V. A. Tolkien And His Work

  1. Who was J.R.R. Tolkien anyway?

    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Englishman, scholar, and storyteller was born of English parents at Bloemfontein, South Africa on Jan. 3, 1892 and died in England on Sept. 2, 1973. His entire childhood was spent in England, to which the family returned permanently in 1896 upon the death of his father. He received his education at King Edward's School, St. Philip's Grammar School, and Oxford University. After graduating in 1915 he joined the British army and saw action in the Battle of the Somme. He was eventually discharged after spending most of 1917 in the hospital suffering from "trench fever". [It was during this time that he began The Book of Lost Tales.]

    Tolkien was a scholar by profession. His academic positions were: staff member of the New English Dictionary (1918-20); Reader, later Professor of English Language at Leeds, 1920-25; Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford (1925-45); and Merton Professor of English Language and Literature (1945-59). His principal professional focus was the study of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and its relation to linguistically similar languages (Old Norse, Old German, and Gothic), with special emphasis on the dialects of Mercia, that part of England in which he grew up and lived, but he was also interested in Middle English, especially the dialect used in the Ancrene Wisse (a twelfth century manuscript probably composed in western England). Moreover, Tolkien was an expert in the surviving literature written in these languages. Indeed, his unusual ability to simultaneously read the texts as linguistic sources and as literature gave him perspective into both aspects; this was once described as "his unique insight at once into the language of poetry and the poetry of language" (from the Obituary; Scholar, p. 13).

    From an early age he had been fascinated by language, particularly the languages of Northern Europe, both ancient and modern. From this affinity for language came not only his profession but also his private hobby, the invention of languages. He was more generally drawn to the entire "Northern tradition", which inspired him to wide reading of its myths and epics and of those modern authors who were equally drawn to it, such as William Morris and George MacDonald. His broad knowledge inevitably led to the development of various opinions about Myth, its relation to language, and the importance of Stories, interests which were shared by his friend C.S. Lewis. All these various perspectives: language, the heroic tradition, and Myth and Story (and a very real and deeply-held belief in and devotion to Catholic Christianity) came together with stunning effect in his stories: first the legends of the Elder Days which served as background to his invented languages, and later his most famous works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

     Biography; Letters; RtMe (esp. ch 1, on philology);
     Inklings; Scholar.

    Contributors: WDBL, Wayne Hammond Jr

  2. Were the languages presented in The Lord of the Rings real languages?

    Most certainly they were, especially the Elven languages Sindarin and Quenya. "[These were] no arbitrary gibberish but really possible tongues with consistent roots, sound laws, and inflexions, into which he poured all his imaginative and philological powers..." (Obituary, in Scholar, p. 12). Furthermore, they were both derived from a "proto-Elvish" language, again in a linguistically realistic manner. [Sindarin was the "everyday" elvish language while Quenya was a kind of "elf-latin"; therefore, most Elvish words in LotR were Sindarin. Examples: most "non-English" (see FAQ, Tolkien, 4) place-names on the map (e.g. Minas Tirith, Emyn Beriad) were Sindarin, as was the song to Elbereth sung in Rivendell; Galadriel's lament was in Quenya.]

    The language of the Rohirrim was a real language: Anglo-Saxon (Old English), just as their culture (except for the horses) was that of the Anglo-Saxons. (It was, however, not the "standard" West Saxon Old English but rather the Mercian equivalent (RtMe, 94).) Most of the other languages in LotR were much less fully developed: Entish, Khudzul (Dwarvish) and the Black Speech (the language of Mordor, e.g. the Ring inscription). Adunaic, the language of Numenor, developed in 1946 while he was finishing up LotR, was said to be his fifteenth invented language.

     Biography, 35-37 (II,3), 93-95 (III,1),
                195 (V,2);
     Letters, 175-176 (#144), 219 (footnote) (#165),
              380 (#297);
     RtMe, 93 (4, "The horses of the Mark");
     Scholar, 12 (Obituary).

