The Language/Style of LotR

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Asha Greyjoy 29/Jul/2006 at 06:39 PM
Assassin of Umbar Points: 5958 Posts: 17382 Joined: 28/Dec/2002
It seems everywhere you go on the Plaza, you can stumble on many different discussions of Tolkien lore, whether it be ’did Frodo fail?’ or ’is the One Ring a horcrux’ or even ’mythological influences’, on and on and on.

Doubtless, these topics are perenially entertaining, and every day someone comes up with a topic that no one else, in their wildest stretches of imagination, would have ever thought of...and it’s what makes the Plaza great.

However, that’s only half the story.

See, we spend the bulk of our time discussing the ’literature’ aspect of Tolkien, as opposed to the ’language’ aspect.

By ’language’, of course, I’m referring to the bane of (most) English students everywhere: Tone, diction, dialect, point of view, syntax, etc.

So, being the masochist that I am, I’d like to have a discussion on the language of the Master, along, these guidelines (if you have any other point relevant, by all means, bring it up!)

Obviously Tolkien’s love of languages strongly influenced his own writing...but how? Did it make him more astute to proper English language? Was his knowledge of English language made better by his understanding of the 20 or so languages he spoke? Etc.

Tolkien’s ’style’ is considered by many to be archaic. What about it makes it archaic? Is it his sense of description (compared to other writers...I’m thinking of Herbert and Rowling at the moment, though there are doubtless others...., his use of dialogue is fairly sparse). Speaking of dialogue, is the formality of the dialogue, especially in RotK a result of his style as a whole, or a consciouss effort to create the atmosphere of a Medieval court (I’m speaking of MT).

When LotR first starts, in FotR, the style is more...I guess I’d say ’mature’...than that of the Hobbit, but it’s nowhere near what it becomes in RotK. Is the transition of this style conscious, you think?

Okay. I don’t expect that many replies to this as it’s usually not a much discussed topic, but I’m interested to see what you think.
Aredhriel 29/Jul/2006 at 06:54 PM
Scribe of Minas Tirith Points: 2724 Posts: 1593 Joined: 31/May/2005

I believe that Tolkien’s works do hold an archaic tone--and the whole of the LOTR and Silmarillion (and, I am quite sure his other works, such as the HoME series as well as UT do as well) is written in such a way that makes the reader feel as if they are entering into a historical, tangible world of fact, rather than fiction. For me, his style of writing and the tone he uses is one of the most intriguing and compelling aspects of his work.

I think that perhaps this style emanates from Tolkien’s own professed love of language and history. As an artist, I can attest to the fact that what you see, feel, experience, and become passionate about carries over to influence the works that you create--whether it be conscious, or no. It is an undeniable part of who you are.

I don’t know if others will agree with me, but that is just my opinion on the matter, and how I feel myself. Great thread, BTW, Climoncha, and I hope you get many more replies as this looks like an interesting topic.

Asha Greyjoy 29/Jul/2006 at 07:02 PM
Assassin of Umbar Points: 5958 Posts: 17382 Joined: 28/Dec/2002
I’m so gonna have to change my name back to Firerose Arien >_>;;


I completley agree with you about the second paragraph of yours--as a writer, I’ve noticed that styles of certain other writers stick with me better than others, and it reflects in my writing.

Thanks for your thoughts--and yes, let’s hope this gets more replies!
damabiah 31/Jul/2006 at 06:30 AM
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Dear future Firerose Arien
I am afraid I cannot say how Tolkien was so good in the use of the language
Obviously because he was a teacher, a researcher, and used other languages
Certainly because ... a lot of other reasons
But I can tell you that, as a stranger myself, I searched during a long period a "book" -I mean, a novel longer than 20 pages-, which I could understand in english !
and that was a challenge ! I was often disapointed, if not disgusted, because the words were so typical, slang ot whatsoever, that I was quickly rather lost.
BUT, the LoTR and the hobbit -actually, I read riverandom first- are VERY EASY to understand. Really.
If you don’t know the word, you guess it
And sentences are very well made, too
Short, clear, with a logical progression
Compared with a lot of other (famous) authors I tried to read, it is a pleasure. I quite believe that I understand english easily :-)
when I try again with, say, a Sherlock holmes, i am disgusted again...
thank you Master Tolkien !!
Fairelindë 31/Jul/2006 at 04:36 PM
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From Letters:

But take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible): Book iii, "The King of the Golden Hall’. ’Nay, Gandalf!’ said the King. ’You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.’

