Damien Bador on the Origins of a Fantasy Classic
By Damien Bador, April 8, 2021
JRR Tolkien disliked novels that tended toward autobiography, though he did not dispute the fact that an author has no choice but to use his or her own experiences in writing fiction. The Lord of the Rings is most assuredly not an allegory for the 20th century, nor are any of his protagonists a reflection of Tolkien himself. Yet, if there is a domain inextricably intertwined with the life of our author, it is linguistics: comparative philology, to be precise.
For Tolkien, language and literature necessarily go hand in hand; this is the only way to ensure proper understanding of a text, particularly in the case of ancient texts. Tolkien conveyed this point of view in his analysis of Beowulf, published in The Monsters and the Critics: And Other Essays, which combined philological rigor with literary appreciation at a time when critics generally saw the epic poem merely as a source of historical information distorted by myth.
The importance of language is easily discernible in Tolkien’s obsession with finding the perfect turn of phrase, even if it meant reworking certain sentences countless times. His preoccupation with linguistic detail also found its way into his stories themselves, focusing on the languages spoken by the various characters. No one who has read The Lord of the Rings can fail to have been struck by the passages in Quenya or Sindarin, the two main Elvish languages, and in perusing the novels’ appendices, it becomes clear to the reader that these are true languages, each with its own specific grammar and vocabulary, and that Tolkien also paid close attention to the evolution of these languages, and to their relationships to one another.