    Contributor: WDBL

  3. What does it mean when people (or Tolkien himself) speak of him as having been the "editor" of The Lord of the Rings?

    The fiction Tolkien sought to maintain was that The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit and the Silmarillion) were actually ancient manuscripts (written by Frodo and Bilbo, respectively) of which he was merely the editor and translator (a situation identical to much of his scholarly work). He never stated this directly but it is implicit in the way in which many sections of LoTR outside the story are written. Thus, the Prologue is plainly written as though by a modern editor describing an ancient time. Other examples are the introductory note to the revised edition of The Hobbit, the Preface to The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and parts of the Appendices, especially the introductory note to Appendix A, Appendix D, and Appendix F. Most interesting of all is the Note on the Shire Records, where Tolkien further simulates a real situation by inventing a manuscript tradition (the suggestion was that Frodo's original manuscript didn't survive but that a series of copies had been made, one of which had come into Tolkien's hands).

    This entire notion was by no means a new idea: many authors have pretended that their fantasies were "true" stories of some ancient time. Few, however, have done so as thoroughly and successfully as did Tolkien. The most effective component of his pretense was the linguistic aspects of Middle-earth, for he was uniquely qualified to pose as the "translator" of the manuscripts (see FAQ, Tolkien, 4).

    introductory note to _The Hobbit_ (precedes Ch I);
     FR, Prologue, Note on the Shire Records;
     RK, Appendix A, Appendix D, Appendix F;
     ATB, Preface.

    Contributor: WDBL

  4. How thoroughly realized was Tolkien's fiction that he was the "translator" of The Lord of the Rings?

    Very thoroughly indeed. The scenario was that "of course" hobbits couldn't have spoken English (the story took place far in the past -- see FAQ, Tolkien, 6); rather, they spoke their own language, called Westron (but often referred to as the Common Speech). Tolkien "translated" this language into English, which included "rendering" all the Common Speech place-names into the equivalent English place-names. The object of the exercise was to produce the following effect: names in the Common Speech (which were familiar to the hobbits) were "rendered" into English (in which form they would be familiar to us, the English-speaking readers); names in other languages (usually Sindarin) were "left alone", and thus were equally unfamiliar to the hobbits and to us. Since the story was told largely from the hobbits' point of view, that we should share their linguistic experience is a desirable result (especially for Tolkien, who was unusually sensitive to such matters).

    In portraying the linguistic landscape of Middle-earth he carried this procedure much further. The main example was his "substitution" of Anglo-Saxon for Rohirric. The "rationale" was that the hobbits' dialect of Westron was distantly related to Rohirric; therefore, when hobbits heard Rohirric they recognized many words but the language nevertheless remained just beyond understanding (RK, 65 (V,3)). Thus, Tolkien attempted to further "duplicate" hobbit linguistic perceptions by "substituting" that language of our world (Anglo-Saxon) which has (more-or-less) the same relation to English that Rohirric had to the hobbit version of Westron.

    There were many other nuances in the intricate and subtle linguistic web he devised (always, he carefully explained, in the interests of "reproducing" the linguistic map of Middle-earth in a way that could be easily assimilated by modern English-speaking readers). Thus:

    1. Archaic English roots were used in those Common Speech place-names which were given long before the time of the story (e.g. Tindrock, Derndingle; see Guide).
    2. Some of the Stoors (who later settled in Buckland and the Marish) dwelt in Dunland at one time (Tale of Years, entries for TA 1150 and 1630 (RK, App B)); the men of Bree also came from that region originally (RK, 408 (App F, I, "Of Men", "Of Hobbits")). "Since the survival of traces of the older language of the Stoors and the Bree-men resembled the survival of Celtic elements in England" (RK, 414 (App F, II)), the place-names in Bree were Celtic in origin (Bree, Archet, Chetwood) (see also Guide). Similarly, the names of the Buckland hobbits were Welsh (e.g. Madoc, Berilac).
    3. Among hobbits some of the older Fallohide families liked to give themselves high-sounding names from the legendary past (an example of hobbit humor). Tolkien "represented" such names by names of Frankish or Gothic origin (Isengrim, Rudigar, Fredegar, Peregrin).

