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On Tolkien's Writing: Myth vs. Language

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On Tolkien's Writing: Myth vs. Language (20.06.14 by Lesley Vos) - Comments

Translated from Greek, “a myth” means “a word”. J. R. R. Tolkien's understanding of the relationship between a word (language) and a myth is based on the statement that a language gives rise to mythology.

Tolkien did not address this issue explicitly and we can reconstruct his ideas only from his fragmentary observations in articles and letters. This situation arises because Tolkien dedicated far less attention to theoretical research than he did to practical language creation and myth making. Moreover, myth making was for him a secondary phenomenon, while language creation was a primary one. Tolkien always emphasized the fact that myths followed languages. He was a linguist fist of all, although today most fans knew him only as a writer.

Tolkien had felt a craving for language creation since his youth: he learned to speak Nevbosh - a language, artificially created by him with a group of fellow schoolboys. Moreover, he added new words to it and corrected its spelling. He created Naffarin later - a language which was influenced by English, Spanish, and Latin. But these were just first steps toward real language creation, because Tolkien believed that if one wanted to create a real and natural language it was necessary to think on myths that would follow it.

J.R.R. Tolkien believed that language (as an instrument of thought) and myth appeared in our world simultaneously. Human consciousness, endowed with the ability to generalize and abstract, perceives not only green grass as one thing, distinguishing it from all other objects, but it also abstracts the quality (green) from the object (grass) without considering this quality an integral part of this object.

The invention of adjectives greatly influenced the development of mythic thinking. It is the strongest means of magic, because every spell can be viewed as a form of some adjective + noun, and as a part of speech in myth's grammar. With such words as light, heavy, gray, yellow, and fast, the human sets free a magical imagination that can make heavy things lighter or even fly, turn gray lead into yellow gold or a stationary rock into a fast stream. Separating the feature of an object from the object itself, we can give to this feature a completely different object or living being! And we will have a deathly green moon, a forest with silver foliage, or sheep covered with a golden fleece.

For Professor Tolkien, language and names were integral elements of a story, and the phonetic and graphic forms of a word gave rise to various artistic images. Language (word) came first, myth (image) followed in its wake.

The process of building the mythological imagery in the words of some artificially created language can be called linguopoetics.

New word-form creation is not as simple as it might first seem; it's difficult to create a totally original word because the inventor constantly remains under the influence of some established linguistic tradition. If we take the most elaborate languages created for the world of Tolkien's Arda, Quenya and Sindarin, we'll see that many words correspond with traditional words of Indo-European languages. Here are some examples:

• Еl (star) <= lat. stella, fr. etoile, alb. hyll;• Amon (hill, mountain) <= lat. mons, eng. mountain, fr. montagne;• Val (power) <= lat. valens (strong), Tocharian wal (king), ancient hindu bala (power);• Ven (maiden) <= ancient eng. swen (woman), eng. wench (girl);• Моr (dark, black) <= eng. mortal, fr. mort (death);• Fea (spirit) <= ancient eng. feorh (soul).

Speaking about derivation, we can see that the main method used by Tolkien is composition. Words with one root are much rarer than words with two or even three roots; even the seemingly simple words consist of two roots:

• Аlqualonde = alqua (swan) + londe (harbor);• Nan-Elmot = nаn (valley) + еl (star) + mot (twilight);• Naugrim = naug (dwarf) + rim (tribe);• Galathilion = galad (tree) + til (shine with white or silver light).

We can find some examples of single-rooted words, but their number is much smaller:

• Teleri <= tel (end, last);• Tauron <= taur (forest);• Falas <= falasse (shore).

All the above examples demonstrate the ways used by Tolkien for the creation of new languages. But some of these newly created words in turn gave rise to subsequent mythic creation. Thus, tauron appeared in a story about Aran Tauron (Lord of Forests); naugrim are encountered in the myth about the Dwarves; mor gave rise to the myth about Moria (a massive underground complex beneath the mountains of Middle-earth); and teleri went into the myth about Sea Elves (the last and largest group of those who took part in the Great Journey).

To conclude, I would like to illustrate how a word influenced some of Tolkien mythic creation. I've already introduced the claim that languages always came first for Tolkien, and various words or names served as the impetus for the creation of myth. But let's take now, as example, the Ents: ent means a giant in Anglo-Saxon. This word came to Tolkien from the following line of The Wanderer (an Anglo-Saxon poem):

Earl enta geveorc idlu stodon.

If we translate this line into modern English, we'll have “the old creation of giants”. Tolkien found the word ent there, and from this he came up with the idea about huge human-trees and their creation by the Valar.

As for Middle-earth, Tolkien used the Middle English word midel-erde (or erthe) or Old English Middangeard – a name of the country populated by people from across the sea (as elves and humans) who had more power and more advanced culture than others.

As you can see, this article includes a few simple examples of words created by Tolkien. Its purpose was not a thorough analysis of the Elvish dictionary, but simply an account of Tolkien's views concerning the relationship between a language and a myth. What we have discovered in that existing words gave rise to some of Tolkien's myths (as we saw in some of the examples above), while his creation of new languages generated the elements of further new myths.

Sources used

1. Tolkien J. R. R. The Silmarillion (2002 edition)2. Tolkien J. R. R. The Letters /Ed. by С. Tolkien and H. Carpenter (1995)3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._R._R._Tolkien4. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings5. www.glyphweb.com/arda/6. tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Dwarves

artwork: Tolkien - The Man and His Myth by Benjamin Schiffer

Author biography

Lesley J. Vos is a passionate writer and private educator who travels a lot and can't imagine her pastime without reading a good book. Lesley writes for Bid4Papers now, and she gets ready to publish her first e-book.

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