Printer Friendly

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Philosophical Basis of Sub-Creative Words.

Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet Der Mensch auf dieser Erde

A poet, one might say, is someone who tries to give an experience its
Proper Name

I. Introduction

THERE IS SOMETHING in Tolkien's stories in Middle-earth that makes them stand out from other fictional stories insofar as their inspiration was primarily linguistic. Welsh names on the wagons in Birmingham and Gothic adjectives he encountered introduced him into philology as a scientific discipline. These words led Tolkien to the study of languages simply and plainly for the intense aesthetic pleasure he obtained from them, free of their functional capacity or as vehicles of literature, as well as to the invention and use of a personal aesthetic language. (1) So perhaps Tolkien is the only one in the history of Western literature following the primordial creative act: "In the beginning was the Word" (Jn 1:1). For him, words and their inner beauty came first, and then stories unfolding these words. (2) Therefore, his literary creations were the framework in which the meaning of these words could be developed, and became the place where his invented languages could exist. That is, in Tolkien's works, the foundation is the poetic diction of beings and things, and the plot or the argument--the creation of (interrelated) stories of these beings and things--comes thereafter. This was difficult to understand in the second half of the last century:
Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create
a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic
might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what
the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an "allegory." And I said it
was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be
elen sila lumenn' omentieimo, and that the phrase long antedated the
book. (3)

Tolkien stated that through linguistic invention he discovered that languages carry within them the coordinates of a world in which words of these languages have a certain meaning and so are vehicles of truth. (4) All languages, in their poetic diction, contain a mythological horizon that make them exist. As a consequence, the intrinsic relationship between language and mythology highlights how humans experience reality. Using spoken words, they experience their reality and so build a particular worldview, a unique culture, from those words. My article will reflect on this proposition from a philosophical point of view.

Assuming that the mythopoeic basis of Tolkien's work is linguistic, (5) I aim to explore the philosophical basis of sub-creative words. That is, how languages are able to house beings or things and to demand the construction of a unique worldview (mythology) through its unfolding, as well as to describe the metaphysical nucleus behind the languages of a corpus of myths and fairy stories dedicated to England. (6)

First, the notion of perception of the world as a gift and of languages as an art will be explored through two examples from Tolkien's world. The naming of the wealth of reality in the beauty of sound and the form of words will have recourse to the theory of ancient semantic unity of his friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. This concept of languages, an enormous influence on Tolkien, (7) was presented for the first time in Barfield's History in English Words in 1926 and fully developed two years later in Poetic Diction. (8) I will then explore the double path that Tolkien followed in light of the attempt or recovery of this diction in ancient semantic unity: language invention and creation from philology. Finally, I will draw from the most significant philosophical contributions of the last century that understand the essence of language as poiesis espoused by Martin Heidegger to examine Tolkien's theory of sub-creation through language. (9)

From understanding reality in words and through the narration of its potential meaning, I will conclude by arguing that the relationship between language and mythology is essential in primordial speech, and that the artistic process of the creation of Middle-earth is similar to that of all ancient bodies of myths and fantastic stories. Giving a philosophical ground to Tolkien's sub-creative word, my article aims to contribute to the explanations of the artistic path he claimed to have followed, as well as to explain his deep and mysterious statement that language and mythology are essentially interrelated, together with his desire to dedicate a corpus of myths and fairy stories to England. (10) In other words, I aim to explain from a philosophical perspective how Tolkien's literary world-building is based on a deep perception of reality and its many possible meanings in poetic diction.

II. Overabundant Reality (11)

For Barfield, the pleasure produced by poetry is linked to a felt change (expansion) of consciousness: the joy aroused from some combination of words--such as "to walk out of life"--is something new in that it illuminates a new path of perceiving reality beyond the ordinary perspective. (12) That is, for Barfield, poetry allows a direct participation (immediacy) within reality through the aesthetic imagination, discovering the truth of what it is. Therefore, Poetic Diction is the philosophical essence that Barfield did not find in romanticism: the discursive exposition of the relationship between imagination and truth, based on the unity of perception and reason, which allows the poet to have a presence of mind in the poetic imagination and to present reality in its wonders or wealth. Hence, for Barfield imagination was the organ of knowledge. (13)

For the romantics, from Schiller to Wordsworth, from Novalis to Keats, from Eichendorff to Shelley, reality was not simply separated, distant, self-continent, empty, and only mechanically intelligible matter. They understood that nature, the given, effervescent and overabundant world of life, is offered to the human mind for its participation. For those philosophers and poets, imagination was the key to the restitution of a greater depth of consciousness that would restore the relationship between the human being and the rest of beings; for, according to Blake, "Nature is Imagination itself." (14) But what is the task of imagination according to romanticism? It is the participation in reality as the constitution of beings not created or conceived by the human mind, that is, wondering, and subsequent exploration of the world as a gift. In Tolkien's work, there are several examples in which the so-called deep aesthetic perception of an overabundant and marvelous world takes place. I will examine two of them: Frodo and Bilbo.

