J.R.R. Tolkien famously invented the languages of Middle-earth before he crafted the characters and plots which employ them. As with scripture, language precedes and permeates the rest of creation. Tolkien was a philologist, a scholar, and a lover of words. Tolkien’s treatment of language in The Lord of the Rings is more than a Herculean effort at meticulous world-building, though it is that. The languages in Middle-earth convey meaning in their very sounds, and the words invoke the presence of the thing signified and become vehicles of power and authority. Tolkien’s use of language in Middle-earth offers an escape from the constraints of merely materialist or subjectivist worldviews by recovering the supernatural realities undergirding language that often go unnoticed or unacknowledged in our use of language in the “real” world.

Most moderns reading prose do not expect much from the sound of the language they are reading, but they cannot help but notice the sound of the words in Tolkien’s tale. In describing the reading habits of the unliterary many, C.S. Lewis writes, “They have no ears. They read exclusively by eye. The most horrible cacophonies and the most perfect specimens of rhythm and vocalic melody are to them exactly equal.”[1] Tolkien’s writing breaks through this visual prejudice in part by interspersing over 50 poems or songs throughout his narrative, which dispose a reader to pay attention to the rhythm and sounds of each word in relation to another.[2] But the effect on the mind’s ear also comes even more directly through the liberal distribution of unfamiliar languages and names in Middle-earth. When a reader approaches a foreign name or phrase, they must slow down and mentally pronounce the word in their mind.

Once readers are paying attention to the sounds of the words, they are bound to notice certain results. C. S. Lewis was particularly pleased effects of the names in the story, writing:

The names alone are a feast, whether redolent of quiet countryside (Michel Delving, South Farthing), tall and kingly (Boromir, Faramir, Elendil), loathsome like Smeagol, who is also Gollum, or frowning in the evil strength of Barad Dur or Gorgoroth, yet best of all (Lothlorien, Gilthoniel, Galadriel) when they embody this piercing, high elvish beauty of which no other prose writer has captured so much.[3]

What Lewis identifies is the fact that the very sounds of the names are evocative of certain meanings or associations. “Frodo” is not interchangeable with “John,” nor “Gandalf” with “Steve.” And it is not simply a matter of unfamiliarity versus familiarity. Were “Frodo” and “Gandalf” to switch names, the altered perception of the characters would be noticeable. Still more so with Gandalf and Pippin or The Shire and Osgiliath or Mordor.

A passage very early on in The Fellowship of the Ring suggests this primary auditory effect of language. The scene is Frodo, Pippin, and Sam’s first encounter with the Elves on their journey to Buckland. Traveling at night, they come across a group of high Elves, crossing the Woody End on their way to the West. Here’s how Tolkien describes the singing of the Elves:

The singing drew nearer. One clear voice rose now above the others. It was singing in the fair elven-tongue, of which Frodo knew only a little, and the others knew nothing. Yet the sound blending with the melody seemed to shape itself in their thought into words which they only partly understood.[4]

Even not knowing the language, the Hobbits are able to partly understand the meaning of the song just from the sounds of the words and the melody. Lest we attribute the effect all to the melody, note that every word is spoken with some amount of melody.

The effects of the words cannot be merely cultural. The languages are invented, without philological roots in the spoken languages we are familiar with. But even if some of the language’s effects are brought about through the similarities with Anglo-Saxon or Latin grammar, the very syllables still suggest qualities we perceive to be real and independent of, even if delivered by, the sounds themselves. We hear the smallness in Pippin or Frodo, the plainness of Sam, the high honor in Glorfindel and Galadriel, or the menace in Gorgoroth and Grishnakh. There is a fitness connecting the names to the qualities of the characters, but where there is fitness there must be some real correspondence between the thing symbolized and the symbol.

Fittedness has existential connotations. One might argue, again, that the relation between sound and thought is solely of internal origin, and therefore merely subjective, but however subjectively the sounds are experienced, the connections they suggest are to qualities that exist outside what is perceived directly through the senses. The way Tolkien treats words throughout the rest of the story comports with an externalist explanation of reality, namely, that there are realities that exist apart from ourselves that our words correspond to with varying degrees of accuracy.

