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.

Interrupting C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was a commanding intellectual presence. He was kind in his letters to fans and such, but apparently, if you met him in person and tried to engage him a deeper discussion, he would quickly drown you out with his own thoughts on the matter. There were few people that had the gall and intellectual prowess to interrupt him.

In a letter to his son, Tolkien recounts a hilarious meeting of the Inklings:

I reached the Mitre at 8 where I was joined by Charles Williams and the Red Admiral (Havard), resolved to take fuel on board before joining the well-oiled diners in Magdalen (C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield). Lewis was highly flown, but we were also in good fettle; while Barfield is the only man who can tackle Lewis making him define everything and interrupting his most dogmatic pronouncements with subtle distinguo’s. The result was a most amusing and highly contentious evening, on which (had an outsider eavesdropped) he would have through it a meeting of fell enemies hurling deadly insults before drawing their guns.

On one occasion when the audience had flatly refused tohear Jack discourse on and define ‘Chance’, Jack said: ‘Very well, some other time, but if you die tonight you’ll be cut off knowing a great deal less about Chance than you might have.’ Warnie: ‘That only illustrates what I’ve always said: every cloud has a silver lining.’

-J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to Christopher Tolkien on 11/24/1944

Tolkien the homeschooler

Concerning Tolkien’s early education:

Mabel soon began to educate her sons, and they could have had not better teacher.

His favourite lessons were those that concerned languages. Early in his Sarehole days his mother introduced him to the rudiments of Latin, and this delighted him. He was just as interested in the sounds and shapes of the words as in their meanings, and she began to realize tht he had a special aptitude for language.

She also tried to interest him in playing the piano, but without success. It seemed rather as if words took the place of music for him, and that he enjoyed listening to them, reading them, and reciting them, almost regardless of what they meant.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.30

I’m glad she didn’t make him play piano.

I’m also glad he wasn’t always stuck in school, where he would be required to spend several hours a week playing ball in gym class.

Nothing beats a taylored education that is aware of the child’s deeper interests, if it can be managed.

Wholly narrative conversation

[Tolkien] shared little of Edith’s delight in the type of person (as C.S. Lewis expressed it) ‘whose general conversation is almost wholly narrative’, and though he found an occasional articulate fellow male among the guests he was sometimes reduced to silent and impotent rage by the feeling of imprisonment.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.249

Ever felt this way? You want to talk about something deep or abstract and the only conversations going on concern was narrative: What I had for lunch, what my dog did yesterday, how we visited my brother-in-law last week, etc.

Look at your average Facebook or Twitter feed to find plenty of this.

And of course this is always a big part of our conversation. It’s who we are. But how much more satisfying to take a step back and look at some of the big picture items. Can I get a witness?

Of burned edges and invisible ink

I was delighted to find that Tolkien really wanted to have more fun than he was allowed to with cool gimmick maps and paper for his stories.

The Hobbit maps had to be redrawn by him because his originals had incorporated too many colours, and even then his scheme of having the general map as an endpaper and Thror’s map placed within the text of Chapter One was not followed. The publishers had decided that both maps should be used as endpapers, and in consequence his plan to ‘invisible lettering’, which would appear when Thror’s map was held up to the light, had to be abandoned.


And later on:

He cared very much that his beloved book should be published as he had intended, but once again many of his designs were modified, frequently through considerations of cost. Among items that were declared to be too expensive were red ink for the ‘fire-letters’ which appear on the Ring, and the halftone colour process that would be necessary to reproduce the facsimile Tolkjien had made of ‘The Book of Mazarbul’, a burnt and tattered volume that (in the story) is found in the Mines of Moria.

He was much saddened by this, for he had spent many hours making this facsimile, copying out the pages in runes and elvish writing, and then deliberately damaging them, burning the edges and smearing the paper with substances that looked like dried blood. All this work was now wasted.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.220

You can see a really nice shot of this book and the page in question, which was later given a moment in the spotlight of the first Lord of the Rings movie.

Growing up, my own father would make treasure maps for us on our birthday and then burn the edges to give them an “old pirate map look”. I loved it! Where’s the lighter?

Digging up what’s in your own head

Tolkien made an interesting comment when he tried, early on, to try and explain his new mythology.

He soon came to feel that the composition of occasional poems without a connecting theme was not what he wanted. Early in 1915 he turned back to his original Earendel verses ad began to work their theme into a larger story. He had shown the original Earendel lines to G.B. Smith, who had said that he liked them but asked what they were really about.

Tolkien had replied: ‘I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.’

Not try to invent: try to find out. He did not see himself as an inventor of story buy as a discoverer of legend. And this was really due to his private languages.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.83

The language was what was invented, though still based on a deep knowledge of linguistics. Then the mythology came later as a way of explaining how the words developed (and they were already developed). The language poured a huge slab of concrete for him to build his cathederal upon.

The God of Middle Earth

Tolkien was a devoted Christian, a Roman Catholic. Where was God in his mythology some people wondered?

I know people who see Middle Earth full of pagan witchcraft. I think if you have even a cursory knowledge of paganism looks like see that it didn’t get the memo about when to show up. And black magic? Well yes, but it’s also quite different and intentionally vague. (Entire books have been written about this by the way.)

Carpenter had this to say about God in Middle Earth:

Tolkien’s universe is ruled over by God, ‘The One’. Beneath Him in the hierarchy are ‘The Valar’, the guardians of the world, who are not gods by angelic powers, themselves holy and subject to God; and at one terrible moment in the story they surrender their power into His hands.

Tolkien cast his mythology in this form because he wanted it to be remote and strange, and yet at the same time not to be a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe; and as Christan he could not place this view in a cosmos without the God that he worshipped. At the same time, to set is stories ‘realistically’ in the known world, where religious beliefs were explicitly Christian, would deprive them of imaginative colour. So while God is present in Tolkien’s universe, He remains unseen.

When he wrote the Silmarillion Tolkien believed that in once sense he was writing the truth.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.99

Tolkien leveraging language

Later at university, Tolkien encountered some works in Old English that he hadn’t heard of previously.

Among these was the Crist of Cynewulf, a group of Anglo-Saxon religious poems. Two lines from it struck him forceibly:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended.

“Hail Earendel, brightst of angels/above the middle-earth sent unto men”

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.72

Whoa, wait a minute. There we have “Middle Earth”, the name of his entire world and history, and Earendel, one of the chief Valar in his mythology. They were not always made from whole cloth but lifted from other sources.

In fact, this is one reason why Tolkien’s fantasy works and that of so many sci-fi authors do not. Their mythology is too new. It’s not connected enough to man’s (the reader’s) own history. Except that it IS, though in all the wrong ways. Ways the author’s are unaware of, especially in regards to language and the names of their characters.

Later, Tolkien was reading The House of the Wolfings by William Morris, which is written in Welsh.

Written partly in prose and partly in verse, it centres on  House or famly-tribe that dwells by a great river in a clearing of the forest named Mirkwood, a name take from ancient Germaic geography and legend.

There’s another one. Mirkwood lies in the east of course. Just like in Germany. Just like it does in Middle Earth.

A hundred times over when you see a word or especially a name in Tolkien’s writing, it was very carefully chosen, following Owen Barfield’s principals I think, to evoke other qualities from the deep past of etymology, even if you aren’t fully aware of it consciencely.

Tolkien’s formative childhood

Only a few pages into Tolkien’s biography, it’s amazing to see how much of The Lord of the Rings show up already:

Not far from Sarehole Mill, a little way up the hill towards Mosely, was a deep tree-lined sandpit that became another favorite haunt for the boys. Indeed, explorations a could be made in many directions, though there were hazards. An old farmer who once chased Ronald for picking mushrooms was given the nickname ‘the Black Ogre’ by the boys. Such delicious terrors were the essence of those days…


This is of course a parallel to Merry and Pippin stealing mushrooms from farmer Maggot. He always said he himself was a hobbit.

…he liked Red Indian stories and longed to shoot with a bow and arrow. He was even more please by the Curdie books of George Macdonald, which were sent in a remote kingdom where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked benearth the mountains.


Guns were like evil machines, but bows and arrows were highly regarded.

If every other fantasy book/movie/game since has based their orcs/goblins on Tolkien’s (which is almost universally true), then they should keep in mind that Tolkien’s are based largely on George Macdonald’s. Even their history of genetic deterioration and slavery by dark powers is simply Macdonald’s goblins with an expanded history.

I’ve just began to read the first of the Curdie books to my daughter (nearly five). Unfortunately, it’s over the head of my two-year-old and I will likely have to switch to something else.

Back to J.R.R.’s childhood. Here’s an especially detailed one:

In later years he especially remembered ‘the bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of “Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill”: I longd to devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war.’

.-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.35

For years he thought Shakespear’s versions was so lame, it had to be rewritten. In the attack of the Ents on Isengard, he finally got the chance.

When concise is impossible

Since reading Rene Girard, I’ve become increasingly exasperated at how difficult it is to explain his theory to other people with a short 1-minute or 1-paragraph answer. I’ve wrestled with how to do this because I think that his ideas are very relevant to Christianity and Biblical Scholarship and I’d like to see them get some more exposure. He’s remarkably underrated. Whenever I bring him up, most people have never heard of him, even in theological circles.

A big part of the problem is that he uses a bunch of special vocabulary that MUST be defined ahead of time. Even his use of the word “sacrifical” is not at all what people are used to. For example, he insists that Jesus’s death was not a sacrifice. This makes people scratch their heads, but it’s because he’s talking about his special definition of sacrifice. How can this be explained without a 20 page essay? The best summary of Girard’s theory I’ve found is still a good 5-6 pages long.

At some point, I would like to rewrite some his work to be more accessible. If someone clever beats me to it though, I’ll be happy.

What reminded me of this was reading Tolkien’s biography.

Concerning his teaching duties at Oxford:

Throughout the nineteen-thirties he continued to give at least twice the statutory number of lectures and classes each year, considerably more than most of his colleagues undertook. [136 hours versus the required 36 hours]

So lectures, and the preparation for them, took up a very large proportion of his time. In fact this heavy teaching load was sometimes more than he could manage efficiently, and occasionally he would abandon a course of lectures because of insufficient time to prepare it. Oxford seized gleefully on this sin and bestowed upon him the reputation of not preparing his lectures properly, whereas the truth was that he prepared them too thoroughly. His deep commitment to the subject prevented him from tackling it in anything less than an exhaustive manner, with the result that he often sidetracked himself into the consideration of subsidiary details, and never managed to finish the treatment of the main topic.

-Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p.140

This is a necessary shortcoming of many brilliant scholars I think. They cannot think outside of an exhaustive foray into their discipline. It is often for other scholars to come after them and pick up the pieces and repackage them in such a way that they can be effectively disseminated to the next generation. As far as I know, someone has yet to do this with Girard. Perhaps because he’s still alive (86 years old and still kickin’).