Tag Archives: Literary romanticism

Fantasy and languages: Tolkien was a sort of cool guy

I think it’s time to write about fantasy and languages again. Seeing as I am very preoccupied with both linguistics and that I read lots of fantasy literature, I end up having a lot of thoughts about these things which I do not process in any kind of coherent or sane way. Until now…

What is very interesting about the fantasy genre, is that the grand work which is often thought of as the foundation of modern fantasy was written by a gentleman who was a philologist and a linguist (they didn’t distinguish all that much, back in his day.). I am, of course, speaking about the late professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and his epic (in the right sense of the word!) trilogy “The Lord of the Rings”.

Well, actually, I am way more fascinated with the world he created than the actual stories he wrote, even though they are really great. This is because, to me, the stories which make up fantasy novels, novellas etc. are often windows into a world I would like to explore, just as much as they are interesting stories. (I am very often more interested in the grand scheme of things, rather than the fate of individual characters.) This means that I am very critical, probably too critical, when it comes to the depiction of the worlds where these “magical adventures” unfold. I also loooove books detailing background and history in the worlds I read about. And prequel novels. *drool*

I am a linguist, as you, the Enlightened Reader, might know. What’s more, I have especially studied historical linguistics, and I have been very interested in history, (theoretical) archaeology and political science for most of my life. Thus, it might be understood, that I can be hard to please. There are still fantasy writers whose worlds and stories please me immensely, and I thought I was going to write a little about them. I will also write about the less pleasing aspects of their writing, so be not afraid. This is not meant to be a praise-fest.

While writing this, I realize that I have so many thoughts on each of these authors and their worlds (and the languages in them!), that I might have to make this into a series of blog posts, rather than one enormously long one. At the present, I am hoping to write something about Tolkien, George Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire), Robert Jordan (the Wheel of Time), Scott Lynch (the Gentleman Bastard Sequence) and Steven Erikson (the Malazan Book of the Fallen). I will also mention C. S. Lewis (the Chronicles of Narnia) briefly in this blog entry, but to me, he does not warrant much more discussion; fantasy of Lewis’ kind is bordering more on (modern) fairy tales, to my mind, rather than what I see as proper fantasy literature (but this view may, at least partly, stem from that I have not read Lewis as extensively as many other authors. If you COMPLETELY disagree about Lewis and his ilk, please write a coherent, well thought out commentary/criticism of my views rather than rage-fuelled flaming 😉 ).

The rest of this entry will concern itself with Tolkien, then, in an effort to keep it short (short, haha!):

First of all, Tolkien’s linguistic realism is astonishing, and that, of course, is extremely attractive to me. He has done ground work with the languages (and cultures) of his world that is so extensive that I’ll bet all of it will never come to light, even though Tolkien-fandom is massively huge. As far as I know, every single personal name and place name has a meticulously thought out etymology and fits into a greater language history (just like in our world), that dates back to the very beginning of speech in Tolkien’s world (the awakening of the Elves, for those who are interested).

There are examples galore: Boromir, for instance, is a name of Elven origin, comprised of the two elements Boro- and -mir. (I don’t remember the meaning, but I’m quite certain one of the elements mean ‘shine’). In a touch of linguistic realism, Tolkien has even made it so that each of these elements come from a different Elven language, Quenya and Sindarin, seeing as these were “learned” languages already when someone was named “Boromir” for the first time (this mirrors the position of Greek and Latin as learned languages in mediaeval Europe). Western society sometimes uses Greek and Latin roots when making new words. Television is an excellent example, where tele- comes from Greek and has a meaning in the vicinity of ‘(from) afar’, whereas -vision ultimately comes from the Latin root that means ‘to see’. A bastard hybrid of a word, one might say (but it’s really cool!). A name like Aragorn, on the other hand, while also being of Elven origin, is purely Sindarin, and is also comprised of two elements.

Place names are equally thought through. I will use some easily accesible examples: Gondor is Sindarin, and means something like “Stone Country/Land”, because at least parts of Gondor are rocky and has a lot of mountains and hills (cf. the beacons of Gondor, if you want an image that is prominent in the story of the books, AND the movies of Peter Jackson). You have the same element -dor, in “Mordor”, which supposedly means “Black/dark Country/Land”, and additionally “Shadow Land” in Quenya (this is because Quenya and Sindarin, by Tolkien’s devicing, ultimately come from the same source language, in the exact same way as, say, English and Italian, and sometimes in language history, some forms are quite constant, even through thousands of years of change.). These names are quite simply made up, but believe me, this is the little snowflake on the tip of the iceberg. Tolkien was an accomplished philologist and an Oxford professor. This was child’s play for him (as it is for most linguists with a grasp of morphology).

And it doesn’t stop at the Elven languages, when it comes to the pervasiveness of Tolkien’s linguistic realism. There are so many things to write about. I always thought it was cool that Tolkien lets the Rohirrim speak Anglo-Saxon. This isn’t because he envisioned these people actually speaking Anglo-Saxon in his world. Oh, no. It is because the Common Tongue of (western) Middle-Earth is “translated” into English by Tolkien, in order for us to be able to read his books. At least that was how he envisioned it. The Common Tongue is the native language of the Dúnedain from Númenor, who founded the two kingdoms Gondor and Arnor. The language of the Rohirrim is then, similarly, rendered as Anglo-Saxon, because this would mirror the relationship between the language of the Rohirrim and the language of the Dúnedain that migrated back to Middle-Earth after hundreds of years living away in the West. They are clearly related, yet separated by language development. (Side note: Anglo-Saxon is usually thought of as a direct antecedent of modern English, though this is a “truth” with many nuances and variables. As far as I know, Tolkien did not mean for the language of the Rohirrim to be an ancestor of the Common Tongue, but rather, a descendant with the same original source.)

