J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sacramental World, Part Three: Language

Aug 30th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

This is the third in a three part series. Part One may be read here. [1] In this post, I want to make a few remarks about how language, particularly in its stylistic or aesthetic aspect, relates to reality. I will do this by way of briefly indicating how Middle Earth is rooted in language and how language functions in that world. This bit will be extremely rudimentary relative to the depth and complexity of the subject, but should at least illustrate the point I hope to make; namely, that translations of biblical and liturgical texts should be beautiful and traditional, even if this is accompanied (or constituted) by a degree of unfamiliarity as compared to more common and contemporary forms of speech.


With the advent of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), followed by the Douay-Rheims (1582) and the Authorized or “King James” (1611) versions of the Bible, and, much more recently, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, the religious sensibilities and sense of innumerable Christians have been greatly informed, for better or worse, by the English language in one or more of its many permutations. [2]

When speaking of Sacred Scripture and liturgy “in the vernacular,” it is important to remember that not all forms of a language are created equal. Translations into the vernacular should reflect the fact, apprehended by faith, that in the Divine Liturgy the Church on earth participates in the life of worship in heaven, as described in Revelation 4–5 and Hebrews 12:18-29. When liturgical form is starkly incongruous with the heavenly reality, the result is distortion of devotional sensibility and a loss of doctrinal sense. In the case of liturgical language, the operative principle is this: How we speak of something inevitably informs what we believe about it.

The idea that reality is informed by language is bound to resonate with students of Sacred Scripture, Catholics, and admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Bible tells us that the world was formed by the Word of God. The Church tells us that certain words constitute the “form” of the sacraments. Tolkien, operating on yet another plane of reality, shows us how words can give rise to worlds, how language leads to knowledge of the past, and, for one so bold as to invent a language, to the “discovery” of something more than the past.

Telling the Truth in Middle Earth

In a comment box on another website, someone wrote the following:

You know what I love about Tolkien? That he didn’t seek to be a Hemingway or Joyce by creating a ‘new’ language and divorcing style and substance. He used English in all its plainness, yet it became something immortal and, yes, new.

This goes to show that it is possible to disagree with the literal meaning of someone’s words and yet be one with the spirit in which they were written. Tolkien certainly did create a new language. He created several. And he often used the English language in something other than its plainness. Furthermore, it seems pretty plain to me that Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce both sought to wed style and substance, though in almost opposite ways. As for Joyce, the substance of what he wanted to say sort of demanded its own “language,” or experimental arrangement and presentation of certain aspects of language, which he aptly supplied. Both the quasi-language of Finnegans Wake and the sparse sentences of Hemingway conveyed something in or about the world, or least a certain conception of the world, that each author wanted to express. For me, one of the most endearing and (upon reflection) impressive aspects of The Lord of the Rings is the wedding of style and substance in the languages and dialects of Middle Earth.

Tolkien was very much alive to the shapes, sounds and syntax of language. He loved words, as befits a professional philologist. His self-described “secret vice” was the invention of new languages. In the course of his linguistic inventing, Tolkien discovered that the choices that he was making implied a story; namely, the story of those peoples whose languages he was creating.  To take the primary examples: Tolkien intended Quenya and Sindarin to be beautiful languages. When he worked back to the peoples who spoke these languages, he very naturally discovered the Elves.

Of course, Tolkien used the English language to tell the stories which went along with his invented languages. I suppose that he wanted other people to read them. Thank goodness. Notice, however, the  great diversity in Tolkien’s English style, which is adapted according to scene and society, ranging from the earthy speech of Hobbition to the courtly language of Gondor. The Common Speech used around Farmer Maggot’s table or in the Bathing Song at Crickhollow differs markedly from that same language used in Aragorn’s rendition of the story of Beren and Luthien, or the Eagle’s proclamation of the downfall of the Lord of the Rings. As noted by Tom Shippey, the latter calls to mind the Authorized Version of the Bible. [3]

The reason why we receive this linguistic pluriformity in the story as good and natural, which is what the person cited earlier might have been getting at by “plainness,” is that the language used in The Lord of the Rings is informed both by the speaker and (in all but bad cases) by the reality to which the speaker refers. The peoples of Middle Earth, with their respective stories and cultures and concerns, are embodied in the various languages and different dialects that they use. However, these people, most notably the four main Hobbit characters, are not locked into themselves so to preclude the expression or enjoyment of anything higher or lower than their own native culture, social climate, or everyday experiences. Part of the point of the adventure is to “expand the horizons” of both the adventurers and those who will eventually listen to their narratives. In this sense, the Quest is deeply humane. Tolkien’s most admirable characters can, in most cases without affectation, and often with genuine enjoyment, accommodate  themselves to a wide variety of social situations. Gandalf and Aragorn are perhaps the preeminent examples of this virtuous social dexterity, but the Hobbits can also rise, or fall, to the occasion. The only people who speak and act the same way all the time are either snobs (Denethor) or scum (the Orcs).