As the narrator of The Lord of the Rings comments, after crossing the Silverlode and entering Lothlorien, Frodo's breath was taken away when his eyes were opened:
A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw
was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had
been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and
ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no colour but those he
knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and
poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for
them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for
summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen
in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was
no stain. (15)

Frodo's experience finds its key expression when Sam goes on to say, "I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning." (16) They are en-chanted. In Lothlorien there is no flaw, and reality presents itself in its wealth, with no room in language for newcomers. Only re-naming, building bridges through metaphor or giving new names, can give a fair account of such a deep experience. That is to say, only by answering in a new way to so much wealth of being and beauty --creating a new language to match the circumstances--can reality be recognized as a gift and the expression of delight be manifested in the joy of its contemplation and the call to participate in it.

But Frodo's situation points also to the reverse: if Creation or any other sub-creation is no longer seen as a gift, if a desire of taking possession of every layer of wonder takes place (that is, if aesthetic perception is separated from reason), then the relation between the human being and the world becomes that of subject-object. The effects will be that conceptual and analytical thinking become dominant, a mechanical worldview becomes the mainstream, and domination and control become the only approach to reality. That was, precisely, what the romantics were confronting; they wanted to recover a pristine perspective of reality as a marvelous world in which to participate. (17) As Tolkien would say later, poetic art and fairy stories have their function in recovering a pristine view of reality: (18) "I do not say 'seeing things as they are' and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say 'seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them'--as things apart from ourselves." (19) That is, to see things as gifts. (20)

To perceive reality in its abundance, to be able to be astonished, to meet wonders, is to have a child's heart and attend to all the magnitude of meaning that beings and things offer in their presence. (21) Hence, the first thing that happens in such a situation is a respectful silence, followed by an outburst of the spirit, and then speaking at the necessary height and depth so as to be able to tell what was experienced. Another example of this situation, similar to that of Frodo, comes from Bilbo, who also experienced Faerie's irruption before him:
To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all.
There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed
the language that they learned of elves in the days when all was
wonderful. Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but
the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come
home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with
the desire of dwarves. (22)

Tolkien himself explicitly winked at Barfield in this passage, (23) which we will discuss now along with Frodo's experience. To begin with, both Hobbits' breaths were taken away: they were left with no words or vital impulse to speak. Their language, in its scarcity, was not able to show such an overabundant ontological reality. (24) While Frodo understood at that moment the need for a language capable of saying the whole semantic field of what was present, such as colors never seen or imagined before, the narrator of The Hobbit says that there was a language capable of naming such experiences: an ancient language, primordial, that with the march of time has been lost, together with the loss of perception of a wonderful reality, due to changes in the language of Men. As I will argue, we will find two paths that Tolkien followed in his poetic diction: the invention of Elvish languages, and the recovery of old meanings of words before they were changed in the language of Men.

III. Ancient Semantic Unity

The inability of Frodo and Bilbo to express themselves is a consequence of the abundance they have met and justifies the wonder of reality that they experience. The polysemy and depth of meaning they perceive is superior to anything else they know. Their consciousness has been raised to perceive that wonder, but their language is not able to answer properly. That is, Tolkien is pointing to a way of perceiving and naming reality beyond the ordinary, which is related explicitly to a theory of Barfield's, namely the theory of ancient semantic unity.

In his early works, Barfield argued that our modern languages contain dead metaphors, and that the more we go back in the history of these languages, the more metaphorical they are, in the sense that the old words never speak only of a physical object or fact. Thus, with reference to words such as "diurnal," "diary," "dial," and "journal," which are derived from the Latin word dies, which is actually referring to the sky, Barfield wrote, "If we are to judge from language, we must assume that when our earliest ancestors looked up to the blue vault they felt that they saw not merely a place, whether heavenly or earthly, but the bodily vesture, as it were, of a living Being." (25) That is to say, the many words we now use to refer to different meanings of the word dies were gathered in the past, because the abundance of the word and its meanings were perceived as one. Therefore, the history of language shows us the evolution of consciousness and a change in the way of being in the world and dialoguing with it: our minds and languages have become more mechanistic, conceptual, and analytical, and the world has lost its wonder and its capacity of astonishment. (26)

When reflecting on the relationship and meaning of those scattered words, Barfield concluded that the ancient consciousness and language did not distinguish between the literal and the figurative: the diurnal sky was divinity itself, and only a change of perception of the world, linked to what it is conceptual and prosaic, made the separation of such meanings possible. That is why older languages are more related to myths when appearing in their semantic unity, and why every word shows traces of a mythic language and perception of the world. (27) For the same reason, every new word will show that its meaning was in some way already present in a language, as a seed waiting to bloom. As Barfield commented in his famous description of the Latin word spiritus:
So far from the psychic meaning of "spiritus" having arisen because
someone had the abstract idea, "principle of life"... and wanted a word
for it, the abstract idea "principle of life" is itself a product of
the old concrete meaning "spiritus," which contained within itself the
germs of both later significations. We must, therefore, imagine a time
when "spiritus" or [phrase omitted], or older words from which these
had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all
three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar
meaning, which has since, in the course of evolution of consciousness,
crystallized into the three meanings specified. (28)

What today can be a metaphor or a concept has in fact a latent meaning, because old words link the physical and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible. Hence, for Barfield, each word formerly had a powerful semantic nucleus, close to myth and having multiple meanings. The tendency of languages, after the difference between objective-subjective vigorously demanded in Attica of the fifth century b.c., has been to specify and clarify those meanings, making the myth more prosaic: the division of the semantic unity into different meanings, more univocal, abstract, and specific. But languages show another principle distinct from the tendency to divide: the search for similarities and a living unity. And this second principle, after the awakening of cognitive consciousness, is the one that operates in metaphor.

