Friday, September 27, 2019

A Lament for Our Lady's Shrine at Walsingham

In the wracks of Walsingham
Whom should I choose
But the Queen of Walsingham
to be my guide and muse.

Then, thou Prince of Walsingham,
Grant me to frame
Bitter plaints to rue thy wrong,
Bitter woe for thy name.

Bitter was it so to see
The seely sheep
Murdered by the ravenous wolves
While the shepherds did sleep.

Bitter was it, O to view
The sacred vine,
Whilst the gardeners played all close,
Rooted up by the swine.

Bitter, bitter, O to behold
The grass to grow
Where the walls of Walsingham
So stately did show.

Such were the worth of Walsingham
While she did stand,
Such are the wracks as now do show
Of that Holy Land.

Level, level, with the ground
The towers do lie,
Which, with their golden glittering tops,
Pierced once to the sky.

Where were gates are no gates now,
The ways unknown
Where the press of peers did pass
While her fame was blown.

Owls do scrike where the sweetest hymns
Lately were sung,
Toads and serpents hold their dens
Where the palmers did throng.

Weep, weep, O Walsingham,
Whose days are nights,
Blessings turned to blasphemies,
Holy deeds to despites.

Sin is where Our Lady sat,
Heaven is turned to hell,
Satan sits where Our Lord did sway --
Walsingham, O farewell!

- Author Unknown

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

This Elvish Craft: Language Invention as Recovery

Another old essay, to go with the one I posted earlier this month, about Tolkien's language invention. I pose an unlikely similarity between Tolkien and Russian zaumists.


1. Renaming the Lily

In her book In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent characterizes language inventors as “misguided souls” led through “hard work, high hopes, and full-blown delusions” to attempt to improve on natural language for philosophical, altruistic, and political motives. Only briefly, in her final chapters, does Orkent acknowledge another important reason someone might create a language, when she mentions Tolkien and others who create languages out of a sense of pleasure. (Okrent 2010)

Yet despite the short shrift Okrent gives this motivation in her book, it is evident that Tolkien considered pleasure—specifically the pleasure of finding fitness between sound and meaning—to be the driving force behind the language creation process. In his 1931 lecture A Secret Vice, Tolkien describes the way this impulse drove his own early language invention: “Certainly it is in the contemplation of the relation between sound and notion which is a main source of pleasure.” Going farther, Tolkien suggests that pleasure is a major component of the development of even natural languages: “The communication factor has been very powerful in directing the development of language; but the more individual and personal factor—pleasure in articulate sound, and in the symbolic use of it...must not be forgotten for a moment.” (MC 208)

Left there, Tolkien’s argument would be quite safe and unassuming; pleasure is a subjective experience, and there would be very little to be said for or against his secret vice beyond “he enjoys it.” This seems to be the conclusion Okrent draws about Tolkien’s language invention. But Tolkien progresses the theme of pleasure beyond mere aesthetic pleasure itself and into the realm of enchantment:

And with the phonetic pleasure we have blended the more elusive delight of establishing novel relations between symbol and significance, and in contemplating them... as soon as you have fixed even a vague general sense for your words, many of the less subtle but most moving and permanently important of the strokes of poetry are open to you. For you are the heir of the ages. You have not to grope after the dazzling brilliance of invention of the free adjective, to which all human language has not fully attained. You may say green sun or dead life and set the imagination leaping.
Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind? (Monsters and the Critics 218-19)

For Tolkien, language invention is not just a means to pleasure, it is a way to set both mind and word free from the “habitual” and “associated notions” to which even poetry is subject; notions which words pick up naturally through constant use and the layering of meaning over time. Modern poetry is so full of “significant language” that to speak of green is not to speak of green itself, but to speak of green’s poetic associations with growth, spring, youth, innocence, and inexperience. To escape this detritus of meaning and recover the lost harmony between the signifier and the thing signified, Tolkien presents us with two possible solutions: the first is to study the poetry of the ancients, the second to cast off habitual and associated notions through language invention of our own. (MC 218-19)

Tolkien was not the only, or even the first language inventor to engage this concept. In his 1912 Declaration of the Word as Such Russian avant garde poet Alexei Kruchenykh states:

WORDS DIE, THE WORLD IS ETERNALLY YOUNG. The artist has seen the world in a new way and, like Adam, proceeds to give things his own names. The lily is beautiful, but the word “lily” [liliya] has been soiled and “raped”. Therefore, I call the lily, “euy” – the original purity is reestablished.” (Lawton 1988) 

Zaum—the “transrational” language which Kruchenykh introduces in his Declaration and its related manifestos—is more of an artistic effort than a functional language, but it has this in common with Tolkien’s own invented languages. Both men saw a need to recapture something important which had been lost in the relationship between the signifier and the signified.

But to say “the green sun” is different from renaming the lily. A lily is a real, concrete thing, which really exists in the real world. Although I can perhaps admire the freshness of the lily more if I call it by a fresh name, I have taken for myself only the role of the namer—a new Adam—not that of the creator. When Tolkien “set the imagination leaping” with a “green sun,” he takes upon himself the role of sub-creator and enters into Fantasy.

2. Green Suns

Tolkien returned to the theme of “green suns” again in his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” this time in the context of creating Fantasy: “Anyone...can say the green sun.... But.... To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will...certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” (MC 140)

These words, which Flieger has described as Tolkien’s “creative manifesto,” (Flieger 2012) echo Tolkien’s ideas in A Secret Vice. Just as language invention is a way to say what cannot be said with ordinary language, Fantasy is a means of seeing—and helping others see—what does not exist in the real world. To do such a thing is a “a kind of elvish craft,” an imitation of the enchantment Tolkien attributes to his own elves. (MC 122, 143) After going to great lengths to describe the nature of Fantasy and sub-creation, Tolkien lists three uses of Fantasy. Of these three, it is the first—“Recovery”—which resembles most strongly his sentiments about language invention.

Tolkien defines Recovery as “regaining a clear view” of things which we have taken for granted through familiarity. “We need, in any case, to clean our windows.... from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.” (MC 146). Just as the “significant language” of modern poetry obscured the fitness of sound and sense, so too the possessiveness which comes with familiarity obscures our ability to see the world clearly. Fantasy is a means of recovering that clear view.

