Most fantasy readers know that Tolkien invented his own languages, drawing from his knowledge of Old English, Old Norse, Finnish, and Welsh. Fewer readers realize that he dreamt up his stories of Middle-earth for his languages, not the other way around.
The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. (Letters p.219)
I discovered this fact just when I started writing Spellwright. It made me queasy. I’d found Tolkien’s untranslated passages of Quenya or Sindarin to be beautiful, certainly. They commanded my admiration for their intricacy, beautiful calligraphy, and linguistic viability. But I loved Tolkien’s work, not for his use of invented languages, but for his use of English. It was the characters and stories as told in modern English that touched me. And yet here I had discovered that Tolkien felt that they derived from—and therefore seemingly less important than—his synthesized languages. That’s not to say I thought he disregarded characters or story; clearly he had a masterful control and appreciation of both. But still, that he should exalt synthetic language over character upset me. Tolkien is the Homer of our literary tradition. Would Homer have honored another language above his Greek? The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me.
Before I could finish writing the Spellwright, I needed to reconcile myself to the greatest author in the tradition. I did some research into Tolkien’s relationship to modern English. In the foreword to his excellent analysis, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey provides an overview of Tolkien’s conception of language before going on to provide hundreds of pages of evidence for this overview:
Tolkien was the holder of several highly personal if not heretical views about language. He thought that people, and perhaps as a result of their confused linguistic history especially English people, could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. … [He also thought] that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one’s way back from the words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist…However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was ‘reconstructing’, he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts…he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in the collective imagination.” (Shippey xiv-xv)
When I first read this sentiment, I found it bizarre. But I had grown up nearly a century after and half a world away from Tolkien’s quiet Midlands. I’m a native of a young, Pacific, and cosmopolitan city filled predominately with English and Spanish but flavored by Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Samoan, Tongan, and others. In my conception of the world, languages are constantly moving, constantly borrowing from or resisting each other. To me, language is in far too much international flux for anyone to intuitively suss out the historical vicissitudes of one in particular. My world was, and still is, more like medieval Britain when the Old Norse, Old English and various flavors of Celtic were all a tangle, stealing words from each other or resisting the urge to do so.
Though I found Tolkien’s linguistic beliefs strange, understanding them changed the way I saw both Tolkien and fantasy literature. Much in the same way that a hard SF novelist might cleave closely to the principles of physics of computer science to project us into a possible future, Tolkien was using his scholarship to project—not the reader forward in time—but himself backward in time. His characters and story (both of which he believed, in some way, actually existed in his homeland’s collective imagination) could only be reached through linguistic creation. Tolkien, like Homer, wanted to create a story that was ‘original’ in an ancient sense of “coming from the origin;” not in the modern sense of “starting a new origin.”
One of the delights of Tolkien’s work is that seeking to be original in the ancient sense, it became original in the modern sense. The list of epic fantasy authors to follow in our Homer’s footsteps is long, and the vast majority of them created (at least parts of) fictional languages to improve their world building. It must be admitted that many, lacking Tolkien’s expertise, failed at this endeavor. But there are glorious successful examples. Most inspiring to me were Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, which created a world in which those who could glean the ‘true name’ of a person, object, or animal could exercise power over it.
In writing Spellwright, one of my primary goals was to create an epic fantasy that added something original, in the modern sense, to the tradition of epic fantasy and language. In attempt to do so I drew upon my personal experiences as a dyslexic and upon my studies of the molecular languages of DNA and proteins, first as an undergraduate then as a medical student. Using those experiences I asked myself, what the world would be like if you could peel written words off the page and make them physically real? Tolkien created Middle-earth for his languages. But could I dream up a world built by—not around—its languages? More importantly, could I intertwine a character’s story into this world? Instantly, my disability provided the answer.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, London: Geroge Allen & Unwin, 1981; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Tom Shippey, 2001; New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2001.