Tolkien as Translator?

Tolkien's claimed that he was the "translator" of "The Silmarillion", the "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings"? Was he really serious?

Very serious indeed. The scenario was that "of course" hobbits couldn't have spoken English (the story took place far in the past); rather, they spoke their own language, called Westron (but often referred to as the Common Speech). Tolkien "translated" this language into English, which included "rendering" all the Common Speech place-names into the equivalent English place-names. The object of the exercise was to produce the following effect: names in the Common Speech (which were familiar to the hobbits) were "rendered" into English (in which form they would be familiar to us, the English-speaking readers); names in other languages (usually Sindarin) were "left alone", and thus were equally unfamiliar to the hobbits and to us. Since the story was told largely from the hobbits' point of view, that we should share their linguistic experience is a desirable result (especially for Tolkien, who was unusually sensitive to such matters).

In portraying the linguistic landscape of Middle-earth he carried this procedure much further. The main example was his "substitution" of Anglo-Saxon for the language of the Riders of Rohan, Rohirric. The "rationale" was that the hobbits' dialect of Westron was distantly related to Rohirric; therefore, when hobbits heard Rohirric they recognised many words but the language nevertheless remained just beyond understanding (RK, 65 (V,3)). Thus, Tolkien attempted to further "duplicate" hobbit linguistic perceptions by "substituting" that language of our world (Anglo-Saxon) which has (more-or-less) the same relation to English that Rohirric had to the hobbit version of Westron.

There were many other nuances in the intricate and subtle linguistic web he devised (always, he carefully explained, in the interests of "reproducing" the linguistic map of Middle-earth in a way that could be easily assimilated by modern English-speaking readers). Thus:

~ Archaic English roots were used in those Common Speech place-names which archaic themselves -- i.e. given long before the time of the story (e.g. Tindrock, Derndingle).

~ Some of the Stoors (who later settled in Buckland and the Marish) dwelt in Dunland at one time (Tale of Years, entries for TA 1150 and 1630 (RK, App B)); the men of Bree also came from that region originally (RK, 408 (App F, I, "Of Men", "Of Hobbits")). "Since the survival of traces of the older language of the Stoors and the Bree-men resembled the survival of Celtic elements in England" (RK, 414 (App F, II)), the place-names in Bree were Celtic in origin (Bree, Archet, Chetwood). Similarly, the names of the Buckland hobbits were Celtic, in their case Welsh (e.g. Madoc, Berilac).

~ Among hobbits some of the older Fallohide families liked to give themselves high-sounding names from the legendary past (an example of hobbit humour). Tolkien "represented" such names by names of Frankish or Gothic origin (Isengrim, Rudigar, Fredegar, Peregrin).

These matters and much else is explained in detail in Appendix F of "Return of the King"

Elvish Philosophy of Death and Incarnation

Of their fate after life the Elves know much, because of their long staying in Valinor and of what they learned there from the Valar. Concerning Men the most lore on their afterlife are speculations, since Men have never got in touch with the Valar in any greater degree.

The fate of the Elves: The Elves see themselves as two different parts: the Fëa (spirit) and the Hroa (body). The two parts are not bound to each other, but without the Hroa, the Fea is powerless, and with no spirit, the body is dead and will soon dissolve.

The life-span of the Elves is by nature the same as that of the world (although they are often called immortal, which is a totally different thing). But the Elves call earth "Arda Sahta", the Marred World. Within its borders, nothing can be uninfluenced by Melkor, and Elves and Men, who are made of Arda's matter, are all likely to suffer in some way.

Thus the elvish Fëa tend to "consume" the Hroa, until all that is left of it is a vague shape and it is indeed indestructable. Also, the Elves may die of grief or wounds (but not by disease) and then the Fëa will leave the Hroa. Then the "houseless" Fëa will be summoned to the Halls of Mandos, and it may go there of its own free will. Most Fëa do this, but those who have been influenced by Melkor and are corrupt often dread the punishment they will receive in Mandos and stay in Middle-earth, trying to take over some other Hroa that already contains a Fëa. Those who follow the summons may, if they wish, be incarnated in a new-born body, identical to the previous. The others stay in Mandos until the end of the world. For the Elves are bound to the world, and cannot leave it. All Fëar, whatever way they choose, must wait in Mandos for a time; how long depends on the invidual. If the Fëa has done evil in its previous life it must often wait longer until allowed to return to life. But sometimes it has to stay for good. Fëanor was for instance never allowed to leave Mandos.

The reborn Elf is in all ways a child again, and does not remember its previous life until its experience and knowledge has grown. Then its life becomes double rich, since it has experienced two childhoods and has memories from two lives. There are few cases where an Elf has been reincarnated more than once. The reason for this is unknown. There are no documented examples of reincarnated Elves except, perhaps, Glorfindel of Gondolin who may have been reborn in the Second Age and helped Frodo and company to Rivendell. But it is not definitely established that the two Glorfindels are one.

The fate of Men: Men are not, contrary to the Elves, "bound to the world." They have by Eru been granted a special gift: death. When Men die, thy go to the Halls of Mandos but do not stay there for long. They proceed away from the world and leave its borders, to which fate no-one knows. This has become a dread among Men, since they do not know what will follow.

This dread is brought to them by Melkor; the Elves, who are bound to live on until the world's end, cannot understand this fear of Eru's gift. Some Men claim that they are not mortal by nature, but that it has been caused by Melkor. (The Elves, though, do not beleive this, since they do not think Melkor has the power to change the fate of a whole race.) This is based on an old legend that can be considered the story of the "fall" of mankind.

