Tolkien, Chesterton, and Girard on the same page about language

These are three things I’ve come across in just the past month.

What do these folks have in common?

Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Muller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories: Origins

Mythology first, then language to describe it.

They [evolutionary anthropologists] are obsessed by their evolutionary monomania that every great thing grows from a seed, or something smaller than itself. They seem to forget that every seed comes from a tree, or something larger than itself. Now there is very good ground for guessing that religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten, because it was too small to be traced. Much more probably it was an idea that was abandoned because it was too large to be managed.

-G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Part IV: The Antiquity of Civilization

What was so big that it couldn’t be managed? Chesterton looks up and suggests monotheism. Girard looks down and suggests the centerpiece of civilization: expelling the surrogate victim:

If mimetic disruption comes back, our instinct will tell us to do again what the sacred has done to save us, which is to kill the scapegoat. Therefore it would be the force of substitution of immolating another victim instead of the first. But the relationship of this process with representation is not one that can be defined in a clear-cut way. This process would be one that moves towards representation of the sacred, towards definition of the ritual as ritual and prohibition as prohibition. But this process would already begin prior the representation, you see, because it is directly produced by the experience of the misunderstood scapegoat.

-Rene Girard, Interview with Markus Müller, Anthropoetics II, No. 1 (June 1996)

Sorry about that last quote. Once again. If you haven’t read Girard’s theory, his quotes lead to a lot of head scratching.

When I read not long ago that Girard had tried to use his theory to explain the origin of language, I thought, “Geeesh. Talk about ‘when you have a hammer, everything is a nail'”. Leithart has also complained that Girard tries to explain EVERYTHING with his theory. I thought this was clearly another case of that.

After reading Tolkien and Chesterton though, I’m not so sure. They all see the desire to describe mythology and the sacred as the origin of human language. That’s a big claim

This is an important distinction though. The evolutionary biologist or atheist asserts that language evolved out of a need to survive. Early cave men developed hand-signs so they could tell other cave men where they mammoths were – sort of how bees dance to tell each other where the good flowers are. The first spoken word was probably some form of “food” (or “sex” depending on who you talk to).

See how that makes us just like slightly more advanced animals? How is man in the image of God? What makes him truly different? It is the desire to reach back out to the creator. That is how our language came to be light-years beyond that of any clever dog or ape. Our words are motivated by something deeper.

That is to say, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Girard, while all coming from completely different angles, affirm that the root purpose of language is to talk to God, or at the very least to talk about him. Nothing else.