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Walking With Ents

by Brennan Robinson last modified Aug 11, 2012 07:13 PM
The one element Tolkien brought to Middle-earth which we cannot reconstruct or substitute through our own endeavors is also the one aspect of his mythology which makes it seem real. Why is Middle-earth special? Because not just anyone can create it. In fact, only one man ever had that special ability, and here is why.

According to science, Earth has experienced extensive ice ages during the last 1 billion years. Each ice age was characterized by periods of glacial advance and recession, or glaciation. Modern human civilization arose and reached its current level of achievement in less than 10,000 years, in what is sometimes described as an interglacial period.

In the past several million years, human kind has emerged from the animal kingdom and taken its special path toward being the dominant species on the Earth. There can be no doubt that the current interglacial period tipped the balance of the scales in our favor. Although no other creatures seem to have been competing with hominids for evolutionary dominance 100,000 years ago, but for the grace of God (as some would say) we would still be hunting and gathering with the beasties.

Now, what does all that have to do with Middle-earth? I think it points toward one of the factors of human achievement where Tolkien was almost unsurpassed in his achievements: the development of language.

A living language changes as its users acquire new needs for expression. Language is the means of expression which many living creatures resort to. Human language is deemed to be far more sophisticated than other, animal languages. We need such sophistication now to comprehend and participate in our civilization, to inflict upon the ecosystem such influence as we can individually bring to bear upon it, and to expunge our frustrations and ambitions from our hearts.

Tolkien understood language is an instrument of passion. Too often, modern writers (and even Tolkien commentators) relegate language to the status of a medium of communication. When you've sat next to a woman and heard her sigh because some actor has sputtered what seem like the goofiest lines you could imagine, or when you watch your best friend spin his magic with a sales prospect, or you stand before a large crowd and deliver the greatest speech of your life -- you experience the passion that Tolkien cherished.

Language is both a barrier and a bridge, and I believe Tolkien illustrated this principle throughout his Middle-earth history. That is, from the late 1930s onward, Tolkien's fiction became an experimental vehicle for demonstrating the power of his linguistic ideas. He never became lost in the application of the science, for his soul was devoted to the art -- the art of story-telling, the art of painting pictures with both words and colors, and the art of entertaining and amusing an audience. Tolkien included himself in that audience. He was its most critcal member, and his criticism was strong and unreserved.

If human language and human civilization owe something to each other, then it follows that they began mingling after a critical point was reached. That is, people had to possess some kind of language before they built cities, and they clearly had to eat, sleep, and keep warm before they learned how to persuade each other to join together in cities. Tolkien understood that a language preserves a footprint of each social change in a culture. The film-maker Luc Besson followed in Tolkien's footsteps with his movie, "The Fifth Element". Throughout the movie, the (English-speaking) audience hears traces of idiom which are easily understood but have no real relevance to today's culture.

Besson projected current idiom into his futuristic story. Hence, the word "green" -- now associated with green lights, green bars on charts, and a symbol of good health -- is used by characters to mean "good", "great", "fantastic", "okay", and even "in agreement". If we assume for the sake of discussion that "green" really follows that path (and the movie may help achieve the effect in a self-fulfilling prophecy), then the etymological historian several hundred years from now will be able to trace the uses of the word "green" back to find those bar charts, traffic signals, and healthy emblems (and green Irish clovers) -- which all owe something to the Indo-European root ghre, "to grow, become green".

Language grows in strange ways. Several years ago, a television show discussing the possibility of finding evidence of intelligent life among the stars interviewed an astronomer who enumerated some of the obstacles facing the search for extra-terrestial intelligence. One of the problems, he pointed out, was that if we use conventional technology to communicate with another species, we might devote a great deal of effort to sending a warm message to a star many light-years away and thousands of years later a reply could come back in the form of, "What was that?"

I was helping with a dance class a few weeks ago and as the students went through the basic steps they had just been taught, the girl I was partnered with was so nervous she kept turning before she was supposed to. I finally leaned close and whispered in her ear, "I'll lead." She looked at me in surprise and said, "Did you just ask how old I am?" (I'll lead --> how old?) So much for having a manly voice. But my point is that we often mishear what the other person is saying. When I was in college, I asked if I could do a report on The Lord of the Rings. My professor started to explain how he thought William Golding was a great author who could develop such a gripping story about the human spirit. Personally, I could not stand The Lord of the Flies, but we were only off by one word.