Through metaphor, new relationships between the beings are forged. When something is given the meaning of another word, the transference of significance opens a new way of attending reality: there is an appeal to the aesthetic imagination. Through poetry, the world is renewed and its wonder is rediscovered, because new meanings are brought by the poet. Therefore, the careful work of poetic diction has the ability to illuminate the world, because the metaphor builds bridges toward a participation in reality based on the unity of the being. And if that kind of language and consciousness carry within themselves mythic seeds, the new words will offer a new mythology for the recovery of the perception of an overabundant reality.

In summary, based on the history of the meaning in languages, Barfield's theory of ancient semantic unity asserts that the primordial poetic diction had within itself the undivided meaning of an overabundant reality, which forged forever the background of a mythology. Therefore, the stories, the narrative explanations of the different significances of reality are but the unfolding of the semantic potential nucleus of words. When myths and stories are lost and words related to them deprived of a framework in which they are meaningful, they will seem metaphoric for an analytical mind. But the poet, as an artist of deep aesthetic imagination and consciousness, is able to recover the meaningful framework of the old, or to create new ones by the careful invention of new meaning illuminated by metaphors. (29)

Having said that, the recovery of a perception of the world as a wonderful place (claimed by the romantics), Barfield's theory of ancient semantic unity, and Tolkien's notion of the essential relationship of language and mythology opens a double path in the attempt to dedicate a mythology to England. 1) Tolkien is recovering a perception of reality as a gift and its naming in the beauty of the form of the word--a genuine new invention in the void--that demands building a framework to give that new language a space to be meaningful. 2) Tolkien is engaged in the recovery of the significance of old (mostly Germanic) words and the framework in which they were potentially meaningful, together with the creation of new words totally coherent with that structure of meaning--creation according to tradition. (30) Therefore, in the following section, I will explore how, in order to provide England with a mythology of its own, Tolkien worked in the artistic poetic diction linked to the unfolding of a web of myths and fairy stories.

IV. The Sub-Creative Word


As I will demonstrate, the elaboration of an Elvish language that carries within itself the seed of a whole secondary world is tied to a deep aesthetic perception needed in the modern world. But there was another reason for Tolkien's interest. In line with one of the main desires of the nineteenth-century philology, Tolkien as a philologist was attracted to the idea of the reconstruction of the old Indo-European language as a tool that could illuminate the common worldview of a family of people that would split over time. That is why, in similar terms, from the beginning, Tolkien worked on more than one Elvish language, among which Quenya and Sindarin stand out, as the essence of a structural framework in which a proto-Elvish language develops in different but related languages with a common mythological background. (31) Hence, the Elvish languages are the essence of a personal linguistic aesthetic concerned with the same wealth and wonder of reality. Together with the history of the development of these languages, Tolkien narrated the migrations, clashes and mingling of the different Elvish groups, as well as the way to spread a whole mythology from the root of words.

When the Elves awoke in Cuivienen, the first thing they silently observed was the light of the stars. (32) The light was etched in their eyes forever: it was the first thing they named, and this is the basis of their being as a people. The relationship between language and mythology is consolidated at this moment, when creation is reverently discovered and the essential moment when the construction of a people takes place. Their being comes from that light, which is present in speech to the point that a common greeting turns out to be "a star shines on the hour of our meeting." (33) Therefore, light is both being and speech--hence the reference of the Elves to themselves as Quendi, "those that speak with voices." (34) In consequence, everything that their mythology deals with--the struggle against evil and sin, the virtue of loyalty, and art--is based on and directed to preserve the things their words were laid on: the light of the stars, fixed in the sky by Varda, whom the Elves call Elbereth, by desire of Iluvatar. So the language constructs a form of being and a mythological dimension from the root. There we find the essential relationship between language and mythology. What Elvish mythology nourishes and sows in the heart is precisely what is always in danger: the very source of both its being and its language. (35)

In addition, the pristine diction of the Elves at Cuivienen finds its echo in the following words of Heidegger: "'To dwell poetically' means to stand in the presence of the gods and to be struck by the essential nearness of things. Existence is 'poetic' in its ground--which means, at the same time, as founded (grounded), it is not something earned, but is rather a gift." (36) The Elves perceive the world in its abundance as a gift, and their speech and naming of beings and things is their own gift as an answer to the world. That is to say, their language sub-creates directly a mythology in their world, which is a whole coherent framework of meaning where their words are vehicles of truth. That is why, as Flieger said, "what must be metaphoric in our Primary World is literal in his [Tolkien's] imagined Secondary one." (37) The Elvish languages and their stories are a product of art for us, which cannot be more than a metaphor in our primary world. However, for the Elves, in their own world, their language and art goes directly to the essence of reality.