    These matters and much else is explained in detail in Appendix F.

     RK, Appendix F;
     Letters, 174-176 (#144), 380-381 (#297);
     RtMe, 88-89 (4, "Stars, shadows, cellar-doors:
             patterns of language and of history").

    Contributor: WDBL

  5. Why is Tolkien's work, The Lord of the Rings in particular, so difficult to translate (into other languages of our world)?

    Because his interest in, skill with, and love of language are manifest at every level and indeed in almost every word of LotR, thereby producing a result difficult if not impossible to duplicate.

    The previous question describes how Common Speech names were "rendered" into English. The Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's instructions for translators, does attempt to address this. In it he goes down the list of names in the index and specifies which should be translated (being Common Speech) and which should be left alone. It would require skillful translation to get even this far, but that would only be the beginning. Reproducing the other linguistic intricacies described in the previous question would be well-nigh impossible; for example, Rohirric would have to be replaced with some ancient language whose relation to the language of translation was the same as that of Anglo-Saxon to modern English.

    On another level, there is the diction and style of everything said and told. The language used has a strong archaic flavor; it is not an exact recreation of how Anglo-Saxon or medieval people actually spoke but rather is as close an approximation as he could achieve and still remain intelligible to modern readers. This was not accidental but rather was deliberately and carefully devised. (See Letters, 225-226 (#171)).

    There were, moreover, variations in the style in which characters of different backgrounds spoke the Common Speech ("represented" as English) (e.g. at the Council of Elrond, FR, II, 2; see also RtMe 90-93). There were variations in the style of individual characters at different times (RK, 412 (App F, II)). There was even an attempt to indicate a distinction between familiar and deferential forms of pronouns (which doesn't exist in modern English) by use of the archaic words "thee" and "thou" (RK, 411 (App F, II); for an example, see the scene with Aragorn and Eowyn at Dunharrow, RK, 57-59 (V, 2)).

    Finally, there was Tolkien's poetry, which was often far more complicated than it appeared, and which in many cases is very probably untranslatable. (The extreme case is Bilbo's Song of Earendil, FR, 246-249 (II,1); T.A. Shippey has identified five separate metrical devices in this poem: RtMe, 145-146).

     RK, Appendix F, 57-59 (V, 2);
     FR, "The Council of Elrond" (II, 2),
         246-249 (II,1);
     Letters, 225-226 (#171), 250-251 (#190) [on the
              Dutch translation], 263 (#204) [on the
              Swedish translation];
     RtMe, 90-93 (4, "'The Council of Elrond'"),
           145-146 (6, "the elvish tradition").

    Contributor: WDBL

  6. Did the events in The Lord of the Rings take place on another planet or what?

    No. Tolkien's intention was that was that Middle-earth was our own world, though his way of stating this idea was somewhat unusual: he spoke of having created events which took place in an imaginary time of a real place. He made this fully explicit only in Letters, but there were two very strong indications in the published Lord of the Rings, though both were outside the narrative.

    The first was in the Prologue. It is there stated: "Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed; but the regions in which Hobbits then lived were doubtless the same as those in which they still linger: the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea." (FR, 11). Since no other reference is made to this matter either in the Prologue or in the main narrative, it makes little impression on most readers, but is clear enough once pointed out.

    The second was in Appendix D, which presents lore on calendars in Middle-earth. The discussion begins as follows:

    The Calendar in the Shire differed in several features from ours. The year no doubt was of the same length (*), for long ago as those times are now reckoned in years and lives of men, they were not very remote according to the memory of the Earth.