This regaining of freshness is clearly related to the “strange and beautiful pictures in the mind” which drove Tolkien’s language invention, as demonstrated by the recurring leitmotif of the “green sun.” But Tolkien’s exploration of this relationship was not limited to essays. Within his fiction, he invests the elves with both an impulse for language invention and a need for Recovery. This should come as no surprise to us. Fantasy, after all, is an imitation of elvish craft. (MC 143)

3. The Elves as Language Inventors

Tolkien emphasizes the elves’ love for language invention from the earliest days of the mythology (BLT:I 155) to its twilight years. Writing the Dangweth Pengoloð in the early 1950’s, Tolkien sought to answer the question “How/Why did Elvish language change?” Pengolod—an elven philologist and author in the Dangweth’s narrative frame—answers this question in a way which sheds important light not only on why Elvish languages change, but on Tolkien’s thoughts about language change in general:

Weak indeed may be the memories of Men, but I say to you, Ælfwine, that even were your memory of your own being as clear as that of the wisest of the Eldar... your speech would change.... For Men change both their old words for new...and this change comes above all from the very changefullness of Eä; or if you will, from the nature of speech, which is fully living only when it is born, but when the union of the thought and the sound is fallen into old custom, and the two are no longer perceived apart, then already the word is dying and joyless...and the thought eager for some new-patterned raiment of sound. (PME 397)

According to Pengolod, the motivation for creating new words is the same for both races: when the union of sound and sense falls into “old custom,” the word and sound are no longer perceived as separate things. The word becomes “dying and joyless,” and a new sound is needed. The primary difference between human and elven language change lies in the latter’s skill. The elves consciously change whole sound patterns instead of individual words, in a manner reminiscent of how Christopher Tolkien described his father’s language invention process. (LR 378-9) Thus the “tongues of the Quendi change in a manner like to the changes of mortal tongues” albeit more artfully and deliberately. (PME 398, 400)

4. Conclusion

In A Secret Vice, Tolkien identifies the desire for a fresh relationship between sound and sense as the primary motive for the development of both real and invented languages. In On Fairy Stories, he further develops this idea as “Recovery” and names it as the first of the three benefits of fantasy literature. But Tolkien goes beyond theory, portraying his elves as artful language inventors across the fictional and textual history of the legendarium, their language invention motivated by a desire for Recovery. Both within and outside of his fiction, Tolkien’s works are a proof case for the value of glossopoeia as a means of Recovery—both for those who study Tolkien’s invented languages, and for those who make their own.

Her ancient and universal soul

I do not love a skeleton nor vital organs, I love Her face, Her sparkling clothes and even Her sandals, Her entire being. With the spiritual canticle I will sing of the hair on Her neck that charmed us as well, her children, as it ravished the heart of her Spouse. Oh, may those who love the Church understand! In her features and her slightest gestures, something indescribably exquisite enraptures us to the summit of her essential Mystery. The liturgical movements, the hymns, the ornamentation of churches, the words of the catechism and the sermon, this flesh, this manner of walking, the sound of the voice, the color of the eyes, revealed the very soul, immediately, and we were struck, intoxicated by it, for Her ancient and universal soul, Her intimate life that came to comfort us, was the Holy Spirit in Person!

Via New Liturgical Movement.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

þær his eðel wæs: The Dream of the Rood, lines 70-156

Last week, in celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, I shared the first half of the Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood. Earlier this week, I took a closer look at a few lines from the poem which I find particularly poignant. 

As we come to the conclusion of the afterfeast, here's the rest of the poem, again with translation and some notes for students provided. Going through the second half of this poem again, I am struck by how deftly the author weaves a number of theological themes which feature prominently throughout medieval literature. Indeed, it is not the poets themes which are unusual, but the highly original way in which they are presented.


Initial from a Breviary (12th c.) for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross


Hwæðere we ðær greotende    gode hwile

stodon on staðole,    syððan stefn up gewat
hilderinca.    Hræw colode,
fæger feorgbold.    Þa us man fyllan ongan
ealle to eorðan.    Þæt wæs egeslic wyrd!
Bedealf us man on deopan seaþe.    Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas,*
freondas gefrunon,**
gyredon me    golde ond seolfre.
Nu ðu miht gehyran,    hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ic bealuwara weorc    gebiden hæbbe,
sarra sorga.    Is nu sæl cumen
þæt me weorðiað    wide ond side
menn ofer moldan,    ond eall þeos mære gesceaft,
gebiddaþ him to þyssum beacne.    On me bearn godes
þrowode hwile.    Forþan ic þrymfæst nu
hlifige under heofenum,    ond ic hælan mæg***
æghwylcne anra,    þara þe him bið egesa to me.
Iu ic wæs geworden    wita heardost,
leodum laðost,    ærþan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde,    reordberendum.****

[Yet we there weeping a good while stood in place, after the voices of the warriors had departed. The body cooled, fair life-dwelling. Then one began to fell us all to earth. That was an evil fate! One buried us in a deep pit; nevertheless there one of the Lord’s servants,* friends heard,** and adorned me with gold and silver. Now you can hear, my good man, that I the Evil One’s works have endured, painful sorrows. The time is now come that men should honor me far and wide; that men over the earth, and all this glorious creation should pray to this Sign. On me the Son of God suffered for a while; therefore, I rise glorious now under heaven, and I am able to save*** each of those for whom there is fear of me. Long ago I was made of punishments the cruelest, most hateful to the peoples, before I them the true way of life cleared for speech-bearers.****]

*The word I have translated here as “servant” is “thegn,” Modern English thane. This word usually means the aristocratic retainer of a king or chieftain in ancient Germanic society, and by extension, the noble class in general. The reference is to St Helen, who—in an event commemorated every September 14th—is said to have found the True Cross (along with the other two crosses from Golgotha), which had been buried beneath a temple to Venus built on the site by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

**We’re missing a half-line here, so it’s hard to say what the actual meaning of this line is.

***The verb is gehælan, “to heal, to comfort, to make whole.” A related word, Hælend, is used in Anglo-Saxon to refer to Christ as Savior.

****reordberend “speech-bearers” is a simple kenning for humans, employed several times in this poem for the sake of alliteration.

