It was the fall of 2001. I was rereading The Lord of the Rings in anticipation of the film, which I was sure would be screened even in our rural, mountainside Japanese town. One afternoon, I was killing time at our church, a peculiar community of expats from Thailand, China, Brazil, and North America who worshipped with a tiny group of Japanese confederates. As the church was a multiuse building for fellowship, education, and community service, it was filled with all manner of rigmarole. It was a strange place, and unusual people, but it was our community for a critical part of our young, married lives.
I don’t remember if I was waiting for worship practice or biding time between language classes, but I found some magnets on a whiteboard and began to play. The magnets were not just Arabic numbers and Latin letters as we might find in a castoff corner of an American suburban church. The magnets were the remnants of various kits, including kanji and geometry and hiragana. I began to shape the educational flotsam and jetsam into a syllabary, adapted from the Japanese system I was learning, but with characters from my own twenty years of reading fantasy and science fiction. I was quite lost to the project for an hour or two.
The magnetic oddments served the purpose well, so that when people arrived it was clear to them that I had made what I was calling in my head an “alphabet”—although “alpha” and “beta” had no part in it. The distinctive rhythms and tonal patterns of Japanese language had entirely infused my mind, but my system didn’t sound like Japanese. It was richer in Ls and Rs, with some gutturals and sibilants from the Hebrew alephbet I was learning at the time. It was the syllabary I wanted to capture from my new culture, not the staccato give and take of Japanese speech.
Someone noted—it was Mickey, I think—that it looked like something from The Lord of the Rings. And he was right. The liquid nature of my syllabary as it contrasted with harder-edged sounds—what I later would recognize as fricatives to add to my gutturals—was most certainly coming from the Professor himself, J.R.R. Tolkien.
I can’t remember if I was annoyed at being derivative back then, but I have since become comfortable with that status. When it comes to the constructed languages in fiction (conlangs), Tolkien is the master. Terry Pratchett captures the truth of it well, given the fact that I was (re)discovering the mythic elements of language invention in the Land of the Rising Sun:
Tolkien appears in the fantasy universe in the same way that Mount Fuji appeared in old Japanese prints. Sometimes small, in the distance, and sometimes big and close-to, and sometimes not there at all, and that’s because the artist is standing on Mount Fuji.
While the conlangs that appear on screen and in print can often be simplistic and perhaps no more than a part of the atmosphere—I’m reading Stephen King’s Desperation, and his elemental-alien-demonic language of Tak is there merely as a tool to invite horror and to give a sense of cavernous, instinct-soaked deadliness—many of our fictional languages are constructed with some complexity. The TV version of George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire is a strong example, which I enjoyed reading about in David J. Peterson’s, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building.
Back in 2001, I knew little about Tolkien’s philological idiosyncrasies. I was a fan, reading as a lover of Tolkien’s words and worlds and responding with my own bit of word-playfulness. Good readers do this, I think, sketching out family trees and maps, rewriting the story and playing with its possibilities. And, in the case of a carefully constructed speculative universe with diegetic languages that have some heft, playing with the words of that world.
It was what Tolkien himself loved to do, of course. As I grew as a Tolkien reader, I came to realize the extent to which his entire legendarium is rooted in language and language invention. While I have played with language forms when writing fiction, Tolkien wrote fiction to give space for his languages to breathe and grow. It is why, I think, Tolkien’s writings feel like they have a mythic quality to them. And, like a magnet, it is a feature that either attracts or repels readers.
Tolkien was aware of the polarizing nature of invented languages when he finally came public in the early 1930s with his own. Before The Hobbit—long before The Lord of the Rings was in anything like a readable form—Tolkien shared what he called his “Secret Vice” in a lecture of the early 1930s. Tolkien believed in the interconnected nature of language and mythology, and shared this thesis with the Samuel Johnson society of Oxford in a 1931 talk called “A Hobby for the Home.” As Tolkien’s secret vice of language development is the root of his legendarium, the more we invest in Tolkien’s conlangs, the more we learn about his worlds.
As such, Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins’ 2016 publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “A Secret Vice” in a critical form is very welcome. A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Language is a beautifully designed edition in the HarperCollins Middle-earth series, and includes critical texts with extensive notes of two of Tolkien’s connected lectures, “A Secret Vice” and “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism.” They also publish a number of related manuscript notes in Bodleian Tolkien MS. 24 which would only be available to people with archival access. The volume closes with a chapter on “The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien’s Invented Languages” and a helpful chronology of Tolkien’s philological and language work in 1925-1933.
Overall, A Secret Vice is excellently done, neither disappearing too deeply into the involved worlds of Tolkienist language scholarship nor skating quickly across the issues. The reviews of scholarship are adequate though not exhaustive, and the review is accessible to new students. Some will use this book for a broad-based introduction, while others will use it primarily for the texts.
My criticism and concerns are probably issues of publication rather than editorial control. I am eternally frustrated by endnotes, especially in critical editions. This is even less endearing when we are dealing with conlang poetry. My shout into the wind on this issue will do little to shift what is the normal practice in the industry. Beyond that, the “coda” that offers the section on Tolkien language reception could have been longer. A little more detail about the living nature of Elvin tongues would be welcome, but I am surprised we don’t have a significant portion on what is the most extensive and complete post-Tolkien Tolkienist conlang, that of The Game of Thrones on screen. I can only guess that someone else has done this job or that it didn’t fit in the vision of the publishers or others behind the scenes.
These issues are minor and shouldn’t take away from a volume of worth. As a fan, as a curious reader, I’m appreciative of Drs Fimi and Higgins for their work.
One cool feature is that Drs Fimi and Higgins each led various parts of a three-section academic series on A Secret Vice hosted by Signum University. Here are those sessions, available free to you.