Therefore, in the invention of Elvish languages we find the answer to the essential relationship between language and mythology in light of Barfield's theory of ancient semantic unity: the word that says the world in its full depth, in its unity of meaning, is a poetic mythos. But as the word demands unfolding of its semantic nucleus in order to create a framework where it can be a vehicle of truth, it is at the same time a narrative mythos. In other words, Tolkien's literary world-building restores the myth both as primordial word and story. Because it does not differentiate between the metaphorical and the literal, the Elvish mythopoeic word demands every narrative construction where the full potency of its semantic nucleus is made meaningful. Thus, for example, Aragorn is called in Quenya Envinyatar, the Renewer: (38) he restores both the order of the Kingdom and the health of his subjects; he recalls both the glorious past of his ancestors and the spirit of the people touched by the Shadow; he repairs both with a sword and with his hands. That is to say, the Quenya word asks for a literary world-building where the narrative stories of its multiple meanings would make it true.


As we have seen, Tolkien essayed a structural framework of languages related to a pristine diction of the wonder of the world, which in their narrative unfolding created a corpus of myths and stories from the perspective of Elvish that, inside the fictional story, were transmitted to Men and finally kept in England. But there is another way of exploring the semantic unity of language and giving England a mythology that Tolkien followed: the unfolding of mythical content of its ancient words, exploring the potential meaning of old English --and Icelandic (39)--names. In the following section, we will explore how Middan-geard, Mi[eth]-gar[eth]r, and Middle-earth are one and the same.

Tolkien, in addition to the composition of ancient mythopoeic diction in semantic unity in Elvish languages, nurtured himself from within his academic work to explore the potential meaning of old words of Northwest Europe, forgotten and obscured over the years. By making bridges between separate meanings of a historical word, the metaphor became in his hands the magician's wand, and he forged with it the basis on which new myths could arise. In this context, it is interesting to see how the study of Old English--and related Germanic languages--gave its mythological creation a consistency based on the experience stored in words that were used under a sky and on a ground of English--in contact, as well, with the Celtic languages long rooted in Britain. With the study of medieval sources, Tolkien found a way to make the philologist and the poet one and the same; for him words meant more than they could mean for ordinary people: they were voices of many layers in which he could detect the magnitude of previous worlds and ways of being and existence. And his greatness consisted in the ability to reconstruct the whole world of experience where the meaning of a word belonged. One of the best examples comes from the Old English sigelhearwan. (40)

Considering the words sigel and hearwa separately, Tolkien concluded that sigelhearwan might have been the name of some fearsome nonhuman creatures before it referred to Ethiopians: some terrifying beings related to the light of the sun and the jewels, as well as to black smoke. Through philological recovery, the form and meaning of the word were academically reestablished. But it was not enough for Tolkien: it was necessary to recover the world where the meaning of the word could be true, and there came into play both the silmarilli and the balrogs. In other words, uniting what today may seem a metaphoric meaning of those words, Tolkien found that there might have been a fantastic--overabundant and wonderful/horrible--meaning of the beings behind the old words, and he wanted to recover and explore those worlds where it could have been perceived. That is, Tolkien took the old Anglo-Saxon word sigelhearwan in its semantic unity and found that it was a mythos. It just needed its narration.

By linking himself to the experience of the world preserved in obscure words, Tolkien managed to recreate the ancient world that the Anglo-Saxons inherited, looking even further than the author of Beowulf. Thus Tolkien's legendarium becomes an essay on the tradition that the ancient authors looked at with astonishment, remoteness and desire for preservation in its nobleness, which he managed to rescue from oblivion not only for the English language, but for the whole humanity.

Although in his early years Tolkien might have searched for a very direct, geographical connection between the Elves and England, the Lost Tales or the Silmarillion are not their mythology insofar as they deal with events strictly occurring in those lands. Instead, they are the essence of the stories and their languages therein that the English people in English lands made in some way theirs and to which they directed their thoughts for the development of their art and culture. Therefore, the Tolkienian fiction composes and recreates the oldest and most memorable things that the Anglo-Saxon imaginative tradition has recorded. For this reason, its appearance as an epic for England should not be understood as the creation of an element for the exaltation or supremacy of a nation, but as a support that can offer the ground and source of that nation. It can be seen as the horizon toward which the English might have turned their thoughts in the past, the dimension over which their soul waited for something from beyond, and the kingdom whose echo sustained them before the struggles of the world. Thus the recovery of the everlasting truth about a way of being in the world in poetic terms allows not only personal application, but a recovery of the points from which to continue creating in its own terms that same tradition. (41) Echoing the words of Lewis, it is "the conquest of new territory." (42) In this context, it would be fairer to speak of the elaboration of a mythology from England.

V. Naming Beings and Things

In 1970, in a letter to his son Michael, Tolkien wrote: "'Stories' still sprout in my mind from names; but it is a very difficult and complex task." (43) Now we are in a better position to understand the metaphysical share of this artistic process: if the world is perceived as a wealthy gift, a human being is stunned by its full dimensions, and his language necessarily names the beings and things therein in semantic unity. No distinction between the inner and the outer, the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual, is made. For that reason, language is able to touch the essence of beings and things far beyond the entity, because it has its multiplicity of meanings in unity and in relationship with other beings. When the word houses not a superficial and concrete meaning but a deep presence, it contains a whole world waiting to unfold. The narrative telling then would expand the meaning of words into stories with the ability to give the necessary framework of coherence to make the word true. In other words, language reaches the original Logos out of the multiplicity of logoi, and all logoi deserve their own narrative unfolding. As a consequence, the essential relationship between language and mythology that concerns Tolkien allows us to speak about the poetics of mythos: the old poetic diction of the word and the literary development of its meanings.

