Languages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth – Guest Post by Lindsay Flanagan

Abstract from J.R.R. Tolkien the Linguist: How Language Created Middle-earth

Lindsay Flanagan

Before I delve into Tolkien, I must state that I am a young adult fantasy writer, and it is because of Tolkien—and frankly, only Tolkien—that I am so interested in writing fantasy. I have certainly been inspired by other fantasy authors in the young and new adult veins over the years, but my love of fantasy began with Tolkien.

With the release of the second installment of The Hobbit due out in December, I felt it proper to pay tribute to the man who created Middle-earth. The original version of this essay is a lengthy research paper, written for a graduate English Grammar class. Contained below is a condensed version of that paper.

J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, which was the twentieth century’s second most read book, second only to the Bible. An epic film trilogy based on Tolkien’s books was produced and directed this past decade by Peter Jackson, and has garnered a whole new generation of fans. A new film trilogy based on Tolkien’s first book, The Hobbit, is making waves this decade in the film world. However, to the casual film viewer or reader of the books, it may not be known that Tolkien’s great love was linguistics. This passion for language is what inspired Tolkien to create Middle-earth; because before Middle-earth existed, the languages Tolkien created did. It would be simple to say that Tolkien was an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and the history of the English language (Shippey 6); that he wrote a language, created a people to speak it, created a mythological story for those people, and wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings along with it. Many years later, his son Christopher Tolkien edited and published the mythology that his father had created so many years earlier as the book The Silmarillion. Fortunately for lovers of language and literature, it is not that simple. Linguistic and literary genius does not come that easy. For Tolkien, it was a lifelong ambition, even a borderline obsession. Tolkien himself stated that “the trilogy is an exercise in linguistic aesthetic” (Ugolnik 17) and that “the invention of the languages is the foundation” (qtd by Shippey 25). Of course, language wasn’t the only reason for Middle-earth. He was also a poet and a storyteller, even if many of the poems and stories were an outlet for the invented languages.

There have been critics who have questioned why The Lord of the Rings is often referred to as literary genius; Edmund Wilson reviewed it and stated that it was “poor in form and content… [Tolkien] was basically concerned with language, anyway” (Ugolnik 17). And so he was. Most critics have brushed off, scoffed at, or adamantly refuted Wilson’s statement, anyway. Tolkien was able to write words into story because he understood them. Raynor Unwin, son of Tolkien’s publisher, said, “Tolkien’s fantasy is unique, insofar that it had a base, which was linguistic. It is solid stuff, which is nothing you can question, because he knew his stuff” (“J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins”). Tolkien’s passion and interest in language is shown through his literature, as a “vast and essential component of human existence, with all its poetic, philosophical, and social connotations” (Smith 5). As Anthony Ugolnik states, “Tolkien created a world to act as a stage for a language…[t]he languages of Middle Earth are the life’s blood of the trilogy” (18) and through that love of language, he was able to sew together language and literature; without Tolkien’s linguistic genius, the literary world may have never had The Lord of the Rings (or

LOTR). Ruth S. Noel, who compiled The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, states that “[t]he story of the evolution of the languages of Middle-earth is the story of the compelling hobby of a linguistic genius. The story of the evolution of the languages in Middle-earth is a complex tribute to Tolkien’s combined talents as linguist and storyteller” (6). J.R.R. Tolkien’s linguistic background and his invented languages, are the inspiration for and the foundation of Middle-earth’s very existence; they are the keystone of the people, their culture, and their stories.

Tolkien’s stories come from two from two different paths, although those paths intertwined and finally met in the publication of LOTR.  But what of The Hobbit? Published in 1937, the charming children’s story was a huge success and a tribute of Tolkien’s storytelling talent. Tolkien had been writing and telling stories for and to his children all of their lives. He wrote “Father Christmas” letters each year, short tales that told of Father Christmas’s adventures in the North Pole, with a cast of characters such as the Polar Bear, the Snow Man, snow-elves, gnomes, and goblins. It is shown through this type of writing that Tolkien was influenced by fairy stories, and it was in fairy stories that Tolkien discovered the “potency of words.” Other stories that he told have characters with familiar names, such as Tom Bombadil and Gaffer Gamgee. The Hobbit, when he first began writing it, was “merely another story for amusement,” a place for Bilbo Baggins and his adventures. However, “elements of [the] mythology began to creep in…the dwarves (spelt in that fashion) had played a part…and when in the first chapter…the wizard mentioned ‘the Necromancer’ there was a reference to the legend of Beren and Luthien. Soon it was apparent that the journey of Bilbo Baggins and his companions lay across a corner of that Middle-earth” (Carpenter 182). Beren and Luthien, for newcomers to Tolkien, is the story of an elf-maiden and a mortal man, who fall in love in one of the tales that became part of The Silmarillion.

After the success of the book, and at his publisher’s urging to write a sequel, Tolkien began to “realise the significance of hobbits…they had a crucial role to play in his mythology” (Carpenter 180). In a letter written to Stanley Unwin, his publisher, Tolkien wrote, “Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do?” (qtd by Carpenter 189). When he was writing the manuscript, he wrote a note to himself, “Make return of ring motive.”

