An Elvish Moment: Reflecting on Tolkien

Seeing Peter Jacksons’ new movie version of The Hobbit recently has led me to ponder afresh the devotion still inspired by Tolkien’s opus, The Lord of the Rings, its ‘prequel’ children’s book The Hobbit, and the deep mythos behind them, collected as The Silmarillion and later on, in the twelve volume set The History of Middle Earth. As you may have guessed from the above, I’ve been a Tolkien fan for years (decades). Reading The Lord of the Rings back to back seventeen times as a teenager was largely responsible for my taste for epic fantasy and invented languages. Tolkien always maintained – to the disbelief of many – that the basis for his writing was primarily linguistic ie; he invented his languages, and the world of Middle Earth and its histories unfolded to house them. The ‘realism’ and internal intergrity of his languages has certainly captivated many; his Quenya (High Elvish) is considered the second-most widely spoken invented language in the world after Esperanto…and considering that Quenya evolved as a purely private individual passion, unlike Esperanto, which was developed with a collective purpose, this is all the more astounding.

Middle Earth diehards were thrilled to see how much loving attention to detail was lavished on The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. In a way, The Hobbit is even more of a delight, because Jackson has melded into it a great deal of backstory that never appeared in the book, but which belongs to the vast ‘hidden’ story surrounding it. It’s easy to see the passion propelling this enterprise, one I know well from mid-teens when my best friend and I taught ourselves Quenya and wrote letters to each other in Elvish script. A passion that sparked ‘big vision’ in my early writings, layered world-building and a love of word-inventing. In the fantasy sequence I am currently working on, The Siaris Quartet, a taste of other languages remains in spell-casting, but the original material contained whole dialogues written in the languages of the different races – great fun for me, but not so user-friendly when it came to unleashing Siaris on other readers!

After Tolkien’s death, some three thousand pages of language notes were discovered (well, he did term inventing languages his ‘private vice’) and the degree to which he lived and breathed his created world became clear. Nowhere is this more obvious – and poignant – than in what I regard as one of the all-time greatest romances, the tale of Beren and Luthien. Their story appears as a chapter in The Silmarillion, but was initially written in verse (incomplete at 10 000 lines), not only in Elvish language, but in Tengwar (Elvish script). Apart from being a window into the fact that Tolkien imagined the story in Elvish, it is a stunning epic romance tale that could easily fill a novel, and in part a beautiful echo of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a gender reversal. Beren and Luthien’s tale really sits at the heart of Tolkien’s mythic world; Aragorn, Elrond, his daughter Arwen and two sons all have blood-links to Beren and Luthien, for instance. They were also at the heart of Tolkien himself. The names Beren and Luthien are carved on the gravestone of Tolkien and his wife. I would love to see the story of Beren and Luthien turned into a film, with the same dedication given to it as to The Hobbit and LOTR.

In the throes of finishing edits on the third book in The Siaris Quartet and starting on the fourth, it feels fitting to pause for an ‘Elvish moment’ and give humble thanks to Tolkien for showing me (and many others) the meaning of a lifelong sub-creative passion, and for the inspiration to build worlds, from love. It does seem appropriate that my second published short story,  ‘Feather Fall’ (set in Siaris) appeared in an anthology titled Elf Love (Pink Narcissus Press). Now I have Musa to thank for publishing Daughter of Hope and Reunion, the first two books in The Siaris Quartet .

I shall leave you, gentle readers, with a bit of Elvish:

Elen sila lumen omentielvo ~ A star shines on the hour of our meeting.

The headstone of JRR Tolkien's wife, Oxfordshire, England.

The headstone of JRR Tolkien and his wife, Oxfordshire, England.

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14 thoughts on “An Elvish Moment: Reflecting on Tolkien

  1. Interesting post, Joanna. I’m sending the link to a friend who is a devoted fan of the LOTR movies. I don’t know if she’s studied Elvish or not, though. 🙂

    Are you familiar with the Portals series of books by P.L. Blair? They’re police detective mysteries with a twist…one detective is human and her partner is an elf named Tevis.

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    • Thanks very much, Kadee 🙂
      Well…it’s never too late to start studying Elvish 🙂

      No, I don’t know of those books, and thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add them to my TBR list for the day when I finish these novels!

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    • Thanks, Traci-Anne 🙂 Oh, good on you! I’ve never tried to invent an ‘Elvish’ language because I suspect it would be very difficult for me not to produce something highly derivative from Quenya or Sindarin, which are stamped in my brain. However, what I did take from Tolkien (and learning Quenya) was how to systematically ‘build’ a language, in terms of realism, and how to ‘morph’ those languages in a quasi-historical way, so that they reflected the culture and character of their ‘owners’. 🙂
      Good luck with your Elvish fantasy!

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    • Thanks Lyn. Interesting perception, and a fair call! What an all-out tragedy *that* tale is…we can only hope things end up a little better for my lot. As far as ‘legendary’ and/or tragic immortal brother/sister relations goes, I’m sure that reading a great deal of Egyptian and Greek mythology had an influence too…along with going to a lot of opera as a kid (think Sigmund/Sieglinde in ‘The Ring Cycle’)…hmm…there’s another blog post! 😉
      I also see an undercurrent of Isis-Osiris-Horus in Riana, Maeran and Daimen. xxx

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  2. Although I didn’t actually learn Quenya, my experience is very similar to yours – it was reading LOTR in my teens that fixed my writing path. Although I wouldn’t say I now write much like him, Tolkien’s probably my joint biggest influence (with Shakespeare). And I loved The Hobbit film, unlike some reviewers. Great post.

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    • Nyki, I wonder how many writers were set on the path of writing fantasy by reading LOTR at an impressionable age? Not too many (published) ones write *like* him these days; the chances of getting published now with that much dense descriptive prose would be minimal! Tolkien and the Bard…now there’s a fine pair of influences. 🙂
      I’m glad you enjoyed the film too. Perhaps it works best for those who are easily thrilled by the inclusion of the ‘deeper backstory’ that was barely hinted at it in the book, but on which its whole story hinged.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Jane. Yes, I think people either love language and get meticulous (and sometimes obsessive and passionate) about it, or else their interests go elsewhere!

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