For Tolkien, words, as the fundamental element of naming as a response to the presence of beings and things, appear as a primordial way of knowing. In a reality full of beings and things, the poetic word becomes a vehicle to interact with them. When these interactions tell the wealth of beings and things, meaning is shared in community, (collaborative) language lays the foundation of different points of meaning, and the coherence of the braided net constructs a world in which the truth is presented in a unique way. (44) The word holds the being or thing; language creates a worldview. According to the internal coherence of the web of sense plaited with poetic words over the perceived beings, a story becomes a vehicle of truth. When speech becomes dialogue with the Logos, reality is poeticized, and a community achieves the foundation of a world. For every historical community, every culture, is also a sub-creation, and therefore a development according to the truth perceived and eternally gathered in primordial speech, because "the founding is an overflowing, a bestowal," according to Heidegger. (45)

When the world is perceived in its abundance as a gift, the astonishment makes the human creature to know himself as a creature. Therefore, his dialogue with reality becomes the participation in a divine design. Nothing he finds comes from inside himself, but is given freely and abundantly. In this context, words are the ground to establish a world of all possible meanings; that is, the human being is called to sub-create his particular background of significance, recreation, and reflection where he can develop its existence. (46) Hence, every language, as the artistic answer to a deep perception of reality, has its unique way to tell the truth about the world, has its unique imagination, and coordinates to sub-create a world from the given reality. The human being, as a creature with the imprint of the Creator, has in consequence the task to participate in the design and unfold in a unique way the essence of reality. (47) Therefore, the artist does not create, but sub-creates. (48)

That is, the artist, departing from what is known and available to him, explores the (fantastic) depths of reality and presents them in a coherent framework as a sub-creation. Poetic diction echoes the call of being, names it to be, and allows people to find their place in history through its particular way of channeling a suprahistorical truth. Therefore, poetry is the speech that establishes reality from a particular perspective and makes it habitable. And it is a gift: poetry is the response to an offering, an unrepeatable answer that gathers a whole world of truth as a response from an aesthetic-semantic experience. As Heidegger emphasized:
Language is neither merely nor primarily the aural and written
expression of what needs to be communicated [...] Language, by naming
beings for the first time, first brings beings to word and to
appearance [...] Poetry is the saying of the unconcealment of beings
[...] In such saying, the concepts of its essence--its belonging to
world-history, in other words--are formed, in advance, for a historical
people. (49)

That is to say, when the artistic-creative activity is understood to be the primary function of language before communication, speech becomes necessarily a mythic answer to the world. When Tolkien's art becomes the vehicle to look to the old aesthetics and metaphysics of the Anglo-Saxon tradition through words, Middle-earth is entirely true in imaginative terms, because Tolkien sub-created from what was already there, dark and forgotten, but latent and waiting to unfold. In this way, the metaphysical background of Tolkien's legendarium is one and the same as that conceived by the old Anglo-Saxons, because it springs from the semantic-experiential power of their words and the existential experience of their literary works.

Finally, the truth of what is named and explored through the mythos achieves its goal when it comes to illuminate the primary world: the design is unfolded while it restores the wonder of reality. (50) Therefore, naming beings in the poetic or sub-creative word is much more valuable than the referential saying of an object or entity. And in this context, concerning the illumination of the primary reality with the invocation of a secondary one through words, it is interesting to quote a passage from Heidegger. Thinking on the first verses of Georg Trakl's 1915 poem "A Winter Evening" [Ein Winterabend], the philosopher stated:
Wenn der Schnee ans Fenster fallt, When snow falls on the window, Lang
die Abendglocke lautet Long rings the vesper bell What is this naming?
Does it merely deck out the imaginable familiar objects and
events--snow, bell, window, falling, ringing--with words of a language?
No. This naming does not hand out tides, it does not apply terms, but
it calls into the word. The naming calls [...] it brings the presence
of what was previously uncalled into a nearness [...] But even so the
call does not wrest what it calls away from the remoteness, in which it
is kept by the calling there. The calling calls into itself and
therefore always here and there--here into presence, there into
absence. Snowfall and tolling of vesper bell are spoken to us here and
now in the poem. They are present in the call. Yet they in no way fall
among the things present here and now in this lecture hall. Which
presence is higher, that of these present things or the presence of
what is called? (51)

As Heidegger comments, to invoke is to call to a proximity, to bring what is named and the world where it belongs. In naming, both the element and the reality in which it makes sense are brought out, and find their place in the present as a secondary world that, if it is powerful and coherent in itself, allows us to enter into it and then link it to this world. It works as a metaphor from a distance--which does not hide our direction to the distance. And this primordial speech that Heidegger was eager to recover is the mythos, for it keeps in itself not a concrete element, but an entire experience, a whole world that is called to its unfolding, and which appears as a horizon of meanings. (52) Hence, Heidegger came to argue that the reality that breaks through naming of the poet is superior, more powerful, and that it opens the possibility of being a metaphor, of overcoming our present reality and endowing it with a sense that has accompanied a whole historical culture: to continue showing that there is more reality than seen at first sight. In other words, that poetry is the primordial way of recovering the notion of a wonderful world, in the same way as Tolkien said that fantasy--through myth and fairy story--recovers the astonishment before a very overabundant reality.