Before any Men had yet died, Eru spoke to them and told them he would watch over them and help them if the needed him. But when they later asked him things, he would more often urge them to find the answers for themselves and enjoy the finding.

Then Melkor appeared among them in a beautiful shape and told them that he would help them and give them much knowledge if they took him to lead them. He gave them many gifts and tought them much lore and they would start fearing for a life without him. Then they spoke of Eru, whom they had only heard as a voice. This made Melkor wrathful, and he said Eru was the Darkness that wished to devour them. Then he went away. After a long time of grief and poverty a darkness came over the world and blotted out the sun.

Then Melkor came back shining like a torch, and they bowed before him. Men built a temple for Melkor, and swore him their service. A long time they served him, but now he rarely gave out gifts or advice, or they had to pay for it with a gift or some evil deed.

Eru did not speak to them again, but once, when he said Men had abandoned him: but they were still his subjects. Therefore he would shorten their lives, and let them come to him and learn who was their true lord. After that, some started dying, and Men went to Melkor for help. But Melkor did not hide his plans any longer. He told them that they should obey him or he would slay them. In time he started rewarding those that served him the best, which often were those who were the most cruel to others. Some Men started talking against him openly, but those he let put to death by fire in his temple.

The legend ends saying that some Men flew and came to the sea, and found the Enemy there before them.

• The History of Middle-earth Vol. 10, The later Quenta Silmarillion: Laws and Customs among the Eldar
• The History of Middle-earth Vol. 10, The later Quenta Silmarillion: of Finwe and Miriel
• The Silmarillion, Of the Return of the Noldor
• The History of Middle-earth Vol. 10, Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.
[Image: Roger Garland]

On a theme from Nicolas of Cusa

(De Docta Ignorantia III. ix.)

When soul and body feed, one sees
Their differing physiologies.
Firmness of apple, fluted shape
Of celery, or tight-skinned grape
I grind and mangle when I eat,
Then in dark, salt, internal heat,
Annihilate their natures by
The very act that makes them I.

But when the soul partakes of good
Or truth, which are her savoury food,
By some far subtler chemistry
It is not they that change, but she,
Who feels them enter with the state
Of conquerors her opened gate,
Or, mirror-like, digests their ray
By turning luminous as they.

Poems ~ CS Lewis (1964)

What the Bird said early in the year

I heard in Addison's Walk a bird sing clear
'This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

'Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

'This year time's nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

'This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

'This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

'Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.

Poems ~ CS Lewis (1964)

After Prayers, Lie Cold

[Image: 'The Passion' by Vitali Linitsky]

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush'd mortal, in the sacred night,
A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness' and pardon's watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.

Poems ~ CS Lewis (1964)

Sturch on Williams

In Descent into Hell the crucial choices are those of the military historian Lawrence Wentworth; there are three, and each time he chooses the worst. A rival historian is knighted. It could be an opportunity for joy, to take it as an honour to his profession. "At least he could refuse not to enjoy. [...] With a perfectly clear, if instantaneous, knowledge of what he did, he rejected joy instead. He instantaneously preferred anger, and it came; he invoked envy, and it obliged him."

Then a girl to whom he is attracted prefers someone else, and he cannot accept this either; instead, out of his daydreams (egoistic castle-building!) is fashioned a succubus, a horrible parody of the girl which is in no danger of showing the independence the real girl had.

Finally, he is offered a chance for professional integrity, akin to the repentance through non-moral goodness that I have already discussed. His knighted rival, we are told, is "a holy and beautiful soul who would have sacrificed reputation, income, and life, if necessary, for the discovery of one fact". Wentworth has already lost much of this integrity; but now he is given a chance to regain it. The uniforms for a play being produced by some acquaintances are historically inaccurate. He could point this out. He is actually asked to say whether they are correct or not. But he cannot be bothered; he prefers to be lost in his fantasies. And, steadily, he loses touch with reality and slides into a mindless damnation.

Richard Sturch ~ Four Christian Fantasists [Walking Tree - 2001]

The Tryst of the Worlds

She knew what she must do. But she felt, as she stood, that she could no more do it than he. She could never bear that fear. The knowledge of being burnt alive, of the flames, of the faces, of the prolongation of pain. She knew what she must do. She opened her mouth and could not speak. In front of her, alone in his foul Marian prison, unaware of the secret means the Lord he worshipped was working swiftly for his peace, believing and unbelieving, her ancestor stood centuries off in his spiritual desolation and preluding agony of sweat. He could not see beyond the years the child of his house who strove with herself behind and before him. The morning was coming; his heart was drained. Another spasm shook him; even now he might recant. Pauline could not see the prison, but she saw him. She tried to choose and to speak.

Behind her, her own voice said: "Give it to me, John Struther." He heard it, in his cell and chains, as the first dawn of the day of his martyrdom broke beyond the prison. It spoke and sprang in his drained heart; and drove the riotous blood again through his veins: "Give it to me, give it to me, John Struther." He stretched out his arms again: he called: "Lord, Lord!" It was a devotion and an adoration; it accepted and thanked. Pauline heard it, trembling, for she knew what stood behind her and spoke. It said again: "Give". He fell on his knees, and in a great roar of triumph he called out: "I have seen the salvation of my God."

Charles Williams : "Descent into Hell" (Chapter 9)

Letter to W.H. Auden (excerpt #3)

7 June 1955
Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for; and the remote Elvish Legends were turned down. A publisher's reader said they were too full of the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in a large dose. Very likely quite right. Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of 'romance', and in providing subjects for 'ennoblement' and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals…

Letter #163 - J.R.R. Tolkien

To W.H. Auden (excerpt #2)

All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit'. I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror's Map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and was eventually published not because of my own children's enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at that time in the office of Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #163