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  • A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Arden R. Smith
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on In ven ted Languages, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins. London: Harper-Collins, 2016. lxv, 157 pp. £16.99 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-00-813139-5.

As revealed by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, J.R.R. Tolkien presented the essay entitled "A Secret Vice" to the Johnson Society at Pembroke College, Oxford, at 9 p.m. on 29 November 1931 (xxxi). The time, date, and audience of the talk are among the various new details, previously unknown to Tolkien scholarship, that Fimi and Higgins have discovered in the course of researching this new, expanded edition of Tolkien's important essay on the "secret vice" of language invention.

Entitled "A Hobby for the Home" in the original manuscript, the essay first appeared in print in 1983, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Those who have read Christopher Tolkien's edition (and I would hope that all readers of Tolkien Studies fall into this category) may wonder how an essay that filled 26 printed pages, editorial notes included, could possibly warrant publication as a full-length book. Needless to say, this new volume contains more than "A Secret Vice" alone, and there is material here that will be new to even the most seasoned Tolkien scholar, not only in the extensive editorial commentary and the newly published manuscripts related to the essay, but in the text of the essay itself.

Tolkien's texts in the volume are divided into three main sections: Part I: "A Secret Vice," Part II: "Essay on Phonetic Symbolism," and Part III: "The Manuscripts." Each of these sections ends with numerous editorial notes. A brief Foreword and a detailed Introduction precede the three main Parts, and a Coda on "The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien's Invented Languages" and Appendices, consisting of Chronology, Abbreviations, and Bibliography, complete the volume. I will treat each of these sections separately, in the order in which they appear in the book, though at times the discussion may naturally encompass related material appearing in other sections.

Foreword (vii–x)

In the Foreword, the editors briefly describe the contents of the volume, stating that it "makes available for the first time all the drafts of, and attendant notes for, 'A Secret Vice' currently deposited in the Bodleian Library as part of their holdings labelled MS Tolkien 24" [End Page 169] (vii). Here they outline the importance of "A Secret Vice" and summarize what is new in this expanded edition. They round out the Foreword with a statement of their editorial conventions and a good number of acknowledgements.

The editors write that they "have tried to be faithful to the text while making it as readable as possible, with minimal editorial intrusion" (viii). In doing this, they have retained Tolkien's underlines as underlines, rather than italicizing the underlined words, and have included Tolkien's deletions with strikethroughs. We have seen this editorial style in some of the more recent publications of Tolkien's works (e.g., Beowulf and the Critics, Tolkien on Fairy-stories, The Story of Kullervo), and it naturally has both positive and negative aspects. Although it does give the reader a clearer idea of the appearance of the original manuscript, it can look rather unattractive on the printed page, especially if the manuscript in question contains numerous deletions. Fortunately, the manuscripts of "A Secret Vice" and the "Essay on Phonetic Symbolism" are rather clean, with few deleted words and passages, and even the notes and drafts presented in Part III (with a couple of exceptions) are largely free of deletions.

Introduction (xi–lxv)

The far more extensive Introduction summarizes "A Secret Vice," but it is primarily concerned with placing the essay in context, or, to be more precise, in several contexts. The Introduction consists of five separate sections, but the last two especially have a fairly broad scope.

"Myth-making and Language Invention" (xi–xiv) discusses Tolkien's view of these as "coeval and co-dependent creative acts" (xi), reinforcing Tolkien...