The Entish language in particular illustrates this existentially weighted view of language. Treebeard, as he is known in the common speech, says of names that, “Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to.”[5] That is why it would take him a long time to tell the Hobbits his name in Entish, if he chose to do so:

“For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.” A queer half-knowing, half-humerous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. “For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story.”[6]

Readers are told that Entish is “a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”[7] Besides his long name, the other great example of the purpose of language is Treebeard’s response to the common names Merry and Pippin suggest for the “hill” they are standing on: “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped.”[8]

Entish is a far cry from modern efficiency, where words are treated almost akin to counters in a game, merely useful so far as they can quickly identify the thing signified. But much is lost in such a hasty use of language. Even if the gains in economy are ultimately worth the loss to language, it is better that we know what it is that we are losing. It is just such a tradeoff that Tolkien is describing when he speaks of modern men having achieved “improved means to deteriorated ends” in On Fairy Stories.[9]

Thus it is that some languages are better suited to different kinds of discourse. An example that Tolkien approved of is offered in C.S. Lewis’s philologically rich creation, Out of the Silent Planet, in which three rational races living on Mars each have their own distinct language suited to their purposes. Tolkien writes on Lewis’s treatment of language saying:

But the linguistic inventions and the philology on the whole are more than good enough. All the part about language and poetry – the glimpses of its Malacandrian nature and form – is very well done, and extremely interesting, far superior to what one usually gets from travelers in untraveled regions.[10]

On Malacandra, the Hrossa are the poets of the country, the Sorns the philosophers, and the Pfiltriggi are the craftsmen. A Pfiltrigg explains to the philologist, Ransom, that each of the languages is adapted to the different interests and qualities of the three races. He says:

They [the hrossa] are our great speakers and singers. They have more words and better. No one learns the speech of my people, for what we have to say is said in stone and sun’s blood and star’s milk and all can see them. No one learns the sorn’s speech, for you can change their knowledge into any words and it is still the same. You cannot do that with the songs of the hrossa. Their tongue goes all over Malacandra. I speak it to you because you are a stranger. I would speak it to a sorn. But we have our old tongues at home. You can see it in the names. The sorns have big-sounding names like Augray and Arkal and Belmo and Falmay. The hrossa have furry names like Hnoh and Hnihi and Hyoi and Hlithnahi… But my people have names like Kalakaperi and Parakatuaru and Tafalakeruf. I am called Kanakaberaka.[11]

This is one of the reasons why Tolkien loved the Ransom trilogy with a love he was never able to find for Narnia.

There is not so didactic a passage in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s characters comment on the idiosyncrasies of language in a few passages. When the three companions arrive in Rohan, Aragron sings a song in the language of the Rohirrim, a language unknown to Gimli and Legolas. Legolas responds:

“That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,” said Legolas; “for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”[12]

The language of each race of Middle-earth is reflective of their character and craft: the “high” language of the Elves is best suited to music and lore while the “secret dwarf-tongue, that they teach to no one,” can easily be inferred to be very practical and earthy in nature.[13] The black tongue of Mordor is best suited to malice and deceit.

Indeed the languages themselves bear peculiar virtues, illustrative of the power of language. For Tolkien, words have the power not only to evoke meaning, but to invoke real presence. This is illustrated in several different scenes throughout the narrative, notably in the use of the Black Speech of Mordor and in the names of great figures.

During the council of Elrond, Gandalf reads the words written on the Ring of Power in their original tongue, the Black Speech of Mordor. The tongue sounds terribly cacophonous:

Ash nazg durbatuuluk ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg, thrakatuluk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

The change in the wizard’s voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled and the Elves stopped their ears.[14]

In this case it is the language, rather than the meaning of the phrase, that is most offensive to the listening ears. We can tell the language, like the land and people who use it, is most suited to convey dark and twisted meanings. More than this, the speech is even able to affect the environment in which it is spoken, as seen by the shadow passing over and the reaction of the fair elves unable to endure the inherent ugliness of the words.

The invocative effect of language explains the heroes’ avoidance of saying the name of wicked beings whenever possible. When questioning Gandalf the White, Gimli asks Gandalf to “tell us how you faired with the Balrog!” but Gandalf fiercely replies, “Name him not!” and Tolkien writes, “for a moment it seemed that a cloud of pain passed over his face.”[15]

This shadow passes over the face of Gandalf even after he overcame the Balrog and spoke the Black Speech in Rivendell. The Balrog’s name itself is loathsome and brings back at least a memory of the loathsome creature. Faramir, Captain of the Guard of Gondor, out on patrol on the very borders of Mordor, dares not speak Sauron’s name, rather referring to him as “He who we do not name.”[16] Gandalf and Faramir are presented as wise and courageous throughout the story, so their reluctance to speak the name of the evil ones could not be attributed to superstition or cowardice. If even these two most resilient characters take such precautions, the invoking power of names must be quite dangerous.

Conversely, there are fair names that trouble the wicked and encourage true hearts. When Frodo tries to fend off an attack from the chief Nazgul at Weathertop, it is his Elvish war cry more than his Elvish blade that proves effectual. Aragorn observes that “all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King. More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth.”[17] Sam may have remembered Aragorn’s words when he was seeking a password to use as a sign of his return in the dark tower of Cirith Ungol. He tells Frodo, “Now you draw up the ladder, if you can, Mr. Frodo; and don’t you let it down till you hear me call the pass-word. Elbereth I’ll call. What the Elves say. No orc would say that.”[18] When in a dark spot, Sam calls out to Galadriel and always receives some sort of response, usually light based, that reminds him of the Lady.

Not only do words in The Lord of the Rings invoke what they signify, they also channel direct power and authority. The potency of words comes through most clearly in the words of Tom Bombadil and Gandalf. Bombadil is able to command a malevolent willow tree, a Barrow-wight, and even the health of the hobbits. Speaking to the tree Tom says,

“You let them out again, Old Man Willow!” he said. “What be you a-thinking of? You should not be waking. Eat earth! Dig deep! Drink water! Go to sleep! Bombadil is talking!”[19]

(Though to put it more accurately he is singing.) Tom further commands a Barrow-wight to leave and never return, the entranced hobbits to wake and be warm of heart and limb, and his words always affect the ends he speaks.[20]

Gandalf demonstrates a similar power of command, exercised through speech, in his confrontations with the Balrog and the defeated Saruman. In Moria, Gandalf first confronts an unseen foe behind a door Gandalf is attempting to keep shut:

What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces.[21]

Later on the bridge, on the verge of escape, Gandalf turns to face the now revealed Balrog. The foe is beyond the physical strength of any of Fellowship, but Gandalf remains and opposes the foul beast with only his words:

“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”[22]

Gandalf’s words prove effectual where swords were not. The Balrog falls while the rest of the Fellowship is able to make their escape.

Even more overt, Gandalf is able to command Saruman to obey him.

“Come back, Saruman!” said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaned on it, breathing hard…

[Gandalf] raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. “Saruman, your staff is broken.” There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. “Go!” said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.[23]

One might say that Tom Bombadil and Gandalf are exceptional, that they are creatures with innate power. Perhaps. But even still their power is revealed and exercised through their words, words spoken at the right time in the right way.

Tolkien instills his view of language in two levels in The Lord of the Rings: implicitly, through the use of his poems, invented languages, and names that train the reader to be sensitive to the immaterial qualities that words signify, and more overtly through scenes depicting the power of language to invoke a real presence and to channel authority over even material objects, not just other wills. The two operations of language reinforce one another and the entire project only makes sense in a world that is not merely naturalistic, one reducible to and determined by the arrangement of atoms and energy.

The former operations of language can easily be translated back into the real world context by the reader. Turning from words and languages of The Lord of the Rings to the words used in everyday life, we can recognize names and words as either fit or unfit to their external referents and become more aware of words that have been depleted through hasty application. The recovery of the significance of meaning in language tunes us into the qualities that are really real, not merely outward projections from a subjective self, but a subjective response to an external reality.

On the surface it may seem like accepting the power of words is a harder leap to make when turning back to the real world, but the connection is stronger than it may first sound. Even in the real world, it is quite true that names often invoke the thing signified. Phrases such as “Are you hungry?” or “Do you remember when…?” or “flying purple penguin” have immediate effects on the hearers. It also makes sense to think of words having commanding authority, and to see debates with words as real battles with consequences related to the very real ideas signified by the words used. When a judge pronounces a sentence, the words have authority in relation to the authority behind the system of government, the moral law behind the statutes, and the moral force behind the words the judge employs. The same is true of an instructor’s words, or a politician’s, or a parent’s.

In short, Tolkien’s treatment of language can help us to recover our lost sense of the supernatural realities in the world around us, helping us escape from the prevailing subjectivist or materialist worldviews so dominant in the West today.

Citation Information

Josiah Peterson, “Supernatural Words,” An Unexpected Journal</em 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 7-24.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/supernatural-words/


[1] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge, 1979), 29.

[2] See Appendix F in J.R.R. Tolkien,  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, (New York: Ballantine, 2013), 467-70.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “The gods return to earth: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring,” Image and Imagination (New York: Cambridge, 2013),100.

[4] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Harcourt, 2013), 77-78.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (New York: Ballantine Books, 2001), 66.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” On Fairy Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger & Douglas Anderson (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 94.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Forward,” The Space Trilogy (New York: Harper, 2013), vii.

[11] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003), 114.

[12] Tolkien, The Two Towers, (Boston: Harcourt, ) 496-7.

[13] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Harcourt, ) 299.

[14] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine, 2012), 285.

[15] Tolkien, The Two Towers, 110.

[16] Ibid., 214.

[17] Tolkien, Fellowship, 223.

[18] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 199.

[19] Tolkien, Fellowship, 135-6.

[20] Ibid., 160-61.

[21] Ibid., 367.

[22] Ibid., 370.

[23] Tolkien, Two Towers, 208.

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