A+ A A-
CERC is an entirely reader-supported web site and non-profit charity. If you’ve appreciated
CERC and found it useful, please help us with a donation. Go here to donate.

The Language of Beauty - part 4: Words and Things


The relation between words and things is for Tolkien the opposite of what we think.

aatolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien

Because his language is not merely a device for communicating thoughts and feelings, or for eliciting them, the words aren't labels for concepts. Rather, it's in the words that the things live and move and have their being. And in the words they come to us.

Heidegger defines language as "the house of being". I think Tolkien would like that. I don't claim to know what Heidegger means most of the time, but I think this is a pretty clear sentence from his Introduction to Metaphysics.

Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language, in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things. [1]

If I come to you only in my body, then what you do to my body you do to me. As Christ says, "What you do to my little ones (who are my body) you do to me."

Apply that to the relation between words and things. If words are the house of things, then what you do to words, you do to things – which is why propaganda is so powerful. Remember, in 1984 the most powerful weapon of the totalitarian state is the new dictionary, a revised language. If you don't have a word anymore, like liberty, you don't have the concept. A concept is like a person. If you're homeless and you don't have a house to live in, you're not going to live very long; you're going to die. So if you don't have a word, the concept is going to die pretty soon. And once the concept dies, the reality dies. So the attack on metaphysical reality comes through the attack on language.

Confucius, the most successful reformer in the entire history of the world, who transformed the world's largest nation from a period of chaos, a period of warring states, to a twenty-one hundred year long history of basic unity and peace and stability, had something like six hundred principles of reform. Someone once asked him, if you could do only one, what one would you do? He would say the reformation of language the restoration of proper words.

The word poetry means "making", literally – poiesis. Poetry is fundamental speech. Prose is less fundamental speech. Prose is fallen poetry; poetry is not decorated prose. The original language, for Heidegger and for Lewis in The Magician's Nephew, was music. Now music usually has words, so words are in the music. But those words are words for music. Take them out of the music and they're still poetry, but make them fall one step further and they're prose. Make them fall one step further and they're mathematics, which is the only univocal, unambiguous language in the world. The most ambiguous language in the world is music. And therefore it's the richest. How will the tower of Babel be undone; how will we understand each other in heaven? Will we all speak English, or Dutch? No, we'll all speak music.

Just as words can create, for Tolkien, they can also uncreate. In the Silmarillion he says, "Melkor is no longer counted among the Valar, and his name is not spoken upon the earth." You know, Voldemort in Harry Potter is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Tolkien writes, "Last of all is set the name of Melkor, He Who Rises in Might; but that name he has forfeited. And the Noldor, who among the elves suffered most from his malice will not utter it." [2]

You remember Gandalf will not utter the words on the ring in the language of Mordor in the Shire. He will not read those words. Only in the council of Elrond in Rivendell. And even in that safe and holy place, the words summon something of the presence of hell:

"Ash nazg, durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul."

The change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears.

"Never before has any voice dared to utter words of that tongue in Imladris, Gandalf the Grey," said Elrond, as the shadow passed and the company breathed once more. [3]

Now, if you utter those words in English, they still have a little of their power, but not that much: "One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them; One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them, in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie." That's threatening, but not as threatening as "Ash nazg, durbatulûk".

Thus the power of words is based on the fact that real things are found in words. Words aren't things among other things, things with one additional feature, the ability to point to other things. No, words are the encompassing frame or house of the whole world of things. Things constitute a world only by the creative word of the author, whether it's a fictional world, or whether it's the real world. God speaks, and only then does the world come into being. Tolkien speaks, and only then does Middle-Earth come into being. Corollary: since the things are encompassed by the words, our wonder at the things is encompassed by our wonder at the words. And if we have no linguistic wonder, we will have no ontological wonder.

I hope you have either read or seen that numinous play Equus. There's an electrifying scene where a boy who has invented a religion of horse-worship, since there is nothing in his modern world to worship anymore, invokes the many names of his horse-god. It's deliberately shocking, but it's at the same time electrifying. When you read the Bible, what's the dullest part? The genealogies, right? For ancient readers, those are the most wonderful parts. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is still widely believed that when the name of a saint is pronounced, the saint becomes really present. And the icons of any saint in the church make that saint really present somehow. Presence is not a single thing; it's a range of things.

Or remember that scene in (I think it's still the most successful series in television history) Roots remember the scene near the end where the black family, finally freed and finally entering their promised land, solemnize this event by reciting their Genesis account, the words that have been faithfully preserved, word for word, repeated orally for generations: "One day Kunta Kinte went out to fell a tree and make a drum." Then follows all the list of ancestral names. That's the most memorable scene in the whole series. Or the scene in Hemingway's – is it For Whom the Bell Tolls, or is it A Farewell to Arms? where the protagonist, who is totally disillusioned with war and human folly, says, "All words have become meaningless except the proper names of the dead." He's in a cemetery and he reads gravestones. Those are the only meaningful words well, they're at least the most meaningful words.


  1. Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961), p. 11.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 31.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 267.

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.




Peter Kreeft. "Language of Beauty – part 4: Words and Things" transcribed from a talk 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

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  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, Prayer for Beginnersand 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
back to top