September 28, 2008

The Children of Húrin by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien: I loved it, though it was a slow starter.

I dutifully read the introduction which was supposed to be a helpful aid, but was instead a mind-numbing litany of lineages and alliances, none of which stuck in my head. With relief I finally started Chapter One and was bored to death for the first 50-60 pages, reading on only because I had spent my husband's hard-earned money on the book.

Then the story started, and it was a right good one. I fell asleep with visions of dragons and orcs and ill-fated maidens and valiant-but-flawed heroes. It was a grand adventure and I do indeed recommend it. Just skip the intro, slog through the first bit, and brace yourself for the Shakespearian ending.

Did you know that the Elven language that Tolkien created is one of the only two fully functional created languages? The other is Esperanto. To be fully functional, a language has to have devices that show time, plurality, etc. English uses verbs for time (I eat, I ate) and the letter s for plurals (one cat, two cats). Anyway, Tolkien created an entire working language (this staggers me -- like he didn't have enough to do writing the novels?) for the elves to speak in his novels.

The Wikipedia entry on J R R Tolkien is a nice quick read, if you would like to know more about him. Otherwise I will leave you with one last nugget of Tolkienism. When Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was crafting his beautiful dual-language work, Beowulf: A New Translation, (review coming soon to a blog near you) he tipped his hat in his introduction to one -- and only one -- other Beowulf scholar: J.R.R. Tolkien. Here is Wikipedia (yes, I know, how scholarly of me) summation of relationship twixt Tolkien and Beowulf:
Beowulf exercised an important influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the landmark essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics while a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. Significantly, the word orc-neas is used to describe Grendel's race. Many parallels can also be drawn between Beowulf and The Hobbit.
All of this is to say that if you enjoyed the LOTR books, you can add two books to your "To Read" pile. The Children of Hurin and Beowulf: A New Verse Translation.


  1. I'm not a big fantasy person, but I respect Tolkien and his work.

  2. You are not entirely correct on a couple of points. Esperanto and Elvish (not Elven) are not the only two fully functional created languages. There have been many others which did not become well known, and there are still many others which; although may be little known, are definitely fully functional: (Volapük, IDO, Interlingue, Klingon, lojban; to name a few).

    Also you questioned how JRR Tolkien had time to create languages when working on his books. What you need to understand is that as a professor of languages, the novels were only written by him reluctantly, as a way of showing off the languages and back-stories he'd already created. See, JRR felt that English lacked the fairy-story-legend-culture that other countries like Iceland, Scandinavia and Germany have. So he set about creating one for us. Once had had the people, the places and the history mapped out, he created languages to bring them all together. Only then, once this was done, did he put them out in the form of novels.

  3. Actually, I can clarify the situation with Elvish and Esperanto still further, and both of you are “not entirely correct on a couple of points.”

    First, Elvish (and @NONE, to say “the Elven language” is perfectly acceptable) actually refers to a whole cluster of related languages, two of which were brought to a reasonably advanced stage: Quenya and Sindarin. But it is not correct for either of you to call Tolkien’s Elvish tongues “fully functional” — neither of the two most developed is close to that. It’s a common misconception.

    They are, as I said, reasonably advanced, but the available vocabulary is not sufficient for everyday conversation, and there are certain basic grammatical elements which have never been fully fleshed out. Esperanto contains more than ten times the basic vocabulary as Tolkien’s most advanced languages. Not to mention, Tolkien continued to remodel the languages over the course of his whole life, which makes it difficult to determine which historical words and grammatical forms to use. They changed all the time. To sum up: one cannot become fluent in the Elvish languages, nor even really speak them, certainly not as well as, say, Esperanto.

    @NONE, it’s also not really accurate to say that only “[o]nce had [sic] had the people, the places and the history mapped out, he created languages to bring them all together.” The languages were the beginning, not a secondary effect, to Tolkien’s mythopoeia. The languages developed in advance of the feigned history, which struggled to keep up.

  4. Thanks for your positive comments on Esperanto!

    An interesting video can be seen at

    Otherwise might help?


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