    (*) 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds.
    (RK, 385 (App D))

    The quote is clear enough in and of itself, but that the year length specified in the footnote is the precise length of our own year must surely remove all doubt.

    There follow excerpts from three letters wherein the matter is further discussed.

    'Middle-earth', by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in .... And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this 'history' is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.
    Letters, 220 (#165)

    I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. ... The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by the enchantment of distance in time.
    Letters, 239 (#183)

    ... I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap(*) in time between the Fall of Barad-dur and our Days is sufficient for 'literary credibility', even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of 'pre-history'.

    I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place. I prefer that to the contemporary mode of seeking remote globes in 'space'. However curious, they are alien, and not lovable with the love of blood-kin. Middle-earth is ... not my own invention. It is a modernization or alteration ... of an old word for the inhabited world of Men, the oikoumene: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern-imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. O. English middan-geard , mediaeval E. midden-erd, middle-erd . Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-earth is another planet!
    Letters, 283 (#211)

    The footnote in the first sentence of the last-quoted excerpt offers a fascinating insight:

    (*) I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.
    Letters, 283 (#211)

    A final note is that not only is the place our own world but also the people inhabiting it are ourselves, morally as well as physically:

    ... I have not made any of the peoples on the 'right' side, Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or of Gondor, any better than men have been or are, or can be. Mine is not an 'imaginary' world, but an imaginary historical moment on 'Middle-earth' -- which is our habitation.
    Letters, 244 (#183)

     FR, 11 (Prologue);
     RK, 385 (Appendix D);
     Letters, 220 (#165), 239, 244 (#183),
              283 (#211).

    Contributors: WDBL, Carl F. Hostetter, Bill Taylor

  7. Was the northwest of Middle-earth, where the story takes place, meant to actually be Europe?

    Yes, but a qualified yes. There is no question that Tolkien had northwestern Europe in mind when he described the terrain, weather, flora, and landscapes of Middle-earth. This was no doubt partially because NW Europe was his home and therefore most familiar to him and partially because of his love for the "Northern tradition". As he said himself: "The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man's home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; ..." (Letters 376 (#294)). Thus, the environment of Middle-earth will seem familiar to dwellers of that region of Europe (see the second letter excerpted in FAQ, Tolkien, 6 (#183)).

    However, the geographies simply don't match. This was the result not so much of a deliberate decision on Tolkien's part to have things so but rather a side-effect of the history of the composition: the question did not occur to him until the story was too far advanced and the map too fixed to allow much alteration:

    ... if it were 'history', it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or 'cultures') into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe; though the Shire, for instance, is expressly stated to have been in this region [FR, 11]. I could have fitted things in with greater versimilitude, if the story had not become too far developed, before the question ever occurred to me. I doubt if there would have been much gain; ...
    Letters, 283 (#211)

    ... As for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised 'dramatically' rather than geologically, or paleontologically. I do sometimes wish that I had made some sort of agreement between the imaginations or theories of the geologists and my map a little more possible. But that would only have made more trouble with human history.
    Letters, 224 (#169)

    The remark that there probably would not "have been much gain" is characteristic and perhaps indicates Tolkien's own approach, which would seem to have been to focus on the environmental familiarity at the "local" level (in the sense that any particular scene might have come from somewhere in Europe) and to simply overlook the lack of "global" identity. On the other hand, he made some attempt to address the difficulty in the quote from the Prologue (FR, 11), where it was said: "Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed...". The conclusion is that it is a matter for each individual reader as to how important is the lack of geographical fit and where one comes down on the continuum between "Middle-earth was northwestern Europe" and "Middle-earth might as well have been northwestern Europe" (or, as Tolkien might have said, "Middle-earth 'imaginatively' was northwestern Europe"). [Thus, recent attempts to force the M-e map to fit the map of the Eurasian land mass, such as in Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by David Day, should be discounted.]

