A Philological Imagination 1


Tolkien’s imagination worked in a philological way. Apart from the well-known fact that his created world of Middle earth grew out of invented languages as he asked himself the question ‘What kinds of people would speak like this?’, there is a process or sequence of thinking that must develop in people interested in words and their histories, which starts with an existing word and works backwards, using a set of known rules or laws about sound changes and the way in which words evolve, to establish an earlier, consistent version of the word. In this way, philologists generate a web of words and construct whole languages long since vanished from the present day world. This, in Tolkien, transferred over to the way in which his characters and stories developed imaginatively.

For example, Aragorn - at first, for Tolkien as he wrote The Lord of the Rings, simply a shadowy stranger whom the hobbits meet in ‘The Prancing Pony’, with Tolkien knowing no more about him than they did - is taken by Tolkien’s imagination on a journey back through time, following the already-established rules and broad guidelines of his world, until he is ‘discovered’ to be the one and true heir of Isildur, destined to be king over the Reunited Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. Then his cloaked nature and the gradual revelation of his role take on true dramatic power in the story.

A similar process must have occurred in relation to the wizards of Middle earth: Gandalf was at first, it seems, no more than a sketch of a well-known ‘wise old man’ archetype, based initially (Tolkien said) on a postcard he had seen while on holiday in Switzerland, and drawing for depth of character on other wizard types, like Merlin and the Norse concept of Odin, wandering the world disguised as an old man. But in true Tolkien style, it was not to end there: the wizard was drawn back into a deeper, wider history which involved ancient ages, gods and indeed, the One God, Iluvatar.

Though none of this is made clear within The Lord of the Rings, there is a chapter dealing with wizards in the book Unfinished Tales. Tolkien’s thoughts about them are presented within the chapter ‘The Istari’. Tolkien died in 1973, taking his further thoughts with him, but in a note in Unfinished Tales, dated by his son as probably coming from 1972, Tolkien sets out their origins and purpose, referring to them as ‘Maiar', or lesser angels.

We must assume that they [the Istari] were all Maiar, that is persons of the 'angelic' order, though not necessarily of the same rank. The Maiar were 'spirits', but capable of self-incarnation, and could take 'humane' (especially Elvish) forms... Now these Maiar were sent by the Valar at a crucial moment in the history of Middle Earth to enhance the resistance of the Elves of the West, waning in power, and the Men of the West, greatly outnumbered by those of the East and South. It may be seen that they were free each to do what they could in this mission; that they were not commanded or supposed to act together... and that each had different powers and... were chosen by the Valar with this in mind.

Another note in Unfinished Tales about Gandalf specifically, says: