Tolkien Studies 3 (2006) 157-160
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The first phase in the history of J.R.R. Tolkien's invented languages, roughly covering the decade from 1915, has been recounted in four issues of Parma Eldalamberon which focused alternately on the "high elven" Qenya and its sibling, Gnomish or Noldorin. Along the way two early writing systems, Rúmilian and Valmaric, have been introduced. This fifth installment, comprising miscellaneous dainties from across the period, is what hobbits might call "filling up the corners." As such, it uncovers no substantial new strata in the development of Tolkien's grammatical, phonological, semantic or graphical concepts. However, it offers much new detail for linguists, and for the rest of us it contains valuable illustrations of Tolkien's creative method and themes.
The collection takes its title from the centerpiece, "Sí Qente Feanor," or "Thus spoke Feanor": a c.1917 Qenya text of the most substantial pieces of Elvish yet published, preceded only by the 1915–16 poem "Narqelion." If Christopher Gilson's painstaking and tentative translation is correct, this anticipates Tolkien's explorations of human corruptibility in late writings associated with the "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth." The topic also matches an early explicit religiosity seen, for example, in the myths of judgment after death in The Book of Lost Tales.It seems particularly apt against the backdrop of the First World War, in which Tolkien had seen battle in 1916 before being invalided with trench fever. A notebook jotting naming "the root of disease," Nerqal, "wherewith Melko poisons his foes so that they die of a slow disease," might have been suggested by time spent in hospital wards among gassed soldiers. Heading a [End Page 157] sheaf of miscellaneous notes, the title "Enlaesíþ," Old English for "a warrior of the Angles," suggests a characteristic Tolkienian urge to use the distant past as a frame of reference: in this instance to define his own role as a soldier in an army that others tended to call "British."
Tolkien's early habit of writing his family into his myths is further evidenced: the wife of Ælfwine, the mariner who hears the Lost Tales, is Earisse, equated with Edith, of which it isnear-rendering into Qenya sounds. Geographical identifications draw life and art even closer. In the manuscript of "The Cottage of Lost Play," we learn, a note identifies the river Sirion as the Trent or the Severn: the great rivers of Staffordshire and Worcestershire, respectively, in whose watershed lay Birmingham, Tolkien's boyhood home. The Trent flows through Great Haywood (Tavrobel of the Lonely Isle), where Edith Tolkien wrote out the tale for her husband early in 1917.
Such embryonic ideas have no relation to later Middle-earth topography. But a further early identification of the Sirion with the Rhine evokes the defining idea of the Lost Tales—that these are stories of which the European myths and fairy-tales are merely the fragmentary and faded echoes. Most intriguingly, in notes that relate names in the Lost Tales to equivalents in Germanic languages, we perhaps witness the first appearances of the names Beren and Lúthien, each with an application entirely different from the later, famous ones. Tolkien places a figure named Beren in an Indo-European-style myth of warring...