Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Language of Beauty

by Peter Kreeft


This essay by Peter Kreeft on the power of words revealed by Lord of the Rings was transcribed from a talk, "Language of Beauty", given at Trinity Forum Academy on June 6, 2005.

Publisher & Date

Catholic Education Resource Center, June 6, 2005

Glory and Splendor

Those words are not modern or familiar or informal, they're not popular in our culture, and yet they contribute not only to beauty, but to joy, to happiness, to a deep human fulfillment. If we're created for royal glory, then royal glory will fulfill us, however unfashionable it is ideologically.

Well, there's a lot of things in the Lord of the Rings that reflect that glory. They include exalted, Elvish things, but they also include humble, Hobbit-like things. But it takes words and language to reveal them. Without language, there's no light shining on that glory. Language doesn't just express the glory, language somehow incarnates the glory, so much so that it's not clear whether it's the glory of the things that justifies the glory of the words, or vice versa: the glory of the words that justifies the glory of the things. It can be shown but not demonstrated.

In one of Tolkien's letters he says

the meaning of fine words… [fine, especially for the English, I think, means not just precise, but great, perfect, glorious] the meaning of fine words cannot be made 'obvious', least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. [That's a deadly separation, and that accounts for bad Bible translations all over the place.] They think the word argent 'means' silver. [The dictionary says so.] It does not. It and silver have a reference to x, or the chemical Ag, but in each case x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation, x + y or x + z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different emotional responses, but also because they are not in fact used … in the same way. We must learn to appreciate the intrinsic heraldic overtones that a word like argent has, in addition to its on peculiar sound, which the word 'silver' does not have. I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies. 1

One of the most depressing things anybody ever said to me was after I assigned, I think it was G. K. Chesterton, and I expect, often, reactions on the part of students to Chesterton. People often don't like him. One said, "He makes me feel like an idiot." I didn't say anything... But this student said, "This man treats words as a juggler treats balls." I said, "That's exactly right." He said, "I hate it. I hate jugglers." I said, "Well, I understand … we all hate pantomimes, mimes, for some reason or other, and jugglers are close to that, so …" – I tried to sympathize – he said, "No, you don't understand." He said, "You live with words, with books. For many of us" (this was back in the sixties or seventies) "for many of us, words are the enemy." Words are the enemy? That's like saying air is your enemy. He was serious: Words are our enemies. Terrifying sentence.

C. S. Lewis saw the Lord of the Rings as a near miracle largely because of its style, its high, heraldic style. That review of volume one that I quoted last time, I'll just quote two sentences from it again to remind you: "This book is lightning from a clear sky. … The names alone are a feast. … They embody that piercing, high Elvish beauty which no other prose writer has captured so much. … Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart." 2 As I mentioned last time, and forgot the reference, here is Lewis's little quatrain that is a great principle of literary criticism – he judges books by their power to break hearts:

Have you not seen that in our days
Of any whose story, song or art
Delights us, our sincerest praise
Means, when all's said, 'You break my heart'? 3

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis defined a great book as one that elicits great reading and defined great reading as conjuring up great literary experiences such as wonder and joy and glory.

And this is exactly why Tolkien says he wrote The Lord of the Rings. I quote from the forward to the second edition, p. xvi. "The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them." We're moved by The Lord of the Rings. That's a power that's very mysterious, has a lot to do with the style.

Going back to Lewis again, Lewis explains the power of this high style, especially in epic. In his book A Preface to Paradise Lost (which, most people who read it are embarrassed to confess, they think is better than Paradise Lost itself) Lewis is speaking of poetry, especially Milton's poetry, but what he says is also true of epic prose like Tolkien's, even more in the Silmarillion, of course. Lewis says epic is

the loftiest and gravest among the kinds of court poetry …, a poetry about nobles, made for nobles and performed … by nobles. We shall go endlessly astray if we do not get well fixed in our minds at the outset the picture of a venerable figure, a king, a great warrior, or a poet inspired by the Muse, seated and chanting to the harp a poem on high matters before an assembly of nobles in a court. … From its earliest association with the heroic court there comes into Epic Poetry a quality … which we moderns find difficult to understand. … This quality will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not totally different, from the Modern English solemn. Like solemn, solempne implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn, it does not suggest gloom, oppression or austerity. … A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts, in this sense, are more solemn than fasts. … The very fact that the word pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of 'solemnity'. … In an age in which everyone puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must reawaken the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar's head at a Christmas feast – all these wear unusual clothes, and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean they are vain; it means they are obedient. … The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; instead, it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite. … We moderns may like dances that are hardly distinguishable from walking, and poetry which sounds as if it might be uttered ex tempore. Our ancestors did not. They liked a dance which was a dance, and fine clothes which no one could mistake for working clothes, and feasts that no one could mistake for ordinary dinners, and poetry that unblushingly proclaimed itself to be poetry. What is the point in having a poet inspired by the muse, if he tells the stories just as you or I would have told them?

I wonder what Lewis would have said if he had become a Roman Catholic and had lived long enough to witness our liturgical holocaust. He goes on,

The grandeur which the poet assumes in his poetic capacity should not arouse such a hostile reaction; it is for our benefit. He makes his epic a rite so that we may share it. The more ritual it becomes, the more we are elevated to the rank of participants. 4

Well, Tolkien does this even in the rather familiar, rather hobbit-like, rather – I can't say 'ordinary'; I certainly can't say 'pedestrian' – simple and accessible language of The Lord of the Rings. There are countless stock phrases, calculated to produce stock responses, which our ideology frowns on, but our hearts don't. When he defines Glorfindel, for instance. Let's see if I can find the passage. I remember having an argument with students about this; some loved it and some hated it. Oh. Oh, could you read it for us?

Glorfindel was tall and straight. His hair was of shining gold, his face fair and young and fearless and full of joy. His eyes were bright and keen, and his voice like music. On his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength. 5

Yeah. Notice the reverse word order of the last sentence. Instead of "wisdom sat on his brow," "on his brow sat wisdom." Most people do not like at all one translation of the Bible which I like very much: Ronald Knox's, because he habitually uses reversed word order, especially in the Psalms, for heraldic and high things. I was appalled by the fact that that was a sentence a number of students picked out as one of the worst sentences in the book. Stereotype, they said. No, archetype. They don't believe in archetypes. It's so un-Plato. What do they teach them in the schools nowadays? Well, here's an aspect of beauty. It's not an aspect in The Lord of the Rings, but it's one of those aspects that's healing to our spirit because we don't get it from our culture, and we need it and we find it here.

Beauty and Goodness

Both of these words have narrowed in modern times, so that it's much more of a stretch to make the connection than it used to be. Goodness has narrowed to moral goodness, and moral goodness has in turned narrowed to duty in a Kantian sort of way. Beauty, on the other hand, has narrowed to a certain department of life, the arts, or aesthetics (most primitive cultures don't have a word for art; everything is art), and beauty is purely emotional, that which produces certain reactions. But if you go back to Greek, there is a word that does not exist in the English language, the word kalon, which means both "good" and "beautiful" at the same time, and it's specified by another word, kaiagathon, or k'agathon, which is a contraction of to kalon kai to agathon, "the good and the beautiful". Great marriage.

Well, this marriage of the good and the beautiful, which you have in ancient languages and ancient cultures, was lost. Look at even the architecture of beauty – I don't mean the beauty of architecture, I mean the architecture that culturally expresses a culture's attitude towards beauty. In ancient Athens, if you were a great poet, and you won the competition, you would live in the town hall for life and be fed free. The relationship between the poet and society is incredibly different. Poets in ancient Greece spoke for everyone, or for the gods, to everyone. Poets in our society speak only to other poets and a few groupies, and they're almost always revolutionaries.

That cultural fact is an expression of a deeper psychological or spiritual fact, namely, that beauty and goodness have become divorced. Moral goodness has become drab and unbeautiful, and beauty has become morally dangerous. Edmund Spenser could still woo the readers of his age by imagining virtue as a beautiful woman, but only a century later, Milton could not make the people of our age love his God more than his Satan.

Tolkien bewailed both the ugliness of his age and its separation between the good and the beautiful in the essay on fairy stories. He says, "Ours as an age of improved means to deteriorated ends." That's something I think of every time I go to an airport. There's only one airport; it's cloned, very efficient, very ugly and you almost feel like a clone as you pass through the airports. You become just another piece of furniture, and we can get just as far as we want to go very quickly and very efficiently, but there's nothing there. Sometime I think the pilot's going to say to the passengers, 'We have good news and bad news; the good news is that we're proceeding very efficiently at 700 miles an hour; the bad news is that we don't know where we are.'"

Tolkien says, "It is a part of the essential malady of [our] days – producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery – that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay [the dangerous fairy] that ran through elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty." 6 Notice he almost contradicts himself here. "We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together," but we should, and more alarming, "we find it difficult to conceive of goodness and beauty together," but we should.

In the realm of faerie, one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare, for the evil of the ogre wills it so. But one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose – an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king – that is yet sickeningly ugly. That can't exist in myth, in fairy tales. But at the present day, it would be rash to hope to see one that was not, unless it was built before our time.

I wonder whether this contrast is just in modern culture or in all cultures, and in the very nature of things. I think half of it is: the connection between evil and beauty. I think at all times and places, the beauty of a Helen of Troy or of a Cleopatra has lured men to destruction, and a beautiful face can at any time mask an ugly soul. And there've always been beautiful but wicked queens, like the White Witch in Narnia, or the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen. And also there's always been the reverse, like Strider, who seems foul, yet feels fair. Like all the prophets, like the hick town of Nazareth, and the cold, dirty old stable in Bethlehem. And Calvary. God sends his best gifts in ugly wrappings. But they're not really ugly. I would argue that the most beautiful movie ever made is Mel Gibson's The Passion, which is also the ugliest.

But the contrast between the good and the beautiful, I think, is not in the nature of things, but only in a fallen world. Only in a fallen world is beauty a temptation, or as Proverbs puts it, vain. And that's only because God trains us by what C. S. Lewis calls the Principle of First and Second Things, in that great essay by that title. Putting first things first is the key to the health of second things. Beauty is a great thing, but it's a second thing. It's very good, it's a form of goodness, but it's not as good as moral goodness. So the worship of beauty for beauty's sake, or art for art's sake, will destroy not only the true worship of God, but also true art.

In The Silmarillion, a good example of this Principle of First and Second Things is the great elf Fëanor, who puts his own greatest work of art, the Silmarils, before his moral duty. He will not give up the jewels, just as in The Lord of the Rings the proud will not give up the ring. Fëanor envies the Valar, refuses his duty and his destiny, unlike Frodo. Even Niggle, Tolkien's gently self-mocking self-portrait in "Leaf by Niggle", eventually had to learn the principle that art must be put second to morality. So he put the finishing of his leaf next to the deeds to his needy neighbour, Parish. And that was the only way to attain the perfection of his art.

But even that way of putting it – put art second to morality, put beauty second to goodness – is misleading because it assumes that beauty and goodness are separate entities which by nature clash. I think that's not so; I think beauty is one of the most important forms of goodness. Beauty is very good. And goodness is the highest form of beauty. The single most beautiful thing in this world is a saint. Contrast Mother Teresa's face, one of the ugliest faces – all those wrinkles – with the face of Madonna – empty, vapid, shallow, meaningless. Mother Teresa is much more beautiful. Beauty, as well as goodness, is an attribute of God, and therefore eternal and necessary. And since God is one, beauty and goodness must be ultimately one. So beauty is good.

We need beauty, as well as we need morality, in our lives – much more important than other things, like money. If you had a choice between being a multi-billionaire and seeing ugly things around you all the time, or being very poor, but seeing something you regarded as very beautiful every time you opened your eyes, you would certainly be much happier being poor and beautiful than being rich and ugly. The reason for that is that we're made in God's image. And God is a creative artist. Tolkien's famous poem on fairy stories, about sub-creation:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

We make still by the law in which we're made.7

That poem, by the way, was written to refute the idea of a friend of his, he says, who came up with a silly definition of poetry as "breathing lies through silver." Guess who that friend was? C. S. Lewis, before his conversion. Lewis described himself as "a converted pagan living among apostate puritans."8 But he himself had something of a puritan streak in him, which itself was converted.

