J.R.R. Tolkien is a master of words. His popular fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, which has been turned into a box office winning movie series, and its prequel The Hobbit features a motley cast of characters including humans, elves, hobbits, wizards, and ents. The books concerning these characters include: The Hobbit and the trilogy containing The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
Tolkien was able to use his knowledge of words to indicate fully create a scheme of creatures and well-known characters. Many of his usages have forever changed viewer’s thoughts on certain creatures.
Background to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
Tolkien’s story takes place in the fictional world of Middle-Earth where a hobbit (a short fictional creature of Tolkien’s own invention) must make a journey to save himself and his people from the evil Sauron. At the beginning of the series he inherits what they call “The One Ring.” This ring must be destroyed because evil powers are conglomerating to steal it and use its powers to take over all of Middle-Earth.
Frodo makes the journey to destroy the ring, and he faces many new characters, creatures, and locations along the way. Most of the characters in the series speak with varying dialects and they sometimes even use languages invented by Tolkien himself. What many people may not know is Tolkien’s personal experiences as a word smith, a word lover, and a word studier.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s work with words was prolific. The Ring of Words tells that “…Tolkien’s first job, on returning home from war service in the trenches, was as an assistant on the original [Oxford English] Dictionary, then still incomplete” (Gilliver, Marshall, Weiner vii).
Tolkien also created his own fictional languages, based off of authentic ones he had studied, and he produced their writings and runes. He is also well-known for reviving Old English words and reinventing them to suit his own personal uses.
The Changing Definition of Elves
One of the other Old English words popularized by Tolkien is “elf.” The OED online defines as an elf as “mythol: The name of a class of supernatural beings in early Teutonic belief supposed to possess formidable magical powers, exercised variously for the benefit or injury of mankind.” The OED also explains that the creature called an elf, during the Old English period, was seen more often than not as a dark and threatening creature.
In The Lord of the Rings, the vast majority of the elves seen are helpful, long lived creatures, with the vast knowledge of healing. When Frodo receives a life threatening injury on his journey the elf Elrond, “…is a master of healing” (Fellowship 248) and he uses those very same healing powers to keep Frodo alive. The Ring of Words describes, as previously mentioned that in Old English writings elves were often seen as cruel and malignant creatures.
Later on, in the 16th century, an elf was seen as something more akin to a modern day fairy, a small and flighty creature. Thanks to the popularity of The Lord of the Rings books and movies, people are much more likely to associate the word “elf” with J.R.R. Tolkien’s mysterious, yet helpful, humanoid woodland creatures than with other derivations of the word.
Concerning the elves, Tolkien also uses the word “elven” in his works, as “an adjective meaning ‘of or relating to the elves” (Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner 117). This shows an evolution of a word since “elven” in Old English was used as a noun which meant “originally, a female elf, but in later use applied to both sexes” (OED). Thus Tolkien reinvented the word by changing its part of speech and by using it to represent more than what it originally did.
Ents in the Lord of the Rings
Another fictional creature which Tolkien popularized was an “ent” which is a giant walking and talking tree. When the hobbits first meet the ent Treebeard in The Two Towers, they note that he was, “a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at first fourteen feet high, very sturdy, with a tall head and hardly any neck” (64). The Ring of Words notes that this word was derived from the Old English “eoten… [which] was a being hostile to humans” (Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner 119).
Tolkien, therefore, fleshed out the Old English, and other derived, words to create a group of sentient beings who help make the hobbits mission successful.
Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. The Lord of the Rings series. New York: Ballantine Books, 1954.
… The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books, 1937.
…The Return of the King. The Lord of the Rings series. New York: Ballantine Books, 1955.
…The Two Towers. The Lord of the Rings series. New York: Ballantine Books, 1954.