Tolkien can be criticized when it comes to historical and political realism. But I think his writing style is important to consider, when taking this criticism into consideration. Tolkien, above all, writes very romantic fantasy. And I do NOT mean romantic as in the romances between Lúthien and Beren, and the mirror romance, Arwen and Aragorn (which hardly features at all in the works published before Tolkien’s passing). NO. I mean romantic, as in literary romanticism, where the good people are morally upright, as well as skilled, beautiful and righteous in most concievable ways. The evil, on the other hand, are very evil, ugly, they are treacherous, selfish, they most probably smell bad, and are generally not really skilled at anything they do. (I’m talking about orcs here, mostly, or evil men. Evil men (i.e. evil humans) aren’t as bad as orcs though, and Tolkien has semi-religious (both meta and in-universe) reasons for this.). The only reason that Evil poses any real threat to Good in Tolkien’s world, the way I see it, is that evil creatures are myriad, whereas the good are too few. (This might be a good metaphor for Tolkien’s perception of the world, perhaps? The Good are few, and a are fighting an eternal uphill battle against evil people and evil emotions?) A romantic depiction of anything is by definition not realistic. Realism is the opposite of romanticism, in many ways, and to me George Martin is an excellent example of a writer whose scope is equally grandiose as Tolkien’s, but who definitely operates within literary realism. In any case, it cannot be disputed that romantic writing has strong traditions in European literature, so we’ll have to accept it for what it is. If you can’t bear romantic writing, Tolkien is not for you.

Apart from his romantic depiction of the world and the societies we meet in his books, Tolkien seems to have a solid grip on mediaeval politics and society, which isn’t surprising, seeing as he was a historical philologist. I for one, at least, have never found fault with the way he describes inheritance laws, dynasties etc. He also makes use of classic indo-europeans kinship ideals, which of course is not unusual, as many of these values still exist, at least in part, in modern (Western) society. Most of the societies we meet in Tolkien’s world are feudal societies, and in these romanticized feudal societies, everyone are satisfied with their place in it, and there is little social upheaval, as long as the ruler is a good guy. This is simply not realistic; of course the peasants at the bottom of feudal society aren’t always happy about their unappreciated , quite powerless, role in society. The evil societies we meet, on the other hand, are either totalitarian, completely ruled by fear and force (Sauron, for instance, would make any dictator from our world feel like an amateur!), or they are essentially chaotically anarchic, the strong tyrannizing the weak (E.g. the Orcs of the Misty Mountains, who the Fellowship of the Ring have an unpleasant brush with in the mines of Moria.). In a way, the evil societies, seem closer to bad real world societies, than the good societies do to their equivalents. Food for thought… (?)

I could go on and on about Tolkien, as you might understand. There are endless amounts of lore to explore when it comes to his work; the wet dream of any fantasy geek. Being a great fan myself, it’s not easy for me to write a neutral presentation of Tolkien’s work, and, obviously, I’m not trying to do that either. Still, I will argue, that even though Tolkien is perhaps the most appreciated fantasy author of all time, the amount of groundwork he put into his fantasy world and stories will never be properly recognized. And that’s a bold claim, I know! The legendarium is just too great to fathom without studying it for years (which many people have done!).

It’s not hard to see how his friendship with C.S. Lewis soured over the years. I believe I have read that one of Tolkien’s chief issues with Lewis’ fantasy was linguistic realism. When it came to languages, Lewis just came up with any old crap, and it seemed to do the trick, whereas Tolkien put in years upon years of work into his own world. (E.g. Aslan, Caspian and Narnia are all nonsense names, and or picked straight from our world and put into a fantasy world without further thought, it seems.). This allowed Lewis to be a more productive writer than Tolkien, as he didn’t work as much on background as Tolkien did. Lewis’ stories are quite good, by all means, but I think it is clear where my sympathies lie, when it comes to this schism!

If your goal is to publish fantasy novels, then Tolkien’s approach is way over the top, no doubt about that. On the other hand, if your main goal is to create an immersive, realistic, alternate world, then Tolkien’s approach might serve well as an ideal. I have been noodling on a fantasy world myself, for about five or six years now. I have got way more background stuff (including partially constructed languages!), than I have got stories. We’ll see if it ever escapes the depths of my hard drive…

And this, I think, is enough for this time. Tune in again later, if you want more discussion of fantasy the way it is processed by my brain. I think I might write about George Martin the next time. Or maybe Robert Jordan? (Jordan’s linguistic realism is horrible, however cool his world or stories might be.)

(Sources: I have used wikipedia, wiktionary and http://lotr.wikia.com/ to check up on some stuff while writing this (I haven’t preoccupied myself with Tolkien to any particular degree, for almost ten years, so I had to be sure I remembered correctly.) I have not fact-checked stuff consistently either, and therefore I will not reference the sources more thorougly than this. This is a blog, filled with my notions, thoughts and musings, and I will not pretend like I am posting a scientific work!)