Tolkien Essay - Critical Essays

Humphrey Carpenter


From earliest childhood, Tolkien had been intrigued by words rather than music—their sound, variety, meaning, and history. He was so intrigued that he engaged—and came to assume that all children engage some of the time—in that pastime of inventing language while learning language. He merely went further and began to transcribe such languages, so that he created alphabets, scripts, words, grammars, and syntaxes. All the while, his private curiosity and his formal academics took him into the mysterious variety of classical and unusual languages related to the history of Europe, especially those on its periphery: Welsh and Finnish. Having invented languages such as “Quenya” and “Sindarin,” he had, as he would put it, to find out the history of those who would have used such a language.

By World War I, in the midst of psychosomatic recuperation which guaranteed that Tolkien would not return to the horrors of trench warfare, he began the layout of that total imaginative complex that he was to call Middle Earth, with its successive ages and layers. Within the framework—which he was to describe by analogy to the workings of a “compost heap” of his own devout Roman Catholicism, with its touch of asceticism, and of his own domestic life experiences—he worked through cycles of poetry and mythology. According to Carpenter, these were understood to compile the historical strata of tales, wherein not only the language phenomena received explication but also those cycles took on their own profound, although somewhat pessimistic, philosophical reflection upon the nature of human nature. Even the constructs of his hypothetical earlier eras, though called “elven,” were humans...

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