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Reviewed by:
  • The Qenya Alphabet by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Edith L. Crowe
The Qenya Alphabet, by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Arden R. Smith. Mountain View, CA: Parma Eldalamberon, 2012. 160 pp. $35.00 (oversize paperback) [no ISBN] Parma Eldalamberon 20.

The latest volume of Parma is devoted to what the Editor calls the “Qenya Alphabet” (he explains why he chose not to use the term tengwar). It contains forty “documents” (Q1–Q40) including both texts and commentaries. I have been and still am (occasionally) an artist and calligrapher, and it is from this perspective that the current review is written. Since Tolkien was not only a calligrapher of no mean skill, but it was a skill learned literally at his beloved mother’s knee, calligraphy was clearly important to him (Hammond & Scull),1 so a calligraphic view seems an appropriate way to view the present volume. After all, adherence to linguistic principles is not the only thing that makes Tolkien’s languages seem real. One must also consider his alphabets in terms of their suitability for expressing visually a writer’s thoughts and needs in a variety of circumstances. A real language is both spoken and written, with the latter form represented not just by formal usage in proclamations or poetry but in less formal usage by all sorts of people for many different purposes.

The particular value of The Qenya Alphabet from a visual perspective is the presence of a treasure-hoard of reproduced texts. Of the forty documents, thirty-five consist of reproductions (in whole or in part) of Tolkien’s actual uses of this alphabet scanned from photocopies of the originals. According to the Editor, these are examples of “tengwar-style Elvish script” dating primarily from the early 1930s (pre-”Fëanorian Alphabet”). Most are transliterations into the Qenya scripts of texts in English or Latin, although two are from Old English and one from Old High German. Many of these texts are Tolkien’s own compositions, including previously unpublished letters and drafts of the poems “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” and “Errantry.” Also among the texts are prayers and literary excerpts, including Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (which Tolkien misquoted from memory). Keeping to his consistent custom when using his phonetically-based alphabets, Tolkien renders his modern English texts phonetically rather than treating his alphabets as ciphers reproducing English spellings.

In my analysis, the styles of the scripts presented here fall into several visual categories. What Tolkien called “formal style” I think of as “uncial,” although it wouldn’t necessarily match the actual definition of uncial in all respects. However, this style has the disciplined fluidity of the work of many a medieval scribe, with rounded letters and relatively short ascenders and descenders. The uses reproduced here are largely religious—multiple examples of “Te Deum” (Q18–20) and [End Page 214] “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Q21–22). Tolkien calls the latter two styles “large rounded” and “formal book-hand rounded,” but they seem to be fairly subtle variations on the formal style. Other examples include a ninth-century excerpt from Evangelienbuch, in a dialect of Old High German. Since the work is based on the Gospel, it connects with the religious theme of the others. An interesting outlier is “God Save the King” (Q14–16), although one could argue that for a devoted monarchist this verges on religion. In addition, Q16 includes “Our Father,” which might suggest an interesting, if not necessarily conscious, connection in Tolkien’s mind.

“God Save the King” (Q16) is actually written in two different scripts, with three of ten lines written in what Tolkien calls the “pointed angular” hand. That’s an accurate description of its main features, although I can’t help thinking of it as the “black-letter” version. Tolkien uses it in additional examples of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Q23–24) and excerpts from “Tom Bombadil” (Q34) and “Errantry” (Q37). This script appears more contrived, less natural. Tolkien’s own terms for two of the alphabet versions discussed in the beginning of this review contain the term “rounded.” Indeed, the body of each letter is very round, and this roundness is enhanced...


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