I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, ‘Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined.’ That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it. I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate. But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say. Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end.
—G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography
Brekekekex koax koax, Parley-voo? Brekekekex koax koax, Parley-voo? Brekekekex koax koax, Go kiss a frog if a Prince attracts, Hinky, dinky, parley-voo!You’re welcome.
A senior lexicographer explained that they simply had not encountered the word and graciously invited her to submit her examples. This she did, eliciting a promise that ‘gibbled’ would definitely be considered for the dictionary's next edition.The Forty Immortals of the Académie, if someone had sent them such a word caught in the wild in Picardy or Poitou, would probably have curled their upper lips and spat: ‘Cela n’est pas français!’ And that would have been the end of it; except that when the word passed into everyday use despite their curled lips, they would have labelled it as slang, and appointed a committee of shiny-bottomed Under Deputy Vice-Commissioners of the French Language to invent an officially approved substitute. And there would be forty men on the committee, and they would take forty years to make their report and invent their word, just as in the palmy days of Dr. Johnson. One of the more fertile sources of new English words in the past generation has been The Simpsons, the animated fever dream of Fox TV. Everybody knows (for certain values of ‘everybody’) how the show popularized a rare word and invented a new one in a single immortal joke. An inscription reads:
A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. —Jebediah SpringfieldTwo of the teachers at Springfield Elementary spring the joke:
Edna Krabappel: ‘Embiggens’? I never heard that word before I came to Springfield. Miss Hoover: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.Embiggens was a rare but real word before The Simpsons got hold of it, and it is real but rare today. Cromulent was a new coinage, and the Anglosphere has taken it to its bosom. The word is an interesting example of that class sometimes called contronyms: words with two diametrically opposed meanings (such as fast, which can mean ‘stuck firmly in one place’ or ‘moving very quickly’). Sometimes people use cromulent the way Miss Hoover evidently did, to mean ‘valid’ or ‘acceptable’. But it is also used ironically, to mean something like, ‘completely bogus, but nevertheless widely used’. Now that it has wormed its way into some of our common-law dictionaries, we can say that cromulent is a cromulent word in both of its own meanings. Some contronyms acquire their opposite meanings because they are really two words, etymologically unrelated, that happen to be exact homonyms. But in some cases, they share a root meaning, not necessarily obvious, that makes the opposite usages understandable, if not convenient. Sanction is such a word. It can mean either to authorize or to forbid. You could even use the word both ways in the same sentence, with some hope of being understood, and a fair certainty of being laughed at. One can just about imagine a U.N. bureaucrat saying, ‘We sanction the use of force to enforce our sanctions.’ But whichever way it is used, it comes from the Latin sancire, ‘to ratify’. A sanction (of either kind) is something approved and ratified by a Higher Authority: such as the Académie Française, which sanctions the use of some French words and imposes its sanction against others. Waiting about for someone’s sanction, yea or nay, is a very un-English thing to do; and so English goes ahead on nobody’s authority, and is a language of cromulent words. Long may it be embiggened.
Where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. Words are to blame.There is a very old English saying, invented by people who had a far better instinct for the use of language than Virginia Woolf ever had: ‘It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.’ At the very time when Woolf (and a lot of other tired English littérateurs) complained about the exhaustion of the English language, a generation of mostly American and Irish writers were making those poor old words do wonderful new tricks, and breathed a whole new vigour into literature. (Then there were Welshmen like Dylan Thomas, and a few Scots. There may even have been a Canadian in there somewhere.) Of course it was the Americans’ turn to slip into decadence half a century later, when it became fashionable for the darlings of American Lit to blame the failure of their books on the inadequacy of words to express their wonderful sublime ideas. B. R. Myers had a short way with such people, pointing out sarcastically that English words were good enough for ‘a piker like Shakespeare’. What did the Americans, Irish, and Welsh have in Woolf’s time that Woolf and her English friends lacked? Part of the answer may perhaps be found when we hear Woolf’s accent. It is a very pure and correct ‘educated’ accent, an early form of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the chief purpose of which was to prove that the speaker did not belong to the despised working classes. It was a deracinated English, deliberately divorced from any regional dialect or demotic form of speech; it did not even have the vitality to generate a vivid slang of its own. George Orwell, who was brought up to to speak it, observed:
The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of BBC announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England, the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three-quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism.This is precisely Woolf’s accent; you can hear it in recordings by Noel Coward also, and any number of English politicians of the time. (Not Churchill; as Orwell points out, ‘Too old to have acquired the modern “educated” accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds ilke cockney.’ This gave Churchill a great advantage as a public speaker: people could hear him without hating him.) In documents of the period, it is often called a mincing accent; it would not be too much to say that it was seldom spoken without fear – fear of seeming ‘common’; fear of being mistaken for a member of the Lower Orders; fear of breaking the innumerable social taboos that ‘educated’ speakers were supposed to obey, and thus revealing (truly or falsely) that the accent was merely an act. Great literature is not written by people who are afraid to speak freely. So the task devolved upon people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas, and Eliot, who spoke and wrote in their own regional dialects and never felt any need to apologize for it. It is not the inadequacy of words that kills literature, but the fear of being seen to use them differently from other people.
EDITOR, n. A person who combines the judicial functions of Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, but is placable with an obolus; a severely virtuous censor, but so charitable withal that he tolerates the virtues of others and the vices of himself; who flings about him the splintering lightning and sturdy thunders of admonition till he resembles a bunch of firecrackers petulantly uttering his mind at the tail of a dog; then straightway murmurs a mild, melodious lay, soft as the cooing of a donkey intoning its prayer to the evening star. Master of mysteries and lord of law, high-pinnacled upon the throne of thought, his face suffused with the dim splendors of the Transfiguration, his legs intertwisted and his tongue a-cheek, the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit. And at intervals from behind the veil of the temple is heard the voice of the foreman demanding three inches of wit and six lines of religious meditation, or bidding him turn off the wisdom and whack up some pathos. O, the Lord of Law on the Throne of Thought, A gilded impostor is he. Of shreds and patches his robes are wrought, His crown is brass, Himself an ass, And his power is fiddle-dee-dee. Prankily, crankily prating of naught, Silly old quilly old Monarch of Thought. Public opinion’s camp-follower he, Thundering, blundering, plundering free. Affected, Ungracious, Suspected, Mendacious, Respected contemporaree! —J.H. Bumbleshook(Hat tip to Peter Grant, by way of Mad Genius Club.)
- The Australian habit of calling redheads ‘Blue’.
- The Holy Roman Empire, which as Voltaire observed, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.
- Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’, which produced nothing but lies.
- ‘Democratic People’s Republic’ almost anywhere you find it, but especially as applied to the comic-opera régime of North Korea, an unconstitutional hereditary monarchy in which the people count for nothing.
There is no such thing as an expert on language. There are experts on individual languages, and experts on different aspects of language as a phenomenon; but the field of language as a whole is, and always has been, far too large for anyone to adequately survey in a human lifetime. Tolkien came as near it as almost anyone: he was intimately familiar with the whole 1,500-year history of English, plus Old Norse, Latin, and classical Greek, and had a firm working knowledge of German, French, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Hebrew, and several other languages, including the latest reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European. Yet he wrote, with perfect sincerity, to Fr. Robert Murray: ‘I am in no ordinary sense a “linguist”’. He understood better than most professional linguists the internal workings of language, but he also had a sound knowledge of his own limitations. It may be unfair to compare Tolkien with Noam Chomsky, who does unabashedly call himself a linguist, and is often regarded by his younger colleagues in the field as the linguist. Unfair, but for my present purpose, necessary. Chomsky does not show any signs of great familiarity with any language but English. He attempts to lay down ‘universal’ rules of grammar, but his universals, when closely examined, tend to be disturbingly parochial. For Chomsky, the whole and sufficient business of linguistics is generative grammar – the rules for assembling words into sentences. Where the words themselves come from does not much interest him, and he has famously accused etymologists and philologists en bloc of asking ‘the wrong questions’. Yet having so restricted his field of inquiry, he restricts himself still further by making grammar itself largely a matter of word-order and the assembly of phrases. This leaves out, for instance, the so-called polysynthetic languages, which can cram a whole sentence’s worth of meaning into a single word, by bolting long strings of prefixes or suffixes onto a single root. It even leaves out languages like Latin and Greek, where the order of words in a sentence is almost arbitrary, and the grammatical role of each word is determined by its inflections. I will offer a single example before moving on. Linguists of Chomsky’s school talk of ‘pro-drop’ languages, meaning those languages in which one can ‘drop’ the subject of a sentence when it happens to be a pronoun. This, in fact, is a singularly inapt description of what happens. In languages like Latin and Greek, or (to take the example best known to me) Spanish, the pronoun is not dropped; it is fused with the verb. When Horace says Odi vulgus profanum et arceo, he is not omitting the pronoun ego from the sentence. The Latin for ‘I hate’ is not ego odi, it is simply odi; ‘I ward off’ is not ego arceo, but simply arceo. The history of sound-changes has obscured the first-personal ending of odi, but in arceo we see it standing plain and proud in its primitive Indo-European glory: it is O. We find the same ending in Greek, or in Spanish, when I say, for instance, Creo que Chomsky no siente vergüenza. Creo – ‘I believe’. If I alter that to yo creo, according to the ‘pro-drop’ people, I am simply restoring the ‘natural’ form of the sentence; but that, in Spanish, is not what I am actually doing. Adding the pronoun yo is a duplication for emphasis. Yo creo translates more accurately: ‘I myself believe’, or ‘Me, I believe’. But this is the sort of thing that Chomskyites miss, because they take the peculiarities of English grammar as normative. I do not, of course, pretend to be an expert on language; nor in any particular language – not even English, which is the cussedest and most complex language on the face of the earth, and cannot be thoroughly understood without a knowledge of a dozen others. I know just about enough linguistics to tell a real linguist from a poseur; to tell, for instance, that if Tolkien is not a linguist, Chomsky does not even begin to be one. The good Chomskyites who taught me their version of linguistics were as parochial as their patron: I could have got my degree from them without any knowledge of a language other than English. There is a second-language requirement for the M.A. program, but only because German is still the lingua franca of linguistics, and it is necessary to be able to read the relevant academic papers. In fact, it would appear, these modern linguists have never even heard of the dictum that a person who knows only one language does not really know even that. My point, so far, is that language is a minefield, and even the most learned of men may happen to step on a mine. When amateurs wander in, they have a way of blowing themselves up in a matter of seconds. It is particularly good fun to see one amateur go into the minefield to try to guide another. In The Age of Faith, Will Durant (who was a fairish popular historian but no linguist) discusses the Etymologiae of St. Isidore of Seville, who was, sadly, the nearest thing that Visigothic Spain possessed to a learned man. Isidore’s book, despite the name, is a one-man encyclopaedia, a compendium of the important bits out of dozens of classical authors, not always fully digested or understood. It remains important today chiefly because so many of his original sources have been lost, and would be forgotten entirely if Isidore had not preserved fragments of them. Durant acknowledges this, but he has a low opinion of Isidore’s scholarship, calling it (among other things) ‘a farrago of weird etymologies’. And almost at once, he steps on a mine. The trouble about etymology is that words that resemble one another are often unrelated, but words that really are related are often very different. The words isle and island, so obviously alike in sound and meaning, are completely unrelated; whereas five and punch (the drink, not the thing you do with a fist), which seem completely unalike, actually derive from the same Indo-European root. Classical etymologists liked to make up just-so stories about the origin of words, superficially plausible, but actually nonsensical; Isidore was firmly in this tradition. The catch is that they were not necessarily wrong; and it takes a real etymologist to tell the difference. So Durant ridicules Isidore for thinking that the knees are called genua in Latin because ‘in the foetus, they lie opposite the cheeks (genae)’. So far, so good: the similarity of sound is accidental. Gena comes from the same root as Greek γένυς and English chin, and seems originally to have referred to the jaw. Genu comes from the same root as Greek γόνυ and English knee. (From γόνυ, by the way, comes γωνία ‘angle’, from which we get words like polygon. Etymologically speaking, a hexagon is a figure with six knees.) But while Durant’s right foot lands safely, his left foot is busy stepping on a mine. He also laughs at Isidore for saying that man ‘is called homo because God made him from the earth (humus)’. In fact, homo and humus really do go back to the same root, which the Indo-Europeanists reconstruct as *dʰéǵʰōm, meaning ‘earth’. From this, we are assured, comes *dʰǵʰémō, ‘earthling’ – though we cannot now tell whether that meant ‘one who lives on the earth’ or ‘one who is made out of the earth’. At any rate, it is not an unusual connection for a language to make. The Hebrew word אָדָם (adam), which everybody knows as the name of the first man, meant both ‘man’ and ‘soil’. In fact, Durant is making fun of Isidore for being exactly right. If there is a lesson in all this, it is that a folk etymologist is like a stopped clock. If anything, this underrates the clock; for there are not many folk