A Rood in a church in Gotland, Sweden


Hwæt, me þa geweorðode    wuldres ealdor
ofer holtwudu,    heofonrices weard,
swylce swa he his modor eac,    Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig god    for ealle menn
geweorðode    ofer eall wifa cynn.
Nu ic þe hate,    hæleð min se leofa,
þæt ðu þas gesyhðe    secge mannum,
onwreoh wordum    þæt hit is wuldres beam,
se ðe ælmihtig god    on þrowode
for mancynnes    manegum synnum
ond Adomes    ealdgewyrhtum.
Deað he þær byrigde,    hwæðere eft dryhten aras
mid his miclan mihte    mannum to helpe.
He ða on heofenas astag.    Hider eft fundaþ
on þysne middangeard    mancynn secan
on domdæge    dryhten sylfa,
ælmihtig god,    ond his englas mid,
þæt he þonne wile deman,    se ah domes geweald,*
anra gehwylcum    swa he him ærur her
on þyssum lænum    life geearnaþ.
Ne mæg þær ænig    unforht wesan
for þam worde    þe se wealdend cwyð.
Frineð he for þære mænige    hwær se man sie,
se ðe for dryhtnes naman    deaðes wolde
biteres onbyrigan,    swa he ær on ðam beame dyde.**

[Behold, the Lord of Glory then honored me over all the wood of the forest, the Heaven-Kingdom’s Ward, in much the same way as he his mother also, Mary herself, the Almighty God for all men exalted above woman-kind. Now I command you, my good man, that you tell this vision to men, reveal with words that it is the Tree of Glory that the Almighty God suffered upon for mankind’s many sins and Adam’s ancient wrongs. Death he there tasted, yet afterwards the Lord arose by his great might, mankind to help. He then to the heavens ascended, and hither afterwards hastens to this Middle-earth, mankind to seek at Doomsday—the Lord Himself, Almighty God, and his angels with him. He will then doom—who has the power of doom—each of them according as he earlier merited in this transitory life. Nor may any be unafraid there, because of the word that the Ruler pronounces. He asks there in the presence of the multitude where the man be who for the Lord’s Name would taste of bitter death, as he [the Lord] did on the Tree.**]

*The word used repeatedly for “to judge” or “judgment” is some version of deman (“to judge, to deem, to praise”) or dom (“judgement, justice majesty, glory, honor”). The reference here is clearly to the Last Judgment as it was understood in medieval Christian theology, however it is important to point out that this is no merely judicial power as we might think of it today in an at least nominally democratic form of government—Christ’s power to judge is directly associated with his glory, majesty, and kingly attributes. There is a certain tendency in modern thinking and storytelling to assume that the idea of glory is inversely proportional to justice. Our poet (along with his audience) is completely comfortable with the idea that Christ’s coming in judgment would not be possible without his also coming in glory.

**Here I think we can most clearly glimpse the theological “goal” of this imaginative poem—to help the listener identify with the sufferings of Christ by considering them from the perspective of the Cross itself. Medieval devotion often employs this strategy, and many comparisons might be here made to the hymnography of the Eastern Orthodox Church as it has come down to us today. The goal of this approach is not (as many Protestant reformers would later think) to create an unnecessary barrier between the devotee and Christ; it is rather to provide yet another avenue of devotional engagement by considering the Lord’s Passion through the perspective of those who witnessed it firsthand—usually the Mother of God or St John the Beloved, or others who stood at the foot of the Cross. In this poem, uniquely, we are given the perspective of the Cross itself.

Another Rood from Gotland, this one over 800 years old. It is significant for portraying Christ triumphantly (as does this poem). Even on the cross, he is already wearing his crown.


Ac hie þonne forhtiað,    ond fea þencaþ
hwæt hie to Criste    cweðan onginnen.
Ne þearf ðær þonne ænig    anforht† wesan
þe him ær in breostum bereð    beacna selest,
ac ðurh ða rode sceal    rice gesecan
of eorðwege    æghwylc sawl,
seo þe mid wealdende    wunian þenceð."
Gebæd ic me þa to þan beame    bliðe mode,
elne mycle,    þær ic ana wæs
mæte werede.*    Wæs modsefa
afysed on forðwege,**    feala ealra gebad
langunghwila.    Is me nu lifes hyht
þæt ic þone sigebeam    secan mote
ana oftor    þonne ealle men,
well weorþian.    Me is willa to ðam
mycel on mode,    ond min mundbyrd is
geriht to þære rode.***    Nah ic ricra feala
freonda on foldan,    ac hie forð heonon
gewiton of worulde dreamum,    sohton him wuldres cyning,
lifiaþ nu on heofenum    mid heahfædere,
wuniaþ on wuldre,    ond ic wene me
daga gehwylce    hwænne me dryhtnes rod,
þe ic her on eorðan    ær sceawode,
on þysson lænan    life gefetige
ond me þonne gebringe    þær is blis mycel,
dream on heofonum,    þær is dryhtnes folc
geseted to symle,    þær is singal blis,
ond me† þonne asette    þær ic syþþan mot
wunian on wuldre,    well mid þam halgum
dreames brucan.    Si me dryhten freond,
se ðe her on eorþan    ær þrowode
on þam gealgtreowe    for guman synnum.
He us onlysde    ond us lif forgeaf,
heofonlicne ham.    Hiht wæs geniwad
mid bledum ond mid blisse    þam þe þær bryne þolodan.****
Se sunu wæs sigorfæst    on þam siðfate,
mihtig ond spedig,    þa he mid manigeo com,
gasta weorode,    on godes rice,
anwealda ælmihtig,    englum to blisse
ond eallum ðam halgum    þam þe on heofonum ær
wunedon on wuldre,    þa heora wealdend cwom,
ælmihtig god,    þær his eðel wæs.

[But they are afraid, do not even know how to begin to speak to Christ. They do not have any reason to be afraid who before in their breasts bears the Best of Signs, but by means of the Cross wills the Kingdom to seek, from earthly regions—every soul who with the Ruler intends to dwell.” Prayed I then to that Cross, glad at heart, strong in courage, where I was alone with a small company.* Mind was focused on departure;** I endured many times of longing. It is now my life’s hope that I the Tree of Victory may seek alone, to offer it honor above all men. The desire for that is great in my mind, and I look to that Rood for patronage.*** Nor have I many wealthy friends on earth, but they forth hence departed from this world’s joys, sought for themselves the King of Glory, live now in the heavens with the Highfather, dwell in glory; and I expect every day when the Lord’s Rood, who I here on earth before saw, will fetch me from this transitory life, and bring me then to where there is great bliss, joy in the heavens, where the folk of God are set at banquet, where is everlasting bliss, and being set there I afterwards might dwell in glory, well with the saints, enjoying joys. The Lord shall be to me a friend, who here on earth formerly suffered on the gallows-tree for mankind’s sin. He redeemed us and gave us life and a heavenly home. Hope was renewed, with glories and with bliss, for those who there burning suffered.**** The Son was secure in victory on the journey, mighty and successful when he came with a multitude, a troop of spirits, into God’s Kingdom, Almighty Ruler, with angels to bliss, and with all the saints whom in the heavens before lived in glory when their Ruler came, Almighty God, where His homeland was.]

*Compare line 69b.