This is a fair sample — moderated or watered archaism. ... I know well enough what a modern would say. ’Not at all my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties’


I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields, hauberks into modern uniforms.

Terseness is the key thing, I think. It gives the writing a more powerful quality. I think Tolkien speaks for himself. That’s only part of the discussion in Letter 171.

Asha Greyjoy 31/Jul/2006 at 04:51 PM
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Fairelinde--Thanks for the letter!

And while I don’t necessarily agree with Tolkien’s reasoning (there may be no need to change the weapons, but changing the language can make a story easier to read!), it’s very enlightening to know his position on it.

So, again, thank you!
Region 02/Aug/2006 at 02:05 AM
Weathered Ent of Fangorn Points: 16435 Posts: 13207 Joined: 14/Mar/2005

Fir: I may have read something about the difference in style between the beginning of Fotr and the style in Rotk but I can’t recall why. At any rate, the transition is good. Coming from the Hobbit and staying in the Hobbit mood (a race that isn’t in for making things complex) I like the bridge.

Furthermore, I am positive that his knowledge of all those languages does influence his style. Look at the stylistic examples in the text. The content is often supported by the style of the sound of the consonants and vowels (for an excellent example, see the Easy Reading thread!).
Furthermore, it is good when you are not acquainted to the English language if one of those authors uses an archaic style: it makes you pick up a dictionary and look for the meaning of words, contrary to an easy and accessible vocabulary, where one learns less.

Asha Greyjoy 04/Aug/2006 at 01:06 PM
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Reeg--That’s an interesting note you make about the English language--English is my native language and the only one I can speak fluently, yet my own knowledge of its inner-workings is rather limited.

I will have to check the Easy Reading thread out--but yes, I am inclined to agree with you in that Tolkien’s own talents in language heightened his ability to find vowels and consanants that pretty much just ’sound good’.
Bearamir 07/Aug/2006 at 12:28 PM
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Ladies & Gentlemen:  This thread has been nominated for transfer to Ad Lore.  From what I can see, this discussion definately has the potential to generate some interesting without further ado:  Please prepare for move to Ad Lore. 
Tanequil 09/Aug/2006 at 02:39 AM
Scholar of Imladris Points: 7623 Posts: 5388 Joined: 04/Sep/2005

I’m not brilliant at languages, be it the technical aspects or the other aspects of it. However, I feel that there was definitely an impact of the languages on the way Tolkien wrote the books. To me, at least, I feel that language is a main player in the shaping of the books. If you were to tweak a word here, or remove a word there, a sentence can sound very different. Yet, the books Tolkien wrote all have a strong flow to them, a certain ease of which to read. As a person who just picked up the books recently to read slowly and actually understand every word instead of just skimming through, I find that every word, every sentence, is so well - crafted that the message he wants to bring through comes through.

I agree with you, Fir, that the style of writing does change, the tone of it becoming sombre, and less upbeat. However, I think that it is because of the situations being described. To begin with, FotR starts in the Shire, with Bilbo preparing for his eleventy-first birthday and Frodo’s thirty-third. Is this not a cheerful occasion? I feel that the tone and all was deliberate, or at least accidental, but the tone was meant to be there. I am not very sure how to word this, but you just cannot use sterner and more sombre words to describe a party and other happier events.The tone will come out wrong, and when read, it will just sound wrong, and alarm bells will start ringin in your head. Likewise, you would not use cheerful and upbeat words when Frodo and Sam are climbing up Mount Doom, would you? It would just seem wrong.

On the topic of the Master’s love of languages influencing his style of writing, I feel that it is true. If one did not have a love for languages, would one invent his/her own? No. Tolkien invented Sindarin and Quenya, and quite a few others as well. His ability to weave these new languages into the text, and yet make it seem like it was actually meant to be there, is one of his strong points. I feel that his invented languages actually influenced the way he wrote, and not the way he wrote influencing his invented languages. I feel (this is my personal opinion) that Tolkien might have invented his languages, and then found them to be characteristic of certain races, and then adapted his story to fit them. All in all, I feel that yes, Tolkien’s love for languages has influenced his style of writing.

Asha Greyjoy 09/Aug/2006 at 07:53 AM
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Tanq--I find your post very interesting, your second post most interesting of all.