etymologists that manage to be right twice a day, and stopped clocks don’t usually make a nuisance of themselves by loudly announcing what time it is. The folk etymologists are often assiduous about setting the record wrong. At various times they insisted on changing abominable to abhominable, and foxglove to folks’-glove, and coconut to cocoanut – and were mistaken each time. (And as the immortal H. W. Fowler said: ‘Welsh rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh rarebit is stupid and wrong.’) They also, in the 16th century or thereabouts, stuck a silent S in the middle of the Anglo-Norman word ile, just because the Latin insula has an S in it; then they stuck the same S into iland, supposing that it was related to i(s)le. They even buffaloed the whole English-speaking world into abandoning the spelling delite, which was both etymologically and phonetically correct, for the ridiculous delight. Nowadays, we have a rash of folk etymologists who are also village atheists. An early sign of spring, in most years, is that these people turn up all over the Internet, solemnly informing us that Easter is actually a pagan festival which the wicked Christians took over and ruined. In support of this idea they quote the Venerable Bede, who claimed that Éostre or Éastre was the name of a pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess connected with springitme. Latterly they have begun to claim that Easter (or Éostre) is identical with Ishtar, and that the holiday originated as the feast of a Near Eastern fertility goddess. All this – it should be, but is not, needless to say – is bosh. To begin with, while the name ‘Easter’ is taken from pre-Christian English, the holiday is not. That was brought over from the Continent by the early Christian missionaries, who called it (in both Latin and Greek) Pascha. This name, appropriately enough, comes from Hebrew Pesach (פֶּסַח), which in English is called Passover. (It has also, in a relatively harmless example of folk etymology, been linked with the Greek word πάσχω ‘I suffer’.) The Romance languages call the holiday by names derived from Pascha: Pascua, Pasqua, Pâques, etc. It becomes Pasg in Welsh, påsk in Swedish, Pasen in Dutch. Only English (Easter) and German (Ostern) use names taken from a pagan Germanic term. Now what about Éostre herself? The evidence for the existence of this goddess is rather sparse. Apart from Bede, we have Jacob Grimm drawing comparisons (nearly all based in comparative linguistics) with goddess-figures from various Indo-European cultures with related names. But Grimm had a tendency to claim too much. He liked to believe that if words in related languages could be traced back to a common root, the meanings of the words must be of equal antiquity. This is not necessarily the case. Our word beech goes back to a PIE root, reconstructed as *bʰeh₂ǵos, but that word did not necessarily refer to beech-trees. It also gave rise to the Greek φηγός, which means ‘oak’, and Russian buzina, which means ‘elder-tree’. The endless arguments about the original homeland of the Indo-European people turn largely on problems like this. There are PIE words that appear to mean not only ‘beech’, but ‘salmon’, ‘lake’, ‘horse’, ‘snow’, and so on; and there are other things, like salt seas and oceans, for which there appears to have been no word in the language. If you go looking for a place on the map that had all the things for which there were PIE words, and did not have the things for which there were no words, you will find yourself on a wild-goose chase. What you have to remember is that the words themselves have changed their meanings. To figure out exactly what they meant 5,000 years ago, and where all the things they originally referred to could then be found, is probably an impossible task. However, there are clues. There does not seem to be any solid evidence of an actual cult of Éostre; the alleged goddess is not even mentioned in any surviving source except Bede. If you go back in time to Proto-Germanic Austro, or to PIE *H₂ewsṓs (or Ausos), you will find still less to go on. The Greek equivalent, Eos, and the Latin Aurora, usually occur not as proper names, but as ordinary words meaning ‘dawn’. It is true that Homer is constantly referring to Eos, ‘the rosy-fingered dawn’, as a goddess; but this may be no more than a poetic personification. No more; and no less. We can take another clue from Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. In ancient times, and particularly in the ages before the Greeks took up philosophy, there was no hard distinction between natural phenomena and persons. It was pre-eminently the age of what Martin Buber calls the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. Anything in nature that seemed to have agency – anything that did things – was naturally considered to have a spirit, and to be something resembling a person. This is not to say that such things were always anthropomorphized. The Romans, for instance, thought of the powers of nature as numina, divine spirits that might have very little in common with the souls of men. They could, in principle, be communicated with, and one could make bargains with them; some of them, it seemed, could be appeased by sacrifices and other rituals. But they did not necessarily have thoughts or emotions as we understand them. The pagan divinities of the Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic peoples were not necessarily much more human than this. It was only the Greeks, through their prolific invention of myths and poems, who made a definite and unanimous decision to represent all their gods as superhuman beings in human form, using human language, and having human thoughts and feelings. (They also, in the process, made their gods seem monstrous and even ridiculous. A man who carried on with everything female under the sun, as Zeus was supposed to do, would be downright disgusting – even by Greek standards. Euripides and Plato, among others, were sadly aware of this.) Eos or Aurora, then, was the dawn, the brightening of the sky before sunrise; but equally, the numen of dawn, the spirit of the early morning. Nobody seems to have sacrificed to the dawn, though they often sacrificed to other gods at dawn. Hesiod fitted Eos into his elaborate genealogy of the gods, making her the daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia, and the sister of Helios and Selene (the Sun and Moon). On the other hand, Diodorus Siculus, writing at the very end of the development of Greek myth, says:
Of Hyperion we are told that he was the first to understand, by diligent attention and observation, the movement of both the sun and the moon and the other stars, and the seasons as well, in that they are caused by these bodies, and to make these facts known to others; and that for this reason he was called the father of these bodies, since he had begotten, so to speak, the speculation about them and their nature.This, of course, is partly the intellectualizing Hellenistic tradition at work; but it reminds us just how changeable the Greek myths were. Aphrodite, according to Homer, was the daughter of Zeus and Dione; but Hesiod made her the daughter of Uranus, formed from the foam (ἀφρός) where his genitals fell into the sea after Cronus cut them off. Those who see Éostre–Eos–Ausos in every closet would have us believe that Aphrodite ‘is’ Eos as well; but for all the stories that the Greeks have told about Aphrodite’s origins, that is one that has not come down to us. None of the genealogies make her a Titaness, or a close relation of Helios and Selene. I am afraid that in this case, the most naive and simple folk etymology is the one that will bring us closest to the truth. The obvious thing is to think that ‘Easter’ and ‘East’ are related; and this, in fact, is true. East is defined, originally, as the direction of sunrise; compare Latin oriens, which means both ‘east’ and ‘rising’. By an obvious