    In one letter he provided indications to help in visualizing the circumstances of various locales, but this does not help in resolving the above matter, since again northwestern Europe was used for comparison rather than equation:

    The action of the story takes place in the North-west of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. ... If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.
    Letters, 375-376 (#294)

     FR, 11 (Prologue);
     Letters, 376 (#294), 239 (#183), 283 (#211),
              224 (#169).

    Contributors: WDBL, Carl F. Hostetter

  8. Was the Shire meant to be England?

    [Webmaster's note: David Salo has pointed out that, contrary to the objection below, England was a part of mainland Europe somewhat recently. See, for example, this map of "Western Europe During the Third Inter-glacial Epoch", from Donald A. MacKenzie's Ancient Man in Britain.]

    In this case, the balance between "actually was" and "was based upon" is entirely tipped towards the latter. There is no hint that the Shire was in any sense supposed the be the country now called England in an ancient state. On the other hand, there is plainly a very strong resemblance between the Shire and the rural England of about a century ago.

    More precisely, the Shire plainly could not be England in any literal sense: England is an island, and even changes in "the shape of all lands" (FR, 11) is insufficient to explain such a discrepancy (especially since even the westernmost part of the Shire was some 200 miles from the Sea). Nevertheless, the Shire was more exactly based on England than any other part of Middle-earth was based on any part of our world: the climate, place-names, flora and fauna, terrain, food, customs, and the inhabitants themselves, were all English. In effect the Shire was an idealized version of the rural England of Tolkien's childhood. Some of his comments on the matter were:

    [The Shire] is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee ...
    Letters, 230 (#178)

    But, of course, if we drop the 'fiction' of long ago, 'The Shire' is based on rural England and not any other country in the world... [Later in the same letter he implied that the Shire was "an imaginary mirror" of England.]
    Letters, 250 (#190)

    There is no special reference to England in the 'Shire' -- except of course that as an Englishman brought up in an 'almost rural' village of Warwickshire on the edge of the prosperous bourgeoisie of Birmingham (about the time of the Diamond Jubilee!) I take my models like anyone else -- from such 'life' as I know.
    Letters, 235 (#181)

    See also RtMe 31-33 for a fascinating suggestion that certain components of Tolkien's early philological studies may have contributed to his later conception of the Shire. Shippey has also suggested that Tolkien's motivation in changing Gandalf's supper request in ch 1 of The Hobbit from "cold chicken and tomatoes" in the first edition to "cold chicken and pickles" in the revised edition was linguistic: that to Tolkien's extraordinarily sensitive ear "tomato" sounded out of place in a country that was a mirror of English, since tomato only entered the language in the sixteenth century and moreover originally came from some Caribbean language. Likewise, tobacco, used in The Hobbit, was changed to "pipeweed", and "potatoes" were usually spoken of only by Sam, who called them "taters" (RtMe, 53-54; Annotated Hobbit, 19).

    Finally, great care must be taken not to confound the idea of the Shire's having been based on England with a concept found in Tolkien's earliest writings, that Tol Eressea (Elvenhome) eventually became England. This appeared during his early work on the Book of Lost Tales (which eventually evolved into the Silm). Very probably it had been supplanted even before he stopped work on the Lost Tales (1920) (BoLT I, 22-27). In any case, it had long since been abandoned by the time LoTR was begun in 1937, and plays no part in the 'history' of Middle-earth as presented in LotR, Silm, The Hobbit, etc.

     FR, 11 (Prologue);
     Letters, 230 (#178), 235 (#181), 250 (#190);
     RtMe, 31-33 (2, "Survivals in the West"),
           53-54 (3, "Creative anachronisms");
     BoLT I, 22-27 (I, "Commentary on _The Cottage
             of Lost Play_");
     Annotated Hobbit, 19 (ch 1, note 7).