It would be unnatural, in fact ridiculous, if the Eagle had proclaimed the news of the downfall of Sauron using the rustic dialect of, say, the Gaffer Gamgee. In fact, if  the plain and honest Gaffer were ever privy to such an absurd display, he might  strongly suspect that some sort of snobbish insult was intended. The goodness of the best of the “ordinary” characters, Sam being the greatest of these, is revealed (in part) by the fact that they are, without pretentiousness, able to admire and enjoy that which is above them. Conversely, the goodness of the extra-ordinary characters, such as Gandalf, Aragorn, and Faramir, is revealed (in part) by their ability to enjoy and respect that which is below them. Such goodness would be destroyed if everyone insisted upon everyone else being, and speaking, just like oneself.

The varieties of story and history are invariably related to variations of and within language–and vice versa. Indifferent, egalitarian use of language both reflects and leads to an indifferent, flat experience of reality. Reality exhibits pluriformity, including hierarchy. Linguistic monotony is not only boring, it is a lie. No one knew this better than Tolkien. The linguistic diversity of Middle Earth is a way of telling the truth about the world.

Eagles, Angels, and Anglicans: Liturgical Language in the (erstwhile) British Empire

Scripture and Liturgy, or better, Scripture in Liturgy, since the latter is the natural home of the word of God, mediate, for us, realities that are infinitely joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous. Liturgy was not designed simply to convey information, nor to gather a community merely under the auspices of some contingent social and cultural identity.  The church building is not a classroom, nor is it all a Nave. The sense of the Sanctuary is to render the place a temple, and the point of the people assembling is to adore Someone else, our King and our God, who through death has destroyed the power of the Enemy. In such a place, for such a purpose, what is said, in whatever language, should sound like the song of the Eagle. I am not referring specifically to the older style of pronouns and verbs of being (“ye,” “hath,” “shall”), though I do think that they have their place, when well placed. Rather, I mean to say that liturgical language should be distinctive, an adornment upon everyday speech and in keeping with tradition. For English-speaking Catholics, observation of this last point might involve swallowing some pride, since it was the Anglicans who in this regard led the way and set the standard.

At this point, you might be thinking: This guy just likes the literary styling of the Elizabethans and is trying to foist his taste off on the rest of us as though it were some sort of principle. Well, as far as that goes, I do like that classical cut of English, including the work of Cranmer and the translators of the Authorized Version. To get even further down to specifics, I think that The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, With the Apocrypha, King James Version, edited by David Norton, is the best English Bible in the world. [4]

But my point is not merely subjective, nor even only aesthetic. English biblical and liturgical language has a common root and history that, to some degree, transcends schism. This common tradition must somehow be taken into account in all English translations that are not content to come across as artificial and amnesiac. Once upon a time, it was possible to invent biblical and liturgical English. That time has passed. What I mean is that, for liturgy in English, including Sacred Scripture, there exists a literary tradition. And, as it so happens, this tradition is beautiful. It can certainly be pruned, updated, developed. But for all of the reasons given above, I think that this sort of activity should be (here I must be brief and allusive) more RSV than NAB. The kind of thing I have in mind, which is something not merely in my own mind, since the Church has issued directives on this matter, is nicely illustrated by the title page of the Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition:

The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version / Second Catholic Edition. Translated from the Original Tongues Being the Version Set Forth A.D. 1611…. Compared with the Most Ancient Authorities and Revised A.D. 1952…. This Edition was Revised According to Liturgiam Authenticam, 2002.

Over time, and in a community of persons who believe that the entire Bible is the word of God, even the most severely prosaic portions of Sacred Scripture come to manifest a certain radiance, a splendor of divine glory. Our translations should reflect this. Given the divine ingredient (inspiration), we must conclude that every last jot and tittle of God’s written word is worthy to be rendered by exalted language (suitable to the genre) and sung by choirs of holy angels. From experience, I can tell you that the singing is fitting, even when the cantor is more mundane.


[1] The first part deals with Memory. Part Two, which considers Matter, is still in the works.  I am sticking to the order of conception, not the order of posting, in numbering this series.

[2] Of course, I am far from denying the existence of pre-Reformation religious literature composed in, or translated into, English. See, for example, Ashley Trice, “Capturing Christ: Representations of the God-Man in Middle English Religious Lyrics” (Dissertation, Vanderbilt U., 2002). One may also note the several extant Christian poems composed in Old (Anglo-Saxon) English, as well as the devotional literature, including vernacular prayer books, popular in late Medieval and pre-Reformation England; cf. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580 (New Haven: Yale, 2005) and The Voices of Morebath: Reformation & Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven: Yale, 2001).

[3] Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 209.

[4] This remarkable work is available in various forms, from leather-bound, to hardcover, to the very economical Penguin Classics edition. The “King James Version” that most of us know is the standard revision of 1769. Norton bypasses this edition, and goes straight to the source, updating spelling and smoothing out style, while maintaining the classical beauty of the 1611 Authorized Version. As for specifically Catholic translations, the Douay-Rheims that most of us know is not an original work, either. What we have today is the Challoner revision of 1750, which is also partly based upon the 1611 Authorized Version. Interestingly enough, the original Douay-Rheims predates the original Authorized Version by about 30 years.

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  1. What an awesome article. The link you make between the high and the low coming together and appreciating one another to the concept of hierarchy is absolutely critical, and is the antidote to the modern dogmatic rejection of hierarchy in all forms. If only we moderns were to see the relationships in the Church as being like that of Gandalf, Elrond, Aragorn, Legolas, Samwise, Merry and others (and even Tom Bombadil!), how rich we would all be! Rich in what matters: joy.

    The extension of this reality into language, specifically that of liturgy, is, I think, one of the most critical issues of our day. Lex orandi, Lex credendi.

  2. Hey Philip,

    Thanks. You are absolutely right about what modern folk can learn from the Fellowship of the Ring. I am not sure how often it is appreciated, but it seems to me that the relationship between Strider (Aragorn) and Samwise, to whom, more than all other characters, fell the task of administering the worlds re-birthed (i.e., Gondor/Arnor and the Shire) by the overthrow of the Enemy (Sauron and his lacky Saruman), is supremely important, along this line. Sorry about the run on sentence; don’t feel like changing it now. Anyway, pip pip, long live Tom Bombadil! Master of wood, water, forest and fen!


  3. Excellent article! Peter Kreeft shares many of your thoughts, and has time and again championed the melodic King James Bible not for its thorough accuracy but for its beauty.

    He also gave a great talk that centers around Tolkien, the Lord of the Rings, and the language used in both:

    The Language of Beauty (http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/31_lotr_language-beauty.htm)

  4. Brandon, thanks for the link. Peter Kreeft once presented a paper on Tolkien at a conference sponsored by the seminary I attended. The paper was astoundingly good. The seminary was Protestant, Kreeft spoke lovingly of the Eucharist, many (though not all) shook their heads with disapproval. Bold, bold and winsome, the way only a gentleman can be. Beautiful paper. I did not know that he is a fellow admirer of the KJB, not surprising though, that such a man would love language. Peace.

  5. This post raises interesting points. When Tolkien himself wrote the preface for the revised Clark Hall translation of Beowulf, is contained a mini-essay on language and its use:

    “We are being at once wisely aware of our own frivolity,” he wrote, not if we avoid a high style but rather if we “avoid ‘hitting’ and ‘whacking’ and prefer ‘striking’ and ‘smiting’; ‘talk’ and ‘chat’ and prefer ‘speech’ and ‘discourse’; ‘well-bred,’ ‘brilliant,’ or ‘polite noblemen’ (visions of snobbery columns in the Press, and fat men on the Riviera) and prefer ‘worthy, brave, and courteous men’ of long ago.'”

    In his view, if we avoid words that are markedly “of their time,” we also avoid importing all of the frivolities and failings of a particular time. Instead, he believes that the words ought to elevate our sensibilities by calling to mind the nobilities that–while they may not have characterized the essence of the time which those words recall–are nonetheless what is remembered of that time, or what is told of it in such words.

  6. JJ, O Man! In two short paragraphs, you have powerfully made my point. Thank you!

    On a related note, Litguriam Authenticam recommends that translators consult the classics of the language, rather than academic manuals, for points of style.

  7. I recently came across the following talk by Peter Kreeft, entitled “[The] Lord of the Rings: Beauty and Language.” Enjoy.

    [Just noticed that this appears to be the same talk to which Brandon linked in comment #3, above. Oh well–enjoy it again or if you haven’t already!]

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