**That is, departure from this world.

***Literally taken, this line is: “and my mundbyrd is directed to that Rood.” Nearly everyone in Anglo-Saxon society had a mundbora, a patron and protector—ones parent, master, chieftain, earl, or king, depending on the position one held in society. By association, the word came to be used for the protection that God—via His saints and angels—offered to His people. The author or visionary is claiming the Rood as his own particular heavenly patron.

****The poem ends by connecting three themes which seem to have been closely intertwined for the poet (and probably for his audience as well): First, the visionary’s hope that he will gain heaven and the company of the saints by the intercession and patronage of the Cross; second, his expectation that the Lord will prove his “friend” at the day of judgment; third, that all of this—his own hopes for salvation and mankind’s hopes in general—rest upon the victory of Christ in the “Harrowing of Hell” (the Anglo-Saxon name for the Descent into Hades), the events of which are briefly recalled in the final lines of the poem. For the poet, the ideas of heavenly patronage, steadfast devotion, and the sure victory of Christ are not mutually exclusive—rather, they are complementary, woven together into a beautiful tapestry which would begin to unravel if any of the various threads were removed.

Rood screen at Our Lady of Egmanton, Nottinghamshire

Currently reading: The Life in Christ, Nicholas Cabasilas
Current audio book: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, Roger Crowley
Currently translating: The Dream of the Rood

Monday, September 16, 2019

Crist wæs on rode

Saturday's post of the first 69 lines of The Dream of the Rood has already become the most popular post on this blog. I don't have any explanation for this, unless it is that the poem is uniquely beautiful and also too little known. If that's the case, I am happy to have brought it to the attention of so many people. I thought I'd do a quick post this morning just to highlight what I find to be one of the most poignant passages in the whole poem: lines 39-56.

To explain why this passage works so well, one must know a little bit about Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. To say everything that could be said about this deceptively simple meter would be the study of many lifetimes. At its most basic, however, it goes like this: Each line is made up of two half-lines (the double-space in the middle of each lines in the passage below indicates the break between these half-lines). The first half-line has two "beats" which place the stress on two alliterating sounds (with vowels always alliterating with other vowels). The second half-line has two beats as well, the first of which alliterates with the first half-line, the second of which introduces a new sound.

To give an example of what I mean, here's line 56 of the poem, with the alliterating stresses in bold:

cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

There are of course endless variations to this basic line type, based on where the stresses fall and how many "filler words" (which function as extra, unstressed syllables) are allowed. Certain poems, such as Caedmon's Hymn, exhibit an extremely "tight" meter:

Nu sculon herigean         heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte         and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,         swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,         or onstealde.
He ærest sceop         eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,         halig scyppend;
þa middangeard         moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,         æfter teode
firum foldan,         frea ælmihtig.

Even if you can't read Anglo-Saxon, it should be easy to tell that these lines keep a fairly steady beat and, for the most part, stick to the alliteration rules I mentioned above. The stereotype that exists about alliterative verse is that the earlier stuff is tighter, the later stuff is looser and more "artsy"; some have drawn parallels between the breakdown of heroic society and the breakdown of heroic verse.

But The Dream of the Rood bucks this stereotype. It features a large number of what are referred to as "hyper-metrical lines"--lines that basically break the metrical rules I listed above. Usually, this is done for the sake of effect. But it almost seems that in the Dream of the Rood, it is metrical lines which are used for effect, and not the other way around. Let's return again to lines 39-56, which recount the crucifixion of Christ:


Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),                                       
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,  þa he wolde mancyn lysan.                             
Bifode ic þa me se beorn ymbclypte.  Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,                                   
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.                               
Rod wæs ic aræred.  Ahof ic ricne cyning,                                     
heofona hlaford,  hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum.  On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,                               
opene inwidhlemmas.  Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.                                       
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.  Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,                                 
begoten of þæs guman sidan,  siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.                                         
Feala ic on þam beorge  gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda.  Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian.  þystro hæfdon                 
bewrigen mid wolcnum  wealdendes hræw,                       
scirne sciman,  sceadu forðeode,                             
wann under wolcnum.  Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

[They stripped the Young Warrior—he who was God Almighty—strong and resolute. He mounted on the gallows high, valiant in the sight of many, when he would ransom mankind. I shook when the Warrior embraced me. Nor dared I to bow in any direction towards the ground—I had to stand fast. The Rood was raised. I exalted the Mighty King, Heaven’s Lord. I did not dare to bend. They pierced me with dark nails—scars easily seen in me; evil, open wounds. Nor dared I to harm any one of them. They besmirched both of us together. I was streaming all over with blood, drenched from that man’s sides, since he had his spirit sent forth. Much have I, on that mountain, tasted of an evil wyrd. I saw the warbands of God violently humiliated. Dark clouds closed over the Ruler’s corpse. Over shining splendor shadow went forth, dark under sky. All creation wept, bewailing the King’s fall. Christ was on the Cross.]

I have tried to put the stressed syllables for each line in bold, but for some of the hyper-metrical lines (easily visually identified due to the fact that they are much longer than the last 6 or so lines) it is sometimes difficult to hear exactly where the stress should go. In my opinion, this contributes to the dream-like effect of this mystical poem.

But notice what happens in those last six lines, starting at "wraðra wyrda..." The alliteration becomes perfectly regular, and the lines "tighten," at precisely the moment when the nails would be driven into the hands and feet of Our Lord. The dreamlike vision becomes, for a moment, something concrete. Each beat falls like a hammer-blow. And Crist wæs on rode.

This use of the meter creates an incredible aural effect. It's just one small example of the great genius of this poem, and one reason why it's almost impossible to translate well.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Beama beorhtost: The Dream of the Rood, lines 1-69

Today marks the feast of the "Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross," also known as Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas in various traditions. The story behind this feast day, which involves the finding of the True Cross by St Helen (the mother of emperor St Constantine the Great) can be read elsewhere, and I hope to touch more on it in the next post in this series.

The two primary subjects of this blog are Germanic Philology, and the Liturgical Arts & Liturgical Year. Over the last several posts I've been deeply interested in rood-screens and the way they function in sacred architecture, and how medieval literature might itself function as a sort of verbal rood-screen (as Tolkien in fact believed that it could). In the Venn diagram of all of these interests, an Anglo-Saxon poem known as The Dream of the Rood is the almond-shaped overlapping area which connects them all.

Eastern Orthodox icon of the Exaltation of the Cross

I won't give you a lengthy introduction to the poem. The facts are these: It is at least as old as the 8th Century Ruthwell Cross, a beautiful 8th century stone Anglo-Saxon cross, which bears a partial text of the poem as well as quite a bit of beautiful iconography; it was of course destroyed during the rampant iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, but we've been able to piece a good bit of it back together. There is a decent chance that the poem is older than this, though, and it's considered to be a good candidate for the title of "oldest work of Old English literature." 

