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Tolkien and the Music of Language

Dedicated readers of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work will have noted the underlying linguistic element in the shaping of his fictional world. From an early age, Tolkien was fascinated by words and entered philology as soon as he could. The origin of the word 'philology' is the Greek philologia ‘love of learning’, more etymologically as ‘the love of words’; young Tolkien developed a passion for the sounds and shapes of words; they became a chief source of aesthetic delight. In his 1955 essay 'English and Welsh' (published in the collection The Monsters and the Critics), he writes of the pleasure he found in the study of certain languages just for themselves, noting that a more appropriate word might have been to ‘taste’ them, and in a letter to poet W. H. Auden (who was an admirer of Tolkien’s work), he describes his encounter with Finnish in colourful terms:

It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me.

Certain languages left a deeper mark on Tolkien than others: Old English, Middle English, Gothic, Finnish, Welsh, Old Norse and Latin were among the most influential. But how did they influence him? What exact effect were they having? In the same essay, English and Welsh, he says:

The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and then in the higher dimension, pleasure in the association of these word-forms with meanings, is of fundamental importance. This pleasure is quite distinct from the practical knowledge of a language, and not the same as an analytic understanding of its structure. It is simpler, deeper—rooted, and yet more immediate than the enjoyment of literature.

A pleasure ‘quite distinct from the practical knowledge of a language’ sounds very much like the pleasure one might take from music. Tolkien went on to write:

Most English-speaking people … will admit that 'cellar door' is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense and from its spelling. More beautiful than, say, 'sky', and far more beautiful than 'beautiful' … Well then, in Welsh, for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.

Tolkien loved to listen to and even more to speak certain languages; their musical quality attracted him. Music is similar to language in its hierarchical structure: notes are combined into chords or sequences, creating melodies or harmonies, adding to or manipulating emotion and meaning in the music being played. Endless numbers of melodies can be created using various combinations of a limited set of musical notes; everyone who can hear can understand and perceive these sequences as music. Some sequences are understood to be ‘correct’, while others sound incorrect, though the interpretation of combinations of notes is affected by cultural factors.

The operations of language are only slightly different: whereas music is more culturally-orientated, both music and language have signs of a hierarchical syntactic structure, from the structure of the phrasing of sentences, to the way melodies are put together.

Language is a magical blending of phonemes (sounds) and morphemes (smallest units of meaning), which create the powerful units we take for granted: words. The whole thing is an almost mystical process, the enchantment of which has almost been lost to us. In learning how to read, we initially must grapple with the reality that a set of particular symbols, chosen over time by the surrounding culture, has individual sounds connected with it. Today we call this ‘phonics’ and to see it as a fairly scientific undertaking: one takes a symbol and ‘learns’ that it ‘means’ a sound. Symbols are connected to sounds and not to any other sounds, for example: the sign ‘s’ indicates the sound ‘s’.

Then things get more arcane: the sound ’s’, coupled with other sounds, adds up to something quite different from a mere noise. The symbols ’s’, ‘t’, ‘a’ and ‘r’ combine to form the sounds ‘star’ but also the meaning ‘star’. Something miraculous has been accomplished: we have linked physical sounds with written shapes and now progressed beyond what most animals are able to do: we have linked both shapes and sounds with meaning.

Physical nouns are obvious; the word ‘love’ may make the point more strongly. A feeling, an idea which has outward signs but which is in itself a mental or spiritual thing, has been bound to a set of emblems imprinted on a page. No wonder that the word ‘spell’ is derived from the same root as the ‘spell’ that is practiced by a mage.

But things get even more complex. Placing these representative tokens that we have come to know as ‘words’ together, one can achieve almost infinite effects through sentences (the word ‘sentence’ stemming from Latin sententia ‘opinion’, from ‘feel, be of the opinion’). Sentences of various types and complexities go on to form paragraphs; paragraphs develop into chapters; chapters evolve into books. And every step of the way, the reader takes symbols and works with them to arrive at meaning.

This is more of a participative act: the simple act of reading is not a one-way transmission of information, perception or opinion from a text to a reader: readers bring both a personal understanding (or misunderstanding) and a personal contribution (or lack of contribution) to the process. Tolkien was perhaps more sensitive to this act than many; from his works, it seems that he participated more than most.


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