The Key to Enchantment | Daily News

The Key to Enchantment

Orlando Bloom as Legolas
Orlando Bloom as Legolas

In the common room of the Prancing Pony in Bree, sits a strange looking weather-beaten man, his legs stretched out before him, a travel-stained cloak of heavy dark green cloth drawn close about him. His face is in shadow but there is a bright gleam in his eyes.

“He is known around here as Strider,” says the landlord.

Out of doors, elsewhere, “there wound lazily a dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the willow-boughs were creaking.”

And, sometime later, at the Mines of Moria, Gandalf, the silver haired, silver bearded “Odinic wanderer” is speaking to Strider now known as Aragorn, son of Arathorn and a Sindarin Elf called Legolas.

“Annon Edhellen edro hi ammen. Fennas nogothrim lasto beth lammen,” says Gandalf.

Welcome to the world of enchantment, a world familiar to all J.R.R Tolkien readers. They would know Breeland is a region of Eriador located between the Midgewater marshes and the Barrowdowns, East of the Shire, in Middle -earth and the strange language spoken by Gandalf is none-other than Sindarin. For, every single Tolkien reader would have walked or ridden every inch of Middle-earth in all its weathers, talked and laughed and fought beside the hobbits, elves, men and drawfes who live on the pages of the ‘One Book’ - “Lord of the Rings.”

To Tolkien this was a Secondary World created out of great labour and thought. One that demanded ‘a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” According to Tolkien scholar, Dwayne Thorpe, Tolkien’s craft is to make the reader “experience events.” His sentences are normally short or mid-length, “in that loose order which makes comprehension effortless for the modern reader: subject, followed by predicate, followed by objects and modifiers. The main principles of organization are time and space...An almost exclusive focus on actions and the senses promotes the illusion of sensory experience rather than a tale told.”

The tale told, however, has a variety of languages other than English, because in Middle-earth, at least, every language is elvish. “Elves made all the old words: they began it,” says Treebeard. One is Sindarin, the common language spoken by elves as well as Gandalf in the above conversation with Aragorn and Legolas who both speak Sindarin as well as English. In addition to Sindarin, Tolkien also invented Quenya, often seen as the Latin version of elvish. Thus within the pages of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a reader will find about 2000 Quenya words and 1200 Sindarin words. Tolkien developed these languages so well, with enough words and grammar, if we so wanted, we can even translate poetry or prose texts with them. No doubt his own knowledge of 35 different tongues, both ancient and modern, ranging from Old Norse to Lithuanian to Finnish helped him in creating the 15 different Elvish dialects, as well as the languages for the Ents, the Orcs, the Dwarves, the men and the Hobbits and more. Besides, he was a genius who thought of everything: so the Dwarves even have a separate sign language, because the forges they worked were too loud.

But he did not stop at inventing Quenya, Sindarin, Telerin and other Elvish, Dwarvish and Mannish languages, he also went on to invent a whole history to explain how all these languages arose from common roots, changed over time according to different rules giving the languages their individual flavours and later acquired loan-words.

According to Fred Hoyt, a linguistics researcher at the University of Texas in Austin who also teaches a course on Elvish, “They are invented languages but they are completely logical and they’re linguistically sound.”

“Quenya is the Elvish Latin - a literary language not used as a spoken vernacular; it was reserved for poetry, for song, for lament, for magic,” says Hoyt. “Whereas Sindarin, at least among the elves in Tolkien’s book, was a spoken language.”

The one ring

Living outside of Middle Earth however, we would find it difficult to have a casual conversation in Quenya or Sindarin. “Look at it this way,” says Hoyt, “it would be easier to compose an elegant elegy for the dead than it would be to order a sandwich.”

But the chances are, no one who is enchanted by the fusion of fantasy and realism in Tolkien’s Middle-earth would ever dream of using such an enchanting language to order sandwiches. As Thrope observes, in his stories Tolkien “produces many kinds of mixtures, using many kinds of materials. But all bear the same mark: qualities removed from their normal contexts and blended artfully to make a new thing.”

What is important is that he does not let Middle-earth depend on magic, because Tolkien disliked magic. When asked if the cloaks the elves wear are magic, an elf responds, “I do not know what you mean by that . . . They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”

Instead of believing in magic, Tolkien believed, “the human mind has an innate ability to split ‘wholes’ and abstract parts. The adjective, that common, un-regarded aspect of language, is the key to the power of fantasy, which combines imagination (simple image-making) with art to achieve “the inner consistency of reality.”

Anduril the sword with Elvish on it

“He exchanges and fuses the human, the natural, and the fantastic till they are inseparable. Says Thrope, “Elves and Dwarves are drawn partly from tradition, of course. But Tolkien uses the same process to make his own inventions: ents who are as ancient as their immemorial forest, and who boom and mutter about history and tales and the growth of words like a certain prominent philologist; the regal, civilized men of Gondor with their complex system of law, seven-volumed history, and seven-tiered city; the horse riders of Rohan, their humanized horses, and the rolling horse-meadows which create both; and Hobbits, their furry toes, inns, six meals a day, and absorption in family trees drawn from the comfortable associations of rural Oxfordshire and the habits of Inklings. He was ingenious at abstracting qualities from their normal locations and fusing them with his own inventions to produce cultures, geography, languages, creatures.”

Moreover, unlike for most writers whose first gusts of inspiration arrive in the form of a character, a setting or a concept, for Tolkien, it was the languages that came first. Middle-earth and the “Lord of the Rings” epics were created around his constructed languages. Here’s how he explains it: “The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.”

Being a historical linguist it is amazing to note how little Tolkien seems to believe in the relationship language has with society and culture. Turning his back on linguistic theories and culture, Tolkien invents words that have the capacity to articulate the nameless. We may not know this language, but we will understand it. Like how the hobbits, hearing an elvish song, “partly understood” it, without knowing the meaning behind the words. “The sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words.”

This is the most precious legacy Tolkien bestows on the readers of the ‘Lord of the Rings’. He gives us a new language to escape from our everyday lives, he leads us to Middle-earth with its new words and simple sounds – simple sounds that have the power to make us a part of the elves, hobbits and their world, because the realm of Faerie, Tolkien said, includes “ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”

Thus we will “partly understand” and be enchanted hearing Galadriel singing to the hobbits as they glide away on the river of time.

“Namarie! Nai hiruvalye Valimar.

Nai elye hiruva.


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 Viggo Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn