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language and mythThe past few years have shown some waning in the exceptional popularity of J.J.R. Tolkien’s fantasy writings, but the “Tolkien phenomenon” is a clearly established fact of modern literary history. I am certain that his works will be read and studied for many decades and even more certain that they are deserving of such reading and study. In this essay I would like to examine one particular feature of his work which, I believe, is an important element of its popularity and significance: the function of and the relationship between language and myth in those writings.

Many scholars have written on the topic of myth in Tolkien’s works, most often from the approach of finding sources for various motifs he uses.[1] I am here interested not so much in specific myths as sources or analogues, as in a more elemental idea of the mythic component of the works, and hence I shall begin with an elemental idea about myth. Professor Stephen J. Tonsor has provided several clear, succinct statements relating to the idea, which I shall use as a starting point.

It is precisely because religion and myth accomplish the ordering of experience, particularly in the moment of crisis when we confront life’s border situations with a sense of anomie and loss of reality and identity that mythic thinking in its great variety has reappeared with some intensity in the Western world at the present time. The great cultural and civilizational crises of our times have driven the human spirit back to the basic ordering patterns of archaic man.[2]

Many such “basic ordering patterns” exist, and I suspect that one or more constitute the deep structure of most works of literature. Some, though, are more “transparent,” i.e., more illuminative of the essential truths of the soul, than others. These are the most vital, the most moving, and the most enduring. Ultimately, two kinds stand out, and the radical difference between them is, I believe, the real focus of Tolkien’s work. As Tonsor says:

In Judaism and Christianity particularly as well as in classical mythology and philosophy, the power of God is embedded in a matrix of complementary qualities: love, justice, and harmony. It might, indeed, be argued that there are two great categories of myth: the myths of power and the myths of love. The myths of power which symbolize the divine in terms of overmastering and unloving power are extremely common. It is both easy and tempting to separate the power of God from the love of God. To appropriate power without appropriating love is the ambition of every magician, of nearly every technician and all but a few politicians…..

When the mythical deals with the power of the Gods as separate and distinct from love, that power always has a demonic dimension. Satan is power and the quest for power is always Satanic in character. [3]

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien understood myth in this sense,[4] and he understood that the ultimate, radical opposition existing in creation is between that which the myths of love affirm and that which the myths of power (or, more specifically, power divorced from love) proclaim. His fantasy writings develop in a deliberate, consistent, and sophisticated way both of these categories of myth.[5] From the beginning of the history of Middle-earth, we find that conflict which for all its variety of detail and of individual antagonists is the same conflict the West has tried to understand and deal with: the conflict between love and power.

To say only this is not to say much. Most readers of Tolkien have, I believe, sensed that this conflict was important to his work and many, were they so inclined, would describe it in words very similar to those I have just used: a conflict between love and power. The conflict is straight­ forward—e.g., in The Lord of the Rings Gandalf the White leads in the struggle against Sauron the Dark Lord—and pervasive, with few gray characters or actions; yet it is compelling, and has proven to be so to many readers who are accustomed to and appreciative of literature in which the relationships between good and evil are anything but simple or straightforward. The compelling quality of Tolkien’s fiction, therefore, does not derive from such factors as its focus on the borderline between good and evil or its subtle examination of the interrelatedness of good and evil. It does derive to a great extent from the absolute consistency with which the great mythic conflict is embodied in the fiction. Many elements of the writing take part in the embodiment—characterization, plot structure, symbolism, imagery­—and are deserving of critical attention. Here I would like to concentrate particularly on language as it is used to develop the pattern of conflict between the myths of power and love.

It is not surprising that language should be used in especially complicated ways in Tolkien’s fiction, used not only to present the story but to be an important formative element of its most basic and pervasive mythic pattern. His fascination with language—its nature, its “feel,” its relation to thought, myth, and literature—began early and continued unabated throughout his life.[6] He was a brilliant, creative, thoroughly professional philologist, and I suspect that he saw no radical distinction between the kind of thing he did in his fiction and the kind of thing he did in his scholarship. Certainly the influence of scholarship on fiction is evident, where much of the richness of texture comes from the amazingly extensive and consistent linguistic detail he adorns the stories with.