The Ruthwell Cross, 8th c.
There are all kinds of theories about the origins of poem itself. Its content, which seems to blend the heroic ethics of the Anglo-Saxon warrior aristocracy with Christian virtues, and its inclusion on the Ruthwell Cross have led many people to speculate that it was composed as a missionary tool, intended to help pagan Anglo-Saxons understand where their old values could be situated within a Christian context. Other attempts have been made to attribute the poem to known poets such as Cynewulf or Caedmon, though these attributions do not seem to have stuck. 

What can be said about the poem is that it is a beautiful, remarkable work of art. I am staggered just trying to imagine the mind which could compose it. Ever since I first encountered this poem in my first semester of Anglo-Saxon, I have wanted to attempt a verse translation of this poem which would make some effort toward communicating the beauty of the original. I'm not there yet, but I thought over the octave of the present feast I would share a rough prose translation I've been working on along with some notes. There's nothing revolutionary here--just some thoughts and notes I have been putting together for the purpose of teaching the poem to students who have little-to-no ability to read it themselves in Old English.

The idea would be to read each section aloud to the students in Old English, then go through the translation and draw out certain interesting meanings and aural effects which the poem accomplishes. In this way, someone who cannot read Old English would at least be introduced to the poem, and would get some sense of its beauty, and might go on to study it for themselves.

Without further ado, here are some notes on the first 69 lines of the poem. I'll publish the rest in 1-2 more blog posts (which should include some notes about the finding of the Cross by St Helen, since it is briefly mentioned in the poem) over the course of the next eight days.

The Anglo-Saxon Reliquary Cross, 10th c.

Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst  secgan wylle,                                        
hwæt me gemætte  to midre nihte,                                         
syðþan reordberend  reste wunedon!                                     
þuhte me þæt ic gesawe  syllicre treow                                  
on lyft lædan,  leohte bewunden,                                             
beama beorhtost.*  Eall þæt beacen** wæs                                        
begoten mid golde.  Gimmas stodon                                      
fægere æt foldan sceatum,  swylce þær fife wæron                                          
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne.***  Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,                                   
fægere þurh forðgesceaft.  Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,                   
ac hine þær beheoldon  halige gastas,                                   
men ofer moldan,  ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.                

[Hark! I wish to tell of the best of dreams which came to me in the middle of the night, when speech-bearers seek their rest. It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous Tree suspended on the air, surrounded by light, of beams* the brightest. All that Sign** was covered with gold. Precious jewels shone forth, fair over the surface of the earth, and likewise there were five above the crossbeam***. I beheld there all the angels of the Lord, those fair from the foundation of the world. Nor was that indeed any criminal’s gallows, but there they kept watch: blessed spirits, men over the world, all this famous creation.]

*The word here is actually beama, the GP of beam, which can mean a tree (compare German Baum), a beam of wood, or (as throughout the rest of this poem) the Cross.

**OE beacen, from which we get our word beacon. It means a sign or portent. Throughout this poem it will be used both for the vision itself—the dream—as well as for the Cross. Given that this poem is never far from the legends of Sts. Constantine and Helen (and in fact will reference St Helen’s finding of the Cross later in the poem), I think it’s not unfair to see here an allusion to Constantine’s in hoc signo. Note though that there is already an OE borrowing from Latin signum: segn.

**OE eaxlegespann. I don’t have anything to say about this except that it’s a really cool word and “crossbeam” is a pretty uninteresting way to translate it.


Syllic wæs se sigebeam,  ond ic synnum fah,                                        
forwunded mid wommum.  Geseah ic wuldres treow,                                      
wædum geweorðode,*  wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde;  gimmas hæfdon                                      
bewrigene weorðlice  wealdendes treow.                                             
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold  ongytan meahte                                         
earmra ærgewin,  þæt hit ærest ongan                                  
swætan on þa swiðran healfe.  Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,                              
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe.  Geseah ic þæt fuse beacen                                           
wendan wædum ond bleom;  hwilum hit wæs mid wætan bestemed,                                       
beswyled mid swates gange,  hwilum mid since gegyrwed.

[Rare and marvelous was the Victory-tree—and I guilty with sins, wounded all over with evils! I saw the Tree of Wonder worshipfully vested,* shining with joy, adorned with gold; precious jewels had covered honorably the Ruler’s Tree. Nevertheless, I could see through that gold the evidence of a previous and wretched combat, where it first started to sweat and bleed from its right side. I was all with sorrow afflicted—afraid because of the fair vision. I saw that noble sign changed in garments and colors; at times it was with liquid moistened, drenched with flowing sweat and blood, at other times with treasures adorned.]

*Literally wædum geweorðode. Wǣd can refer to any article or garment of human clothing, but as it is often used to gloss Latin vestīmentum and since geweorþian carries the sense of rendering honor to an object or person, I have rendered it thus.

Anglo-Saxon Rood, or crucifix, Romsey Abbey. 10th c.


Hwæðre ic þær licgende   lange hwile                                      
beheold hreowcearig  hælendes treow,                  
oððæt ic gehyrde  þæt hit hleoðrode.                                     
Ongan þa word sprecan  wudu selesta:                                  
"þæt wæs geara iu,  (ic þæt gyta geman),                                            
þæt ic wæs aheawen  holtes on ende,                                     
astyred of stefne minum.  Genaman me ðær strange feondas,                    
geworhton him þær to wæfersyne,  heton me heora wergas hebban.                                       
Bæron me ðær beornas on eaxlum,  oððæt hie me on beorg asetton,                                       
gefæstnodon me þær feondas genoge.  Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes                                   
efstan elne mycle  þæt he me wolde on gestigan.                                              
þær ic þa ne dorste  ofer dryhtnes word                
bugan oððe berstan,  þa ic bifian geseah                                              
eorðan sceatas.  Ealle ic mihte                                   
feondas gefyllan,  hwæðre ic fæste stod.                

[Nevertheless I, lying there a long while, beheld sad-minded the Savior’s Tree, until I heard that it spoke. The Best of Woods began to speak these words: “It was long ago (though I remember it still) that I was hewn down at the holt’s end, removed from my stump. Strong enemies took me from there, made me into an awful spectacle, and commanded me to raise up their criminals. They bore me there, men on shoulders, until they set me atop a mountain. Many fiends fastened me there. I saw then the Lord of Mankind hastening with great courage that he might mount up upon me.* There I did not dare to go beyond the Lord’s word, to budge or break—I saw the earth’s surface begin to quake—even though I might have felled all those enemies, nevertheless I stood fast.]

