Tolkien as linguo-mystic

I’ve been rather distracted by some books on Tolkien and by some of his more marginal material. And I’m afraid I may be only at the beginning of the distraction, that the distraction could become a project in its own right. Perhaps distraction is the wrong word, then, because of its privative and negative sense: one is drawn or dragged (trahere) against one’s will and better judgment away from one’s goal. But though I have been forcibly moved, it has been into rather than away from what interests me most in the art of writing, and for that matter in metaphysics and language, in music and the natural world. And something is becoming clear to me that I’ve lost sight of since I was a teenager, and that is the way you can become totally immersed, in an almost participatory fashion, in fictional worlds, in an author’s whole oeuvre and universe and the thought, the way of thinking over many years, out of which that world of words comes. I see that one could easily teach an entire semester’s course on Tolkien’s work — if one did not, in fact, compose an entire curriculum around it. Want to learn Quenya? That’s two semesters prerequisite in Finnish and two in Latin. I can’t remember the last time I was as excited by and immersed in the total work of a writer as I seem now to be with respect to Tolkien. And it’s not like I haven’t read the man before. Heck, I heard and internalized The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before I could very well read at all. But it’s a good while since I did more than glance here and there in the old philologist’s work, and I had never, until recently, begun to dig very far into the ancillary and unfinished opuscules. Christopher Tolkien completed his monumental editorial project, the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, when I was about fourteen, and I was vaguely aware of it, I think I even read one or two volumes. But that was getting toward the time when I began to feel a need to put aside fantasy, and even (foolishly) to become embarrassed by it or at least uneasy, for the sake of other forms of literary art such as French poetry, and Dostoevsky, and Bob Dylan — all which stuff, by the way, has far more to do with Tolkien than I realized twenty years ago.

Well, then, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s minor works, i.e. some of his poetry that did not appear in the larger fictions and the short stories; and also the essays. I’ve also been reading insightful works by Tom Shippey, Jonathan S McIntosh, and Stratford Caldecott on Tolkien’s style and mythopoeia and metaphysics and even, as I would call it, his ‘linguo-mysticism.’ And then there are his letters, which are of enormous interest not only in elucidating the creative work, but I should think as well for all writers interested in the relationship between the craft or style of fantasy and mythoi, the substance of it. They contain a good deal of spiritual wisdom and sobriety into the bargain. I am only getting started on the letters. But what I really need to give a thorough inspection is the History of Middle Earth. Particularly I’m eager to read the “The Notion Club Papers,” which in conjunction with the short stories (especially “Leaf by Niggle”) would seem to constitute the author’s clearest metafictional thought.

But I digress. The larger point is that Tolkien, as I am somehow only now realizing, was a writer on the order of, say, Spenser; or, to use more modern examples: James Joyce, John Cowper Powys, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner and Marcel Proust. I might throw in Virginia Woolf and Herman Broch as well, and not even get started on poets. Why this odd bunch? Two things are striking about Tolkien: his total commitment, as a writer, to a single, unified world or cosmos; and the origin of his work in a fascination with the innermost essence or heart of language — several languages in particular, and language as such — which is the root and genesis of his peculiar, quasi-mystical insight. Tolkien himself attributed his creative work to these twinned sources, which he would sometimes call mythopoeia and glossopoeia, the creation of story-worlds and in a unique way of language, and therefore of unique, new languages. He was, then, a master stylist, in the ranks with Shakespeare and Milton and, again, Spenser, all of whom were really more than stylists, they practically reinvented English for themselves. (It would be interesting to compare Tolkien as a stylist, really a polystylist, with some roughly contemporary reworkers of English whom we might better describe as archaists, viz. Charles Doughty, Robert Bridges, and E R Eddison… another time.) But call it style anyway, and say that for Tolkien, style was inextricable from what we now might call world-building. That modernist company I listed all had a philological bent like Tolkien’s (though none were the trained philologists Tolkien was), and they all, like him, went deep in place, which is to say in history or in memory. And they all knew a kind of metaphysical awe that spurred their writing. Perhaps crucially, the worlds that these writers shaped both are and are not this real world. And their commitment was near-total, i.e. their writing seemed to exist in the service of their worlds and the kinds of language necessitated by those worlds, rather than the worlds and styles existing as epiphenomena of the writing, as usefully consistent settings and thematically appropriate styles. However, this is not to say — at least not for Tolkien — that world was ontologically prior to language. Indeed, either the reverse obtains or, for Tolkien, world and word are coeval.

One of the aspects of Tolkien as a writer that I most appreciate, and which I suspect many other of his fans appreciate whether consciously or not, is that he evidently thought a great deal about the musicality of language, whether in its most wrought form, poetry, or in prose style, or in the essential defining characteristics of a language, what he called its word-forms and phonaesthetics. And he thought about all this in a very personal way. In a lecture concerning his interest in Welsh philology (not his area of academic expertise, and so something he was not obliged to study very much) given the day after The Return of the King was published, Tolkien speculated:

Language — and more so as expression than as communication — is a natural product of our humanity. But it is therefore also a product of our individuality. We each have our own linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes… But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

He goes on to say that “Gothic was the first [language] to take me by storm, to move my heart.” Strong words. And they ring very true to me — not necessarily Tolkien’s particular preferences in philology, but this notion that we have an inborn set of linguistic predilections. You can see this very clearly in a child learning to talk. My young son runs about all day blurting syllables and learning how to put sounds together, sometimes saying actual words and using them as language, i.e. correctly, but much of the time just clearly playing with phonemes. Most of these he is picking up from his parents — but how does he choose which syllables to practice, if not by sheer preference? And what to make of the sounds he plays with that do not seem to be part of English?

Some of us sheepishly carry on with this sort of thing far past childhood. Not only do we pursue other languages, as much for the aesthetic pleasure as anything else (a pleasure that may derive, if Tolkien is right, from those languages offering us something of the contours of our ‘native language’ that we don’t get enough of in our own regular speech), but we actively invent new languages. That Tolkien was able to do so quite extensively and rigorously is, I think, a large part of the success of his legendarium. He developed a phonaesthetics that appeals to many readers: there is pleasure in the Elvish languages themselves, apart from the sense of a world that their significant presence in the mythoi suggests.

But suggest a world the invented language most certainly does. Glossopoeia implies and entails mythopoeia. In his lecture “A Secret Vice” (that is, inventing languages), given in 1931 (six years before The Hobbit was first published, and thus before anyone had any notion of what Tolkien was up to in his spare time), the man who studied Finnish on a whim and felt compelled to cross-breed it with Latin and his own ‘native language’ in order to invent Quenya, speculated that

For perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant… because the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavor, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology… your language construction will breed a mythology.

There is certaily nothing amiss in discussing the pleasure of glossopoeia. Art is made to give pleasure and entertain, as Tolkien himself would assert in a later preface to The Lord of the Rings. But saying in what the pleasure of glossopoeia consists is another matter. Tolkien goes on in the lecture to admit that he was “most interested perhaps in word-form in itself, and in word-form in relation to meaning (so-called phonetic fitness).” There is, I submit, a certain degree of mystery in this kind of thing. Around the same time that Tolkien was talking about word-form matching meaning, the highly poetic Swiss Neoplatonic (and, incidentally, Catholic) philosopher Max Picard was high up in a valley somewhere near the Italian border writing a book in which he declared that in every language there will be certain words that are “darlings” of the language, in which the “soul” of the word fills out its “body” perfectly. He adduces Baum and Himmel in German as examples. Probably one either has sympathy with such notions or one does not. It is certainly not arguable in regular academic exposition, which is no doubt part of the reason Tolkien, an academic, always felt shy about his literary efforts, rooted as they were in this very intimate and unique relationship with and sense for the music of language.

It is exceptionally difficult to talk about the musicality of language. It is a concept that is anteriorly metaphorical, and to make matters worse, the individual or subjective element in how we perceive musicality — the fact that we are each, in weighing and tasting a line of verse or a sentence of prose, dealing with an utterly personal linguistic experience and our own ‘native language’ — can make analytical discussion of this aspect of literary art frustrating. But it is sometimes possible to describe what one perceives and enjoys in the musicality of language. In “A Secret Vice” Tolkien concludes by reflecting on poetry (and I would say the same applies to prose):

The word-music, according to the nature of the tongue [sc. language] and the skill or ear (conscious or artless) of the poet, runs on heard, but seldom coming to awareness. At rare moments we pause to wonder why a line or couplet produces an effect beyond its significance… So little do we ponder word-form and sound-music, beyond a few hasty observations of its crudest manifestations in rhyme and alliteration, that we are unaware often that the answer is simply that by luck or skill the poet has struck out an air which illuminates the line as a sound of music half-attended to may deepen the significance of some unrelated thing thought or read, while the music ran.

And in a living language this is all the more poignant because the language is not constructed to do this, and only by rare felicity will it say what we wish it to, significantly [sc. semantically], and at the same time sing carelessly.

This is still, it strikes me, a very poetic or figurative way of saying what is going on in the musicality of language. Like I say, we are dealing with a deeply entrenched metaphor when we talk about the music of language. Describing the grammar or historical provenance of a passage, and then comparing it to the semantic sense, will never yield a full explanation of art’s mysterious marriage of form and content.

I want to end this prolegomenon to a discussion of the Ainulindalë (“the music of the Ainur” according to the subtitle) by observing that for Tolkien the musicality of language was apparently bound up with another sort of perception. Recall the connection between glossopoeia and mythopoeia. I read in Stratford Caldecott’s book The Power of the Ring that C S Lewis, in composing an obituary for Tolkien, described him as having traveled “inside language.”  And Caldecott then records that, according to Verlyn Flieger, a fellow academic once said to Tolkien, “You broke the veil, didn’t you, and passed through?” Evidently Tolkien then admitted that he had. If I have time, I intend to track down this reference (Caldecott’s notes and citations are appallingly incomplete), for this is beyond question the language of religious mystery, which is not language Tolkien would have treated lightly. The only elucidation I can supply at the moment is from the same point in Caldecott’s book. (I have foolishly relinquished the library copy of Shippey’s Author of the Century, or else I could find there, if memory serves, a reference to the incident I am about to report.) When he was still quite young, Tolkien encountered two lines in an Old Saxon poem which moved him in a way that, since it cannot have come only from the sense, must have come to some degree from the music of the lines. In the “Notion Club Papers,” Caldecott reports, Tolkien described reading the lines from Cynewulf, which contain the word Earendel (morning star), in this way:

I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English… I don’t think it is any irreverence to say that it may derive its curiously moving quality from some older world.

As we know, he would go on to grasp, and really to discover, that world magnificently. I am going to next be talking about the Ainulindalë, which is an account not of the discovery of a world now passed, but of the creation of the world still extant. I am going to be talking about phonaesthetics and glossopoeia and music in the Ainulindalë, the last both as a figure and as the language of the piece itself, i.e. its prose style or its specific and varied musicality. I felt it was best to share these thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas and experiences of linguistic musicality first. When I can get my hands on the “Notion Club Papers” and perhaps read more in his letters and track down that source in Flieger’s work, I may have more to say about Tolkien’s insight into the musicality of language, and his understanding of the relation between that kind of music and mythopoeia.