Language, however, does more than adorn the stories; it appears in two distinct forms, good and evil, and the distinction is precisely that which is found at the heart of the great mythic conflict. Evil language is the language of power, of power used to persuade or force a free creature into some predetermined pattern; it is the language of hypocrisy and of perversion. Good language is the language of true being, accepting the freedom and realness of all creation; it is the language of celebration, praising, at least by implication, the pattern of what is. By nature that pattern is not one into which any creature can be forced, but rather one whose harmony any free creature can participate in by affirming rather than denying existence.

Two passages near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings will nicely illustrate some of the basic differences between the opposing forms of language. Frodo and his companions are just beginning their journey when they are pursued by a Black Rider, who then retreats when Elvish voices are heard on the evening air.

The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair Elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood. This was the song as Frodo heard it: ‘Snow­-white! Snow-white! 0 Lady clear!….'[7]

The hobbits are protected by the Elves that night, and the next day they leave the road and cut across country in an effort to avoid further contact with the ominous Black Riders. When they stop to rest, Sam and Pippin begin singing a simple hobbit song.

They stopped short suddenly. Frodo sprang to his feet. A Jong-drawn wail came down the wind, like the cry of some evil and lonely creature. It rose and fell, and ended on a high piercing note. Even as they sat and stood, as if suddenly frozen, it was answered by another cry, fainter and further off, but no less chilling to the blood…. ‘And what do you think that was?’ Pippin asked at last, trying to speak lightly, but quavering a little.

…’It was not bird or beast’ said Frodo. ‘It was a call, or a signal—there were words in that cry, though I could not catch them. But no hobbit has such a voice.'(I, 131)

black riders lotrThe cries come, of course, from two Black Riders and the language, we learn later, is the Black Speech of Mordor, an extreme example of the language of power.

The Elven-tongue and the Black Speech differ obviously and significantly from each other. The one is “fair,” and its sound “blend[s] with the melody” suggesting a natural, harmonious relationship. The other, though heard from a greater distance, has a frightening, powerful effect on the hobbits; it is totally alien to the natural harmony of the hobbits and the Shire (the harmony suggested by the simple hobbit song), and is characterized as “piercing,” “evil,” and “lonely.” Neither is a language the hobbits know, but communication takes place nonetheless, though in different ways. The Elven­ tongue “shapes itself” within the minds of the hobbits. This is, no doubt, linguistically unrealistic (as Tolkien knew full well), but it is the way, ideally (or mythically perhaps), that good language ought to work: directly, simply, naturally. The Black Speech, on the other hand, freezes; it chills the blood. Its words do not shape themselves, but rather they forcefully pervert the simple ease and naturalness of the hobbits and their song into something else, an attitude of abject fear.

Two other passages from The Lord of the Rings, containing actual examples of the languages, further illustrate the differences between Elvish and the Black Speech. The first occurs with Gandalf speaking at the Council of Elrond, trying to convince those present that the ring Frodo bears is indeed the One Ring of the evil Sauron. This passage is especially noteworthy since it is the only instance of a good character using the Black Speech, and is the longest passage of that language we have. Gandalf says,

‘Upon this very ring…the letters that Isildur reported may still be read, if one has the strength of will to set the golden thing in the fire a while. That I have done, and this I have read:

Ash nazg durbatuluk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatuluk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul!’

The change in the wizard’s voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears. (I, 333)

The harsh quality of the language, evident to the eye as well as the ear, is highly suggestive of its nature, but the effect the language has is even more indicative. The very voice that uses it becomes menacing and powerful, the light of the sun is blotted out,[8] and the listeners are affected much as the hobbits had earlier been. The language itself does things, in a harsh, destructive way.

The High-elven tongue is totally different. Galadriel, the Elven queen, sings a farewell as Frodo and his companions leave her refuge for the last stage of their quest.

Then it seemed to Frodo that she lifted her arms in a final farewell, and far but piercing­ clear on the following wind came the sound of her voice singing. But now she sang in the ancient tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea, and he did not understand the words: fair was the music, but it did not comfort him.

Yet as is the way of Elvish words, they remained graven in his memory, and long afterwards he interpreted them, as well as he could: the language was that of Elven­ song and spoke of things little known on Middle-earth.

Ai! laurie lantar lassi surinen!
Yeni unotime ve ramar aldaron,
yeni ve linte yuldar vanier
mi oromardi lisse-miruvoreva
Andune pella Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
omaryo airetari-lirinen…. (I, 488-89)

The liquid quality of this language is in sharp contrast with the phonology of the Black Speech, but again it is the effect that is most significant in illuminating the mythic conflict. Here, too, there is a kind of power, but it is not a forcing or compelling sort; rather it is the power inherent in the true nature of things, a derivative of their loving creation, which loving creation the singer accepts and celebrates. Not particularly comforting to Frodo because it speaks of the sadness, the lacrimae rerum, that is an integral part of the fabric of creation once evil has entered, it nonetheless accepts the sadness, affirming the truth that is in it. The words of this language do not do things to their hearers, but remain graven in the memory: a sign I take it of their realness, their truth.

TrollI have said that the effect of Tolkien’s fiction does not depend primarily on a subtle examination of the relatedness of good and evil; the existence of such relatedness, however, is dealt with if not subtly certainly effectively in connection with language. The Black Speech is, as we have seen, an extreme example of evil language. There are other examples, less absolute but significant. In the Appendix to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien (or rather his persona, the translator of the Red Book) speaks of the perversion of the Common Speech of the West effected by various servants of Sauron, particularly Ores and Trolls.

The Ores were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days. It is said that they had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking; yet they made only brutal jargons, scarcely sufficient even for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse. (III, 511)

But Ores 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. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. Much of the same sort of talk can still be heard among the ore-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. (3, 514)

Another interesting example of good language becoming evil is seen in the speech[9] of the fallen, but not yet totally lost character, Saruman. His is neither the Black Speech nor the orcish perversion of Westron, but simply language bent to an evil use. As neatly as any element in the fiction, it represents the point just beyond the separation of power from love. It shows skill, craft, and rhetoric used to sway others to the will of the speaker.

Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear…. For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it. (II, 234)

sarumanSaruman tries to sway first Theoden, then Eomer, and finally Gandalf himself. Analyzed from the cold objectivity of the printed page, it is easy to see the devices of false rhetoric, of flattery, and of simple hypocrisy that are the stuff of his speech. It is elegantly used language, but empty and false: language torn from its true link with reality to serve the ends of a powerful being who is striving to make himself the ultimate ground of being, the only reality. Saruman, like the far greater and more dangerous Sauron, is finally seen in his language, as in all else, to be a gnostic, a powerful magician who would use his immense knowledge to destroy what is, replacing it with himself. The lie that the gnostic adept fabricates and attempts to force the rest of creation into is perhaps more clearly seen in this lesser magus, whose fabrication is still relatively incomplete, than it is in the greater. Yet the relation of Saruman’s smooth speech to the brazen power of the Black Speech is evident. When his advances to Theoden are rejected by that kindly old king, Saruman momentarily loses control and his language shows its real nature:

‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs. Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’ (II, 237)

Finally, when Gandalf places the truth of the only choice actually remaining to him before Saruman—to give up his delusions, change sides, and join the free peoples against Sauron—the false wizard’s response is non-verbal and in itself a graphic indication of the final emptiness of his language: “With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.” (II, 241)

Good language, like evil, also exists in various forms, of which the High-elven we have seen is the extreme. A look at some other examples will help characterize it more fully, and also help to define the mythic conflict of which that language is such a formative element.

All good characters in Tolkien’s fiction love language. They delight in its use, whether that involves listening to, composing, or reciting poems and songs on the deeds of ancient heroes or the pleasures of a hot bath, or whether it involves an ordinary chat. When we first meet Bilbo Baggins, for example, we hear him inviting Gandalf, whom he believes to be just a stranger passing on the road, to join him in a smoke and a morning’s conversation.[10] He has heard of Gandalf and when he discovers that that is who the stranger is, he responds with the following enthusiastic outburst, and in so doing shows a typical hobbit’s love of language:

Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fire­ works! I remember those! Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snap­ dragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening! (Hobb., 13)

It would be wrong to try to derive any profound meaning or myth from this delightful little passage, but several of its features can at least be noted briefly. Things—flowers, fireworks, summer evenings, diamond studs—are appreciated, perhaps even celebrated. They are worth talking about and remembering, simply because they are what they are. And they are worth talking about well. The simple, effective rhetoric of Bilbo’s speech with its pleasing use of anaphora, gradatio, alliteration, and simile is in sharp contrast with, for example, Saruman’s hypocritical use of similar rhetorical devices to compel the will of others.

