Article

Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien (review)

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Abstract

Tolkien's linguistic inventiveness has equally fascinated and baffled readers and critics alike since the first publication of The Lord of the Rings. Many critics have avoided any reference to Tolkien's invented languages, while other scholars have concentrated on the languages alone, studying them in detail as an aspect of Tolkien's writing worthy of research in its own right. Ross Smith's book Inside Language, however, does not belong to the scholarly field of "Tolkienian Linguistics" as defined by Carl Hostetter in volume four of Tolkien Studies. It rather aspires to bridge the gap between literary criticism of Tolkien's fiction and the study of Tolkien's languages by looking at the interaction and integration of these two fields in Tolkien's creation. In the first chapter, Smith introduces some of the main concepts and questions that his book addresses, and argues for three levels in terms of which Tolkien's academic knowledge of linguistics and philology influenced his work: his "philological acumen" (which refers to Tolkien's own term "phonetic fitness," discussed in detail in chapter three); his invented languages; and his knowledge of ancient Germanic and Norse languages. This chapter includes an original and thought-provoking comparison of Tolkien's fiction with that of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, which forces the reader to think of Tolkien's work outside the "box" of medieval literature and mythological sources. The second chapter seems at foodds with the stated focus of the book, since its only reference to matters of language is a defense of Tolkien's style, which Smith describes as "serious" and even at times "quasi-biblical" (26). Apart from such general observations on Tolkien's stylistics, though, the rest of this chapter embarks on a broad-brush and over-familiar "defense" of Tolkien against a series of other charges (besides those on his style) brought against him by critics from time to time, like his allegedly flat and naively "good" and "bad" characters, the lack of female characters in his work, etc. However, as suggested by Michael D. C. Drout and Hilary Wynne in an excellent recent article, the "defense" of Tolkien's work has become a worn-out topic for Tolkien scholars, as they "point out the same fallacies by the same foolish critics and make the same points in refuting them" (Drout and Wynne 116). Indeed, Smith does not avoid this pitfall. What is more, a great part of this chapter is spent on another over-tired topic: a list of literary sources of Tolkien's work, which—incidentally—focuses disproportionately on Shakespeare, and references only a fraction of the vast amount of relevant previous scholarship. The third chapter concentrates on Tolkien's "linguistic aesthetic" by relating his views on the beauty of sounds and words to the marginal linguistic notion of sound symbolism. Here, Smith comes close to providing a great analysis of Tolkien's ideas about the aesthetic qualities of different languages. He mentions contemporary philologists and linguists who were equally fascinated by sound symbolism, such as Otto Jespersen and Edward Sapir, and he also points out some of the limitations of Tolkien's claims about the "beauty" of words and sounds. However, the author falls into some of the same traps which—as he claims—Tolkien himself did not avoid. When Smith uses "Withywindle" and "Tom Bombadil" as names that "fit" the places or characters they refer to (57), he is not unaffected by the influence of the signified upon the signifier. It is easy to say that the name "Tom Bombadil" suits a "jolly, rumbustious" personality (57) when for every Tolkien reader the name automatically brings to mind the character. At the same time, Smith describes the Quenya word "wilwarin" (meaning "butterfly") as "a beautiful name for a beautiful creature" (62) but does not offer any insight into why (or judged by what criteria) this word is beautiful. My answer is: because Tolkien tells us so. These pitfalls could have been avoided by referring to the mainstream notion of language attitudes, and the—now widely accepted—idea that our preferences for certain languages (or distaste for others) have nothing to do with their intrinsic beauty but with social...

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