Ruth S. Noel, The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980)

It is somewhat sobering to realize that an author of fantasy literature, no matter how much he may deserve the sobriquet "great," has generated his own genre of scholarship. And in the scholarship of literature, one is often left asking very nearly the same question that arises when contemplating research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense: "Was this book really necessary?"

Ruth Noel's The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth does have a number of things to recommend it. The introductory chapter, "Tolkien the Linguist," expands on the general and somewhat cursory knowledge of Tolkien's life and career that might reside in the more-or-less casual reader of his fiction, and offers some fascinating tidbits: I had no idea Quenya, the language of the High Elves, was based on Finnish. (But then, I don't speak Finnish.) Of course, now that the connection has been pointed out, I begin to see it. (I once had a Finnish intern.)

Tolkien's love of language, and of languages, is apparent to anyone who has read his books, especially those of us who come back to them again and again for the heady richness of it. What may not strike the reader immediately is his genius with language as a means of universe building, his uncanny ability not only to create languages that make sense in themselves, but that make sense in relation to each other and mold the context. Noel, who adheres to Tolkien's fancy that The Lord of the Rings is translated from the Red Book of Westmarch as a metaphor to frame her book, does provide a helpful description of the relationship between, for example, Westron, the language used by the hobbits, and the language of the Rohirrim, which is to Westron as the language of Beowulf is to modern English. (She also does a good job of clarifying the idea of "based on" as opposed to the idea of "stands in relation to.")

Noel does make some assertions of which I am suspicious. Her contention that "a linguist can reconstruct a culture from its language just as a biologist can reconstruct an animal from a bone" is one that does not completely satisfy. Aside from its not being an exact analogy (a linguist can reconstruct a language from a sentence, or even a few words), a linguist can develop a sense of a people's priorities, the importance of various social relationships, even an idea of the basic economy, but after that, it becomes too tenuous to rely exclusively on language as the primary indicator. Thus, her notion that the creation of Quenya necessarily led to the description of the Elvish cultures in The Silmarillion is more than a little suspicious. (And in this light, it is interesting to note — which Noel does not — that Tolkien's languages are relatively "pure" in that there is no evidence of the borrowings back and forth that are common in the languages of this Earth — vide the staggering number of words that have been adopted whole into American English from almost every other major language — living and dead — and the occurrence of terms such as "le cocktail" in languages as xenophobic as French. Considering the historical interactions between the various peoples of Middle-earth, this is more than a little odd.)

The reconstructions of the evolution of the languages of Middle-earth are such that one can appreciate the patient research, if not any particular flashes of insight. Indeed, given that Tolkien himself did not pursue this topic in any detail (quite rightly, from some points of view), it is no surprise that they are more than a little sketchy. Considering that statement, I find myself led back to the first question: if one is not a Tolkien scholar, how is one to identify flashes of insight anyway? And, unless the reader is one of those who, as described on the jacket copy, writes love letters in Elvish, why should one care? Noel includes a chart of the lineages of the Kings of Men, both of Numenor and the later kingdoms of Arnor, Gondor, and the Mark. This is information which is easily obtainable (and less confusing) in Tolkien's own appendices to The Lord of the Rings, and does not really bear out her contention that it helps explicate the development of Westron. Of more likely use to those who want to write love letters in Elvish (or any of the thirteen other languages extant in Tolkien's works) are the English-to-Elvish glossary and the Tolkien Dictionary. For the rest of us, they are of moderate and transitory interest.

I can't honestly say the book is captivating — in places it is downright tedious. What The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth makes apparent, if one had any doubts, is Tolkien's passion for, and deep understanding of, language. Given its focus, this is only appropriate. However, taking into account Tolkien's own tendency to gloss over the importance of the linguistic aspect of his fiction (and ask any writer of fantasy: yes, this sort of thing is important; so are the braces that hold the painted canvas walls of a stage set, but you don't want the audience to see them), the real problem becomes apparent: what makes Tolkien a major figure is not his work in linguistics (indeed, the core of scholarship in the evolution of language is far beyond the Eurocentrism of Tolkien's day) but his place as a storyteller of extraordinarily rare artistry. His linguistic abilities, in this event, are really just a tool.

Noel doesn't seem to have made the decision as to whether this book should be a scholarly dissertation — in which case it is thin — or a popular book designed to appeal to fans — in which case, it is dull. In the final analysis, one can only say that it is probably of interest to hobbyists.

[Robert Tilendis]