*Throughout this poem, Christ’s action on the cross are seen as willing, with Christ almost always referred to in the terminology (as elsewhere—see the Old Saxon Heliand) of the Germanic warrior aristocracy. Christ is portrayed as totally in command of what takes place on the Cross. Although this takes place within the poet’s own cultural idiom, it is most consonant with the portrayal of the Passion in St John’s Gospel:

And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes. Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die. (John xii)

Byzantine crucifix in the nave of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX. Both Byzantine and Anglo-Saxon art and poetry place the focus on Christ's calm command of his passion, rather than on the suffering or gore. Thus, Christ is portrayed at rest.


Ongyrede hine þa geong hæleð,*  (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),                                         
strang ond stiðmod.  Gestah he on gealgan heanne,
modig on manigra gesyhðe,  þa he wolde mancyn lysan.                               
Bifode ic þa me se beorn** ymbclypte.  Ne dorste ic hwæðre bugan to eorðan,                                    
feallan to foldan sceatum,  ac ic sceolde fæste standan.                                 
Rod wæs ic aræred.  Ahof ic ricne*** cyning,                                      
heofona hlaford,****  hyldan me ne dorste.
þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum.  On me syndon þa dolg gesiene,                                 
opene inwidhlemmas.  Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.                                         
Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.  Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,                                   
begoten of þæs guman sidan,  siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.                                           
Feala ic on þam beorge  gebiden hæbbe
wraðra wyrda.  Geseah ic weruda god
þearle þenian.  þystro hæfdon                   
bewrigen mid wolcnum  wealdendes hræw,                        
scirne sciman,  sceadu forðeode,                              
wann under wolcnum.  Weop eal gesceaft,
cwiðdon cyninges fyll.  Crist wæs on rode.

[They stripped the Young Warrior*—he who was God Almighty—strong and resolute. He mounted on the gallows high, valiant in the sight of many, when he would ransom mankind. I shook when the Warrior** embraced me. Nor dared I to bow in any direction towards the ground—I had to stand fast. The Rood was raised. I exalted*** the Mighty King, Heaven’s Lord.**** I did not dare to bend. They pierced me with dark nails—scars easily seen in me; evil, open wounds. Nor dared I to harm any one of them. They besmirched both of us together. I was streaming all over with blood, drenched from that man’s sides, since he had his spirit sent forth. Much have I, on that mountain, tasted of an evil wyrd. I saw the warbands of God violently humiliated. Dark clouds closed over the Ruler’s corpse. Over shining splendor shadow went forth, dark under sky. All creation wept, bewailing the King’s fall. Christ was on the Cross.]

*geong hæleð

**beorn. As is well known, this particular word is packed with etymological controversy. It has a highly disputed link (which however I consider credible) to ON bjǫrn, a northern variant of the Proto-Germanic root for “brown.” Northern Indo-European languages have a great reticence to refer to bears by name (thus there is no Germanic cognate for Latin ursus), and usually refer to them as “brown one” or “honey-eater.” A warrior who is particularly fierce, hairy, and given to large meals and long naps (one finds many such people in Germanic folklore and legend) might be a “bear” by association, and since most aristocratic males were warriors and since the word is very close to bearn “son [of man]”, it seems to often just function as a poetic word for “man.” As Nelson Goering once told me, we have to understand ALL of the above layers (and probably some that I’m missing) as having been present for the original audience of these poems. In translation, highlighting one sense usually comes at the expense of the others.

***ahof could be translated “raised” or “exalted” and thus seems to be something of a pun, in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel passage cited above.

****Here I have to play around a bit, which I can do because this is a personal blog and not a scholarly publication. There are a few different words in Anglo-Saxon which are translated as “Lord.” This one is hlaford, which developed from earlier OE hlafweard or “loaf-warden,” as in the one who has control over, or gives out, loafs of bread. Over time, OE hlaford > ME louerd, lord > ModE lord. It’s difficult to imagine a more appropriate name for Christ than “loaf-warden,” and certainly Medieval Christians would not have been deaf to the Eucharistic associations of the term.


Hwæðere þær fuse  feorran cwoman                      
to þam æðelinge.  Ic þæt eall beheold.                   
Sare ic wæs mid sorgum gedrefed,  hnag ic hwæðre þam secgum to handa,                          
eaðmod elne mycle.  Genamon hie þær ælmihtigne god,                
ahofon hine of ðam hefian wite.   Forleton me þa hilderincas                        
standan steame bedrifenne;  eall ic wæs mid strælum* forwundod.                          
Aledon hie ðær limwerigne,  gestodon him æt his lices heafdum,               
beheoldon hie ðær heofenes dryhten,  ond he hine ðær hwile reste,                           
meðe æfter ðam miclan gewinne.  Ongunnon him þa moldern wyrcan     
beornas on banan gesyhðe;  curfon hie ðæt of beorhtan stane,                   
gesetton hie ðæron sigora wealdend.  Ongunnon him þa sorhleoð galan                
earme on þa æfentide,  þa hie woldon eft siðian,               
meðe fram þam mæran þeodne.  Reste he ðær mæte weorode.

[But then noble folk came from afar off to that prince. I beheld it all. I was in pain, with sorry afflicted, nevertheless I bent down to those men, down towards the side of the hill, humble-minded and with great courage. They took there the Almighty God, lifting him up from that heavy torment. I relinquished that Warrior, remained with Moisture covered; I was all with arrows* gravely wounded. There they lay down the weary-limbed one and stood at the head of his corpse. There they looked on Heaven’s Lord, and he with them rested there a while, weary after the great struggle. They began the grave to make, those warriors, within sight of his killer; they carved that grave of bright stone, and set therein The Lord of Victory. They began then a burial hymn to chant on that miserable evening. Then, weary, they would afterwards leave that most excellent Lord. He rested there with a small host.]

*strælum “with arrows” seems to be a reference to the nails embedded in the wood of the cross. Here, we might think of certain iconography of Anglo-Saxon saints, or of St Sebastian, who were tied to a tree and then shot to death with arrows. The below illumination depicts the death of St Edmund, King and Martyr, shot to death by Viking raiders. The point of this and other references to the Cross’s wounds seems to be to transfer the Cross itself from an instrument of torment to a victim who suffered, obediently, along with Christ. The reference in line 60 to elne mycle “with great courage” highlights the Cross’s own courage in obedience. As has often been pointed out elsewhere, the whole poem casts the Cross in the light of the obedient thegn, the servant or bodyguard of his lord who is expected to stand with his lord until the end. The poem puts a particularly Christian twist on this idea, though, since the Cross is not supposed to fight or defend its lord (even though it seems capable of doing so); instead, it (and therefore we) must partake in and therefore identify with the sufferings of Christ. It is the peculiarly Christian understanding that sees this moment of greatest suffering as the moment of greatest exaltation. The double-vision of the cross streaming with gore/arrayed in gold and jewels and costly vestments is a good example of the paradox which the poet so effectively conveys.

