Writing on the importance of Tolkien is a daunting task. As I worked on this post, trying to do Tolkien justice while remaining within a responsible length, I found myself constantly pruning interesting branches of thought that threatened to grow this article beyond the convenient length for a blog post. I wished to thoroughly layout the case for why Tolkien should be studied not only by every author, but by every reader. Instead of laying out a thorough case here, I will explore three instances which show to some degree how Tolkien’s mind and work ran deep with meaning skillfully presented.
To be truly great, a writer must first have something truly worth saying, and second, they must be able to say it well.
Tolkien possessed both and the argument could be made that he possessed them in combination better than any other author of his time. As philologist, Tolkien understood the usage of words on a very, very technical level, and he understood how to use this knowledge to create a world that feels authentic. In addition to this, Tolkien was intimately involved in the defining events of the 20th century, being a participant in the Battle of the Somme in World War I, and living through the blitz whilst his son Michael fought in the British armed forces in World War II.
Speech As An Indicator of Personality
One of the more underrated skills Tolkien possessed was his ability to tell a story by how characters talk. Bilbo is introduced as a very modern, middleclass bachelor, one who might be at home in something like “Downton Abbey”, and one of the primary ways we are shown this is in how he talks. Bilbo uses phrases like “Good morning” and “Beg your pardon” as figures of speech which mean something different that the words themselves, and Gandalf highlights this with comedic effect in their first meeting. Thorin and the dwarves on the other hand not only use their words much more straightforwardly, they use a different, more heroic and archaic style of speech.
Throughout “The Hobbit”, Thorin’s heroic style clashes with Bilbo’s more modern “business manner”. Tolkien draws attention to it when Bilbo and Thorin first meet, and it continues to play out through the story. The two are contrasted and each has its weaker moments; Bilbo’s style falls hilariously flat as he attempts to negotiate terms with the dwarves, and Thorin is later cut off by Bilbo on the mountain as he launches into a great speech that Bilbo sums up by demanding “If you want me to go down and face the dragon, say so at once”. The two are resolved at the end as the Dwarves bid Bilbo farewell, with Bilbo inviting them to tea while they invite him to their mountain hall. While the words used are different, the meanings are the same.
The most chilling however, is the dragon. Smaug speaks differently than any other character in the book, moving easily between modern colloquialism (“I don’t remember smelling you before”) and the heroic (“My teeth are swords! My claws are spears! My wings are a hurricane!”). The effect is to set Smaug apart from any other character in Middle Earth, to give him a sense of cunning, guile, and it is indeed easy, as Tolkien says, to see how Bilbo is rather overwhelmed.
How Words Create an Authentic World
On the technical side, take for example the word “dwarf”, a constant source of frustration in his dealings with editors of "The Hobbit". For starters, the use of “f” marks the word as a ‘native’ word, one not borrowed from Latin or Greek (which use ‘ph’ to create the same sound as in ‘philosophy’) but rather an original part of the language tree that populated England with the Saxons. Such a word, Tolkien reasoned, must have represented something. Words are invented to describe the world, thus, the earliest speakers of Germanic must have encountered something that fit the original meaning of the original word “dwarf”.
Secondly, the plural of dwarf poses a problem. Commonly, it is formed by simply adding ‘s’ and following the pattern of words like tiffs or bluffs, both much more modern words not present in Old English. If its plural had remained in use over the years, it would follow the same pattern followed by its Old English brethren loaf to loaves, calf to calves and thus dwarf to dwarves. It is a credit to Tolkien that almost singlehandedly he has brought the older form back into usage. But more importantly, it is a credit to his understanding and knowledge of how languages have developed and functioned that enable him to create so convincing a world. Dwarfs would not have ruined “The Hobbit”, but the change to Dwarves contributes to the world in the way that little details do, by working together to create depth and by pointing the way to what lies beyond.
Hope & Luck
The concept of Wyrd, loosely translated as fate or destiny, is a prominent one both in Northern Literature and in the trenches, where one might say “His time was up” or “There’s a bullet with your name on it”, but in the Christian West, and later the Secular West, the concept of fate or luck has remained, but without any kind of logical explanation for how or why it works. Tolkien tried to answer some of the questions about it and did so through Lord of the Rings, especially the character of Gollum. Gollum’s arrival at the chasms of Mount Doom just when Frodo refuses to throw in the ring is perhaps the most pointed to example of Luck in the story. However, it is a direct result of countless decisions reaching back to Bilbo refusing to kill a helpless creature some fifty years before in the goblin tunnels of the Misty Mountains.
In the Old English Poem Beowulf, the title character declares:
…Wyrd oft nereth
Unfaegne Eorl, thonne his ellen deah.
…Fate often spares
The Undoomed warrior, When his courage holds. (My translation)
This concept of the undoomed man surviving, but only if his courage holds is a common one in northern literature, and one that Tolkien made particular note of. This concept is worth an entire (upcoming) post in itself, but suffice to say here that while fate spares the man, the undoomed man is not without responsibility, his luck is dependent to some degree on his decisions. His courage must hold, which here leads to the second half of what Tolkien was trying to say.
Hope is important, vital to our resisting of evil as fallen, human creatures, and as such a choice that we can make. We can choose to hope. Despair by contrast is an act of arrogance. Denethor, for instance, believes himself to be so all knowing; so wise that he knows and understands everything and sees with absolute certainty the outcome when in fact, he has only seen the lies of Sauron and based on these he gives up all hope. Thus he kills himself, taking Gandalf away from the fight thus contributing directly to the death of Theoden.
I hope I have given some of you reason enough to take another look at how Tolkien wrote. The works that he left behind were phenomenal pieces of art that interacted on a deep level with the world around him, and it is in part because of how powerfully he did so that they have become so widely read. From his unique perspective about what the history of words such as Wraith could tell us about the world, to his deep and complex ideas about evil wrapped up in the ring Tolkien crafted his work with skill and reach rarely seen. As I continue my series on Tolkien, I will be looking at some of these things in greater detail, as well as exploring other works by Tolkien such as his essays and short stories, and how he brought Norse ideas about good, evil, fate, and death to bear on the struggles of the 20th Century.
Excellent post, yes?! Believe it or not, I actually met Evan in person about 10 years ago. Since then, we've both gotten into writing. He has just published The Dragon of Kveldmir (which I highly recommend). Be sure to keep up with Evan's blog so you can read the rest of his series on Tolkien!