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Why did Tolkien use archaic language?

All words have life cycles. They are born, sometimes by a specific individual at a recorded moment, as was the case with grotty. The current first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night, in which George Harrison utters the word in response to some shirts. ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead in them’, George says. ‘They’re dead grotty.’ When prompted with, ‘Grotty?’ he responds, ‘Yeah—grotesque’. In this case, it seems that we not only know the word’s beginning and sense, but we can view its creation at our leisure. Most words don’t begin so cinematically, of course. Someone somewhere utters dog, or cat, or serendipity, and someone else repeats it. And so it goes.

Vampire-like words

Some words – like grotty, in fact – then become widely used, while others remain restricted to specific regions or subject matters. Aetiological is fairly healthy today, at least if one is speaking about beginnings in a philosophical or scientific realm. When they pass, many words remain out of use, with the exception of their presence in older books. And so from reading Dickens’s novels we may know words like phaeton and stanhope, but since they refer to types of carriages not in use now, we scarcely use them in daily conversation. Some words and expressions, however, rise from the dead, vampire-like, and function as archaic language, used with the self-conscious recognition that they are, well, no longer in use.

Spenser and Milton enjoyed archaic language, as did Dickens, Browning, and T. S. Eliot. But few writers have made greater use of it than J. R. R. Tolkien. Published in 1937, the Hobbit includes a host of expressions that, the dictionaries tell us, were long out of currency by the time of writing. We find forms that simply have been replaced, such as the historical kine, which Tolkien uses for cows. Or words that he uses with an outdated sense, such as reek, meaning not ‘unpleasant smell’ but ‘smoke’. Or words whose structure is archaic, such as clove for cleaved, thriven for thrived, carven for carved, and upholden for upheld. Tolkien even uses archaic forms of verbal phrases. ‘Supper is preparing’, one elf observes to Thorin, though since the eighteenth century English-speakers have said that supper is ‘being prepared’.

An inside joke

Tolkien did not initially intend for the Hobbit to be published. It began as story for his children and was shared with friends at Oxford – fellow medievalists like C. S. Lewis – for whom the archaic expressions well might have been a kind of inside joke. It was quite by accident that the manuscript found its way into the house of Allen and Unwin, where Rayner Unwin, the publisher’s ten-year-old son, pronounced it ‘rich!’ The rest, as they say, is history.

Things were otherwise for the Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien had begun by December of 1937, just a few months after the appearance of the Hobbit. It was always written for a wider audience, always meant to be published, and always imagined on the grand scale not of ‘there and back again’ but of Middle-earth.

And in view of the fact that the book was written for an audience that would not have the medieval and philological training of Tolkien and Lewis, it is striking how much Tolkien increased the presence of archaic language. Here, scarcely a page is turned without words and usages like fell (‘wicked’), dolven (‘dug’), cloven (‘cleaved’), writhen (‘twisted’), smote, thou, and ye. Beyond individual words are clauses and even entire sentences that involve archaic syntax: ‘They saw a swan of great size’; ‘Boromir was a man both tall and strong’; ‘Rede oft is found at the rising of the Sun’; ‘Helms too they chose, and round shields’. When an admirer’s letter criticized the latter archaism, Tolkien responded that if modern English ‘has lost the trick of putting a word desired to emphasize . . . into prominent first place . . . so much the worse for it’. As annoying as such archaisms might be to some readers, there’s no doubt Tolkien used them intentionally.

Something out of the ordinary

And all these usages do indeed have historical justification. They are words, senses, inflections, and structures that were employed at some point in English’s past. But for an individual simply to reuse them once they have passed from currency raises at least two complications. First, the era that Tolkien’s archaisms in particular recall isn’t so much the full inflectional period of Anglo-Saxon England as the medievalism of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, when writers like Collingwood and Morris used them to construct a pseudo-medieval world in novels Tolkien read as a youth. That they already were marked usages is clear from the highly critical response of Gudbrandur Vifusson and York Powell, two of the Victorian era’s luminaries in Scandinavian scholarship. In their own translation of medieval Norse materials, they described the ‘affectation of archaism’ as a ‘grave error’ and an ‘abominable fault’ that makes the originals ‘sound unreal, unfamiliar, false’. And second, fronting a direct object like helms (say) was a perfectly ordinary thing to do in Old English, when the language’s inflections made it perfectly clear what was a subject and what an object. In linguistic terminology, it was an ‘unmarked’ usage. Today, it’s exactly the opposite, and so it draws attention to itself as something out of the ordinary, which is the kind of thing to which Vigfusson and Powell objected.

Language is historically specific, and if we reuse outdated language like reek or outdated forms like fronted objects, we necessarily produce meanings and effects other than those found in the originals or in the unmarked language of daily discourse. Like nonce words and other kinds of linguistic novelty, then, the often disorientating archaisms of The Lord of the Rings don’t evoke so much the Middle Ages or even William Morris as simply something peculiar, something unusual, something not of this world. Vigfusson and Powell were surely right, then, to describe archaisms as unreal and unfamiliar, since that is precisely their point. Whatever Tolkien’s intentions and whatever one thinks of Middle Earth or outmoded expressions, archaic language is fundamental to what he called the sub-creation of this secondary world.