TreebeardatIsengardA closely related feature of good language can be illustrated even more clearly in the speech of a character vastly different from Bilbo: Treebeard, or Fangorn, the Ent. “Old Entish” as Tolkien refers to it in a little scholarly joke, seems to be an example of what used to be called an incorporative language, one in which many discrete sentence elements (discrete that is in the grammatical presuppositions of, say, an English speaker) are merged into single words.[11] When Treebeard is speaking with Merry and Pippin, in their language, he momentarily forgets the word for “this, a-lalla- lalla-r umba-k amanda-lind-or ­ burume. Excuse me: that is a part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world.” (LOTR II, 86) Merry suggests the word hill, and Treebeard says, “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped.” (II, 87)

The point I find interesting is the close, accepting, vital relationship between this language and the reality it derives from. The importance and sacredness of the naming power of language is, of course, common to many cultures and mythologies, but in his particular adaptation of that common idea Tolkien seems to take special care to make clear that the true power of a name is not a power of force or control or magic; it is simply the power of the essence of the thing itself. As with the “Old Entish,” another of Tolkien’s languages, that of Rohan, is beloved of its users and has a Jiving relationship to its environment. On hearing it for the first time, Legolas the Elf says, “That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim…for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But l cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.” (LOTR II, 142) Throughout Tolkien’s fiction good language celebrates the sacredness of creation, and it is there­ by a means—perhaps almost sacramental, certainly loving—of the speaker’s and the hearer’s taking part in that celebration.[12]

Thus far in considering the differences between good and evil language I have focused on specific languages—Elvish, the Black Speech, Entish, etc.—for the most part in their spoken (or written) forms. Another mode of language is also of great significance in Tolkien’s fiction and to my thesis: the mode of song.[13] Song is used all but invariably as a constituent of the myth of love, as would be expected given the special characteristics of this mode. Figures of speech and imagery, for example, are non-discursive representations of the realness, the trueness of what is; meter imitates and ultimately derives from the harmony of the overall plan of creation; beauty, the special province of song, is, as the poet says, truth. Because of such characteristics, it would seem that the perversion of songs to evil would be a harder thing to accomplish than the perversion of ordinary speech; harder, but not impossible, and hence the very few examples of “bad” song in Tolkien’s fiction are of special interest.

Ores or goblins are the foot soldiers of the evil forces, and in The Lord of the Rings they never sing. In The Hobbit they do twice—and each time both the words of the song and the introduction to it emphasize its perverted nature.

The goblins began to sing, or croak, keeping time with the flap of their flat feet on the stone, and shaking their prisoners as well.

Clap! Snap! the black crack! Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!

And down to Goblin-town You go, my lad!

Clash, crash! Crush, smash!

Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs! Pound, pound , far underground!

Ho, ho! my lad! (Hobb., 71)

The prisoners (Bilbo and the dwarves) escape only to be caught again shortly in an even worse situation, and again the goblins sing. This time it is “a horrible song:”

Burn, burn tree and fern!

Shrivel and scorch! A fizzling torch To light the night for our delight , Ya hey!

Bake and toast ’em, fry and roast ’em! till beards blaze, and eyes glaze;

till hair smells and skins crack, fat melts, and bones black

in cinders lie beneath the sky!

So dwarves shall die,

and light the night for our delight. (Hobb., 116)

In The Lord of the Rings, the few songs of evil or evil-tending characters are similarly perverted. Old Man Willow captures the hobbits by “singing about sleep,” lulling them into a somnolence that Sam recognizes as “uncanny.” (I, 165) He would have killed them had not Tom Bombadil’s song been a “stronger song.”

Gollum sings once. Leading the hobbits into the Dead Marshes,

He seemed greatly delighted…sometimes even croaking in a sort of song.

The cold hard lands they bite our hands,

they gnaws our feet. The rocks and stones are like old bones

all bare of meat… (II, 287-88)

The only other evil song is that of the Barrow-wight, the ghoul-like being that dwells in the ancient burial mounds. His is the most chilling, and the clearest perversion of true song in the work.

Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered….

Cold be hand and heart and bone, and cold be sleep under stone: never more to wake on stony bed,

never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.

