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A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages.

A SECRET VICE: TOLKIEN ON INVENTED LANGUAGES. J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins. HarperCollins, 2016. ISBN 9780008131395. Hardcover. 1xv + 157pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling].

TOGETHER WITH THE 2008 EXPANDED VERSION of "On Fairy-stories", this standalone edition of Tolkien's landmark essay on language invention now bookends Tolkien's entire philosophy of "Lang and Lit" (see Monsters 224-40), "aim[ing] to confirm that 'A Secret Vice' is an [...] indispensable manifesto for the [...] art of language invention" (ix), and one that stands coequal with Tolkien's manifesto on fantasy and fairy-tale literature. The chief value in this volume is the presentation of abundant new primary material-running to dozens of pages, rather than merely a sentence or paragraph or two. A side benefit not to be discounted is the thorough commentary by two knowledgeable editors, in the form of notes, introduction, appendices, and other apparatus.

The book begins with a short foreword, followed by an extensive introduction, comprising more than one-third the length of the whole volume. The essay, "A Secret Vice," follows, edited anew from the original manuscript and therefore differing quite a bit from the version published more than thirty years ago in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. After this, the editors publish for the first time a short draft essay or lecture by Tolkien on phonetic symbolism. Several iterations of manuscript scraps follow, some more valuable than others. The editors then offer a coda on the legacy and reception of Tolkien's invented languages. Three appendices-a chronology, table of abbreviations, and bibliography-bring up the rear. Before moving into the meat of the matter, let me dispense with a few smaller matters.

The chronology seems strangely selective and arbitary, running from 1925 through 1933. I imagine it was intended to more narrowly contextualize the "Secret Vice" lecture itself, but why start and end on these particular dates?

Also, since the array of linguistic projects mentioned in the introduction might be dizzying to some readers, it could have been useful to be sure to include these in the chronology. They are in the bibliography at least, but the titles there don't always correspond to those used by the editors in their commentary, and the dates of publication put them near the end of the list, which might confuse some readers, since the work occurred mostly in the early part of Tolkien's life. Without an index, the book will be more difficult for scholars, let alone lay readers, to use than it might otherwise have been. And why place the table of abbreviations at the end, rather than at the beginning? But these are mainly small quibbles--apart from the lack of index, which is a major disappointment.

The introduction is a far-ranging orientation on the topic, following, more or less, the same organization in Flieger and Anderson's introduction to "On Fairy-stories" (9-23). Having said that, I find it a little lengthier than need be on some topics, and sometimes of less than direct relevance to the subject at hand. Others may differ on this. One also gets the feeling this book is not intended for readers who are new to the subject. Terms like phonology, morphology, mutation, and lenition are thrown out without definition. This is fine for me, and for many with an established interest in this subject, but I wonder how carefully the editors considered their target audience. I suppose there is some reason to assume that anyone who would pick up a book about Tolkien's views on language invention might be adequately prepared; however, many readers buy everything published under the Tolkien impresa. At times, the book reads like they wrote it for a much smaller audience than they might have done.

Perhaps the most significant discovery the editors have made is in tracking down the details of the original presentation of the lecture. Some impressive sleuthing has led them to the Johnson Society of Pembroke College, Oxford, whose minutes reveal not only that the lecture was delivered on 29 November 1931 at 9 o'clock in the evening, but also something of its content and reception. This information had lain forgotten for more than eighty years, and it mirrors the contemporary reports Flieger and Anderson provide for "On Fairystories" (161-9). These kinds of discoveries are what keep Tolkien studies fresh and exciting!

Another topic taken up by Fimi and Higgins in their introduction is phonetic aesthetics, an entirely subjective idea. What sounds pleasing to one may be ear-jarring to another, and there is really little to explain it (in spite of some attempts). I think there is a tendency among Tolkien fans to regard his invented languages as phonaesthetically pleasing--a bit of a chicken and egg problem: do we come to like his languages because we like the stories he has built for them, or are the people who like his stories and languages the ones who, for whatever reason, are already similarly aesthetically predisposed? Either way, these ideas are not always approached as objectively as they might be. For example, in this volume the editors assert that "lalantila," a Qenya word in the poem, "Narqelion," meaning "lets falls," "conveys a sense of downward motion in the phonetic make-up of its syllable pattern" (xxii). How? What about the phonetic sounds in these syllables conveys downward motion? Why not upward motion? Why motion at all?

In another case of subjective aesthetic bias, certain phonetic combinations are described as "song-like" or "poetic" (xxii), but we must remember that languages considered by many to be ugly or harsh--German, Arabic, or Chinese, to take a few common examples--have substantial bodies of poetry or song themselves, and their own speakers may consider English or Spanish or Finnish uncouth. These are enormously subjective ideas, and one should be careful with them. I don't want to suggest the editors should have been troubled every single time they wrote about aesthetically pleasing words to add pleasing to Tolkien, but this might have been said at least a few times and should certainly be understood. Some readers may be less alert to this subjectivity. We should keep in mind Tolkien's strong dislike for French, widely considered among the most beautiful languages in the world, and his affinity for the Germanic, often considered among the harshest.

After from the editors' introduction, the bulk of the book is the essay/lecture, "A Secret Vice," Part I of the present volume. As to the title, some readers over the years may have found it a little strange that Christopher Tolkien opted for "A Secret Vice," the title Tolkien recalled more than thirty years after the lecture, rather than "A Hobby for the Home," as given in the manuscript (Monsters 3-4). But quoting from the hitherto little-known minutes of the Johnson Society (xxxii-xxxiii), Fimi and Higgins have put this question to rest, showing that Tolkien indeed titled his lecture "A Secret Vice" from its first delivery.

