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Glory and Splendor - part 3: The Beauty of Language

  • PETER KREEFT

Well, we've been talking about beauty. Let's talk more about the beauty of language, and thus talk a little more about language.

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J.R.R. Tolkien

The goal of the philosopher is logos. Logos, like its Chinese counterpart tao, is an incomparably profound and multivalent word which has many meanings, essentially three. First, the ultimate nature of things, the one source of all essential reality and intelligibility. Second, human intelligence, wisdom, understanding, truth, as the knowledge of that essential reality. Thirdly, right language, right communication or speech or word or argument, that is, the expression of that knowledge.

Philosophy studies all three meanings of logos, the first of which is metaphysics, the second is epistemology, and the third is philosophy of language. There was an ancient skeptic, Gorgios the Sophist, who said, "There is no being. If there were being, it would not be knowable, and if it were knowable, it would not be communicable." One way to summarize those three statements is in the same word: there is no logos. If there were logos it would not be logos, and if it were logos, it would not be communicated as logos. There is no essential form. If there were, it could not be known. If it could be known, it could not be put into language. That's total scepticism. We have now entered the third age of philosophy, because this is the scepticism which we find in deconstructionism.

Metaphysical skepticism is just nominalism: there are no universals, no Platonic forms. That's what killed ancient medieval philosophy. Epistemological scepticism is a kind of nominalism that denies universal concepts, or knowledge of universal truths. That's what you find in David Hume. But linguistic skepticism denies even the intentionality or meaning or significance or pointing power of words. My favorite slogan for deconstructionism is in a poem by Archibald MacLeish, called "Ars Poetica". He says,

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit;

A poem should not mean,
But be. [1]

Fruit is an object. The word 'fruit' means fruit. But fruit is simply fruit. Now he's saying words should be like that fruit. They dont mean anything; they're just things to manipulate.

That's why the deconstructionist has an obsession with power. Mao Tse Tung was a deconstructionist. One of his famous sayings: "We will conquer the world because you fools think that words are labels that are properly or improperly pasted onto things. We know that words are little dynamite sticks in people's minds, and we hold the fuse." That's the most complete form of scepticism.


Now, Tolkien helps us to reverse that, not by philosophical argument, but by showing, as appositely as possible, a philosophy of language. First of all, it's by seeing that words are loveable, words are beautiful. This makes sense for a Christian, for whom the most beautiful thing human eyes have ever seen is called the Word of God. Tolkien loved words, especially proper names. Proper names name persons, which alone are made in God's image. One of the great philosophers of our time, John Paul II, said, "Man is the only thing God created for its own sake." It's a person, it's His image. Proper names are the linguistic expression of that.

Words were important to Tolkien not just instrumentally, but metaphysically; not just through their power on human reading and thought and life, but also through their source and basis and foundations.

Tolkien loved proper names so much that he gave all of his favorite things many names, not just one. He loved to linger long over the art of naming. For instance, in the Silmarillion:

Taniquetil the elves name that holy mountain, and Oiolossë Ever-Lasting Whiteness, and Elerrína Crowned with Stars, and many names beside. But the Sindar spoke of it in their later tongue as Amon Uilos.

and when speaking of the two trees:

Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelótë, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Malinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside. [2]

Why more names than one? T. S. Eliot knew; in his sage advice at the beginning of his book Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, he says,

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn't just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I'm mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

If even a cat, how much more a mountain?

Words were important to Tolkien not just instrumentally, but metaphysically; not just through their power on human reading and thought and life, but also through their source and basis and foundations. We did not invent language; we inherited it. In the beginning was the Word. A word was the origin of the world! Christ in Genesis. Genesis 1, verse 3: "and God said." That's Christ. First there was saying "light", and there was light.

And a word was the origin of Tolkien's first published work, The Hobbit, and thus its sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Here's Tolkien's account of that event:

All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for; [3]

One thing leads to another. Thank that dull student who wrote a dull examination paper for the greatest book of the twentieth century.

Earlier, Tolkien's whole mythology of The Silmarillion and its offspring of The Lord of the Rings began with words. Tolkien first invented the elvish language, then he needed a race to speak it, the elves, and then they needed a history, and then a world. Well, it was language that came first. He says about the Ents in one of his letters, "The Ents seem to have been a success . As usually with me they grew rather out of their name, than the other way about." [4] Everything grows out of its name.

