Languages, Myths and History
Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction. Elizabeth Solopova. North Landing Books, 2009. 107 pp. $16.24 (softcover). ISBN 978-0981660714.
Reviewed by Larry Swain
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:3 (#344) in March 2011.]
In this slim book, Elizabeth Solopova has provided a work that is difficult to describe. The audience of the book is really her own students; she wrote the introduction specifically to address students who were encountering Tolkien’s fiction for the first time. And in that regard the book succeeds very well. I would use it, in fact, in a similar course. There is simply no other succinct and effective treatment of Tolkien the academic, the influence of some of the more important languages on his imagination, and a description of those languages as they pertain to the world of Middle-earth.
For the experienced Tolkien fan who has dipped into some of the standard works on Tolkien studies, such as Carpenter’s biography and edition of letters, one or both of Tom Shippey’s works, and other such standards, Solopova offers little that is new or revelatory. But that little in my view is well worth the modesty of the book. The two best examples of those gold nuggets are the chapters on Finnish and Gothic. While it is well known that Tolkien was interested in these languages and their literatures, there are few Tolkien scholars who have done any extensive commentary on the nature and depth of their influence on Tolkien. Solopova begins to redress that lack.
But she does go further. Not only does she discuss Gothic, but she discusses the influence of the Goths themselves, who come to us chiefly through Roman sources. Solopova in her chapter on Gothic provides the most readily available translation of “The Battle of Catalaunian Fields” from Jordanes’s History of the Goths (to use its English title). This battle scene seems to be the template for the charge of the Rohirrim at Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings. Although she is using the standard translation of Jordanes’s work, done in 1915, at least in North America, Solopova’s book is more readily available. Those two chapters, in my view, make this little book worth owning by Tolkien neophytes and advanced scholars alike.
Each chapter concludes with a brief “Further Reading” section. More importantly, however, is that bibliography at the back of the text. Solopova has gathered together not just the typical and necessary foundational Tolkien scholarship, but she has also included works referring to primary literature in the discussed languages and select scholarship on those languages and literatures. The bibliography will be a significant aid to any classroom or independent Tolkien fan.
There are weaknesses, some of which Solopova herself admits in the beginning of the book. There is no treatment of any of the Celtic languages; nor is there any comment on the influence of Hebrew (slight though it was) on the language of the Dwarves. Most glaring, however, is the lack of any comment on Tolkien’s work in Middle English and its influence on his work, nor in Latin and Greek. Some of this is not surprising: no one, not even a scholar of Solopova’s talent, can be expert in everything. The book can only cover areas in which the author has knowledge and expertise. Nonetheless, some of these gaps are regrettable.
Finally, I would like to comment on the usefulness of this book in a particular context, the context in fact from which it sprang and for which it was written: the undergraduate literature course in Tolkien. For that purpose, this book is an excellent tool, and taken in conjunction with Solopova’s Keys to Middle Earth, co-authored with Stuart Lee, both books provide a foundation in the principal languages and literatures that influenced Tolkien and provided him a number of sources for images and scenes in his stories in Middle-earth. I thus recommend the book, even for the experienced Tolkien fan and scholar.