And still on gold here, let them lie, In the black wind the stars shall die, till the dark lord lifts his hand

over dead sea and withered land. (I, 194-95)

fantasy writingHere, even in the English “translation” the narrator provides us with, reading the song aloud one time reveals its discordant, disharmonious quality. This song or incantation has precisely the sort of loveless power, casting a deadly spell over the hobbits, that is associated with all evil language and by extension with the myth of power central to the work. In place of meter and intonation it has a “formless” alternation of sounds, “sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan;” its figurative language and imagery is “grim, hard, cold words;” its similes, the perverse linking of night and morning, cold and warmth; its “beauty,” the evocation of death and ultimate destruction. The theme of this song, as of all the evil songs, is the forced enslavement of the minds and/or bodies of free creatures to the will of another.

True or good songs in Tolkien’s fiction serve many particular functions, but they all have in common the element of celebration. Whether the particular song is grand and formal, as at the house of Elrond where “sweet syllables of the elvish song fell like clear jewels of blended word and melody;” simple and homely, as Pippin’s in praise of a hot bath; comic, as Sam’s “Troll Song;” or solitary and grief­-filled, as Sam’s “In western lands beneath the Sun;” song praises the sacredness of what is, rejoicing in simple existence even if the rejoicing includes grief at loss of a good thing. The nature of song is most clearly seen in its effects, which are invariably wholesome, and at times even salvific. The “Troll Song,” for example, helps give Frodo the strength to carry on when he has been gravely wounded by a Black Rider.

Later in the quest, when Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have come to the very gates of Mordor and have been overwhelmed at the sight, becoming in their own minds “little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash heaps of the Dark Lord,” Sam is again inspired and his simple hobbit poem restores Frodo: “Frodo stood up. He had laughed in the midst of all his cares when Sam trotted out the old fireside rhyme of Oliphaunt, and the laugh had released him from hesitation.” (LOTR II, 323) One final example of this sort is the most significant; it again involves Sam, though this time he does not sing or recite, but merely refers to song. Alone in the high, cold pass of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam speak of their hopeless situation, and Sam in his untutored but perceptive way muses over the connection between the ancient songs which preserve the stories of heroes he loves, and his and Frodo’s present “real-life” situation. A link is made clear between the mythic deeds of the past and the deeds of the present story (and by extension between the deeds we ourselves are reading of and our own stories). Sam says:

Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end? (II, 408)

The passage this comes from is deeply moving and highly significant in many ways, but for the present we need merely note that even though Sam is simply talking about, not actually performing the ancient mythic songs, the effect is salvific. “[Frodo) laughed, a Jong clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth.” (II, 408)

Before concluding with the most elemental use of song as constituent of the myth of love, from the beginning of The Silmarillion, I would like to glance for a moment at one other singing character from The Lord of the Rings: Tom Bombadil. Tom is one of the most puzzling characters in all of Tolkien’s work,[14] but one feature that is perfectly clear about him is that his very mode of existence is song. In his house, “The guests became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking.” (I, 175) Tom and his consort Goldberry seem somehow to be elementally male and female, earth and water, Master and Lady, and they exercise control within their realm, though it is not the control of ownership, but more like that of stewardship. Song, and its counterpart dance, are the means through which the control is maintained, and accordingly it is control of total harmony, health, and beauty. It ranges from the occasionally necessary limitings of the evil forces that exist (and are allowed to exist) within their realm, to bringing the rain, to setting the supper table.

Then Tom and Goldberry set the table; and the hobbits sat half in wonder and half in laughter: so fair was the grace of Goldberry and so merry and odd the caperings of Tom. Yet in some fashion they seemed to weave a single dance, neither hindering the other, in and out of the room, and round about the table. (I, 183)

BombadilThe Bombadil episode is the part of the entire work that is most redolent of good language, of song bordering on pure myth. We learn that if the Dark Lord finally regains the One Ring and conquers, even Tom and Goldberry will fall, but for the present even the Ring’s awful, perverting power is held in check, and in the lightsome, sweet, subtly sexual realm of these two we see an intense illumination of the truth of the myth of love. It is quite appropriate that song is the very heart and soul of this realm.

Myth speaks of the nature of reality, and perhaps the two most intriguing elements of that nature which myth can illuminate are those of existence as we know it in the space-time continuum, and the presence within existence of evil. The beginning, the radical act of creation, and the subsequent introduction of evil into it are thus the focus of many myths, including those which Tolkien embodies in his works. Tolkien’s creation and fall myths are presented most explicitly and fully in the “Ainulindale” or “Music of the Ainur,” which is the first selection of The Silmaril­lion. [15] As its title indicates, good language, music and song, is an essential element of this myth. In the “Ainulindale” we see the language of Jove still wedded to the language of power, truly real, truly creative; and we see the beginning of the great divorce between love and power.

God, called Eru or Iluvatar, “The One,” is. He is the one true source, end, and reason of all being.[16] From the thought of Eru spring the Ainur, the demiurges or angels who take part in and advance the great song of creation, the musical themes that Eru propounds to them. They sing before His throne, more and more harmoniously as they learn and develop His great theme. Their song is the primal song of power and love and becomes a real part of the creative act.

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of lluvatar to a great music…and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.[17]

Song, the best language, is the very mode and process of creation, being first a musical theme propounded by the Creator, then actual music fashioned into being by the demiurges. But the realness and trueness of this creation means the realness and trueness of the demiurges and their language, their singing. And realness, it seems, implies (even depends on?) will, a choice between one thing and another, and thus the potential for discord is implied almost from the first, by the realness of the harmony of accord. Melkor, the greatest of the demiurges, seeks to expand “the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” (Sil., 16) In the beginning, though, even this seeking is good; it comes because of Melkor’s eagerness to imitate the creativity of Eru, because of his impatience of the Void and his desire to fill it more quickly.

Eventually, however, Melkor’s desire comes to be not for a hastening but for a replacement of true creativity; it comes to be a desire that he, Melkor, should possess “the Imperishable Flame.” In Tolkien’s work, this phrase seems to stand for being itself and of itself; and this only Being Itself Of Itself can have or impart. Melkor’s attempts in this direction, which bring discord to the song of the Ainur, evoke at first only a smile from Eru, who “lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm [i.e., the storm of Melkor’s discord], like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.” (Sil., 16) Again Melkor introduces discord into the song, and again Eru, this time with a stern look, begins a new theme.

And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of lluvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern. (Sil., 16-17)

I have ended by mostly quoting from early pages of the “Ainulindale,” offering relatively little explication. But of course, that is the way with the most purely mythic language; it cannot be explained well apart from itself, unless one wants to risk introducing into the clarity of the theme the discordant braying of a Melkor. But perhaps the point I am trying to make can be summed up briefly without danger. At the very beginning of all, the purest form of language, song, is in Tolkien’s work a central element for communicating the essential nature of creation, including within itself the appearance of evil. Good language speaks forth the power of primal creation itself, a power elementally related by love to harmony, beauty, and truth. It is the myth of love. Evil language has power, but it is power specifically and totally bereft of these qualities. It is vain, discordant, a lie. Finally, it is nothingness.

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

The ongoing conflict between these two myths is the world as we know it; it is the great tale that never ends. Our part, as free creatures, is to choose the myth we would be part of, to sing the song of our choice, to speak the language of love or that of power. Tolkien’s great artistic rendering of the basic myth choice which is the crux of existence uses language not only as the stuff of which the art is crafted, but also as an important constituent for illuminating the mythic pattern his art affirms and celebrates—and draws us into with its own beauty. I believe that it is his powerful and loving use of language in both these ways which lies behind the appeal his work has for so many readers.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1990).


[1] Lin Carter, Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (New York, 1969), and Ruth S. Noel in The Mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Boston, 1979) suggest sources from Germanic, Celtic, and other mythologies for various elements of the fiction. Timothy R. O’Neill reads Tolkien in relation to Jungian myth, and makes a much better case for his ideas than one would expect, given the subject: The Individuated Hobbit (Boston, 1979). Jane Chance Nitzche in Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England (New York, 1979) explores the ramifications of Tolkien’s stated intention of creating a mythology for the English people, and discusses relationships between mythological elements in Old and Middle English literature and Tolkien’s fantasy writings.

[2] “The Use and the Abuse of Myth,” The Intercollegiate Review, vol. 15 (Spring, 1980), p. 68.

[3] Tonsor, “The Use and the Abuse of Myth,” pp. 70-71.

[4] The best introduction to Tolkien’s ideas on myth is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, 1966), pp. 33-99, esp. pp. 45-57. Tolkien’s colleague and friend, C. S. Lewis, has a complementary discussion of myth in a chapter entitled “On Myth” in An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, Eng., 1961), pp. 40-49. Lewis makes brief reference to The Lord of the Rings in his discussion.