It does, indeed, make a lot of sense that the writing changes as the story becomes more ’somber’...especially as the story goes from the Shire, which is, as Tom Shippey points out, a link to *our* world, and cascades into a grand adventure in Rohan, Gondor, Mordor and various other places of middle earth. You have very good point in that the tone would shift, as, well, the wars going on in Rohan and Gondor aren’t exactly light and festive occasions

As to your third paragraph--thanks again, for your point. And I do think most would agree with your opinion there    However, I would like to point out that one doesn’t necessarily need unceasing devotion to create the basic framework of a language--just a mild interest as schoolbooks for French or Spanish can go a long way in describing basic structure and the most important components. Tolkien was above and beyond dedicated--which, of course, what makes LotR so unique
halfir 09/Aug/2006 at 08:05 AM
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I would not agree that LOTR is in an ’archaic’ style- I prefer the term Brian Rosebury uses in his excellent  book on Tolkien- Tolkien a Cultural Phenomenon - ’elevated style’. Rosebury observes there is a distinct shift in Tolkien’s use of language  between the pre 1937 legendarium writings and LOTR. He puts this down mainly to the influence of Willian Morris who had a heavy influence on Tolkiens’ earlier writings. (Rosebury quotes a really awful passage from BOLT 1- The Flight of the Noldoli- which I must admit I skimmed in my reading of that part of BOLT because of its sheer  linguistic awfulness.

Morris’s influence on Tolkien I dealt with in part in my thread:

Tolkien and William Morris


I say in part because I actaully found re-reading Morris such heavy-going that I gave up- I have more interesting things to read! But that there is a significant literary debt there, and heavy influence on Tolkien’s earlier  writings is unquestionable.

In Letter # 1 Tolkien wrote to his wife to be:

’Amongst other wrok I am trying to turn one of the stories - which is really a great story and most tragic - into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between.

Note 6 to the letter informs us that Tolkien’s reworking of one of the Kalevala stories. "The Story of Kullervo’, was never finished, but proved to be the germ of the story of Turin Turambar in The Silmarillion.{Tolkien comments further on his attempt to ’reorganize some of the Kalevala’ in Letter # 163}

And in Letter # 226 while conceding that the Dead Marshes  and the approaches  to the Morannon  owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme he goes on to say:

’They owe more to Willima Moris and His Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings, or The Roots of the Mountains.

 The following excerpt form that thread shows just how powerful that literary debt was-until -with  LOTR- Tolkien comes into his own.

 Tolkien and William Morris Part 5 - The Ring of Doom (Mahanaxar) and the Bear People

"In that time the Valar were gathered together to hear the song of Yavanna, and they sat ilent upon their thronesof council in the Mahanaxar, The Ring of Doom near to the golden gates of Valmar; and Yavanna Kementari sang before them and they watched.

And as they watched, upon the mound there came forth two slender shoots; and silence was over all the world in that hour  nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna. Under her song the saplings grew and became fair and tall, and came to flower; and thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.

The one had leaves of dark green that beneath were as shining silver, and from each of his countless flowers a dew of silver light was ever falling, and the earth beneath was dappled with the shadows of his fluttering leaves. The other bore leaves of a young green like the new-opened beech; their edges were of glittering gold. Flowers swung upon her branches in clusters of yellow flame, formed each to a glowing horn that spilled a golden rain upon the ground; and from the blossom of that tree there came forth warmth and a great light. Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelote, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Malinalda, and Culurien, and many names in song beside.

{The Silmarillion - Of The Beginning Of Days}

And Feanor standing before Mandos in The Ring of Doom was commnaded to answer all that was asked of him’ {ibid. Of The Silmarils}

The Ring of Doom, or Mahanaxar, was the place of judgment and council of the Valar, a circle in which the thrones of the Valar were set.

In The Wood Beyond The World, the Maid and Golden Walter- having defeated The Mistress and her evil dwarven servants arrive at the Bear country:

’toward an eastward-lying bight of the dale they could see what looked to be a doomring of big stones, though there were no rocky places in that land..........{Chapter XXV1They Come To The Folk Of The Bears}

and when challenged as to their errand by the peopl eof that country the Maid replies:

’gather your people to you, and when they be assembled in the Doom-ring, then shall we put  our errand before you; and according to that, shall ye deal with us’.

And when they are brought to the Doom Ring- in whose center is:

’a big stone, fashioned as a chair’

they are taken to a wide flat-topped stone, six fet above the ground and near the chair of judgment in which sits an ancient elder flanked by two female guards.

And when the Maid declares to all that she is their God - come again in female form, and they ask for a sign of her divinity:

’All looked on her , but none spake or moved...As she spake the faded flowers  that hung about her gathered life and grew fresh again; the woodbine round her neck &her sleek shoulders knit itself together and embraced her freshly, and cast its scent upon her face. The lilies that girded her loins lifted up their heads, and the gold of their tassels fell upon her; the eyebright grew clean blue again upon her smock, the eglantine found its blooms again, and then began to shed the leaves thereof upon her feet; the meadow-sweet wreathed amongst it made clear the sweetnes of her legs, & the mouse-ear studded her raiment as with gems. There she stood amidst of the blosoms, like a great orient pearl against the fireworks of the goldsmiths, and the breeze that came up the valley from behind bore the sweetness of her fragrance all over the Man-mote’.

If you look at Tolkien’s pre 1937 writing it is most certainly much more archaic than that which follows, and although archaism is used in part in LOTR is has become Tolkien’s own, not a clone of someone else’s. But essentially the tone of LOTR is ’elevated’ not, I would suggest ,’archaic’.

And Letter # 171 -part of which Fairelinde quoted - which was in response to Hugh Brogan’s criticism of the  archaic - in his view- language of TT- especially the King of the Golden Hall elicited a powerful response from Tolkien. The Letter should be used as benchmark for this thread.

Fairelinde quoted Tolkien giving a ’modern’ version of that particular pasage, but ,much more interesting to me is the  true archaic version that he would have written if he had been minded to write in truly archaic language:

’Nay, thou (n’) wost not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war , to fall...etc."

Tolkien called what he actually wrote ’ moderated or watered archaism’.

And Tolkien concludes with a sharp- and well merited admonition to Mr. Brogan:

’I am sorry to find you affected by the extraordinary 20th.C. delusion that its usages per se and simply as ’contemporary’ - irrespective  of whether they are terser, more vivid, (oe even nobler!)  - have some  peculiar validity, above those of all other times, so that not to use them (even when quite unsuitable in tone) is a solecism, a gaffe, a thing at which one’s friends shudder or feel hot in the collar. Shake yourself  out of this parochialism of time! Also (not to be too donnish) leearn to discriminate between the bogus and genuine antique - as you would if you hoped not to be cheated by a dealer! { my emphasis}

And in Letter # 306  commenting on the poetry in LOTR he writes:

’My ’poetry’ has received  little praise- comment even by admierrs being as often as not contemptuous (I refer to reviews by elf-styled literary blokes). Perhasp largely  because in the contemporary atmosphere - in whcih ’poetry’ must  only refelct one’s personal agonies of mind or soul, and exterior  things are only valued by one’s own ’raections’ - it seems  hardly ever recognized that the verses in The L.R. are all dramatic: they do not express the poor old professor’s soul-searchings, but are fitted in style and contents to the characters in the story that sing or recite them, and to the situations in it..’

 That Tolkien’s poems are fitted in style and contents to the characters in the story that sing or recite them, and to the situations in it, would  seem to me to be a fertile areas of exploration  too, in the context of this thread.

Rochir Mumakdacil 09/Aug/2006 at 02:11 PM
Standard Bearer of Minas Tirith Points: 12971 Posts: 8262 Joined: 13/Jun/2005

Tolkien himself explains that the major swings in style he uses in dialogue are actually less than would have been apparent to a speaker of the Common Speech. For example, CS had both familiar and deferrential forms of address - represented variously and imperfectly by switching from you to ’thee/thou’  in  different circumstances (e.g. Eowyn using ’thee’ to Aragorn and Aragorn pointedly replying with ’your’ rather than ’thy’):

The Common Speech, as the language of the Hobbits and their narratives, has inevitably been turned into modern English. In the process the difference between the varieties observable in the use of the Westron has been lessened. Some attempt has been made to represent these varieties by variations in the kind of English used; but the divergence between the pronunciation and idiom of the Shire and the Westron tongue in the mouths of the Elves or of the high men of Gondor was greater than has been shown in this book. Hobbits indeed spoke for the most part a rustic dialect, whereas in Gondor and Rohan a more antique language was used, more formal and more terse.

One point in the divergence may here be noted, since, though often important, it has proved impossible to represent. The Westron tongue made in the pronouns of the second person (and often also in those of the third) a distinction, independent of number, between ’familiar’ and ’deferential’ forms. LotR Appx F, II, On Translation

In MT, specifically the language used by Denethor, I do not think Tolkien attempted  to create the atmosphere of a Medieval court - because MT was not really ’medieval’ in feel. In Letter 131 he writes of Gondor at the date of the War of the Ring as a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium. He used dialogue there to represent the formality and antique style of speech there, as it would be perceived by Hobbit ears.

Asha Greyjoy 09/Aug/2006 at 04:44 PM
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Halfir--Thank you very much for your insightful post, as always! I am going to have to read it a few more times to fully digest everything you’ve said, but I think your use of the term ’elevated’ style is very interesting--archaic, by definition, doesn’t necessarily mean ’bad’, but the connotations of ’archaic’ would lead people to believe thus, and the connotations of ’elevated’ are much greater

I have the Letters, but, alas, the copy is in my bedroom and I’m too lazy to get up

I do think that the last point you bring up is certainly worthy of discussion--it’s certainly not something I think a lot of people have paid any sort of attention to!

Rochir--Alas, but Byzantium is medieval! The Byzantine Empire was at it’s height during the years we commonly refer to as the ’Middle Ages’, the difference between Byzantium and Europe being that the Byzantine Court was much wealthier. In fact, Charlemagne is rumoured (ok, my prof says...) to have modeled the Carolingian capital after Byzantium.

Otherwise, however, I also have to say thank you for your insights as well!
Olme 24/Aug/2006 at 07:01 PM
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well, if I may draw parallels from one profession to another, I would like to attempt to make a here it is...

As I view Tolkien’s use of the English language, I think of it as the most professional, academic, and most capable of diversity, because of the many languages he spoke (or had a working knowledge of), he was able to draw upon them for different sounds and feels for his ideas.  Now the parallel is this, as a musician (drummer) I have an incredible respect for drummers (or any musician) who does hired studio work, because they have to have the capabilites to do anything that the music requires (such as covering many different musical styles), which requires an amazing level of skill and professionalism.  Likewise Tolkien’s writing is very varied, if you read his academic letters such as "On Fairy Stories", he uses an incredible amount of words of Latin origin, which works better for that sort of stuff.  When he writes dialogue for a hobbit, he uses a much more anglish style, many (I think as many as possible) words are from O.E., and then as we move throughout middle earth the lexicon seems to grow, but is still (when possible) restricted to mostly Germanic words.  Tolkien had the capabilities to do just about any type of writing that he wanted, and pulled it off successfully, and in the case of tLotR and ME he used what fit the characters the best, becaues he knew that it would give the story the feel that it needed to work.....and it most certainly did. 

Though Tolkien uses the ’elevated style’ when needed, and the ’rustic’ at other times, David Crystal, in his book "The Stories of English" points out that, "Middle-Earth is not of our world, and its dialect representations should also be a step removed from human experience."  He also points out that the Shire "equivalent to the whole of England north of Birmhingham."  Given this, there actually aught to be more variation than there is among the hobbits, coupled with the fact that they deal with a great many races and people in ME. 

Celebind Eryniel 12/Sep/2006 at 12:58 PM
Butler of Mirkwood Points: 1702 Posts: 1107 Joined: 18/Mar/2006

I’m not good at writing long and dignified-sounding posts, which is why I always feel stupid when I participate in an Ad Lore discussion, but I do know one or two things about language so I’ll contribute.
I think Tolkein’s knowledge of languages is part of what makes Middle-Earth seem more like a historical place than a creation of fantasy.  Languages and dialects reflect the cultures that they developed with, and I find that Tolkein’s characters talk as if their manners of speech and their cultures evolved together.  Tolkein’s ingenious use of language helps makes the story more believable.
Let’s see, do I feel stupid now?  Yep.  Oh, well.

EarwenBloom 13/Sep/2006 at 08:47 PM
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i think part of what makes the trilogy so beloved is that Tolkien can communicate things on a level that few others can.  While some uninormed people call his language archaic, I call it beautiful and inspiring.  While trying to read the Silmarillion, I was taking notes, and found that the further into the book I got, the more beautiful my language became in the notes I was taking.  I will admit, however, that during the Two Towers, Tolkien’s language was such that I had to read and reread paragraphs and chapters at a time. Although, I was 11 at the time, so what do you expect?  I think that Tolkien’s flowery language is a way to enhance the beauty of his creation.