In a few words, it can be said that Tolkien saw in the old diction, in ancient semantic unity, the key to sub-create a mythology, because artistic language demands the building of a world where the perceived meaning of reality can be true. Moreover, on the basis of speech as dialogue with a marvellous reality that invites the hearer to participate in its unfolding, Tolkien's Middle-earth is built in the same way as any other traditional cosmo-mythology of this world: fundamental and foundational narrations are born of the picture woven in the relationship of meaning that words sew on beings, as points of support, take-off, and convergence. Therefore, Tolkien's legendarium, in its coherence and ability to arouse poetic faith, becomes a vehicle of truth and an expansion of reality and its design.

VI. Conclusions

According to the sub-creative word, poetic diction builds a new world of meanings over a given reality, as an answer to its donation and overabundance. The deep aesthetic perception of reality, which the romantics, Barfield, and Tolkien wanted to recover by poetry and fantasy, puts the human being in horizontal dialogue with reality, and in this context, as meanings of words in a language in the past tells us, "the mind, the tongue, and the tale, are coeval." (53) Therefore, Middle-earth, the creation of a secondary world from the semantic power of words, stands as the essence of the artistic process of every ancient corpus of myths and wonderful stories, which formed the framework of meaning of particular cultures.

Together with Heidegger's philosophical demand of a pristine saying to which to turn Tolkien's mythological creation finds its place in the twentieth century, when it was necessary to show again that the world is superabundant and full of meanings, that the best way to know it is to say it in all its multiplicity, and that the story, literature, is above all myth.

With Tolkien, the sub-creative word participates in the creative design of reality as an artistic vehicle: it is mythos as a word that encompasses a whole world of experience and as its narration, story. Thus the primordial word, in dialogue with reality in all its dimensions, points to the poetics of myth: to the astonishment and reverence of an overabundant and free reality that calls to inhabit and to unfold. Through both the invention of languages that give names according to the original unity of the concrete and abstract and the metaphorical exploration of ancient meanings of words linked to the past of England, Tolkien brings to literary world-building the way in which language and mythology are essentially linked. Or, in other words, the way in which everyone has held beings and things, and has been sustained in this world-building by the construction of particular horizons of meaning involving the operation of both mind and heart. Therefore, Middle-earth should be understood as just as legitimate a vehicle for philosophical reflection as any other traditional secondary world of myths and fairy stories.

In conclusion, Tolkien applies to linguistic and literary praxis the ways in which 1) the word sustains beings and things, 2) language creates a worldview, and 3) our grammar is mythic. Or, in his own words, how "mythology is language and language is mythology." (54) Therefore, myths and fairy stories become vehicles of truth as long as they are consistent with the web of sense plaited over perceived beings. That is to say, Tolkien shows that the creation of a secondary world through the poetic word consists in the exploration or narrative unfolding of the semantic structure contained in it: that mythopoeia is the particular way of telling and participating in the truth of reality through its apprehension and singing in the beauty of speech. In Tolkien's hands, multidimensional words become the seeds from which whole worlds of experience can sprout, when a narration tells the framework where the meaning of a word is coherent and true. In fact, Tolkien shows us that the most natural and solid world-building has its ground in wordsmithing, because if the Logos sustains creation, the logoi must be the basis of sub-creation. We could ask: what is the necessary basis of literary world-building for Tolkien? The answer would be, a deep aesthetic experience that permeates all its elements (geography, races, heroes, ontological rules, and so on): the exploration of the world contained in the overabundant meaning of words as the diction of a wonderful and created reality.


My warmest thanks go to Johan Boots for his generous and invaluable advice in the preparation of this text. The translation of George Trakl's German verses is his: "Full of merit, yet poetically dwells / the human being on this earth."

(1.) The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Selection, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2000), no. 163, 165, 257, 297.

(2.) The logos is said and unfolds, discovering a constant creation. Note that the creative act, both in Ainulindale--"Ea! Let these things Be!" (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien [London: HarperCollins, 2013], 9)--and in Genesis--"Let there be light" (Gen 1:3)--is similar: speaking Words and so unfolding Creation.

(3.) Tolkien, Letters, no. 205.

(4.) Ibid., 180; A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, ed. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew S. Higgins (London: HarperCollins, 2016), 23-24.

(5.) The author does not overlook the debate and investigation whether, as Tolkien claimed, the invented languages were prior to the literary stories. In Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Dimitra Fimi has argued that although they soon became interrelated activities, they started independently; this argument was later reinforced with the contributions of John Garth in "The Road from Adaptation to Invention: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914," Tolkien Studies, no. 11 (2014): 1-44, and Andrew S. Higgins in The Genesis of J. R. R. Tolkien's Mythology (PhD thesis, Cardiff Metropolitan University, 2015). Nevertheless, the author of this text considers that, although Tolkien's first literary samples did not depend directly on new genuine linguistic creations, they did come from the meaning found in languages, as long as in-vent refers to find, dis-cover.

(6.) Tolkien, Letters, no. 131.

(7.) Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 42.

(8.) Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Barrington: Lindisfarne Books, 2007); Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973).