[5] In this essay I will refer specifically to the three major works of fantasy: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. The points I make are applicable, mutatis mutandi, to the other works of the corpus: Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Road Goes Ever On, and Unfinished Tales. The editions I will cite of the three major works are as follows: The Lord of the Rings (New York, 1965), 3 vols.; The Hobbit (Boston, 1966); The Silmarillion (Boston, 1977).

[6] The fine biography ot Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien (Boston, 1977), documents this interest clearly and convincingly. See especially pp. 31-40, 87-108, and 131-52. Tolkien’s essay “English and Welsh,” published in Angles and Britons: O’Donnell Lectures (Cardiff, Wales, 1963), pp. 1-41, is a particularly informative discussion on the “feel” of language. Not, perhaps, scientifically linguistic, it is in the best sense of the word professionally philological.

[7] The Lord of the Rings, vol. I, p, 117. See note 5 above for the edition cited. Further citations will be indicated parenthetically in the text by volume and page number or, where necessary, by the abbreviation LOTR plus volume and page number.

[8] Or at least it seems to be blotted out. The distinction may be significant. There is no question but that the power of evil affects creatures with free will. It also can affect non-sentient, physical nature as, for example, it obviously and sickeningly has affected the land around Mordor. But ultimately, evil can only distort and pervert the goodness of creation; of itself it is nothingness.

[9] I move here from a discussion of langue to one of parole in de Saussure’s famous distinction.

[10] See note 5 above for the edition of The Hobbit, which will be cited parenthetically in the text by the abbreviation Hobb. and the page number.

[11] See for example. John Algeo, Problems in the Origins and Development of The English Language (New York, 1982), pp. 78-81.

[12] In the Appendix to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s persona speaks of language that comes to be used primarily or solely for ceremony and for the preservation of lore, a kind of “Elvish Latin,” vol. III, p. 506. Thus language is, in the fiction, at least potentially sacramental. In his own life, Tolkien, an orthodox Christian, certainly accepted the sacramental function of language.

[13] I am using the term song throughout in a very general and inclusive sense to refer to any verse or poem, as well as to any lyric which is actually performed musically. At the end of the essay I will use song and music almost interchangeably, since in the songs of the Ainur it seems that the language of song and the music of song are blended into a single, perfect entity. The entire subject of song in Tolkien’s fiction is a large and fascinating one, many elements of which will not even be touched on here. The fullest and best classification of the types and functions of song in The Lord of the Rings is Thomas F. Deitz, “The Uses of Song and Poetry in The Lord of the Rings ” unpublished master’s thesis, the University of Georgia, Athens, 1978.

[14] Some readers find him and his episode very unpleasantly puzzling, His function in the work needs critical commentary, but I believe that a proper analysis of it depends on seeing Tom as an alter ego of Tolkien himself, appearing in the work in something of the same way as, say, the Franklin can be seen as an alter ego of Chaucer who takes part in the story of the Canterbury Tales. Many details associated with Tom (and Goldberry, who of course is then Edith Bratt Tolkien)—his special powers, his singing, and his unique relationship to the quest and the Ring—become clear and artistically significant it we see him thus. These are points I hope to enlarge on at a later date.

[15] See Christopher Tolkien’s comments in the foreword to his edition of his father’s The Silmarillion (note 5 above) for an explanation of the place of the “Ainulindale” in the overall corpus. These “old legends,” says Christopher Tolkien, “became the vehicle and depository of his profoundest reflections” (p. 7).

[16] Tolkien’s words for the Creator are significant linguistically. Eru suggests association with an Indo-European root for being, cognate with the English are and is as well as with numerous other forms in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, etc. Iluvatar suggests relationships with the roots of auatar and also the father or perhaps ur-father. Tolkien provides etymological and linguistic expla­ nations of the languages of the fiction in the index of names in The Silmarillion, in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, and sprinkled elsewhere through­ out the works. These explanations are accurate and consistent within the subcreation of the fiction, but like other elements of it, they also have a relationship or an “applicability” (see LOTR, vol. I, p. xi) to the outer world of reality. The linguistic applicabilities are principally to the Indo-European language family.

[17] The Silmarillion, p. 15. See note 5 above for the edition. Further citations will be indicated parenthetically within the text by the abbreviation Sil. and the page number.

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  1. Excellent essay. Though I have appreciated it, I’ve never been a super fan of LOTR. This essay finally gave me the insight to seeing the work’s depth. Thanks. I also thank you for that wonderful quote by Tonson on how religion and myth orders experience. I have to remember that.

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