The Language of Middle Earth

“In the beginning was the Word.”


If you are not yet sufficiently awed by the profound depths of which the human mind is capable through the mystery of human creativity, ponder the fact that you have just successfully read this sentence. It has quite a complex structure, with an independent clause and three subordinate clauses, plus four prepositional phrases. It contains thirty different words used thirty-seven times.  The odds that you have ever seen them before combined in precisely that order are, for all practical purposes, zero. I could spend a whole chapter just analyzing that one sentence without taxing my own patience (yours is another matter). Yet I created the sentence effortlessly, and most of you probably understood it with little or no conscious effort.  Both of those facts are just plain stupefying.  And usually we do not even waste the adjective creative on expository prose of the kind I am writing now!  But without this almost indescribable human capacity for creativity, language could not work.  Without consciously doing any of the formal analysis (until after the fact), I spontaneously created a structure that allowed you to recreate with some accuracy in your mind the fairly complex and sophisticated meaning I was attending to in mine.

Where Shakespeare learned his grammar

Where Shakespeare learned his grammar

Where does this astounding ability come from? Man’s creation in the image of God is the source of the difference between us and the rest of the animal creation.  But what is the imago Dei (image of God)?  Is it our amphibious nature combining matter and spirit, our rationality, our moral (or immoral) nature, our capacity for relationship with God, or is it simply the position we occupy as His regents, representing Him as stewards and governors of creation?  None of these attributes is irrelevant to the imago, but neither is any of them its essence.  Theologians can spend interminable pages debating the details to no purpose, because they have never bothered to read Genesis for its narrative flow in context.  When we do, the answer is very plain.

Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar

Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar

The first statement that God intends to create Man in His own image occurs very early, in Genesis 1:26.  We are in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.  So let us start from scratch.  So far we have only seen two attributes of God in action; they are all that has been revealed to this point, hence all we know of Him.  First, He is creative; second, He is articulate.  And these two facts are related:  He uses language as the means of His creativity, first declaring things into existence and then giving them both form (separating light and darkness, water and land, etc.) and value (it was very good). 

And God said, "Let there be light."

And God said, “Let there be light.”

So if we are then told that Man is going to be “like” God, one would think that this likeness must refer to the only attributes that have so far been introduced into the narrative.  Man too will be creative and articulate. And this reasonable assumption is confirmed by the story.  Adam is the first creature to be personally addressed by God’s speech; after a long string of third-person “let there be’s” he is called “thou.”  And he immediately starts talking back.  His first official act is to create the first human language:  God brings the animals before him, and whatever Adam calls each one is its name. So Man, like God, is creative because he is articulate. The core of the imago Dei is language.

Calvin abuses the gift of language.

Calvin abuses the gift of language.

Language allows us to contemplate things not immediately present in the physical environment and then to manipulate them in our heads.  It is therefore the foundation of our capacity for abstract thinking and reason. Language allows us to render an account to God of our stewardship of His creation.   It is therefore the foundation of the fact that, in a manner not true of the other animals, we are accountable for our actions, i.e., have  a moral nature.  That accountability allows us to function as His regents, the stewards of creation. We see then that all the major facets of our uniqueness that have traditionally been related to the image of God find their unity in language; it is the characteristic we share with Him that makes all the others possible.  Like Him, we are creative and articulate, articulately creative and creatively articulate.  We are language users because we are language makers, made in the image of the Word.

One who used the gift of language well.

One who used the gift of language well.

It is therefore no accident that the greatest story teller of the Twentieth Century, who propounded as well as practiced the theory of Secondary Creation, began the creation of the most believable, consistent, and compelling imaginary world ever known with the ultimate act of human creativity:  the endeavor to create a language.  Tolkien discovered that in order for Elvish to have a convincing sense of reality as a language, it required a people to speak it, a world for them to live in, a history and a mythology for them to remember, and other languages (spoken by neighboring peoples, who would have all the same requirements) to be related to.  And that is both how we got Middle Earth and one reason why it is so convincing.


For more on the gift of language and how we may best thank the Giver by using it well, see Dr. Williams’ book Inklings of Reality, available in the Lantern Hollow E-Store!



About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on April 28, 2014, in Christianity, Donald Williams, Grammar, J.R.R. Tolkien, Language, Lantern Hollow Press, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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