(9.) The new expanded edition of Tolkien's A Secret Vice (xli-lxv) puts Tolkien's main text on language invention in the context of the most important theories on the origin of language of the past century. Nevertheless, as Tolkien's concern with the origin of language was not a matter of cause and effect nor of communication, but of apprehension of meaning through the beauty of words (in sound and form; ibid., 63-80), we see that it is necessary to turn to philosophy from the past century that understands the essence of language as poiesis; that is, sub-creative. Accordingly, Eduardo Segura's "Verbum y Mitopoeia: Palabra Poetica e Invencion del Ser en Tolkien y Heidegger" (Premios Gandalf & AElfwine 2009 y 2010, ed. Monica Sanz, Santiago Alvarez and Sergio Mars, Madrid: Sociedad Tolkien Espanola, 2011, 357-75) and Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World (Kent and London: The Kent State UP, 2002) and "Tolkien and the Philosophy of Language" (Tolkien and Philosophy, ed. Roberto Arduini and Claudio A. Testi [Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2014], 73-84) must be mentioned. Segura links the Heideggerian being's naming to the Tolkienian sub-creation, and Flieger gives a wider scope to Barfield's philosophy of language with the work of Ernst Cassirer (Splintered Light, 33-44; 67-72). Nonetheless, we want to notice that Cassirer did not highlight the essence of language as poiesis, but as symbolon, which can be both mythos and logos (Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer [New York: Dover, 1946], 88). However, the poetic being does not deny a complementation or bifurcation, or two contemporary modes of thought and expression, but emphasizes the capacity to name reality as it appears: a saying that degrades with the development of abstract thinking, which Cassirer was aware of and for which he affirmed that in the beginning language was closer to myth. The path that this text takes is concerned with something prior to the figurative or the conceptual--the division of a unity that Cassirer was not conscious of--and which makes man to be human: speech, naming.

(10.) Tolkien, Letters, no. 131, 180.

(11.) The use of "(over)abundance" is linked to the (English) vocabulary of Heidegger and those who after him have explored a philosophy centered in the wonder and Beauty present in the world (Hans Urs von Balthasar, for example)--which is totally coherent with the sacramental vision of Tolkien. In this context, we can find the following: "abundance of beings," "abundance of nature," "abundance of things," "abundance of beauty," "abundance of the gift," and their reverse: "nature's abundance," "nature, in its abundance."

(12.) Barfield, Poetic Diction, 48-52, 182, 209.

(13.) Unlike Lewis, who considered it the organ of meaning, after which reason had to test the truth; see Michael Ward, "The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C. S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics" in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM Press, 2011), 59-78. For a discussion of the differences between Lewis and Barfield on this with Joy as background, see Stephen Thorson, Joy and Poetic Imagination: Understanding C. S. Lewis's "Great War" with Owen Barfield and its Significance for Lewis's Conversion and Writings (Hamden, CT: Winged Lion Press, 2015). The poetic diction that Barfield refers to is closely tied to the meta-phora (transference, translation), in which incompatible terms come together over real beings or actions: it builds bridges of meaning that save the inability of common language to embrace the abundance of reality. In suggesting and giving consideration to different levels that otherwise would not have been reached, it cannot be reduced to a literal equivalent without losing content, because it extracts from one thing the quality for another and vice versa. That is why, together with the aesthetic pleasure that it arouses, it is knowledge. See Barfield, Poetic Diction, 52, 180, and Janet M. Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

(14.) The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Nonesuch Press; New York: Random House, 1946), 835.

(15.) J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 2014): FR, II, vi, 359.

(16.) Ibid., FR, II, vi, 360.

(17.) In this sense we can take Tolkien as an heir of romanticism, as a poet concerned with the beauty of the world and its deep (fantastic) dimension. See Lisa Coutras, Tolkien's Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle-earth (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and Chris Seeman, "Tolkien's Revision of the Romantic Tradition," in Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference: Keble College, Oxford, 1992, ed. Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. GoodKnight (Milton Keynes: The Tolkien Society, and Altadena: Mythopoeic Press, 1995), 73-83, and the description of Frodo touching a mallorn in Lothlorien (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: FR, II, vi, 360).

(18.) Tolkien stated in On Fairy-stories that the main characteristics and goals of fairy-stories are recovery, escape, and consolation (and ultimately eucatastrophe). In the context of literary world-building and not of a certain fairy-story, we are concerned with the presentation of truth (unfolding of reality) under a new light (recovery).

(19.) Tolkien On Fairy-stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: Harper-Collins, 2014), 67.

(20.) "'It is a gift!' said Niggle when its painting got the inner consistence of reality far beyond the composition of his technique." J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2001), 110.

(21.) "We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses--and wolves. This recovery of fairy-stories helps us to create. In that sense only a taste for them may make us, or keep us, childish." Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, 67.

(22.) J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (London: HarperCollins, 2011), 198.

(23.) Tolkien, Letters, no. 15.

(24.) Hans-Georg Gadamer said: "But think about the fact that the twist, which also appears in everyday speech, 'I miss the words'--that is, 'I am at a loss for words' --actually means that one comes up with something surprising and unexpected and that there is no right expression to say what needs to be said." Mito y razon, trans. Jose Francisco Zuniga Garcia (Barcelona: Paidos, 1997), 112. Some other examples of Tolkien are the moments of Eomer before Aragorn (Lord of the Rings: TT, III, ii, 444) and of Pippin before Denethor (Lord of the Rings: RK, V, i, 772).

