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Sunday
Dec212008

The Ring of Words

The last ten years have borne witness to a revival of interest in the works of this author, whom I first encountered at the merry age of ten when my school's curriculum obliged me to read this novel.  At the time the stuff was well beyond my capacities; but unlike other mature books that I tackled while very young, I felt no glorious anticipation of future re–readings (which I certainly experienced when, at fourteen, I first read this author's entire oeuvre).   So, when I returned to The Hobbit and even leafed through the Rings trilogy, I expected to be bored, and not only because I am no fan of science fiction or fantasy.  There is something ultradense about Tolkien's style, an abstruse concinnity usually found in obscure humanities journals that doesn't so much as bore as distract me.  When you read a great writer, especially someone with particularly clear ideas and morals, you get (if you have a proclivity for it) an undeniable urge to compose.  Even small samplings of Melville or Chesterton suffice to make our minds race through fictive scenarios searching for another allegory for art.  And there are other writers who are learned if a bit dull and best enjoyed in non–fictional settings, such as this text describing Tolkien's work and passion for languages.
 
Being a student of Old English and Old Norse, I am most appreciative of Tolkien's contributions to lexicography.  As was mentioned a few thousand times during the revival of his trilogy, Tolkien's first means of financial support was as an editor and researcher for the greatest dictionary in the history of the English language.  I do love dictionaries but wonder whether I might become disenchanted from having to research every last form for a limited section of one letter's entries (Tolkien's expertise in the Germanic languages got him the assignment of "W").  Well, however bored the young scholar might have been, he certainly made use of his time.  Tolkien's work on these entries, including marvelous intuitive speculation on an old name for this evil bird (one of my favorites), is detailed by the authors in the first part of The Ring of Words.  The second and third parts go over Tolkien's own fashionings of brave new words for his warriors and warlocks.  Now, if you are knowledgeable about the aforementioned ancient tongues and Norse mythology in general, the whole endeavor of hobbits, ents, silharrows, and weapontakes loses much of its luster (much as a knowledge of Russian impedes any enjoyment of this ballyhooed novel).  That a child would find these words magically new and exciting tells you how much puerile enthusiasm is required to fall in love with Tolkien's inventiveness and unswervable desire to inject into his religious parables some very old blood.
 
What are the best selections from his lexicon?  Weapontake (exactly what it looks like, although its historical sense is the subject of some complicated logodaedaly) and silharrow (an ethnonym for "men of the south") are exquisitely beautiful, as are dwimmerlaik (practice of occult art or goety),  north–away and south–away (in those directions), mithril ("grey brilliance," or "silver"), hame ("coat" or "skin," as Old Norse's hamfarir means "magical travel in the shape of an animal") and kingsfoil (a plant).   Tolkien sticks to the old saying that writing well in English means using native Germanic (and often shorter) words rather than the foreign Latinate borrowings, ideally with a fine balance between the two.  His world is an unabashed satellite of Asgard, Midgard and Valhalla, broken off and spinning in revolution to the same days and nights and seasons of the Norse gods that Tolkien, a very Christian man whose books are at once very Christian and very Norse, fell in love with as a child and worshiped as a man.
 
A strange and deep concurrence runs between Thor and Odin and Christian beliefs that I have never been able to explain.  The Norse deities are structured in a similar hierarchy to the Greek pantheon but their stories are unique and far more compelling, perhaps because instead of interfering in and laughing at the pathetic lives of mortals, the Gods themselves are doomed to perish.  You will understand my disappointment when I returned to Tolkien after almost twenty years of indifference only to find that, while worthy themes were being acted out by worthy men, there was little more to these stories than complex, verbose parables.  The Ring of Words offers insight and a wonderful slew of definitions you will never find anywhere else.  It also maintains Tolkien's reputation as a first–rate scholar sidetracked by heavenly aspirations about lowly creatures be eldern dawes, "in the days of our forefathers."         

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