Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction by Elizabeth Solopova is a fascinating little book and a quick read (a rare and sometimes welcome occurrence for me). However, it is exactly what it is stated to be, an introduction. At little more than eighty pages, it is barely able to scratch the surface of the topic of Tolkien’s linguistic and mythical sources of inspiration. The other potential problem I found is that it appears to be written under the assumption that the reader already is greatly familiar with Tolkien’s education, life and work in the subject. This did not cause any problems for me, but would be an issue for someone newer to Tolkien scholarship/analysis outside his own writings.
Solopova introduces the topic with a discussion largely pulled from ‘On Faerie Stories,’ ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,’ and ‘A Secret Vice,’ all off which reveal the great importance language and myth and their symbiotic relationship had in Tolkien’s professional and literary work. The book is an overview of both the languages and myths that Tolkien would have been familiar with, as well as works he studied and possibly drew from. Languages include: Old Norse, Old English, Finnish and Gothic.
Overall the book is a solid introduction, and makes me eager to get my hands on a copy of Solopova and Stuart Lee’s book The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of JRR Tolkien.
As I have been discussing the nature of language, myth, and names quite a bit lately, Solopova’s sub-chapter on Stories and Names, in the Old Norse chapter, particularly struck me. Both in Old Norse sagas, and subsequently Tolkien’s works, there are a proliferation of names are used, which do not always serve any practical purpose.
“[The] use of place names in sagas reflects their borderline position between fiction, which involves conscious invention and the use of names as a literary device, and a historical narrative.” (Solopova 22)
Both in Old Norse and Old English literature, elements of real historical places and people were mentioned or listed, giving the piece(s) a sense of a true history and scope. This is why there is some confusion, as stated by Tolkien in his lecture “Beowulf,” about how to approach these works. They are not quite fiction, and not quite historical chronicle. They are somewhere in between.
This layering of information, even if not evidently part of the plot, is what helps to lend depth to these tales. It is a method Tolkien would use often in LotR, in a system Tom Shippey calls “interlacement.” Brief mentions of tales from the Silmarillion, or cities on the map of Middle Earth, all help build a concrete conception of Middle-Earth. It becomes a living breathing place, set in a deep and rich history.
Solopova makes another observation of note with regards to the nature of names. They can be considered their own “lexical group.” (Solopova 22) Names today have little meaning in everyday use, but at one point they were carefully crafted and quite descriptive of the named person, object or place. Take for example the common surnames linked with professions such as Cooper or names based on patrimony as in Johnson. Very little of this quality of names remains in today’s culture.
Tolkien developed his names with great care, following this archaic pattern, and creating his own “language of names” so to speak. Solopova lists a few:
“River Running, Mysty Mountains…Legolas (‘Green Leaves’ in Sinadarin), Théoden (‘Lord’ in Old English)…Aragorn (‘Royal Tree’)…also known as Elessar (‘Elfstone), Strider, Isildur’s Heir, Longshanks and Wing-foot.” (Solopova 21)
Another possible reason for naming also drawn from Old Norse is the poetic list of names known as a ‘thulur,’ which may have had “a mnemonic function, helping poets and audiences to remember” the tales associated with them. (Solopova 23) Again, this lends itself to the argument of interlacement. However, in some cases it is believed the name listing is nothing more than a poetic device, as in the example Solopova gives in Widsith.
I think ultimately the argument could go either way for Tolkien’s works. The names of the primary characters serve a secondary purpose. To borrow from opera terminology, they function as a sort of leitmotiv, layering further information unseen or untold. Yet at the same time, they also function as an aesthetic device: an “art-lang” of a different form by which Tolkien can create a phonetic aesthetic for Middle-Earth.
All in all, Languages, Myths and History makes for a quick and stimulating read, with plenty of ideas and source material to whet your appetite for such things. The main criticism I have is that it is solely an introduction, so that most of the arguments are only named and not fully developed. I guess that just means I’ll have to go find her other book!