    Contributors: WDBL, Wayne Hammond Jr, Bill Taylor

  9. What were the changes made to The Hobbit after The Lord of the Rings was written, and what motivated them?

    In the original 1937 edition of The Hobbit Gollum was genuinely willing to bet his ring on the riddle game, the deal being that Bilbo would receive a "present" if he won. Gollum in fact was dismayed when he couldn't keep his promise because the ring was missing. He showed Bilbo the way out as an alternative, and they parted courteously.

    As the writing of LotR progressed the nature of the Ring changed. No longer a "convenient magical device", it had become an irresistable power object, and Gollum's behavior now seemed inexplicable, indeed, impossible. In the rough drafts of the "Shadow of the Past" chapter Gandalf was made to perform much squirming in an attempt to make it appear credible, not wholly successfully.

    Tolkien resolved the difficulty by re-writing the chapter into its present form, in which Gollum had no intention whatsoever of giving up the Ring but rather would show Bilbo the way out if he lost. Also, Gollum was made far more wretched, as befitted one enslaved and tormented by the Ruling Ring. At the same time, however, Bilbo's claim to the Ring was seriously undercut.

    [Care must be taken when noting this last point. There are two issues involved, well summarized in the Prologue: "The Authorities, it is true, differ whether this last question was a mere 'question' and not a 'riddle' ... but all agree that, after accepting it and trying to guess the answer, Gollum was bound by his promise" (FR, 21). Thus, it was Bilbo's winning of the game that was questionable. Given that he had in fact won, albeit on a technicality, he was fully entitled to the prize, which, in the old version, was the ring. In the new version, however, he had no claim to the Ring at all, whether he had won or not, because the Ring was not the stake of the game.]

    The textual situation thus reached was that there now existed two versions of the episode. Tolkien deftly made this circumstance part of the story by suggesting that the first time around Bilbo was lying (under the influence of the Ring) to strengthen his claim. (Bilbo had written this version in his diary, which was "translated" by Tolkien and published as "The Hobbit"; hence the error in the early editions, later "corrected".) This new sequence of events inside the story is laid out clearly in "Of the Finding of the Ring" (Prologue) and is taken for granted thereafter for the rest of the story (e.g. in "The Shadow of the Past" and at the Council of Elrond).

    The Hobbit as now presented fits the new scenario remarkably well, even though Tolkien, for quite sound literary reasons, left this entire matter of Bilbo's dishonesty out (it was an entirely irrelevant complication which would have thrown everything out of balance). The present attempt to step back and view the entire picture is made more involved by the fact that there were two separate pieces of dishonesty perpetrated by Bilbo.

    The first, made explicit, was that when he initially told his story to Gandalf and the Dwarves he left the ring out entirely -- this no doubt was what inspired Gandalf to give Bilbo the "queer look from under his bushy eyebrows" (H, 99). Later, (after the spider episode) he revealed that he had the Ring, and it must have been at this point that he invented the rigamarole about "winning a present" (an incredible action, given the circumstances). There is, however, no hint in the text of this second piece of dishonesty (as noted above, it would have been a grave literary mistake). Readers are therefore given no indication that when "Balin ... insisted on having the Gollum story ... told all over again, with the ring in its proper place" (H, 163) that Bilbo didn't respond with the "true" story, exactly as described in Ch V. In this regard, "Of the Finding of the Ring" in the Prologue is a necessary prelude to LotR.

     Hobbit, 99 (Ch VI), 163 (Ch VIII),
             "Riddles in the Dark" (Ch V);
     Annotated Hobbit, 104 (Ch VI, note 2), 176
                       (Ch VIII, note 11), 325-327
                       (Appendix A: the original
                       version is given here);
     FR, "Of the Finding of the Ring" (Prologue);
     Biography, 203 (V, 2);
     RtMe, 59-60 (3, "The Ring as 'Equalizer'");
     The Return of the Shadow (HoMe VI), 75, 79-81,
                         84-87 (First Phase, III),
                         261-265 (Second Phase, XV).

    Contributors: WDBL, Wayne Hammond Jr

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