analogy, sunrise is associated with springtime: the spring is the morning of the year, the time of increasing light. In the evening, as we still say in English, the sun westers; it approaches the horizon in the West, and disappears beneath it. There is no verb ‘to easter’, since the sun is never seen to approach the horizon in the East; but it does so all the same, out of sight, hidden by the bulk of the earth. If we had such an expression, we should say that dawn is the brightness in the sky caused by the eastering sun; and that springtime is the eastering of the year. And in fact it is this last expression that the Anglo-Saxons used, almost exactly, in the phrase éostre tid — Eastertide. Where does this leave Ishtar? She was the Akkadian and Babylonian goddess of love and war (in which we are told that all is fair), as well as sex and fertility. The Greeks identified her as a love-goddess with Aphrodite, and as a war-goddess with Artemis; but the Greeks never supposed that Aphrodite and Artemis were the same person. Ishtar was identified with the evening star before Babylonian astronomers figured out that the morning and evening stars were one and the same planet. It is because the Greeks partially identified Ishtar with Aphrodite (and the Romans identified Aphrodite with Venus) that we now call that planet Venus. The folk etymologists and some neopagan syncretists, the ones who conflate Aphrodite together with Eos, would have us believe that both of these Greek goddesses are also identical with Ishtar; but Ishtar was not, by any evidence available to us, a goddess of the dawn. The idea that ‘Ishtar’ and ‘Easter’ are related words is a silly notion arising from a misunderstanding of the various pagan syncretisms involved, and from a completely fortuitous resemblance of sound. There is in fact no discoverable connection between the name Ishtar and any Indo-European word. The same, of course, goes for Ashtart, the Syrian–Phoenician version of the name, and for Astarte, which is how the Greeks rendered it into the sounds of their own language. What, then, of the morning star? This, it would seem, was not identified with Eos by the Greeks; probably because the dawn occurs every day, whether Venus is visible in the sky or not, and at the most productive period of Greek myth-making, they had not yet acquired the astronomical knowledge of Babylon. It was the Babylonians, so far as I know, who first gave the seven traditional planets (including the sun and moon) the names of their gods; and when the Greeks did take up astronomy, they gave the planets the names of roughly equivalent gods. The Romans repeated the process. So Marduk became Zeus, which became Jupiter; Ishtar became Aphrodite, which became Venus; and so on. We can trace this process of substitution one step further, in the modern English days of the week. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are named for Tiu (Mars), Woden (Mercury), Thor (Jupiter), and Freya (Venus) – these being the rough and ready equivalents between the classical and Germanic gods. Freya is not Éostre, any more than Aphrodite is Eos (or Artemis). The identification did not run in that direction. However, the Germanic peoples had their own myths about the morning star, unconnected with Freya or her sisters from the South. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, Aurvandil the Valiant was Thor’s companion on a journey. At one point, Thor carried Aurvandil out of Jötunheim in a basket. One of Aurvandil’s toes stuck out of the basket, and in that place of eternal cold and frost, it froze solid. Then Thor broke off the toe and threw it up into the heavens, where it became the star known as Aurvandil’s Toe. This has traditionally been identified with the morning star. Aurvandil, as it happens, is a kind of linguistic relative of Éostre. The Primitive Germanic version of the name has been reconstructed as Auziwandilaz, the ‘Bright Wanderer’ or ‘Dawn Wanderer’. Auzi is another form of the word that appears in East and Éostre. It is this connection between Aurvandil and Éostre that makes me reasonably certain that the morning star, and not some other heavenly body, is Aurvandil’s Toe. And it is the separate existence of the two that tells against any connection in the deep prehistory of mythology with Aphrodite or Ishtar. The Bright Wanderer is not the goddess Dawn; indeed, the Bright Wanderer is not a goddess at all, but a legendary hero’s frozen big toe. The Old English form of Aurvandil is Éarendel, and the morning star came to be known by that name in England (without mention of the toe, it would seem). After the English converted to Christianity, many of their tales and legends were, so to speak, baptized: the people were too fond of them to abandon them wholesale, but they found ways of accommodating them to the Christian view of the world. So, while the astrologers were busy identifying pagan Venus with pagan Freya, an unknown poet made an ‘identification’ in a different direction – attaching the Germanic myth to a Christian story. In the Old English cycle of poems called Crist, Éarendel is identified with John the Baptist. Just as the morning star rises before the sun and announces its coming, John arises before Jesus and announces that the Messiah is at hand. Hence the famous lines:
Éala éarendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended and sodfasta sunnan leoma, tohrt ofer tunglas þu tida gehvane of sylfum þe symle inlihtes.‘Hail, Éarendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth sent to men, and true radiance of the Sun bright above the stars, every season thou of thyself ever illuminest.’ Crist may have been written about the year 800; the Venerable Bede died in 735. By this time, Éostre had firmly taken its place as the name of the Christian holyday, and the pagan goddess (if she was ever more than a personification of daybreak) had been largely forgotten. But the identification was still there, available for poets to use. The Crist-poet (or poets) must have known of it, and made brilliant use of it. Éarendel, the forerunner of Éostre, the dawn, is taken up into Christianity to represent John, the forerunner of Christ – whose passion and resurrection, the centre of his story, are celebrated at Easter, the dawn-tide of the year. It was too good a match for a poet not to use; as good as Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue. And so we come back to Tolkien, who was (in his own terms) no linguist, but knew pretty nearly everything that anybody still knows about Old English. While still a very young man (just a hundred years ago last Thursday, give or take) he read Crist and was thunderstruck by the lines about Éarendel. Here was a bridge between the pagan myths and legends that he loved and the Christian religion in which he devoutly believed; and both were better for it – the Christian world made more colourful and imaginative, the pagan suffused with hints of meaning and hope. Long ages ago, but probably still after the writing of Crist, a supreme English poet had taken a hint, maybe, from Crist, and written an epic about the old pagan days, informed and illuminated with foreshadowings of Christian grace; we know it as Beowulf. Young Tolkien took his cue from both. Henceforth he would earn his bread by teaching the old poems and the old languages in which they were written, but the work of his heart would be to write new works of the same kind and flavour. He, too, would build a bridge between pagan and Christian, a mythology for England, informed and sanctified by the knowledge of the true God. As a philologist, it would be Tolkien’s job to resolve cruxes, conundrums within a text or contradictions between texts. As a storyteller and poet, he would strive with the conundrum of human longing, the contradiction between pagan Fairyland and Christian Heaven; he would seek all his life to resolve the crux. For crux, after all, is just the Latin word for the Cross.
Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story — the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths — which I could dedicate simply to: to England; to my country.The business of finding and resolving cruxes, of course, is not the only trick in the philologist’s bag, or the only one that Tolkien brought to his imaginative writing. A philologist, in the nature of things, must have a keen nose for style, for the sounds and usages of words. A genuine document is always rooted in the dialect of a particular time and place, modified by the author’s choice of words, rhythms, and turns of phrase. Many a forgery has been exposed because of anachronistic language. Since textual criticism is a branch of philology, it is only natural that it should suffer when practised by people with no philological skill. Unfortunately, since the eclipse of philology as an academic discipline, most English-speaking critics have been ignorant of philology and, on the whole, rather disdainful of the idea that it has anything to teach them. This does not always stop them from making the most sweeping assertions about a text, often on purely ideological grounds. Such critics are fair targets for C. S. Lewis’s accusation in ‘Fern-Seed and Elephants’:
— The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, no. 131 (to Milton Waldman)
These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.As these critics lose the ability to understand a text, they focus all the harder on the minute details of the text, and lose the benefit of context. This seems paradoxical, but it is, alas, not hard to explain. The ‘New Criticism’ was invented by men who had not the cultural literacy to see why literature is not and cannot be a science. In the interest of scientific objectivity, they banished the author’s intentions and the reader’s reactions from their purview. But literature is inherently a subjective art: it is an act of communication between a writer and a reader, and if you leave either of them out of account, the whole art form becomes strictly meaningless. To rescue criticism from this dead end, the critics imagine they can appeal to ‘objective’ criteria derived from ideology or psychology instead of the subjective facts of their experience as readers. Hence the elaborate vocabularies of symbolism propounded by various schools: Marxist, feminist, Freudian, Jungian, etc. ad infinitum. Whichever code-book is used, the technique is the same. By a process absurdly known as ‘close reading’, you break the text down into individual words and sentences — syntactic units, not narrative units. On this level you can analyse it without contaminating your objectivity by an emotional reaction. You then look for bits that are ‘explained’ by your code-book as symbols of something else, and accuse the author of deliberately inserting those symbols with a full (and usually culpable) knowledge of the coded meanings your school of critics has decided to give them. This process is generally known as ‘deconstruction’. In reality, most books are neither written nor read in any such way. What happens, at least with fiction and narrative poetry, occurs on a level above the text, to which ‘close reading’ by its nature gives no access. When I say above, I do not mean that this level is superior to the text considered merely as a string of sentences. I mean that this level of narrative is built on the text as a house is built on its foundation; it depends on it, is supported by it, and could not stand without it. The foundation is not built for its own sake, but for the purpose of holding up the house. The text does not exist for its own sake; it exists to convey a story. When you read a story — I speak here of normal recreational readers, not of critics or even editors — you enter a mild trance state. This trance has several interesting properties. It resembles a vivid daydream, but because its materials are furnished or suggested by the author, you as a reader are relieved of the task of making up the events of the daydream and can devote greater attention to imagining its sensuous details. Also, the critical faculties that might impede this imaginative play are partly engaged, and in a way lulled, by the task of reading the words on the page (or, in the case of told stories, listening to the narrator’s speech). The resulting mental state is mildly psychedelic; it bears some resemblances to the effects of mescaline. Interest in the external environment is diminished; interest in time almost disappears. But where Aldous Huxley on mescaline could spend hours contemplating the folds of his trousers, when you read a story, you contemplate a parallel world, constructed by the author’s words out of the materials in your head. Your attention is not on the book, but on the movie playing in your mind: not a flat thing on a screen, but a rounded environment into which you project yourself, either as an observer, or vicariously in the person of one of the characters. Within this environment, your reasoning faculty is fully engaged, but only in particular ways: you want to make sense out of the events, perceive connections between them; above all, you are consumed with a desire to know what happens next, and why. This art, or rather the art of inducing such vicarious dreams, is what Tolkien called ‘Faërian drama’. As Samuel Alexander observed in Space, Time, and Deity, it is psychologically impossible for human beings to do a thing and analyse it simultaneously. Alexander gave these separate activities the rather unhelpful names of ‘Enjoyment’ and ‘Contemplation’. For my own purposes I prefer the terms performance and attention. When you look through a telescope, you are attending to the stars and performing astronomy. If you then look at the telescope to see how it works, you are attending to the telescope and performing the science of optics. The moment your attention is captured by the instrument instead of the object, your performance moves along with it. This is a general rule; it applies to any activity that requires mental focus. When you read for enjoyment, you are attending to the story and performing the text — performing it much as an actor performs his lines: bringing it to life in motion and detail, even if you do not read aloud as an actor does. When you read as a critic, or at any rate as a New Critic, you are attending to the text itself and performing the act of textual analysis. This can be a valuable activity. The trouble is that you cannot attend to the text while performing the text; that is because you cannot focus on the text and the Faërian drama simultaneously. Critics, especially those taught ‘close reading’ too young, tend to denigrate the whole idea of story; some lose the knack of immersive reading altogether. For such unfortunates, whenever faced with words on a page, their only reaction is sentence-level criticism. The vicarious experience of the story is lost to them for ever. As a dubious compensation, these critics have the run of academia and the ‘literary’ reviews. There they can play the game of what B. R. Myers famously called the sentence cult, combing through a text without ever performing it, looking for individual sentences that leap to the eye. A bizarre metaphor, a strange cadence, a peculiar word choice, an imitation koan: these are the jewels that the sentence critic gathers. A book like Ulysses is perfect for this purpose: Joyce spends so much time doing stylistic jumping-jacks that the story is virtually concealed. For us ordinary writers, this would be a terrible mistake. A few literati love puzzling out texts, just as some people love crosswords; but the average recreational reader, and especially the kind who devours a novel a week, wants stories. Our grave danger as writers, then, is that we will do something to wrench the reader’s attention away from the story and back to the text. That an insult that he may not lightly forgive. Remember, the reader in the trance is vitally interested in the sequence of time and logic within the story: he wants to know what happens next. When we put stumbling-blocks in the text, we yank him away from the fulfilment of that desire and make him focus on an unwanted and (to