Medieval illumination of the death of St Edmund

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The World of Silver Leaves: The Relationship Between Myth and Language in Tolkien, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones

This is a piece I wrote in 2016 while taking a class for my MA on Language Invention through Tolkien from Signum U. The class was great fun, and it allowed me to engage with Tolkien the Language Creator, a side to his creative genius which I think is largely misunderstood by the proliferation of books on "how to speak Elvish" and so forth.

My impetus for putting it here, as a blog post, has to do with a comment I recently came across on one of the many Tolkien message boards out there on the World Wide Web. The comment argued, in part, that the real genius of Tolkien's language creation was that it was "window dressing" and "didn't get in the way of the story."

Well, that's half-right. Tolkien's language creation doesn't "get in the way of the story." But in this case, half-right is all-wrong. I offer this short essay primarily as a rebuttal to this point of view.


1. Flieger’s Bumper-sticker

“…language cannot be forgotten. Mythology is language and language is mythology.” J.R.R. Tolkien penned these words in a 1939 draft of the lecture which would eventually be published as the essay “On Fairy Stories.” Noted Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has emphasized the importance of these words to our understanding of Tolkien as a sub-creator:
If I ever put a bumper sticker on my car, it’s going to say that. No modifiers, no explanations, just seven words that convey Tolkien’s bedrock belief about words and what they do… the whole text of “On Fairy-stories” is an extended gloss on that statement. (Flieger 242) 
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that these seven words are about as cryptic as the notoriously weighty essay they represent. To understand what Tolkien means by them, we must understand the context in which they are framed. After this statement of his “bedrock belief,’ he elaborates:
The mind, the tongue, and the tale are coeval. The human mind was endowed with powers of "abstraction", of not only seeing green grass and discriminating it from other things, or of finding it good to look upon, but of seeing that it was green - as well as grass and hence of inventing a words green... In fact many of these enchantments that are from a fairy tale are closely related in the mind to the very linguistic power that could invent all of those and set them free. When we can take green from grass and paint the sky or man's face with it, or blue from heaven and red from blood we have already an enchanter's power: the world of silver leaves and that fleece of gold and the blue moon appear. Such fantasy is a new form, in which man is become a creator or sub-creator. (TOFS 181)
“Coeval” is the key word in this paragraph: man’s ability to make words is inseparable from his power to tell stories. Thus, Tolkien believed, they began at the same time and in the same way, and to know the history of one is to experience the other. By extension, sub-creation—which Tolkien sees as having as its goal the “inner consistency of reality” (TOFS 59)—must reflect this. “On Fairy-stories” thus suggests a test by which invented languages—whether Tolkien’s or those popularized by successful multi-media franchises—may be evaluated.

2. An Illusion of Historicity

As a philologist, Tolkien was deeply familiar with the ways languages changed and evolved over time. His languages were thus “deduced scientifically from a common origin” in order to give them a character of “cohesion” and “consistency of linguistic style and an illusion of historicity.” Rather than creating a snapshot of a language at a single point in time, he worked out the philological processes by which that language would have, were it living, changed from its ancestor tongue. Tolkien’s process, according to his son Christopher, was to devise new words “from within the historical structure, proceeding from the ‘bases’ or primitive stems, adding suffix or prefix or forming compounds…following it through the regular changes of form that it would thus have undergone…” (LR 242)

But historical sound shifts would not, in and of themselves, satisfy the criteria laid out by Tolkien in “On Fairy-stories.” Language cannot stand alone any more than mythology. [1] To meet his test, changes in language must be coeval with events in the story. They must exist at the same time, and each must exist for the purpose of the other.

In the long and complicated internal and external histories of Tolkien’s Eldarin languages,  we find that their phonological development is always accompanies events in the mythology. Tolkien revised these events as often as he did the languages, and the result is a rich sampling of case studies in the relationship between language and mythology. For the purposes of this essay, two examples will suffice: the first from the earlier days of Tolkien’s mythopoeic endeavors, the second from their twilight years.

3. The Deep Sundering of Their Speech

In the years 1914-16, Tolkien worked on “Qenya,” the first of his Eldarin [2] tongues. In 1917, he began work on Gnomish, an Eldarin tongue related to Qenya. In addition to a lexicon of Gnomish words, he developed an outline of how Qenya and Gnomish had both descended from a common proto-Eldarin language. The sounds of Gnomish were “harder” by comparison, with a shift towards stops or plosives at the ends of words, and other consonants mutating following a pattern found in the Celtic languages. Thus Qenya “Manwe” became “Manweg” in Gnomish, and Qenya “Makar” became Gnomish “Magron.” (Weiner and Marshall 82, 92)

These consonantal mutations gave Gnomish a very different soundscape from Qenya, one which parallels the development of the Gnomish people in Tolkien’s fiction. For at the same time he was developing the historical links between Qenya and Gnomish, he was also making a myth about how they had become estranged:
‘Aye’, said Rumil, ‘for there is that tongue to which the Noldoli cling yet…and as I hold ‘twas but the long wandering of the Noldoli about the Earth and the black ages of their thraldom while their kin dwelt yet in Valinor that caused the deep sundering of their speech. Akin nonetheless be assuredly Gnome speech and Elfin of the Eldar, as my lore-masters teach me. (BLT 43)
From the beginning, Gnomish was the language of exiles. This aspect of the language, as well as its basic differences from the other main branch of the Eldarin tongues, would remain intact as Tolkien changed the name of the language from Gnomish to Noldorin in 1920, and continued its development up until the writing of The Lord of the Rings. But by the 1950’s, Noldorin had become Sindarin, and the reason for its differences from Quenya had changed. Now, the cause was the long separation of the Sindar, the Grey Elves, who did not complete their journey to Aman [3], and their speech became the lingua franca of the elves of Middle-earth for political reasons [4]. But through every change--whether through sorrow and exile, the will of an Elven-king, or the pride of the greatest craftsman to ever live [5] -- the development of Tolkien’s languages went hand-in-hand with the development of his mythology. There is no sense of either the languages or the stories existing as mere window-dressing for the other. They are truly coeval. The history of the development of Tolkien’s mythology is as much a history of words and sounds as it is of characters and events.

Weiner and Marhsall, writing in “Tolkien’s Invented Languages”, sum it up this way:
‘If there are two purposes for invented language - communication and art - Tolkien is (so far) the master of the art-form…Reading Tolkien’s major works is like looking at a painting in which a beautiful garden actually exists, having been planted the artist before the picture was painted. Tolkien created a self-consistent and technically convincing group of languages…Though they appear in their narrative context as perfectly contrived atmospheric devices, it is their pre-existence that ensures their success. (Weiner and Marshall 107-108)
Tolkien’s success as both author and language inventor set a precedent for imaginative fiction. With the rise of the commercial success of such multi-media franchises as Star Trek and Game of Thrones, invented languages are currently enjoying something of a heyday in the cultural mainstream. But the relationships of Klingon and Dothraki to their respective fictional worlds differs widely from Tolkien’s Eldarin tongues.

4. The Final Frontier

Klingon was created when linguist Marc Okrand was hired to create dialogue for an alien race in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). In creating Klingon, Okrand had to work to incorporate a few lines of dialogue created by actor James Doohan for the original Star Trek film. “The plan, at this point, was not to create a ‘full’ language, but only what was necessary for the film—that is, just enough vocabulary and grammar for the lines marked as being in Klingon.” (Okrand et. al. 112-115) Although Okrand would go on to develop a sizeable vocabulary and grammar for Klingon, its early stages were not grown along historical principles, but rather to fill the needs of the franchise. (Okrand et. al. 124)

Of the languages associated with the Game of Thrones franchise, Dothraki, the language of a martial nomadic horse culture first introduced in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is probably the best-known. In the books, Dothraki consists of a mere handful of words invented by Martin to have a specifically “harsh” or “alien” sound-sense. When the production of the Game of Thrones HBO series began, producers wanted a more fully-developed language so that Dothraki dialogue could be filmed. Mirroring the genesis of Klingon, linguist David Peterson was hired to create a more-fully developed Dothraki grammar and vocabulary. (Peterson 89)

Although there are many other commercially created art-langs [6], Klingon and Dothraki are probably the most widely known. Both are used both used as aids to verisimilitude and viewer immersion, and both have active communities of fans who interact with their creators. In these respects they are highly successful as artistic languages. But Klingon and Dothraki began as sub-creative afterthoughts, added on as narrative garnish for the benefit of an audience which had come increasingly to expect invented languages as a necessary piece of world-building. They are “perfectly contrived atmospheric devices,” but they do not have the deep relationship with their worlds which Tolkien’s languages have by nature of being coeval with his mythology.

Not everyone need take Tolkien’s approach; not everyone will be capable of doing so. It requires a great investment of time to organically interweave complex stories and languages,  and perhaps such an approach is not well-suited to the deadlines of blockbuster movies and hit HBO series. But its merits are evident in the rich linguistic landscape of Middle-earth, where mind, the tongue, and the tale are coeval.

5. The Speech of the Stars

 As I set out to write this essay, I spent the three months working on developing an invented language, “Treian,” to accompany a set of myths I was working on for an interconnected mythology of my own. This mythology already has several other invented languages, however I had never attempted the creation of a historical grammar for one of the languages beyond outline. This I now attempted to create, with the major sound shifts corresponding with major crisis in the mythology.

For example, the collapse of the ablauting vowel series “a e o” into a single vowel “a” accompanied the “fall” of certain stars of the Western sky (sentient and ensoulled beings in this universe) as a mixed reward and punishment for their standing aloof from a cosmic rebellion (paralleling one of the medieval theories about the origin of the Elves—that they were angels who tried to remain neutral during Lucifer’s rebellion). Also accompanying this fall were a number of consonantal changes, generally representing the simplification of aspirated and non-aspirated consonants into either non-aspirated consonants or parallel fricatives. An additional set of rules acted on the liquid semi-vowels, changing r > u and l > [r u] under certain conditions. Thus:

Proto-Treian *ohur > Treian ahur “ice”
PT. *emh > Tr. amh “water”
PT. *phehel > Tr. fāl “to shine”
PT. *pheheln > Tr. fāla “bright
PT. *kʰohanh > Tr. kānh “to dig, to delve”
PT. *kʰerl > Tr. kaur “country, land”

This project led to the composition of a somewhat lengthy historical grammar (now well over 20 typed pages) and a vocabulary of about 250 words derived from a smaller list of proto roots, to say nothing of about 60 typed pages of the associated myths.

Although this project has become far too involved to summarize in an essay of this length, I have come to have an understanding of just how much effort and patience is required for Tolkienian language invention. I have also found it to be an immensely satisfying experience, one which I will continue beyond this class. It has been eminently worthwhile for its own sake, and does not need the promise of publication or the eagerness of fans to bring joy to a patient and willing sub-creator. This aspect of joy is, I think, a key element which must be experienced to be known, but which cannot be overlooked if we are to properly understand Tolkien’s language invention.

[1] “As one suggestion, I might fling out the view that for perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant…because the making of language and mythology are related functions (coeval and congenital, not related as disease to health, or as by-product to main manufacture)…” (MC 210-211)

[2] For the purposes of this essay, “Eldarin” is used to refer to whole family of Tolkien’s Elvish languages at their various stages of conception.

[3] But note that Tolkien did not necessarily consider time itself to be sufficient reason for Elvish language change. In the early 1950’s, Tolkien dealt with this question at length in The Dangweth Pengoloð. See The Peoples of Middle Earth 397.

[4] King Thingol of Doriath bans the use of the tongue of the Noldor (Quenya) among his subjects in Beleriand after he learns of the death of his kin in the Kinslaying of Alqualonde. “And it came to pass even as Thingol had spoken; for the Sindar heard his word, and thereafter throughout Beleriand they refused the tongue of the Noldor, and shunned those that spoke it aloud; but the Exiles took the Sindarin tongue in all their daily uses, and the High Speech of the West was spoken only by the lords of the Noldor among themselves. Yet that speech lived ever as a language of lore, wherever any of that people dwelt.” (TS 129)

[5] “The Shibboleth of Feanor” is a fascinating example of Tolkien’s powers of retcon. To address an apparent inconsistency in sound changes, he makes it part of the political strife within the Noldor caused by the polarizing personality of Feanor before the Noldor went into exile. See The Peoples of Middle Earth 331.  

[6] Peterson’s “High Valyrian” (also created for Game of Thrones) and “Irathient” (created for the SyFy show Defiance) to name just two.

Currently reading: The Stripping of the Altars
Current audio book: The Return of the King
Currently translating: The Dream of the Rood

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