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Early Elvish Poetry and Pre-Fëanorian Alphabets (review)
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Early Elvish Poetry and Pre-Fëanorian Alphabets, by J.R.R. Tolkien; including "Pre-Fëanorian Alphabets, Part 1," edited by Arden R. Smith; "Early Elvish Poetry," edited by Christopher Gilson, Bill Welden and Carl F. Hostetter; "Qenya Declensions," edited by Christopher Gilson and Patrick H. Wynne; "Qenya Conjugations," edited by Christopher Gilson and Carl F. Hostetter; and "Qenya Word-lists," edited by Patrick H. Wynne and Christopher Gilson. Cupertino, CA: Parma Eldalamberon, 2006. 150pp. $30.00 (oversize paperback) [no ISBN]. Parma Eldalamberon XVI.

Reviewing J.R.R. Tolkien's 1920s writings on Qenya as published in Parma Eldalamberon XIV, I noted that they fail to shed much light on the poetry he wrote in that language at the start of the next decade: "In vain does one scrutinize the Elvish poems of Tolkien's 1931 paper on language invention, 'A Secret Vice,' hoping they will accord closely with these Qenya grammars: they do not" (Garth 251). Now the reason becomes clear: a further tranche of grammatical revision preceded the 1931 talk. That intervening stratum of linguistic invention has now been [End Page 200] excavated, along with the hitherto-unseen drafts of those Qenya poems and their English translations. These are the first substantial Elvish compositions extant after the poems "Narqelion" (1916) and "Sí Qente Feanor" (c. 1917); and the best is vastly more ambitious, linguistically and poetically.

But first things first. Arden R. Smith's on-going presentation of Tolkien's invented writing systems now brings us to the latter half of the 1920s, and an evolving series of "pre-Fëanorian alphabets." Drawn from the Valmaric of the early 1920s (see Parma Eldalamberon XIV), these scripts look increasingly like the familiar tengwar of Fëanor, with characters often composed of bow- and stem-combinations and arranged according to sound-value. But the tengwar's elegant matching of shape to sound has not yet been fully achieved: to my mind the head-letters of each series in the first "Qenyatic" chart evoke their Roman counterparts p, t, ch, k, and q (14). On the other hand, we may also witness, I think, the antecedence of the irregular tengwar for l (lambë) and s (silmë)—made of curls rather than bows and stems—in a context where they are not irregular at all but belong to a phonemic t-series entirely characterized by curls (20). Meanwhile the diacritic signs later known as the tehtar continue to take shape, performing various roles, but are gradually assigned the vowel functions they would retain in the tengwar.

Smith has identified several sub-groups among these alphabets and reproduced all of Tolkien's value tables, script samples and associated doodlings—snippets of the Aeneid, Nelson's famous signal-message "England expects . . .", a nursery rhyme and, most curiously, a couple of words from the Khasi language of eastern India. Tolkien's names for the writing systems, Qenyatic, Falassin, Noriac, Banyaric and Sinyatic, contain Elvish elements and therefore imply a connection with the legendarium, but transcriptions of lines from "Narqelion" furnish the only further link. I wonder whether instead he primarily intended these alphabets for private use, in his diaries, as he had earlier used his Rúmilian script. A further set of "pre-Fëanorian" documents, dating from 1929, is promised for a later issue.

The "Secret Vice" poems are presented next, by Christopher Gilson, Bill Welden and Carl F. Hostetter. Of the three, two are slight: "Nieninqe" and "Earendel." The former is particularly interesting for linguistic reasons, as we now see, because while its first draft dates back to 1921 (and depicts a sprite of Valinor who was never to resurface in the legendarium), its final version comes from 1955 and appears virtually unaltered—despite the intervening decades Tolkien had spent niggling with his invented languages. Here is compelling evidence of the continuity underlying his ceaseless work in this private field, which must be regarded as a process of moulding or nurturing rather than demolition and rebuilding. [End Page 201] Christopher Tolkien has already noted his father's tendency to preserve some of the oldest Elvish nomenclature through many decades while inventing fresh etymologies more congruent with later conceptions...