(25.) Barfield, History, 88-89. The same idea is expressed by Tolkien in his explanation of the myth of Thor (On Fairy-stories, 43), when referring to a semantic and multidimensional unity of reality--natural, human, and divine.

(26.) A conception also shared by Tolkien ("disease of language") in On Fairy-stories (41) and Martin Heidegger ("degradation of speech") in "Language," Poetry, Language, Thought, ed. and trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Perennial Classics, 2001), 185-208 (205).

(27.) A good example is given by Barfield (History, 85-87) with the word "panic." The awareness of an external divine agent [Pan] is forgotten, just to refer to an inner state or impulse. Hence, the myth is disfigured in everyday speech, for it has lost its external dimension in pursuit of internal expression.

(28.) Barfield, Poetic Diction, 80-81.

(29.) In the sense of finding, discovery, from the Latin invenire. See Barfield, Poetic Diction, 86-87, and Gadamer, Mito y razon, 27.

(30.) Two paths related to linguistic invention commented by Tolkien in A SecretVice, 13.

(31.) See Tolkien, A Secret Vice, xvi-xxx. In fact, Tolkien developed many languages apart from the Elvish ones for different peoples of Middle-earth. As examples of their particular imaginative perception and naming of one and the same reality, see the descriptions and names of the mountains that Gimli said on the way to Moria (Lord of the Rings: FR, II, iii, 290) and the names that Faramir knows for Gandalf (Lord of the Rings: TT, IV, v, 686-87)--they show that each language is coherent in meaning; names, beings, or things in relation to other beings or things, so creating a framework where the truth of the world is presented in a unique way.

(32.) Tolkien, Silmarillion, 44-45.

(33.) Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: FR, I, iii, 83.

(34.) Tolkien, Silmarillion, 45.

(35.) Eduardo Segura and Guillermo Peris, "Tolkien as Philo-Logist" in Reconsidering Tolkien, ed. Thomas Honegger (Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2005), 31-43 (33-34). That is why the stars are always a gift to all the heirs of the Elvish tradition, as Sam understands in Mordor when he is called to hope (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: RK, VI, ii, 945).

(36.) Martin Heidegger, "Holderlin and the Essence of Poetry," Elucidations of Holderlin's Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (New York: Humanity Books, 2000), 51-66 (60).

(37.) Flieger, Splintered Light, 58.

(38.) Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: RK, V, viii, 885.

(39.) On the common relation, in mythical terms, between the past of English and Icelandic, see Tolkien's comments about the allusion in the Beowulf poem to the world of Sigmund and the volsungs in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2010), 348-63. See also Tom Shippey, Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien by Tom Shippey (Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007), 187-202, and his review "'The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,'" Tolkien Studies, no. 7 (2010): 291-324.

(40.) Tolkien found that Anglo-Saxon scribes used the word to translate AEthiops [Ethiopian], but that it might have referred in the past to something mythic now lost: something related to creatures "with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks, with faces black as soot," "Sigelwara Land," in two parts, Medium AEvum, no. 1(3) (1932): 183-96 and 3(2) (1934): 95-111; The Old English Exodus: Text, Translation, and Commentary, ed. Joan Turville-Petre (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981): 42. See Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (London: HarperCollins, 2005), 48. For other examples of Germanic words in the development of Tolkien's Middle-earth, see Tom Shippey, "Creation from Philology in The Lord of the Rings," in J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, ed. Mary B. Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2013), 286-316.

(41.) One of the best examples of creation from philology is the word holbytla, "holedweller," "hole-builder," a word not recorded but perfectly coherent with the Anglo-Saxon tradition (Shippey, Road to Middle-earth, 76).

(42.) C. S. Lewis, "Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings," On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 83-90 (83).

(43.) Tolkien, Letters, no. 315.

(44.) "Poetry is the founding of being in the word," says Martin Heidegger in "The Origin of the Work of Art," Martin Heidegger: Off the Beaten Track, ed. and trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1-54 (59). Consequently, naming is the supreme way of knowledge.

(45.) Ibid., 47.

(46.) "Logic can make us more precisely aware of the meaning already implicit in words. But the meaning must first of all be there and, if it is there, it will always be found to have been deposited or imparted by the poetic activity." Barfield, Poetic Diction, 31.

(47.) As one of the most famous verses of the poem "Mythopoeia" (Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, 87) tells: "We make still by the law in which we're made."

(48.) Heidegger (Work of Art, 48) approaches the concept of sub-creation by asserting that the artist's task is to take, to obtain, to extract [schopfen] from Creation, and not to create in the void.

(49.) Ibid., 45-46.

(50.) As Tolkien said: "By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled," (On Fairy-stories, 68).

(51.) Heidegger, Language, 196.

(52.) In the same way as Sam realizes that their task continues the history linked to the light of the silmarilli (Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: TT, IV, viii, 729).

(53.) Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, 181.

(54.) Ibid.

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article].
COPYRIGHT 2019 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Odriozola, Jon Mentxakatorre
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2019
Previous Article:The Biography of St. Augustine in the Catholic Encounter with China.
Next Article:J. R. R. Tolkien: el fundamento filosofico de la palabra sub-creadora.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters