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Language, Thought, and Worldviews in Tolkien’s Writing

Progress report:  I am nearing (I hope) a presentable draft of the story covering my third trip to Peru to work with Américo Yábar and the people of Q’ero.  In the meantime, here is something I have just written that ties into my meta-consideration of worldviews.

I was reading in The Letters of JRR Tolkien (Letter #171) a response he wrote to a college student who had written to Tolkien, criticizing his use of archaic words and sentence structures in LOTR. The writer particularly didn’t like the chapter “The King of the Golden Hall”, calling it horrible, and referring to it as tushery. I had to pull out my dictionary. Tushery is “writing of poor quality distinguished by the presence of affectedly archaic diction” (Merriam-Webster). Tushery is usually associated with authors who have little knowledge of medieval English who toss some old-timey words (e.g. ‘verily’ or ‘pish’) into a character’s dialog in an attempt to make the character fit a medieval setting.

It struck me as presumptuous, at the least, to tell Tolkien, who was a professor of philology (the study of language) and of Old English and Middle English literature, that he was creating affectedly archaic diction. Tolkien’s response touches upon the relationship between language, thought, and worldviews. It also shines light on his skill of giving the reader implicit knowledge of the speaker, not so such by what the speaker says, as by how he or she says it.

Tolkien begins by talking about the basic nature of real archaic English, stating that many of the things said in archaic English can not be expressed in modern English. This, I found, to be a mind-expanding consideration with fascinating ramifications. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson once declared that only deaf linguists believe that accurate translations from one language to another are effectively possible (Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, pg 292). It had not occurred to me that this might also apply in this case, that ideas expressed in the language of archaic times may not be possible to express in modern English.

To demonstrate his point, Tolkien pulls in an example of his use of archaic English from the chapter that the writer so disliked, The King of the Golden Hall. This is King Theoden speaking:

‘Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ‘You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

The words are all familiar to us, and are still in use today. None of them, with the possible exception of ‘Nay’, have the aroma of the archaic. What is archaic about the passage has to do with the structure of the sentences. Tolkien demonstrates this by saying the same thing in modern English:

‘Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties…thus shall I sleep better.’

But, Tolkien states, a King who spoke in that modern fashion would not have had those thoughts! There is an incongruity between modern English and Theoden’s way of thinking. To have Theoden speak his thoughts in modern English would be, in Tolkien’s words, “far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English” that he used. The people who spoke archaic English not only spoke differently than the way we speak, they also thought differently than the way we think.

Tolkien then goes on to demonstrate several differences between the diction of archaic English and that of modern English. He states that modern English is regrettably looser, more full of little ’empty’ words (see the example above), and yet at the same time is much more limited in its acceptable ways of putting words together in a sentence. Archaic English provides word orders that are terser, more vivid, and sometimes nobler than modern English. He concludes by asking the writer to free himself of the “extraordinary 20th Century delusion” the our current way of speaking has some “peculiar validity, above those of other times”. I would add that this is true not only of the way we speak but also of the way we think. Our current worldview assumes that the way we think in modern times has greater validity than the way we thought in other times. I bring that up as something to consider, to loosen the rigidity of our thinking that arises out of cultural arrogance.

Returning to how Theoden speaks in LOTR. Even though he uses word orders that are no longer deemed acceptable, we can still understand what he is saying. And further, the way Theoden speaks gives us a great deal of implicit knowledge about his character. We get a sense of his worldview, his nobility, what he values, and a sense of his culture. Tolkien was a master at giving the reader a great deal of implicit information about a character, not just by what the characters say but also by the way they say it.

To examine that further I would like to turn to the writings of professor Tom Shippey, who taught at Oxford during some of the same time as Tolkien, and held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University, which Tolkien held earlier in his career. Professor Shippey has published two insightful books on Tolkien, The Road to Middle-Earth, and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. I don’t agree with some of his interpretations of Tolkien’s work, but his books contain some gems. My favorite is Shippey’s analysis of the chapter “The Council of Elrond”.

“The chapter is a largely unappreciated tour-de-force…It breaks, furthermore, most of the rules which might be given to an apprentice writer. For one thing, though it is 15000 words long, in it nothing happens: it consists entirely of people talking. For another, it has an unusual number of speakers present (twelve), the majority of them (seven) unknown to the reader and appearing for the first time. Just to make things more difficult, the longest speech, by Gandalf, which takes up close on half the total, contains direct quotation from seven more speakers, or writers, all of them apart from Butterbur and Gaffer Gamgee new to the story, and some of them (Saruman, Denethor) to be extremely important to it later on. Other speakers, like Glóin, give direct quotation from yet more speakers, Dáin and Sauron’s messenger. Like so many committee meetings, this chapter could very easily have disintegrated, lost its way, or simply become too boring to follow. The fact that it does not is brought about by two things, Tolkien’s extremely firm grasp of the history of Middle-earth; and his unusual ability to suggest cultural variation by differences and mode of speech” (Author of the Century, pp 68-69).

Shippey demonstrates this with illuminating examples from several of the twenty speakers in the chapter; including Elrond, Glóin, Sauron’s messenger, Saruman, Aragorn, and Boromir*. He then concludes:

“The gist of the paragraphs above is only this. People draw information not only from what is said, but from how it is said. The continuous variations of language within this complex chapter tell us almost subliminally how reliable characters are, how old they are, how self-assured they are, how mistaken they are, what kind of person they are. All this is as vital as the direct information conveyed, not least, as has been said, to prevent the whole chapter from degenerating into the minutes of a committee meeting, which in a sense is what it is. Tolkien’s linguistic control (a professional skill for him) is one of his least appreciated abilities…” (pg 76)

This can also be seen in the farewells that Balin (a dwarf) and Bilbo (a hobbit) give each other at the end of The Hobbit.

“‘Good-bye and good luck, wherever you fare!’ said Balin at last. ‘If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!’

‘If ever you are passing my way,’ said Bilbo, ‘don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!'” p. 305

As Shippey points out, the two are saying the same thing, but in very different ways that both reflect and give us implicit knowledge of their respective cultures (The Road to Middle-earth, pg 86).

When I first read this in Shippey’s book I suddenly better understood something from Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories, where he states “Stories that are actually concerned primarily with ‘fairies’, that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called ‘elves’, are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the aventures** of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches.” (in Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, pg 32).

We can see in Bilbo’s farewell that he talks, and probably thinks, quite a bit like we do, certainly more so than do dwarves or elves. In The Hobbit and LOTR, the presence of the hobbits gives us a vicarious experience of what it would be like to be in that world. The hobbits give us a human perspective of Faerie, one from which that realm is mysterious, dangerous, and somehow alluring, yet not alien. We get to view it through the eyes of someone with whom we can relate for we share a similar worldview. When I contemplate what a story would be like if everyone spoke, all the time, in a fashion similar to Balin’s, I can see that the story would not be all the palatable to me (as much as I cherish the dwarven characters).

Tolkien created a secondary world for us to enter and explore. He did not, of course, actually create that world physically, we enter a representation of that world that arises in our minds as we read his words. His ability to give us that experience relied heavily upon his profound knowledge of language, its relationship to thought, and the relationship between language, thought, and worldview. With that knowledge he was able to take us to ancient times that exist in fantasy, and to the Perilous Realm of Faerie itself.


* Shippey’s states that Tolkien has Elrond speak in an archaic manner to continually remind the reader of Elrond’s great age (several thousand years old). Shippey adds, “Many critics have complained of Tolkien’s archaic style in one section or another; they have failed to realize that he understood archaism far more technically than they ever could, and could switch it on and off at will, as he could modern colloquialism” (pg 70)”.

** “Instead of the usual English word adventures Tolkien chooses the French aventures, which conveys, in addition to the usual meaning of ‘exciting experiences’, the darker implications of hazard, uncertainty and outright danger that his following phrase ‘the Perilous Realm’ underscores.” (From the Editors’ Commentary in Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, pg 93). Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories has been published in several contexts. I like this book the best, as it presents both an earlier draft and the final draft of the essay (both drafts have some interesting points that the other leaves out), and I enjoy some of the editor’s comments.

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  1. John Robert Cornell

    August 21, 2023 at 11:25 pm

    Hello Oakley,
    I love your posts and your work on the Andean Cosmovision. I just read The Path to Faërie: Part 1, in which you promise a part 2, “Cracks in Reality that Let the Light Shine Through.” Part 1 opened some windows for me. I’m interested in language and consciousness. I take it that this post, Language, Thought, and Worldview in Tolkien’s Writing is not another name for that part 2. Any thoughts about when or if “Cracks” might appear?
    ~ John Robert

    • Oakley Gordon

      August 22, 2023 at 3:04 pm

      Hi again John. Well that is a fair question. I frankly forgot that I had left Part 2 in limbo. For the past couple of years my writing to the post has been spotty at best. Sometimes my muse is out filing her nails while I am trying to write, other times she apparently takes long vacations to Costa Rica. I really appreciate hearing from you as I find myself having a hard time being motivated when I think my efforts just go out to the void without reaching people. Then there is my issue of what is it I really want to say. I have started to write again, an introduction to my chapters recounting my trips to Peru. But today I will read Part 1 of the Path to Faerie again, and contemplate turning my creative efforts in that direction. I will let you know my progress. Hugs, Oakley

      • John Robert Cornell

        November 10, 2023 at 11:12 pm

        Hi Oakley,
        That is good news. I am using some of your research on Tolkien in an essay on language. Thank you for that. I think “The Path to Faërie, Part I” sings!
        Just wondering if your muse would appreciate an appointment at a local beauty shop on your dime. And the next time she takes off for Costa Rica, I have a friend in Panama who would like to meet her.
        So, yeah, when you turn back to part II, be sure and let me know.
        Many appreciations,
        John Robert

  2. John Robert Cornell

    November 14, 2023 at 9:44 pm

    Hi Oakley,
    I thought I already replied to your 8/22 post but I don’t see it here. I got vivid images from your comments about your muse I’m thinking that she just wants some attention. 😉
    I’m still wondering what happened when you reread Part 1 of PtF. Any creative juice flowing toward Cracks these days?
    Warm greetings,
    John Robert

    • Oakley Gordon

      November 18, 2023 at 2:13 pm

      Hi John,

      I just arrived back yesterday from two weeks with Americo and his son Gayle in Peru. Oh my! What a soul expanding experience! I am hoping that it will free up the energy for my writing. I still have the question of in what direction to go with it. I am hoping that will be clear to me as I sit down to write, but first I wanted to make contact with you when I saw your pending comments. When I reread my post about Tolkien I had one of those, “Wow, did I write that? Its good!”.

      I feel like my muse has returned with a smile on her face, and the question, “Blog? What blog?”. I hope to let you know soon what post/chapter will be completed next. I really appreciate your interest and support and friendly comments. I would like to keep in touch.

      • John Robert Cornell

        February 21, 2024 at 11:40 pm

        Hi Oakley,
        Your name came up last Saturday at a retreat in Lodi, CA, and it reminded me about this conversation that we’re sprinkled out over quite a few months.

        So just reaching out again. I’d like to keep in touch also. But again, no pressure; life keeps happening, piling on its delights and demands.

        I am wondering what that muse of yours is up to these days. Mine put out a burst of energy last fall and is now dosing in the corner.

        With appreciation,
        John Robert

        • Oakley Gordon

          February 22, 2024 at 9:24 am

          Hi John, ok first, I had to let the air out of my ego after hearing my name came up at the workshop, but it was nice to hear. I returned from a trip to be with Americo and Gayle in Peru in November full of lightness of Being and feeling connected with the Cosmos. After a few years in the doldrums I was ready to take up my pen (actually word proccessor) and start writing again. My first priority was to write “The Path to Faerie Part 2: Cracks in Reality that let the Light Shine Through”. That has been an interest of mine and a priority. I figured I would have it finished by Christmas and then move on to write other posts. Two months and lots of work later and I still don’t have a complete first draft. The challenge for me is that I want to begin with some basic information, mainly from cognitive psychology (the field I earned my PhD in) that provides a platform for then really getting into the amazing essay Tolkien wrote “On Faerie Stories”. This approach holds the promise of me sharing some things about the nature of reality and of our experience of reality that are think are profound and useful. As I wrote the cognitive psychology part I found that if I want to say A then I really need to say B so that A can be understood, and then B really calls for C, and so on. I wrote about 20 pages about just the cognitive psychology lead-in. The problem I am having is that it is so long and technical and I slip into a ‘voice’ from academia that fits the topic but not the message. Anyway, I am in the middle of trying different ways of approaching it or just putting it aside and writing what is next on my list. So…long answer. My good news (for me) is that I am not in the doldrums (though still depressed by the state of the world) and I still am motivated to share what I can of what I have learned in Peru (the sharing of which gives me a sense of meaning in my life). By the way, is that your muse I hear snoring in the corner? As always, it is a pleasure to communicate with you. Let’s keep it up. Oakley

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