There are many differences between the texts presented by Fimi and Higgins last year and by Christopher Tolkien more than thirty years ago. It would take rather more time and care to compare them than we have available in this review, and moreover, the rewards in doing so are not all equal. Some variations tell us little; others, more. The paragraphs on Tolkien's Fonwegian language comprise some of the most interesting and substantial of the new primary material (20-22). Unfortunately, without more of it or further notes as yet unpublished, Fonwegian still remains rather mysterious. When was it composed? Does it have any connections to Tolkien's early mythography? "[S]ome secret documents" pertaining to "the island of Fonway" (20-1) is a phrase immediately redolent of the Lost Tales. I'm not quite sure I buy the editors' suggestion (50) that Fonway/Fonwegian is related to "cheefongy" and thus to French in Tolkien's early rebus message to Father Francis Morgan. While he apparently identified French as one of the sources for the language, its phonology looks more like Frankish to me, at least judging from what little we have of it. Could Fonway even be connected to the name Finwe? If that sounds far-fetched, consider for a moment that Tolkien originally thought about repurposing the name, Fingolfin, for a goblin (120).

Or perhaps Fonwegian is not Tolkien's invention at all. A blogger calling himself Philologus has proposed that Fonwegian might have been invented by someone else, noting the significance of how Tolkien introduces the material--"[h]ere I will interpose some material--which will save this paper from being too autobiographical" (20)--and how he contrasts the section that follows it--"[f]rom here onwards you must forgive pure egotism" (23). If Fonwegian were Tolkien's own invention, would that not too have been "pure egotism?" The editors seem certain that Fonwegian is Tolkien's invention; one of them, Andrew Higgins, has expounded on the subject at greater length in a conference paper. Nelson Goering, who has elsewhere reviewed the present Fimi and Higgins edition, has come down somewhat agnostically on the question. I must do as well, while acknowledging the strength of some of the points in Philologus's argument. But thanks to Fimi and Higgins, we can all examine the raw material more closely for ourselves.

Although this edition supersedes in almost every way the version of the essay as published previously by Christopher Tolkien, there is one unfortunate loss: Tolkien's "glossarial commentary" accompanying the poem, "Oilima Markirya." This is a series of Qenya words and English glosses keyed to the poem by line number (see Monsters 222-3 and PE 16 75). Parma Eldalamberon reprints all the extant versions of the poem and includes Tolkien's glossarial comments for two of them. While this is not part of the lecture manuscript itself, and thus its omission can certainly be justified, Christopher Tolkien recognized its value to readers and chose to include it in his edition. It would have been valuable here too. As it is, those who would study the poem's language more closely still need one or both of the other two works, just as those who would study "Narqelion" must turn to Vinyar Tengwar (Vol. 40, April 1999). No one edition can be all things to all readers, however it may try.

Part II makes available for the first time a draft essay or lecture Tolkien composed on phonetic symbolism. Here Tolkien attempts to formalize the idea that "certain combinations of sounds are more fitted to express certain notions than to express others" (qtd. 64), even though there are "difficulties as soon as we come to discuss actual cases" (qtd. 65). Difficulties arise from the distance from their original, more nearly onomatopoeic forms in unrecorded ancestor languages, and from the predilections and accidents of different racial histories, local preferences, and spheres of culture. Any such theory of phonetic symbolism, furthermore, "can only be used with great caution--and then probably without certain results" (qtd. 67). Nevertheless, even given the challenges he admits, Tolkien believes such principles of phonetic fitness are real and are worth angling for. He believes the effects were stronger in older languages, becoming even more pronounced the further back you go. But trying to deduct all the side-effects that have hidden them over the millennia and to zero in on the original principles is "like trying to find pure water" (qtd. 68). There is a lot to digest here, and it will take me and others some time to do so. The editors deserve our gratitude for putting the essay before us.

Part III presents scattered manuscript jottings, including notes on invented words and names in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels; alternate versions of the Qenya and Noldorin poems associated with "A Secret Vice;" phonological tables; and other notes and miscellanea relating to the two essays, "A Secret Vice" and the "Essay on Phonetic Symbolism." A "Coda" follows this, in which the editors provide a good, selective survey of the legacy and reception of Tolkien's invented languages.

Taken as a whole, this new volume represents a welcome bounty of new material to reckon with and, hopefully, to build on in the years to come. Tolkien's ideas on "phonetic fitness" were complex, subjective, and sometimes still only half-baked, but they inform every aspect of his fictional myth-making, and for that reason, they deserve closer scrutiny. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins have made an invaluable start.

--Jason Fisher


Goering, Nelson. Review of "A Secret Vice (2016) by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins." Journal of Tolkien Research Vol. 3, Iss. 3, Article 7 [2016].

Higgins, Andrew. "Tolkien's A Secret Vice and 'the language that is spoken in the Island of Fonway'." Journal of Tolkien Research Vol. 3, Iss. 1, Article 3 [2016].

Philologus. "Did Tolkien invent Fonwegian?" Philoloblog, 8 August 2016,

--. "Fonwegian--a rejoinder." Philoloblog, 10 August 2016, http://philoloblog.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Early Elvish Poetry and Pre-Feanorian Alphabets. Ed. Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, Patrick H. Wynne, Carl F. Hostetter, and Bill Welden. Parma Eldalamberon 16 (2006).

--. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. George Allen & Unwin, 1983.

--. Tolkien On Fairy-stories. Exp. ed., with Commentary and Notes. Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. HarperCollins, 2008.
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Author:Fisher, Jason
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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