Subconscious English Identity Crisis and the Impact of Industrialism Reflected in the Language of The Lord of The Rings | Dinah Kolka


As a medievalist and philologist, Tolkien had spent a considerable number of years studying a variety of languages.  This certainly explains the grandeur of the linguistic and quasi-historical value of the Lord of the Rings. As stated by Tolkien in the Foreword to LOTR, this fictional creation was ‘primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun to provide the necessary background of “history” for Elvish tongues.’ As such, names and words were of the highest importance to Tolkien and should be analysed from the philological perspective.

Attebery in The Strategies of Fantasy argues that we can reconstruct the worldview of those who have used the language. Attebery perhaps correctly calls Tolkien an ‘archaeologist’ in the further extract of the Strategies due to an ‘unveiling aspect’ of the language. As stated by Greer: ‘J. R. R. Tolkien conceived of Middle-earth as a reconstruction of a lost world.’ As such, we can conclude that LOTR should become a tool to reconstruct perhaps not only Tolkien’s Middle Earth but also a worldview of the Beowulf times and Tolkien’s past. Tolkien took inspiration from many Anglo-Saxon texts; this includes but isn’t limited to Beowulf. Linguistically, Tolkien was heavily inspired by the Finnish language as well as Welsh and Old English. This is clear when looking at Quenya (inspired by Finnish) and Sindarin (inspired by Welsh).  He also uses hieratic language to achieve his medievalist vision.

Interestingly, Tolkien explicitly rejected the concept of allegory, in the letter to his editor. He did concede, however, that he used the concepts of Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. This is somewhat intriguing in interpretation, as despite this rejection of allegorical writing, Tolkien may have been somewhat unconsciously inspired by the events happening during and before his time. This was also confirmed by Attebery in the Strategies where he suggests that there is potentially a Freudian application to LOTR where Tolkien may have subconsciously added meaning to his work.

Conversely, there has been a scholarly debate on the connection between the aforementioned ‘Machine’ and the Industrial Revolution which has destroyed the English countryside. The way Saruman’s industrial empire was represented certainly puts the question forward, alongside the cutting of the trees and the general dislike between the ents and the orcs. Tolkien pays homage to his homeland, England with his representation of the Shire which resembles quiet, pastoral English countryside – this could be one example of the subconscious application of the meaning.

Let’s look at the Shire and its habitants. As mentioned previously, the Shire is very clearly inspired by the pastoral English countryside, and we see this in the descriptions of places (the ever-present streams, rivers, fields, hills and thickets). Tolkien was brought up in the countryside himself, so it makes sense why he chose such a setting for the start of the journey. The Shire is extremely significant as this presents the lost world that Tolkien wanted to recreate – partly his own home but also the England that has been lost. Tolkien was caught between the two world wars – World War 1 had caused a rift in English identity, between the Old England and the new, metropolitan, industrial England as described in DH Lawrence’s story ‘England, My England’. The Old England of Morris dances, pastoral beauty, and folk revival has been dying and the industrial, city-dwelling, pragmatic side has been taking over. This is very clearly visible in Tolkien’s representation of the Shire – it’s the world that’s lost and the world that’s worth fighting for.

It’s also significant that Tolkien uses ‘common speech’ for most of the names and places within the Shire. In Tolkien’s Guide to the Names in the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien lays out exceedingly clear guidelines to translators. They explain the etymology and the nomenclature with razor-sharp precision. Let’s take for example the name Baggins: ‘Intended to recall ‘bag’—compare Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug in The Hobbit — and meant to be associated (by hobbits) with Bag End (that is, the end of a ‘bag’ or ‘pudding bag’ = cul-de-sac), the local name for Bilbo’s house. (It was the local name for my aunt’s farm in Worcestershire, which was at the end of a lane leading to it and no further);’. Many names and words in the book carry a meaning, sometimes the reader must take on the role of an archaeologist to find it. Tolkien uses the language as a tool to cast meaning onto the words – and we can certainly see the way this web of linguistic power is created – the extensive Appendices to the Silmarillion and LOTR prove this.

Tolkien created the story as the background for the Elven tongues, which, in a way, makes Elves quite central to the story, even though they seem quite detached and focused on their ‘deathlessness’. They have their own special languages, they live in beautiful, artful towns. Elves are a fascinating tool to utilise the language that was created for them but also to represent a god-like detached power that masters magic as a form of art. Elves play a paramount role in the trilogy as they’re the antecedents to orcs – as described in the Silmarillion, they have been bioengineered by Melkor to create a sub-elvish race doing the evil bidding. It’s a fascinating concept as we can see how something beautiful has been changed into something hideous which is a clever play on industrialism.

Then naturally, we have Mordor and the surrounding areas. In the Appendix to The Silmarillion, there is a section ‘Elements in Quenya and Sindarin Names’ which guides us through the Eldarin languages. This is of the utmost significance as it’s a guide to the meaning of the words that may seem alien to us. A good example is the word ‘dûr’ which means ‘dark’. This already casts the meaning onto many names in Mordor – Barad dûr, Caragdûr, Dol Guldur, Durthang. Mor itself also means dark which suggests that these could potentially be used interchangeably. Then there’s gûl which translates into ‘sorcery’. As such we can guess what Morgul in Minas Morgul will stand for – dark sorcery, casting the dark shadow on the text suggesting that there is something evil boiling there.

It’s important to mention the Black Speech at this point. Attebery suggests that Tolkien portrays evil beings speaking harsh/Slavic-sounding languages. When we analyse the line from the ring for example, we can see that it’s a very throaty language: ‘Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul’ I believe this is a conjecture on part of Attebery as according to Tolkien gateway, Russian historian Alexander Nemirovski suggests that ‘according to the shape of words, agglutination and grammar’, the language is strikingly similar to the ancient Mesopotamian language called Hurrian. However, if I may allow some conjecture on my own part, Hurrian sounds much softer than the throaty sounds of Orcs, but it certainly includes some elements of it.

Tolkien created something detestable to even himself, refusing to use the Black Speech unless absolutely necessary. This was required to create the sense of dread and hatefulness; he paints evil well by using a language that sounds evil in itself.

Although, Tolkien’s world isn’t simplistic – it’s not just good people requiring peace and bad people requiring power. The large universe scatters into various threads that all pull into different directions – hobbits want to be left alone in their own Scrutonian paradise. Elves need to face their deathlessness – and many escape it at the end by taking the ship to the far-off land. The wizards are there to bring back peace and they succeeded, although they too have to face the difficulty of their own being. Dwarves too have to bring back glory to their own lands in their own unique way – each one of these species trying to get what they need. With the evil powers being defeated, they all are left with having to set things straight in their own world.

To conclude, Tolkien utilises language to present a world of his own, to resurrect an old world, partly reminiscing the old world of Beowulf but also the times of his own childhood. He brings up the subjects of Fall, Mortality and the Machine. We can see the Fall in the tragedy of people who tend to hold on to the ring, we see the concept of Mortality when looking at the juxtaposition of the deathlessness of Elves with the mortality of people and hobbits, as seen in the part between Arwen and Aragorn where Arwen rejects her immortal life on behalf of Aragorn thus mirroring the eternal love between Beren and Luthien. The Machine is clearly visible in the ecological struggle between Saruman and the destruction of the forest. Tolkien builds his world using clear antonyms – black speech vs elven speech, white vs black, immortal vs mortal, etc. The characters created by Tolkien fear the negative impact of change and it prompts them to go on a journey to resist it. This translates into our world – the juxtaposition between Old and New England, industrialism and ecology. Tolkien revives what used to be, and in his own way ensures that the good wins.


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