How many nicknames have we heard through the years which arose because someone mis-heard another person speak? When I was a boy, I knew another boy whose nickname was "Chewy". Why did people call him that? Because one day he walked up to his brother with a mouth full of food. "Danny," the brother supposedly said, "What are you eating?" To which Danny replied, "Chewy (chili)". Attila the Hun, one of history's most renowned warrior-kings, is remembered only by a nickname his Gothic warriors bestowed upon him: "Little Father". He must have been a man of much shorter stature than the northern warriors who bled and died for him on many battlefields. They remembered him with reverence, whereas we remember him as a war-mongering monster -- and yet still call him, "Little Father" -- even if unwittingly, in most cases.

The lesson which Tolkien took away from history is that history imprints itself upon language. There is a history for every word we use. And Tolkien believed that history was so important that he developed meaningful histories for many, if not most or all, of the special words he devised for Middle-earth. Of course, many people are familiar with -- or at least have heard about -- "The Etymologies", which was published in The Lost Road and Other Writings. And while "The Etymologies" is indeed important as a benchmark for understanding Tolkien's development of Elvish, it serves two other distinguishing purposes. First, it provides us with many clues to the history Tolkien envisioned. This was a living history which unfolded throughout his life. He often went back and revised or added details to minor stories which, if told completely, might garner no more than a handful of sentences.

But, and I feel this is more important, "The Etymologies" and similar works by Tolkien which have since been published (and which remain to be published) distinguish themselves -- and Tolkien's work -- by establishing an authority which cannot be replicated. We cannot reconstruct, construe, deduce, derive, or otherwise extend the authority which is inherit in the works that came from Tolkien's hand. Although Middle-earth itself has grown in ways the author did not foresee, it has grown into a secondary Middle-earth which accrues the embellishments of thousands of artists who lack the depth and care that Tolkien bestowed upon the original work.

For example, David Salo, a widely acknowledged expert in Tolkien's Elvish languages, has created a dictionary of Silvan Elvish words. He in no way represents the work as anything more than an extrapolation of Tolkien's basic principles. But it is an extremely useful tool for those of us who like to dabble in constructing Elvish words. Gamers and curious fans alike may browse David's work and dream of Silvan Elves singing softly beneath the eaves of Mirkwood.

Alas! The dictionary lacks one thing neither David nor any other living person can legitimately bestow upon it: an etymological foundation from the hand of J.R.R. Tolkien himself. At best, David's work is an asterisk-dictionary -- a reconstruction which only represents a best guess. Even if we assume for the sake of discussion that all of David's deductions are correct, we are still left with nothing in the way of understanding why they are correct. For Tolkien, it was not enough to merely shift the sounds of words in certain ways. He explained why the sound shifts occured (or, at least, he demonstrated through stories that such sound shifts had historical causes).

The most detailed sound shift explanation is the "Shibboleth of Feanor", most of which Christopher Tolkien published in The Peoples of Middle-earth. Feanor sought to change the way the Noldor pronounced a single sound, and in doing so he laid some of the seeds for the strife between himself and his brothers, and for his own eventual rebellion against the Valar. The story illustrates the passion which Tolkien embued his languages with, and Feanor is the symbol of that passion, that living soul of language. Someone chose to speak a certain way, and Tolkien saw the moment of decision. He recorded a bit of history for his own languages which we don't have for our own.

We have no idea of why people began shifting their sounds. We only know that they did so. Perhaps it was really cold one winter and people began slurring their speech. Perhaps people became lazy. Even today, people incomprehensibly contract words and begin using acronyms out of pure laziness. We use email instead of electronic mail. We have eThis and eThat, even when there is hardly any reason to e-Anything. The process of invention, derivation, deviation, and derision (such as when former President George Bush pronounced Saddam Hussein's name in such a way that Arabic speakers noted he was subtly calling the mad a "mad dog") is ancient and ongoing.

And it was ancient and ongoing in Tolkien's imagination, as he expanded and revised Middle-earth, seeking to make it more realistic. Which, naturally, brings us back to the fact that modern human civilization arose quickly in an interglacial period. How so? Because, for reasons we may never discern, our ancestors began interacting with each other after long periods of separation. That is the key to the growth of human civilization. A population arises, grows, divides, and splinters into multiple populations. As the central population re-establishes or redefines contact with the offshoot populations, new concepts are transmitted back to the homeland. These concepts -- representing new experiences -- are pased in part through language, but also through new skill.

Imagine what it must have been like when the first horse was tamed. Perhaps no one else attempted a similar deed -- or no one else succeeded -- for generations. Stories of the great animal rider would be passed down through families. And then, one day, someone would figure out how to do it again. And knowing that it could be done again and again, people began doing it again and again. And, gradually, with tamed animals a part of their world, their world changed into something which required the use and care of animals. It could have happened in other ways, too.

What we do know, however, is that our development of animal husbandry has led to the rise and fall of hundreds of specialized industries around the world -- perhaps thousands. Special tools, clothing, and accoutrements have been devised for our work (and play) with animals. Specialized skills have developed around the care and feeding of animals, the maintenance of their health, breeding them, training them, and so on. Would we have circuses and veterinarians if we had not tamed the wild horse, oxen, and goat? Of course not. Nor would we have the words that describe all these things and how they affect our lives and our world.

Tolkien drew upon this constant interaction between individuals and their world to enhance his own languages. He enhanced them within the stories he told, and not simply through the background notes he devoted reams of paper to. For example, we know that the Elves of Beleriand adapted Khuzdul words to their own vocabularies? To what extent? Tolkien doesn't say, but he implies the process occurred through the conversion of the name "Khazad-dum" (called "Hadhodrond" in Sindarin) and in the Sindarin name "Helevorn", the first element of which comes from Khuzdul "kheled".

Elvish culture is described as primitive and rustic until the Elves begin interacting with the Valar and Maiar. But though Melian and Osse taught many skills to the Sindar of Beleriand, Beleriandic civilization did not begin to flourish until Thingol's folk made contact with the Dwarves of Nogrod and Belegost. We see how the relationship which grew between Thingol's people and the Dwarves laid the foundation for later interaction between the Noldor and the Dwarves, although the Feanorians supposedly made contact with the Dwarves without Thingol's help.

The fact that the Elves borrowed words and names from the Dwarves, and that the Dwarves freely used their language in Beleriand (whereas in the Third Age it was a hidden language), show us that the relationship between Elves and Dwarves in the First Age (prior to Thingol's war with the Dwarves) was far different from that between Elves and Dwarves at the end of the Third Age. While it can be shown that Elves and Dwarves were friendly in some places at the end of the Third Age (such as Elrond's welcoming of Dwarves to Rivendell), it stands to follow that there was little to no linguistic exchange between the two groups. Tolkien mentions no such exchange, and the Dwarves have become reluctant to teach their language to outsiders. Furthermore, the Elves themselves are no longer building a great civilization. They are in decline (as are the Dwarves) and the two races have grown apart.

Their long interaction in earlier ages, however, makes it easier to accept that the Dwarves would widely adopt the diminutive name "Moria" (which is Sindarin for "Black Chasm") for their greatest mansion, "Khazad-dum". Everyone knew it as "Moria", and how many people really stopped to think about what the name meant? Not once did Aragorn or Legolas elaborate for their companions in the Fellowship on how the Elves once christened one of the greatest wonders of Middle-earth with an insulting name. Tolkien himself doesn't explain how the insult was conferred, or even if it was intended as an insult. We simply hear it that way, and wonder what is supposed to have happened.

The exchange between Elves and Dwarves in Beleriand was far-reaching in many ways. For example, the Sindar developed the Cirth but did relatively little with them. When the Dwarves learned about this writing system from the Sindar, they spread it across Middle-earth. Men, Elves, and Dwarves beyond Beleriand benefitted from Beleriandic culture for thousands of years. And a similar exchange and transformation ensued when the Noldor returned to Middle-earth: they brought their Tengwar with them, and a second writing system more suited to scrolls, jewelry, and cloth was distributed throughout Middle-earth. Had Daeron not invented the Cirth, and had Thingol not befriended the Dwarves, Aragorn would not have inherited a broken sword from Elendil. For Narsil was forged by Telchar of Nogrod. And when Elrond's smiths reforged the sword they emblazoned it with runes. Anduril, the Flame of the West, symbolized the culmination of Elvish, Dwarven, and Mannish collaboration through all the long ages.

