Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tolkien on the Pleasures of Language and the Imaginative Wonder of Faërie

So remember when I started the Tolkien Readstravaganza? Well I have been sneaking back to the dragon's hoard that is the works of and about JRRT. In recent weeks I have finished reading The History of the Hobbit, Tales from the Perilous Realm (a collection of most of Tolkien's non Middle-earth related fiction), His translations of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, and am almost finished with The Monster's and the Critics, a collection of his essays and lectures named for his well known lecture on Beowulf.

It is from this book of essays that the following three passages come from. All three show Tolkien in full philological force as a lover of words, language and the imaginative wonder that surrounds them.

The first is from an essay entitled English and Welsh which dealt with the ' British or Celtic element in the English language...' In this section he comments on the pleasures to be found in a language, particularly in the words themselves.:

I will not attempt to say now what I mean by calling a language as a whole 'beautiful', nor in what ways Welsh seems to me beautiful; for the mere recording of a personal and if you will subjective perception of strong aesthetic pleasure in contact with Welsh, heard or read, is sufficient for my conclusion.

The basic pleasure in the phonetic elements of a language and in the style of their patterns, and then in a 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. Though it may be allied to some of the elements in the appreciation of verse, it does not need any poets, other than the nameless artists who composed the language. It can be strongly felt in the simple contemplation of a vocabulary, or even in a string of names.

This next section is from his most famous essay, On Fairy Stories. I must admit that I found this passage to be quite stirring, and I think it expresses the effect language and philology had on the way he crafted his works. For Tolkien, language was a magical thing. We have already seen above how he could take great pleasure in the words themselves, but here he expresses the potential for language and meaning to come together, get turned on their head and result in something that goes beyond fantasy and into the realm of Faërie.

Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Muller's view of mythology as a 'disease of language' can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light, and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power - upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man's face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of a cold worm. But in such 'fantasy', as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; man becomes a sub-creator.

I end now with a beginning. In this final selection, the introduction to the same essay, he describes the realm of Faërie in his own words:

I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information.

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.