Tolkien now had a new story to write, in the Middle-earth that he had created for his language to be spoken. It did not continue in the children’s story vein; it became grandiose, a hero story that continued the story of his mythology. In fact, The Hobbit and LOTR occur in the Third Age, many thousands of years after the stories that created The Silmarillion. Tolkien wrote that it “grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it…it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues” (Tolkien, Silmarillion xv).  LOTR, then, had “attached itself firmly to The Silmarillion” and allowed Tolkien the opportunity to “get on with the serious business of his mythology” (Carpenter 192). Through various set-backs, both from his publishers and Tolkien himself, The Silmarillion would never be published in his lifetime, although it was “the work of his heart” (Shippey 223). LOTR, though, was the culmination of his storytelling and linguistic efforts – his mythology. LOTR  “provided both a historical setting and a sense of depth, the elvish languages that he had developed so painstakingly and thoroughly over more than twenty-five years, the Feanorian alphabet in which had had kept his diary from 1926 to 1933, and which he now used for elvish inscriptions in the story” (Carpenter 195).

LOTR was first published in 1954, twelve years from the time The Hobbit was published. There were various setbacks, including the outbreak of World War II in 1939. There were also his personal setbacks, ranging from his academic and professional obligations to his family duties and his own perfectionism; “he felt he must ensure that every single detail fitted satisfactorily into the total pattern. Geography, chronology, and nomenclature all had to be entirely consistent” (Carpenter 198). Most specifically he was concerned with name-making. He had a passion for naming things, and for what things are called, as would be expected in someone so fascinated and immersed in language. The names he created for his stories came from his invented languages, and they were “both the mainspring of his mythology and in themselves a central activity of his intellect” (199). His Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin played a large part in his name-making, and he also composed several poems and songs in those languages for the book. He also created several other languages for which he felt the story needed. Perhaps another part of his perfectionism, and another compelling aspect of the languages in the stories, was that

he came more and more to regard his own invented languages and stories as ‘real’ languages and historical chronicles that needed to be elucidated. In other words, when in this mood he did not say of an apparent contradiction in the narrative or an unsatisfactory name: ‘This is not as I wish it to be; I must change it.’ Instead he would approach the problem with the attitude: ‘What does it mean? I must find out.’ (Carpenter 102)

By the end of the war, it still wasn’t finished, although he continued to work on it. In 1947, he wrote a revision to The Hobbit that would “provide a more satisfactory explanation of Gollum’s attitude to the Ring” and finally, by the autumn of 1949, he completed his great masterpiece. He had written it “in [his] life’s blood” (qtd in Carpenter 208). It truly was his life’s work, a culmination of all of his literary and linguistic talents. After a few setbacks from publishers, it was finally published in 1954 as a trilogy. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were published first; Return of the King was published in late 1955 after Tolkien had completed the appendices, which added details of the history and linguistics of the people in his great mythology.

The books were a huge success, garnering Tolkien fame throughout Britain, and especially in America where LOTR became a bestselling book and where there was a campus cult in the sixties; young Americans began to wear badges that read “Frodo Lives,” “Gandalf for President,” and “Come to Middle-earth.” Graffiti slogans read “J.R.R. Tolkien is Hobbit-forming.” The books’ popularity also spread throughout Europe, as it had been translated into several languages. Millions of copies had been sold around the world, and, after the release of the films in the beginning of the 21st century, the sales in the books peaked again. The books’ enduring popularity is due to the universal themes, including human existence, courage, and hope. Dr. Patrick Curry stated that “new generations of readers can keep on finding meanings from their own lives” (“J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins”). And through reading the works of Middle-

earth, readers are able to view the splendor of Tolkien’s rich world, a world that was based in language. There may never be a fictional story so rich in detail again.

J.R.R. Tolkien retired from his professional career at Oxford in 1959, where he had “brought to even the most intricate aspects of his subject a grace of expression and a sense of the larger significance of the matter.” (Carpenter 139); he had, as C.S. Lewis once wrote of him, been inside language” (qtd in Carpenter 138) and his mythology, ranging from The Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings is evidence to that. He enjoyed the last years of his life with Edith, his wife, and died on September 2, 1973, leaving behind a whole legacy of a life devoted to language.


Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. Print.

Shippey, Tom. “J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle-earth.” The Fellowship of the Ring  Appendices. DVD. New Line Cinema, 2001.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.

Smith, Ross. “Fitting Sense to Sound: Linguistic Aesthetics and Photosemantics in the Work of  J.R.R. Tolkien.” Tolkien Studies 3 (2006): 1-20. Project Muse. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Preface. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. 2nd Ed. New York:  Ballentine, 2002. Print.

Ugolnik, Anthony J. “Wordhord Onleac: The Medieval Sources of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Linguistic  Aesthetic.” Mosaic 10.2 (1977): 15-31. ProQuest. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Unwin, Raynor. “J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-earth.” The Two Towers Appendices.  DVD.  New Line Cinema, 2002.


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