through,” Alboin tells his father, “as if something was peeping through from deep under the surface” (Tolkien, Lost Road 42). Far from simply invoking a particular atmosphere, Tolkien’s character clearly suggests that particular legends or truths are inherent in languages themselves, waiting to be revealed.

Whether Tolkien himself took this attitude is less clear. He seems to have believed that he was not truly inventing when writing; he writes that when working on The Lord of the Rings he simply “[waited] till [he seemed] to know what really happened” (Tolkien, Letters 231). This quote seems to suggest that he believed his stories stemmed from an external source. “In any case,” Tolkien writes in a separate letter, “if you want to write a tale of this sort you must consult your roots” and “set [your] heart and the action of [your] tale in an imaginary world of that air” (Letters 212). Tolkien, thus, seems to have had some idea at least that his stories were based in an ancestral root outside of his imagination that, he writes in the same letter, “his heart may remember, even if he has been cut off from all oral tradition” (Letters 212). Tolkien felt as if his stories were rooted in an ancient, ancestral culture of a particular “air” which, his other writing seems to make clear, was produced or communicated to him at least in part by language.

To say, however, that Tolkien felt that languages had inevitably revealed his stories as a byproduct of the atmosphere or connection with the past they produced would, I feel, be an exaggeration. There are clear instances in Tolkien’s letters that indicate the influence of Tolkien’s experiences on the legends he produced to fit his invented languages and his linguistic tastes. For example, Tolkien writes that “[he] is a Christian (which can be deduced from [his] stories” for “[f]ar greater things may colour the mind in dealings with the lesser things of a fairy story” (Letters 288). Tolkien admits that his Christianity impacted how he wrote his stories; far from simply being a product of his languages themselves and their atmospheres, his work resulted from a blending of sensory or emotional impressions from his languages and specific ideas or experiences of his own. Repeatedly in his letters, Tolkien mentions dreaming of a great wave as in the legend of Atlantis. Whether one chooses to believe that Tolkien took his recurring dream at face value or actually believed he was observing some ancient event, Tolkien’s dream clearly made its way into his work as the fall of Númenor, independent of any atmosphere his languages might have created. Thus, Tolkien’s linguistic tastes and his invented languages are not entirely responsible for the types of stories he produced; Tolkien’s own ideas and experiences found their way into his legends.

Few readers of Tolkien’s work would deny that the languages he invented for the peoples of Middle Earth vary widely in their tones and structure, differences that are reflected in the great chasm between, for example, Elven and Dwarven culture; that chasm in turn leads to contrasts between the stories that are told in those languages. Tolkien’s belief seems to have been not only that his invented languages helped lead to those stories in a causal way by creating an atmosphere that made particular stories appropriate but that, in addition, the Earthly languages he favored reflected a cultural atmosphere of his own that helped generate his legendarium as a whole. Languages, Tolkien felt, helped him access the ancient cultural hearts of particular peoples in a way that allowed him to tell their legends, bringing those languages to life in the process. That said, it cannot be denied that other concerns also influenced how Tolkien told his legends. His own experiences impacted not only the languages to which he himself was attracted but specific plot points of his works.


Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflen, 2000, New York.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Random House Publishing Group, 1987, New York.

1 comment:

  1. I sense a struggle in your own thinking between what Tolkien says about his feeling for languages and his admission that there were things in his own experience that colored his stories. Perhaps there is a clue in the way in which he talks about both language and his experience in such sensory terms ("flavor," "color")? Is he telling us something about the creative process more generally or just his own? RLFB