Friday, July 23, 2004

Two Passages from Tolkien

Browsing The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien yesterday, I came across two passages of interest. The first, from letter 209 to Robert Murray, S.J. (4 May 1958) relates to my previous posts on 'enthusiasm':

"We do not know the 'original' meaning of any word, still less the meaning of its basic element (sc. the part it shares with or seems to share with other related words: once called its 'root'): there is always a lost past. Thus we do not know the original meaning of θεος or deus or god. We can, of course, make some guesses about the formation of these quite distinct words, and then try to generalize a basic meaning from the senses shown by their relatives - but I do not think we shall necessarily by that way get any nearer to the idea 'god' at any actual moment in any language using one of those words. It is an odd fact that English dizzy (olim dysig) and giddy (olim gydig) seem related to θεος and god respectively. In English they once meant 'irrational', and now 'vertiginous', but that does not help much (except to cause us to reflect that there was a long past before θεος or god reached their forms or senses and equally queer changes may have gone on in unrecorded ages). We may, of course, guess that we have a romte effect of primitive ideas of 'inspiration' (to the 18th C an enthusiast was much what an Anglo-Saxon would have called a dysiga! But that is not of much theological use? We are faced by endless minute parallels to the mystery of the incarnation. Is not the idea of god ultimately independent of the ways by which a word for it has come to be?..."

In addition to the brief comment about enthusiasm, the passage is interesting for its (more or less) Augustinian view of language.

The second passage is on synonyms. In the course of arguing that children should be exposed to a richer vocabulary than they often are, he notes:

"And the meaning of fine words cannot be made 'obvious', for it is not obvious to any one: least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. They think argent 'means' silver. But it does not. It and silver have a reference to x or chem. Ag, but in each x is clothed in a totally idfferent phonetic incarnation: x+y or x+z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different responses, but also because they are not in fact used when talking about Ag. in the same way. It is better, I think, at any rate to begin with, to hear 'argent' as a sound only (z without x) in a poetic context, than to think 'it only means silver'. There is some chance then that you may like it for itself, and later learn to appreciate the heraldic overtones it has, in addition to its own peculiar sound, which 'silver' has not."

This second passage is from letter 234 to Jane Neave. (The references are to The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Carpenter and [Christopher] Tolkien, eds., Harpor Collins: London, 1990.)

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