him) irrelevant problem. This is what is meant by the expression ‘bouncing one out of the story’. Readers are reasonably forgiving as a rule, but every bounce will persuade a few to lay the book aside and not return. If we want them to stay with us for the whole journey, we need to keep their minds on the story as much as possible, which generally means keeping it off the text. There are, generally speaking, two ways to do this. The first is to play it safe. If we write plain, flat, unadorned prose, we will never reach for any high emotional or lyrical effects, but then, we will never stumble when we fail. The danger of this style is that it may be too flat to engage the emotions. The second way is more difficult but also more rewarding. That is to write with a broad emotional range, with high points and low points, lyrical passages and plain ones, so that our prose will infect the reader with some of the emotions we wish to induce, and we will not have to depend on the raw impact of the things described. In this, prose style plays a role like the incidental music in a film. It heightens the mood; it enables emotional responses that would seem ridiculous without it. The first technique is the usual method of melodrama; the second, of drama. It is difficult to predict how readers will respond to a subtle event; they may not notice it at all, or it may mean something to them that we did not intend. Melodrama is not subtle; it deals with obvious heroes, obvious villains, obvious problems with clear-cut solutions. A flat prose style can deal with such things, but when it deals with the subtler shades of drama, it either exaggerates them or makes no mark at all. In the first case, the reader is bounced out of the story; in the second, merely bored and confused. You cannot create the Mona Lisa with a sheet of construction paper and a box of crayons. This, by the way, is the answer to the plaintive question from so many critics (and envious writers), ‘Why do X’s books sell so well? He can’t write his way out of a paper bag.’ Dan Brown’s prose style is as flat and unaffecting as cardboard; it is, if you like, a ‘bad’ style. But it is appropriate for melodrama; and the elements of melodrama exist on the level of story, not text. It has been said that a melodrama is a story about a Villain, a Victim, and a Rescuer. These roles are all defined by the characters’ actions, not by anything you will find from sentence-level analysis. When George Orwell talked about ‘good bad books’, he meant just the kind of book that tells a melodramatic story in a limited prose style, but tells it vividly and is therefore entertaining and effective. Many critics have claimed that Tolkien is a bad prose stylist. Does this mean that The Lord of the Rings is a ‘good bad book’, merely an entertaining melodrama? To answer the question, we need to define the difference between melodrama and drama. I am indebted to Stephen R. Donaldson for this partial but useful definition: Where melodrama is about a Villain, a Victim, and a Rescuer, drama is about how those three characters exchange roles. Gollum is an excellent example. When we meet him in The Two Towers, he appears to be a pure villain, with Frodo and Sam as his intended victims. But Frodo tames him, for a while, just enough so that Gollum can play the rescuer in the Dead Marshes. Captured by Faramir, he becomes a victim, and Frodo rescues him. He is victimized in another way by Sam, who fails to see how Gollum is struggling towards the good, and inadvertently pushes him back into his evil habits. Then Gollum becomes the villain once more, betraying the Hobbits to Shelob; but in the end, at Mount Doom itself, he turns (despite his worst intentions) into the final rescuer who saves the Quest from catastrophe. Whatever The Lord of the Rings is, it is not a melodrama, any more than Hamlet or the Iliad. It contains several dramas, interlaced in a complex pattern, and each told in a style appropriate to the incidents and the characters. But none of these styles are the default style of the modern ‘literary’ novel. There are no showpiece sentences for the critics to make much of; there is no stock vocabulary of symbolism, Freudian, Marxist, or what not, by which to decode the text. Indeed the text of The Lord of the Rings is very different from that of the modern novel, because it says what it means, and means (at minimum) what it says. This, too, is a necessary feature of fantasy. The Ring is not a symbolic reification of Frodo’s will to power, but a real physical object — real in the context of the story — which happens to actually confer power. Critics are apt to confuse the two. One could deliberately choose to read the Ring symbolically; but then, one could ‘read’ an actual motorcar as a ‘symbol’ of the desire to travel rapidly. Dark Lords in Middle-earth have Rings of Power, and people in that equally wild fantasy world, the Industrialized West, drive cars. As Tolkien himself said: ‘The story is really a story of what happened in B.C. year X, and it just happened to people who were like that!’ As such, it resists all attempts to analyse it by Modernist or Postmodernist methods. You cannot take the text simply as a text; to find out what it means, you have to experience it as a story. A more promising line of attack blames Tolkien for not writing in the usual language of the English literary novel circa 1950. His style is usually criticized on two different grounds, or three. The opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring are denounced for their slightly old-fashioned tone, reminiscent (it is said) of Victorian penny dreadfuls and Edwardian school stories. The other two volumes repel many critics (and some readers) because of their archaic language. The third criticism is that Tolkien has no consistent style, but veers all over the place. In fact this variation of style was done deliberately and expertly, and the story could not be effectually told without it. One of the most common bits of advice offered to young writers is to ‘find your own voice’ and then stick with it. This is some of the worst advice a writer can take. Ernest Hemingway took it, wrote three or four strikingly original books, and then spent the rest of his life writing pastiches of his earlier style. Tolkien never fell into that trap. He knew that each story demands its own voice. A fairy-story like The Hobbit should not be told in the same tone as a creation myth like the Ainulindalë, or a tragedy like The Children of Húrin, or a light farce like Farmer Giles of Ham. In The Lord of the Rings we see the whole regiment of Tolkien’s styles on parade, beginning with the lightest and most quotidian, climbing by degrees to the highest and most formal. The story begins in a jolly Edwardian style that hostile reviewers compared to the Boys Own Paper. This very mild dose of archaism does two necessary things. First, it distances the narrative from the purely modern novel: this cleanses the palate, and prepares the reader for something fresh. Second, it places the story culturally, by alluding to the nearest familiar equivalent. Tolkien once described the Shire as ‘more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee’. The various Hobbit-dialects, from the rustic talk of Gaffer Gamgee to the lighthearted blather of Merry and Pippin, faithfully recreate modes of diction from that place and time. The last twenty years before the First World War were a time of peace and unexampled prosperity in England. Through all the popular novels, plays, and songs of the period there runs a kind of fat-bellied optimism, a refusal to be impressed by anything old or foreign, and especially by anything unpleasant. Such things could always be dismissed by the magic formula, ‘It can’t happen here.’ With the coming of war, the spell stopped working, the bubble burst, and English speech and thought necessarily changed. As George Orwell pointed out, the pre-war style is preserved in the stories of P. G. Wodehouse:
Conceived in 1917 or thereabouts, Bertie [Wooster] really belongs to an epoch earlier than that. . . . ‘He was still living in the period about which he wrote,’ says Flannery, meaning, probably, the nineteen-twenties. But the period was really the Edwardian age, and Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915.If there had been a real Bertie Wooster, a wealthy young Edwardian man-about-town, he might not have been physically killed in 1915; but he would have been a changed man after Passchendaele and the Somme. The lighthearted assumption that progress was inevitable, and that only the comfortable life was real, would have been blown out of him by the mighty blasts of the German artillery. Now, this is precisely the assumption that the Hobbits have at the outset of The Lord of the Rings. The ‘Days of Dearth’ are long past; the Shire is protected, secretly and unobtrusively, by the Rangers, just as England was protected by the Royal Navy. The average Edwardian Englishman thought foreigners were too silly and comical for words; Hobbits did not even bother to show the outside world on their maps. An English squire of 1910 talked like a Hobbit squire of Bilbo’s time; an Englishman of 1940 (when squires, in the old sense, hardly existed any longer) could hardly have been mistaken for either of them. But this Edwardian style is only the first course in a rich and varied banquet. As soon as the Hobbits leave the Shire, the style begins to break down in an artfully arranged manner. The description of the Old Forest is severe and estranging. The narrative becomes more sober in tone, the Hobbit-talk forced and unconvincing, until even the Hobbits’ attempts at song are crushed out by the sinister atmosphere of Old Man Willow. Some passages of description at this point are written in a style curiously reminiscent of the ‘stage-directions’ in parts of Ulysses. In the chapters from ‘The Old Forest’ to ‘Fog on the Barrow-downs’, the effect is one of sustained phantasmagoria. In this setting, and almost of a piece with it, is the voice of Tom Bombadil, who speaks in verse — a slightly looser version of the rough metre of his signature song. The four Hobbits have been rescued from an estranging environment, but their rescuer is stranger than the Old Forest itself. It does not do Bombadil much injustice to call him inconsequent: evil has no power over him, either to change him or to constrain him, but neither has he any power over it except for small personal interventions. His song (Ring a dong dillo!) is a string of nonsense, a spell against the grim and perilous sense of the Willow and the Barrow-wights. He can deliver the Hobbits from the consequences of their mistakes, but he lacks the power to bring about any consequences of his own. In today’s parlance, Bombadil is trippy. When Beard and Kenney, in Bored of the Rings, made ‘Tim Benzedrine’ a drug-addled, draft-dodging hippie, they rose from mere parody to trenchant criticism. Next the Hobbits arrive in Bree. Like the Shire, Bree is inhabited (but only partly) by Hobbits, and protected (but only partly) by the Rangers. Both are what Clute & Grant, in the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy, call ‘polders’; but the dykes surrounding Bree are thinner, and cannot keep out the Black Riders even for a single night. The style of the Bree chapters is a partial return to the Edwardian style, but a deliberately unsuccessful one. The comfortable Hobbit-life of the Bree-land has been diminished by ‘thinning’, to take another term from Clute & Grant; and the text is correspondingly ‘thinned’ as well. Frodo ventures a comic song, his first since leaving the Shire; but such levity is dangerous here, and nearly proves fatal. And Gandalf has failed to appear. The Quest seems lost before it has fairly begun; Hobbitry cannot face the Wild alone, any more than one could be a comfortable Edwardian gentleman without the protection of the British Empire. It is here that we see the first important appearance of the style that will predominate in the later ‘books’ of the tale. We might call it Tolkien’s neo-archaic style: it is archaic in tone and diction, but he carefully refrains (at this point) from using archaic words. Aragorn is the first major character to employ it in dialogue. He is a personage out of an older and nobler world: the leader, in fact, of the unseen protectors who have hitherto preserved the Shire. Once he enters the story, the narrative tone becomes more formal, the prose more cadenced. It is not yet archaic in the strict sense: the words are all familiar to us, except for proper names and a few words of Shire-dialect. But the sentence structure begins to approximate an older diction. It is beginning to be the language of the sagas, dignified, musical, and evocative. Such language is routinely deplored by modern-minded people, who suffer from what Owen Barfield called ‘chronological snobbery’. In fact, this degree of archaism is still used for effect by quite ordinary writers; even by politicians. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address used the trick to good effect: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ Change Ask not to Don’t ask, and the sentence loses force and rhythm. Change it to Do not ask, and the effect is even worse: it turns from an inspirational speech into a priggish prohibition. Most of the archaism in The Lord of the Rings is on this level, and Tolkien uses it judiciously and well. As the road to Rivendell grows more perilous, and the Black Riders hotter on Frodo’s trail, the narrative style becomes still more serious and uncompromising. At times the descriptions of scenes and action recall the unadorned vigour and economy of military reportage: the language of Caesar’s Commentaries or U. S. Grant’s memoirs. This reportage is leavened with just enough interior description to remind us of Frodo’s growing weakness and emotional struggle. Even the visible help of Glorfindel, and the unseen aid of Elrond and Gandalf, barely bring him to his destination alive; and Book I ends with Frodo unconscious, not knowing whether he has been rescued by the Elves, or captured by the Ringwraiths, or swept away by the flooding river. The second movement of a symphony typically opens with a theme recognizably related to the first movement, but slower and more subdued, often in a minor key. The opening of Book II is, by that standard, musically perfect. Bilbo reappears; Gandalf reappears — but Bilbo has aged, and Gandalf is consumed by urgent cares. The whole tone is more serious, and despite occasional patches of Hobbit-talk, the Edwardian style is more or less gone for good. But before Tolkien settles down to the neo-archaic style, he presents us with a smorgasbord at the Council of Elrond. Aristotle, in his Poetics, says that a poet can represent men either as better than life, worse than life, or just as they are. Northrop Frye has labelled those modes romantic, ironic, and mimetic, respectively. He then divides the mimetic mode into ‘high mimetic’, which deals with strong and heroic characters in a realistic way, and ‘low mimetic’, which deals largely with the characters and incidents of everyday life. To this he adds, at the top of the scale, the mythic mode, which deals with gods and other supernatural beings. Hobbit-talk is low mimetic; Aragorn is high mimetic at first, gradually ascending to the romantic as he grows from ‘Strider’ into ‘King Elessar’. The Council of Elrond is described in a mimetic style, ‘high’ in subject-matter and tone, but ‘low’ in that it realistically depicts the bickerings, misunderstandings, and confused agendas of a badly-run meeting. As Tom Shippey points out, Elrond may be a legendary hero, but he is not much of a chairman. However, these chaotic proceedings give full play to four of Frye’s five modes — all but the mythic — and some of Tolkien’s subtlest writing. Each speaker has a distinct style, suited to his circumstances and to the story he tells. Gimli does a stellar turn in an old formal style, describing the visit of Sauron’s menacing ambassador to King Dáin. Boromir operates in the romantic mode, in the realm of prophetic dreams and ancient legends, and is answered by Aragorn in the same mode. Legolas gives high-mimetic reportage of Gollum’s detention and escape. The most interesting speaker is Gandalf, and his best turn comes in describing the treason of Saruman — who has the one really modern voice in the book. Saruman’s speeches are naked propaganda, as dishonest as Goebbels’ broadcasts or the leading articles in Pravda. Later, hearing him first-hand, Gimli will exclaim indignantly: ‘The words of the wizard stand on their heads.’ That could as easily describe George Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’. The Council of Elrond shows one of the great advantages of Tolkien’s strategic use of style. Each character’s dialogue remains more or less on the level of the narrative at the point where he entered the story. In this way, nobody’s speech patterns (except Gollum’s) ever seem incongruous when they first appear; and because we grow used to them, they do not seem incongruous even when the style of the narrative changes and they remain the same. The Hobbits continue their light and informal Edwardian talk; Aragorn continues to talk like a sober man of honour, not only born but tried by fire to be a leader. Gandalf never quite loses the slightly humorous waspishness he first showed in The Hobbit, as when he snaps at Pippin in Moria:
‘Fool of a Took!’ he growled. ‘This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking-party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance.’In ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’, we see another brief touch of phantasmagoria when Frodo looks across Middle-earth from Amon Hen, and nearly gives himself away to Sauron. Once again this serves as a kind of caesura, emphatically separating a comparatively safe and comfortable part of the story from the sharply increased perils and higher tone that come after; but, of course, on a higher level than before. This time it is Gandalf’s voice (never identified by name) that calls Frodo back from the brink of disaster: ‘Fool, take it off! Take off the Ring!’ This interlude sets up the dire situation in The Two Towers: Boromir is slain, the Quest divided; Merry and Pippin are captured, Frodo and Sam are alone on the way to Mordor. Tolkien himself observed, many years later, that The Fellowship of the Ring was very different in tone from the other two volumes. From the beginning of The Two Towers, the narrative achieves an approximately level and consistent tone, which I have referred to as the neo-archaic style. Book IV, concerned with the doings of Frodo and Sam, relaxes slightly towards the level of the Hobbits’ dialogue; the Rohan chapters stiffen into definite and formal archaism. Hugh Brogan roundly criticized this archaism when it occurred in the chapter ‘The King of the Golden Hall’, and called it ‘tushery’. This term, as Tolkien said in his reply, properly refers to the use of expletives to produce a false archaic effect: tush, zounds, marry, and so forth. He denied (with justified indignation) that he had done anything of the kind. He gave an example of ‘watered archaism’ (as he calls it) from The Two Towers, along with a modern English paraphrase. The speaker here is Théoden:
‘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.’Here is the modernized version:
‘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 the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties.’‘And then what?’ Tolkien asks. People who talk like that do not say things like ‘Thus shall I sleep better’ when talking about death. Indeed, modern people have a horror of talking about death at all. It would be, as he calls it, ‘an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning’. People who talk in modern dialects do not bother about how they will rest in their graves. Either they have modern religious beliefs, and think they will be in Heaven (or Hell) with other things to think about, or they have no religion at all, and no belief in an afterlife. Even the modern, California-style Western Buddhists hardly count as an exception: to the extent that they talk about the afterlife in Buddhist terms, they are using imported terminology, and so not using modern English idioms at all. The Riders of Rohan are the purest representation (and idealization) of ‘Northernness’ in The Lord of the Rings. Theirs is a ‘virtuous pagan’ culture, sanitized by comparison with any actual pagan society; but sanitized in the same way as the Danes and Geats in Beowulf. The good qualities of the pagan Teuton, the fine sense of honour, the tremendous personal courage even in the face of certain defeat, are emphasized; the faults are largely glossed over in silence. Rohan has many songs but few books, just as ancient Germanic society (despite the occasional use of runic inscriptions) was essentially pre-literate. In such a society, personal honour takes the place of written documents; poetry and high speech take the place of literature. Beowulf and the sagas are the perfect expressions of this culture in narrative form. It should be no surprise that Tolkien approaches closest to their diction when he portrays a similar culture. One more style appears in dialogue in The Two Towers: the diction of the Orcs. This is almost as modern a style as Saruman’s, though not quite, because this kind of degraded speech, though more common now than formerly, has been current in ‘low’ English society for centuries. Unlike the cod Cockney of the trolls in The Hobbit, it is not primarily distinguished by class-markers. (Tolkien took pains to point out to the dramatizers at the BBC that Orcs did not drop their aitches.) What this style does, with a skill necessary in those days and almost forgotten now, is to suggest a squalid and vulgar mode of speech without actually spattering the page with obscenities. When Uglúk and Grishnákh use words like ‘filth’, or the Orc slave-driver in Mordor says ‘I reckon eyes are better than your snotty noses’, the reader is meant to infer that these are merely cleaned-up renditions of what they actually said. Tolkien explains in Appendix F:
Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. . . . Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.‘Orc-mindedness’, alas, is treated as an actual virtue by some modern critics, who call it ‘authenticity’ and suppose that only a prude could object. But in fact the squalid does not sound strong; and some readers are beginning to oppose it out of sheer boredom. How Tolkien represented Orc-talk without obscenities, yet also without the twee euphemisms then common in printed English, is a technique deserving of study. I have mentioned how each major character tends to stick closely to the style and diction that prevailed in the book at the time when he first appeared. This provides one of the richest elements in Tolkien’s stylistic tapestry: the juxtaposition of widely different speaking styles, sometimes moving, sometimes comical. Occasionally the joke arises from the lower character’s incomprehension, as when the Hobbits return to the Shire and Gaffer Gamgee asks about Sam: ‘What’s come of his weskit? I don’t hold with wearing ironmongery, whether it wears well or no.’ In general, though, he does not mock the higher speaker for pretension, or the lower for vulgarity. We laugh simply because two characters are finding such different ways of saying the same thing, and are glad because they understand each other. So it is when Théoden meets Merry and Pippin:
‘Farewell, my hobbits! May we meet again in my house! There you shall sit beside me and tell me all that your hearts desire: the deeds of your grandsires, as far back as you can reckon them; and we will speak also of Tobold the Old and his herb-lore. Farewell!’ ‘So that is the King of Rohan,’ said Pippin in an undertone. ‘A fine old fellow. Very polite.’Perhaps the finest moment of this kind comes when Faramir and Sam exchange courtesies, each in his own peculiar idiom:
Sam hesitated for a moment, then bowing very low: ‘Good night, Captain, my lord,’ he said. ‘You took the chance, sir.’ ‘Did I so?’ said Faramir. ‘Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest.’ Faramir smiled. ‘A pert servant, Master Samwise. But nay: the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.’In Middle-earth, only one thing is better than the praise of the praiseworthy. That is the praise due to those who have vowed the impossible and kept their vows; and to that, accordingly, I shall turn next.