The literal, or documented, exchanges between Beleriand's Elves and Dwarves are joined by an implied exchange. In the essay "Of Dwarves and Men" (published in The Peoples of Middle-earth), Tolkien notes that in the lands east of Beleriand, Dwarves came to rely upon Men as "the chief providers of food, as herdsmen, as shepherds, and land-tillers, which the Dwarves exchanged for work as builders". The essay stresses the distinctions between these relations of Dwarves and Men and the relations between Dwarves and Elves. It also offers certain non-canonical points (such as making Celebrimbor a descendant of Daeron) which diminish the essay's value in following Tolkien's train of thought. But it stands to follow that if the Dwarves flourished when they relied upon Men to be the chief providers of food, they must have been struggling tremendously to provide for themselves and build their civilization before they met and befriended the Elves.

If the closest relationship between Elf and Dwarf existed in Eregion during the Second Age, we must concede that the Dwarves of Beleriand could not have relied upon the Sindar and Noldor as closely as the Longbeard Dwarves would come to rely upon Men centuries later. Nonetheless, the trading relationship between Thingol and the Dwarves lasted for thousands of years and it justified numerous cultural exchanges. The provisioning of the Dwarven communities with food would only provide them with more resources to devote to building roads, cities, and tools (services they provided for the Beleriandic Elves).

In contrast, we can point to the failure of the Sindar to recognize the Petty-Dwarves as rational incarnates as an example of how the Elves and Dwarves co-existed side-by-side without either group benefitting from the other. The Petty-Dwarves were outcasts who claimed to have reached Beleriand prior to the Elves. The Elves were unaware of the Petty-Dwarves until the Petty-Dwarves began attacking the Elves. Neither group made an effort to communicate with the other. Each subsisted in its own way. Eventually, Thingol's people befriended the Dwarves of Ered Luin and Beleriand entered into an age of inter-cultural exchange and enrichment.

The interaction of cultures is catalytic, and language reflects the growth of a culture as it interacts with other cultures. Tolkien documented the interaction between Elves and Dwarves, and between Elves and Men and Dwarves and Men, through the languages he attributed to the various races. The linguistic histories are imprinted with the shared ideas of the various races. His realism is founded in the critical understanding that a culture never truly forgets what it has learned, even if old wisdom falls into disuse. Celeborn's admonishment to Boromir comes to mind: "do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know". Old wisdom persists not only in nursury rhymes and old wives' tales, but also in words and names.

And yet, that is why whatever we add to Tolkien's Middle-earth can at best be only a thin-veneered facsimile of what he himself embossed it with. For the history has become frozen in the past, and it no longer grows. While our understanding of Middle-earth may increase through the years to come, Middle-earth itself will simply become a Silmaril encrusted with the garnishments of lesser smiths. New stories are devised every day, as the fan fiction community grows. And endeavors such as Peter Jackson's movies rewrite the principal tale, adding new dimensions.

It is very much like when Aragorn said to Treebeard in "Many Partings": "May your forest grow again in peace. When this valley is filled there is room and to spare west of the mountains, where once you walked long ago."

To which Treebeard replied: "Forests may grow. Woods may spread. But not Ents. There are no Entings."

In that same scene, Treebeard bade farewell to Celeborn and Galadriel: "It is long, long since we met by stock or stone, A vanimar, vanimalion nostari! It is sad that we should meet only thus at the ending. For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again."

Tolkien was an Ent. Not the last Ent, but the only Ent. And though we have his forest to enjoy, and though we plant woods of our own, only the trees remember him as he walked through their glades and sang of heroes and kings and fair maidens. We will walk into the west beyond the mountains, but we cannot find him there. He is gone, and he is never to come again, not unless Galadriel was right: "Not in Middle-earth, nor until the lands that lie under the wave are lifted up again. Then in the willow-meads of Tasarinan we may meet in the Spring. Farewell!"

Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth (ISBN -7388-3408-4 ), Understanding Middle-earth (ISBN 1-58776-145-9), and Parma Endorion (available for free from http//

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