- Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction
Readers who recognize Elizabeth Solopova's name from her 2005 collaboration with Stuart D. Lee, The Keys of Middle-earth, may well wonder how her new book, Languages, Myths and History, compares to the earlier work. The early English and Scandinavian literatures that so greatly influenced and inspired Tolkien lie at the heart of both books, of course, but apart from that, the two works could hardly be more different.
The earlier work is essentially an anthology, in which "key medieval texts, or selections from them, are presented in the context of Middle-earth, drawing out parallels wherever possible" (Lee and Solopova 2–3). Solopova's new book, on the other hand, "focuses on Tolkien's interest in languages, and aims to introduce languages and literatures which were particularly important for him as a writer and scholar" (1). The Lee and Solopova book, with texts in the original languages and extensive notes, seems to be aimed at a more academic audience; Languages, Myths and History, which includes parenthetical glosses for words like etymology (12) [End Page 335] and manuscripts (18), appears to be intended for high school students, or possibly undergraduates. In any event, it is most assuredly an introduction, as the title states. A well-read Tolkien aficionado should not come to this book expecting a wealth of new information.
In the introductory chapter, Solopova spells out the purpose of the book, noting that it "attempts to illustrate how literature in these languages inspired Tolkien's literary-critical, moral and philosophical ideas, particularly his understanding of courage and heroism" (1). She expands on Tolkien's views about heroism, since this is a theme that will reappear in later chapters. She also provides an introduction to the concept of myth, focusing primarily on Carl Jung's notions of archetypes and archetypical images. Solopova finishes the chapter with a brief historical introduction to the four main languages investigated in the book.
"Tolkien's Academic Career" is the title of the next chapter, but it really only reflects part of the chapter's content. The rest of the chapter is devoted to Tolkien's interest in languages: which ones he learned, which ones inspired him, which ones appealed to him aesthetically. Tolkien's deep love of words and languages was not limited to his academic career, and this chapter, despite its title, reflects that.
The next four chapters are devoted to four languages and literatures that particularly inspired Tolkien: Old Norse, Old English, Finnish, and Gothic. The chapters on Old Norse and Old English give some general linguistic and historical information about those languages, followed by discussions of various literary works and conventions that influenced Tolkien's legendarium. The recurring theme of courage and heroism looms large in both chapters.
Unlike the chapters on Old Norse and Old English, the chapter on Finnish says very little about the language or its history. It does tell how the Kalevala inspired Tolkien to create a similar "body of more or less connected legend" to dedicate to his native England, and how the story of Kullervo in the Kalevala became the basis for the story of Túrin Turambar. More than half of the chapter, however, addresses neither Finnish language nor Finnish literature, but instead discusses "the problem of evil, predestination and free will" that is central to the Túrin story. This explains the otherwise baffling chapter title, "Finnish: Predestination and Free Will."
The chapter on Gothic is the longest in the book. Given the relative importance of the four languages and their literatures, this is rather surprising. Solopova describes the linguistic features of the Gothic in much greater detail than the other languages, even going so far as to provide a sample text in the language. The reasoning behind this, I would guess, it that she assumes that the reader would be less...