Sunday, 27 March 2011

Tolkien and Languages

J.R.R. Tolkien once remarked of his literary writings that ‘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’ (letter of 1955). William Morris may not have been a philologist of Tolkien’s stature, but, as I have noted above, he certainly had a lively interest in nineteenth-century philology; so could we try out the same Tolkienian hypothesis in his case? In News from Nowhere, for instance, could we, as a thought-experiment, play with the idea that language comes first and that everything else just provides a convenient world for it?

The ‘invention of language’ in News from Nowhere is the resurgence of Anglo-Saxon. Characters go round giving each other the ‘sele of the morning’, attending ‘motes’, or referring to each other as ‘old carles’. At the same time, what Old Hammond refers to as the ‘long-tailed words’ of a polysyllabic Latinate vocabulary are fading away. If such is the basic philological impulse of the book, Morris then as it were has to ask himself: what social conditions would I have to put in place to make such linguistic developments likely, what political changes would have to occur to de-Latinise and re-Saxonise English in this way? And the answer then is the socialist revolution of 1952, which is now, on this showing, nothing more than what the Russian Formalist critics would have called the ‘motivation of the device’, or mere pretext, of the linguistic innovations of the News from Nowhere world.

When Morris intervened in debates about English studies at Oxford in 1886 he spoke forcefully in favour of philology rather than criticism. That being so, it is a salutary exercise, I think, to consider even the great works of his socialist period as being initially philological rather than political works, as needing to invent that particular brand of politics purely in order to provide a plausible frame for their strange linguistic experiments – which then explode even more forcefully through into the last romances themselves.

1 comment:

AJW said...

I've heard that the great success of Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' films has provided a bit of a boost for medieval and Anglo-Saxon studies at university. Very good news if it is true!