Because of this implicitly divine source of language, it has power and intoxication. Tolkien found languages literally intoxicating, not to his body like alcohol, but to his spirit. He writes in Letter 163, "Most important perhaps after Gothic was my discovery in Exeter College library, when I was supposed to be reading for Honour Mods, of a Finnish grammar. It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It totally intoxicated me." [5] Now, can you imagine yourself in a library, picking up a volume of Finnish grammar, an alien language in which you know no word at all, and being more intoxicated than you would by wine? No? Then you can't write The Lord of the Rings. That's why you can't write The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien also writes, "It was just as the 1914 war burst on me that I made the discovery that legends depend on the language to which they belong, and that a living language also depends on the legends that it conveys by tradition. For instance, the Greek mythology depends far more on the marvellous aesthetic of its language and so of its nomenclature of persons and places and less on its content than we realize." [6] Which is why translation is impossible.

God certainly in His providence raised up not only the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, as part of the providence for the incarnation, but also the Greek language. No language in the history of the world is a more fitting conduit for divine revelation. Well, modern readers not only don't understand that; they dislike it. They dislike the plethora of names in The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion. One reviewer complained, "The Silmarillion sounds like a Swedish railway conductor with a head cold announcing railway stations." I would call that a fascinating aural experience, intoxicating like wine. In fact, I was once not in Sweden but in Norway, and there was a railway conductor with a funny voice, and he was announcing stations, and it was like singing.

Tolkien's love of every word gives his language a character that most modern language doesn't have.

Tolkien's love of every word gives his language a character that most modern language doesn't have. One expression of that is his penchant for capital letters. The fashion now is to de-capitalize whatever you can. And de-capitalizing is like decapitating. But Tolkien's words are heavy and vertical. They're a bit like Hebrew. Max Picard says, in The World of Silence,

The architecture of the [Hebrew] language is vertical. Each word sinks down vertically, column-wise, into the sentence. In language today we have lost the static quality of the ancient tongues. The sentence has become dynamic; every word in every sentence speeds on quickly to the next each word comes more from the preceding word than from the silence and moves on more to the next word in front of it than to the silence.

A quiver full of steel arrows, a firmly secured anchor rope, a brazen trumpet splitting the air with its few piercing tones: that is the Hebrew languageIt can say little, but what it says is like the beating of hammers on an anvil. [7]

That makes you want to learn Hebrew, doesn't it?

Well, The Silmarillion is like Hebrew. Of course, there's a lot of influence of the Hebrew language, as well as Finnish and Icelandic and some Celtic languages, but in The Silmarillion especially, every word seems like a thunderbolt from heaven, a miracle. That's why he has so many capital letters. That's also why there are so many nouns, both common nouns and proper nouns. That's the Anglo-Saxon style. The words are large like buildings, heavy and slow like glaciers. The sense of height and weight of words suggests a sense of ontological height and weight, a kind of supernaturalism. The reader is lifted out of himself into what Lewis would describe in Surprised by Joy as immense arctic skies [8], into the realm of splendid, remote, terrible, voluptuous, or celebrated things. [9] And he describes the Fisher King, Ransom, in That Hideous Strength this way: "Great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth." [10] Tolkien too.

Endnotes:

  1. Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica", in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 28, no. 3 (June 1926), pp. 126-127.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (London: HarperCollins, 1977), pp. 37-38.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter 163, to W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955.
  4. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 157, to Katherine Farrer, 27 November 1954.
  5. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 163.
  6. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 180, to Mr. Thompson, 14 January 1956.
  7. Max Picard, The World of Silence (Chicago: Regnery, 1952), pp. 44-45.
  8. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 17.
  9. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 41.
  10. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 228.

Read part 1 of this talk here.
Read part 2 of this talk here.
Read part 3 of this talk here.
Read part 4 of this talk here.
Read part 5 of this talk here.

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Acknowledgement

Peter Kreeft. "Language of Beauty – part 3: The Beauty of Language." from the talk "Glory and Splendor" given at Trinity Forum Academy (June 6, 2005).

This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book The Philosophy of Tolkien.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

The Author

Kreeft15Kreeft11Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft
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