Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nomenclature & Intent

Tolkien is fairly clear that he is not interested in interpretations of his work intended to connect his nomenclature with meaning from existing languages, saying that “Theories or fancies concerning hidden meanings [in nomenclature]... seem to me no more than private amusements, and… they are… valueless for the elucidation or interpretations of my fiction” (380).  It is understandable that readers of Tolkien’s work would try and make these connections to the primary world, but this is antithetical to Tolkien’s project: not to produce something allegorical, but something mythical.  Tolkien further notes that, “This process of invention was/is a private enterprise undertaken to give pleasure to myself by giving expression to my personal linguistic ‘aesthetic’ or taste and its fluctuations” (Letters, 380), suggesting that in addition to creating such memorable names for the sake of adding an additional layer or distinctiveness to Middle-earth, Tolkien created such intricate names for his own linguistic pleasure as well.

However, based on Tolkien’s claim that “[the names] are relevant solely to the fiction with which they are integrated” (380), one cannot draw meanings from names based on “exterior ‘real’ languages” (380) because to do so is to misunderstand Tolkien’s inspiration.  Just like the plot framework of his mythical world, the nomenclature in Middle-earth is part of Tolkien’s discovery of the myth, and like parts of the history of Middle-earth, to isolate part of the work and attempt to connect it to the primary world is to be disingenuous to the massive undertaking of Middle-earth.  The names, along with the language, are part of the appeal of Tolkien’s tales and add an unmistakable quality to its mythic grandeur.  However tempting it is to try and apply any aspect of Tolkien’s work as a lesson for the primary world, such attempted connections are, as previously stated, disingenuous to Tolkien’s main undertaking and often are nonsensical.  For example, Tolkien uses the example of Sauron in his letter, saying that despite “Sauron” holds similarities to words in exterior languages (it is similar to the Greek word for ‘a lizard’), this is purely coincidence, as Tolkien had no desire to connect names to languages outside the world of Middle-earth.

One might even call the names fragments of myth, as names generally tend to survive even when the details of their myths do not.  Including the nomenclature as a part of Tolkien’s languages and, consequently, the larger framework of Middle-earth, is an important part of fleshing out the mythological framework that Tolkien ambitiously created.  Of creating the sequences of sound to use in names, Tolkien says that, “I remember much of this process - the influence of memory of names or words already known, or of ‘echoes’ in the linguistic memory, and few have been unconscious” (383).  ‘Echoes’ sounds remarkably similar to the fragments we have discussed in class, and it is interesting to speculate about Tolkien painstakingly gathering these ‘echoes’, some of them easier to imagine than others, and scattering them throughout his works so that one day they would survive beyond Middle-earth.

Even with the understanding that Tolkien’s names come within languages from Middle-earth, he is still uncomfortable with readers making projections about the greater significance of names in his works, saying that there is no substitute for his extensive knowledge of his languages and the history of Middle-earth.  The necessary resources in order to piece together these meanings, “would be an historical grammar of Quenya and Sindarin and a fairly extensive etymological vocabulary of these languages” (381), which Tolkien was never able to publish.  Taking this into account, Tolkien says that making projections about meaning in nomenclature only obscures finding meaning from the language and myths themselves, with which Tolkien is much more concerned than the meanings of names.

It is interesting that, after reading Tolkien’s rebuttals to the arguments some fans have made connecting the names of characters in Middle-earth to meanings coming from exterior languages, so many of Tolkien’s names have very straightforward meanings in Tolkien’s languages.  For example, Legolas means Greenleaf, and Nazgul means ‘Ring-wraith’ (382).  Trying to draw connections to the primary world based on names that have such clear meanings in Tolkien’s languages ultimately is a dull echo of the connections that Tolkien actually wants the reader to make: using the nomenclature as another entry point into Middle-earth, to gather more information about its languages as well as its inhabitants.

This ultimately speaks to a larger theme in the class: that Tolkien’s works are not meant to be allegorical, and are not meant to produce direct connections to the primary world.  The reader is meant to interact with the story on Tolkien’s terms: by being drawn into this world and learning from it as it is presented, without having to force direct connections to the primary world.  Part of understanding Tolkien’s nomenclature involves accepting that making these connections is fruitless, and the wonder from Tolkien’s work comes from the way Tolkien is able to utilize so many different literary tactics to create such a vibrant mythical framework.


1 comment:

  1. Good overview of the question that we addressed in class about why Tolkien was so upset with Mr. Rang for his "source hunting." I would have liked to hear more about the more specific problems we raised about the way Tolkien understood how names and language work. RLFB