Well, Lewis's Law of First and Second Things applies, certainly, to the relation of beauty and morality, above it, but it also applies to the relation between beauty and efficiency, below it. If you sacrifice morality for beauty, you'll lose beauty. If you sacrifice beauty for efficiency, you'll lose efficiency. And that's Tom Shippey's point in commenting on "The Scouring of the Shire". I would argue that the second best book ever written about The Lord of the Rings is Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century. I think the first one is Stratford Caldecott's Secret Fire. Here's what Tom Shippey points out in commenting on the chapter that Peter Jackson totally omitted as "non-negotiable, impossible, we could never do it, we knew from the beginning we couldn't do it" – and there's absolutely no technological reason why he couldn't, and the obvious reason is the same reason he changed the character of Faramir: it contradicted the ideology of Hollywood: it's an attack on state socialism. Anyway, here's Tom Shippey's point, commenting on "The Scouring of the Shire" – the point is about the relationship between beauty and efficiency:

"This country wants waking up and setting to rights," says the leader of the Hobbiton Ruffians, as though he had some goal beyond mere hatred and contempt for the Shire, and … it seems to be more industrialization, efficiency, economy of effort, all things often and still wished on the population of [modern] Britain. The trouble with that (as developments after the publication of The Lord of the Rings have tended to confirm) was that the products of efficiency-drives were often not only soulless but also inefficient. Why do Sharkey's men knock down perfectly satisfactory old houses and put up in their place damp, ugly badly build standardized ones. No-one ever explains this, but the overall picture was one all too familiar to post-war Britons. The Sarumans of this world rule by deluding their followers with images of a technological paradise, but one often gets, however, as has become only more obvious since Tolkien's time, are the blasted landscapes of eastern Europe, strip-mined and polluted, even radioactive.9

Worship Efficiency, and the god will destroy itself as well as you.

I think beauty is the child conceived by the union of goodness and truth. Or maybe the bloom on the rose of goodness and truth. And thus, it's not only good; it's heavenly. And while beauty cannot by itself save us, or substitute for goodness or truth, contrary to Keats's famous moving but muddled sentiment that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth and all you need to know," yet it contributes to the salvation of the creation and of souls.

If you had the choice of going to a church where true, orthodox doctrine was taught, and true morality was preached, but everything was ugly and unattractive, or going to one where only some true, orthodox doctrine was taught, and only some true morality was preached, but was irresistibly attractive, I think you would choose the second. I think you would rightly choose the second. To fall in love with at least half of God's package deal is better than to have it all but not fall in love with it. As the poet says, in heaven, "the poets shall have flames upon their head."10

The Beauty of Language

The goal of the philosopher is logos. Logos, like its Chinese counterpart tao, is an incomparably profound and multivalent word which has many meanings, essentially three. First, the ultimate nature of things, the one source of all essential reality and intelligibility. Second, human intelligence, wisdom, understanding, truth, as the knowledge of that essential reality. Thirdly, right language, right communication or speech or word or argument, that is, the expression of that knowledge.

Philosophy studies all three meanings of logos, the first of which is metaphysics, the second is epistemology, and the third is philosophy of language. There was an ancient skeptic, Gorgios the Sophist, who said, "There is no being. If there were being, it would not be knowable, and if it were knowable, it would not be communicable." One way to summarize those three statements is in the same word: there is no logos. If there were logos it would not be logos, and if it were logos, it would not be communicated as logos. There is no essential form. If there were, it could not be known. If it could be known, it could not be put into language. That's total scepticism. We have now entered the third age of philosophy, because this is the scepticism which we find in deconstructionism.

Metaphysical skepticism is just nominalism: there are no universals, no Platonic forms. That's what killed ancient medieval philosophy. Epistemological scepticism is a kind of nominalism that denies universal concepts, or knowledge of universal truths. That's what you find in David Hume. But linguistic skepticism denies even the intentionality or meaning or significance or pointing power of words. My favorite slogan for deconstructionism is in a poem by Archibald MacLeish, called "Ars Poetica". He says,

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit;

A poem should not mean,
But be. 11

Fruit is an object. The word 'fruit' means fruit. But fruit is simply fruit. Now he's saying words should be like that fruit. They don’t mean anything; they're just things to manipulate.

That's why the deconstructionist has an obsession with power. Mao Tse Tung was a deconstructionist. One of his famous sayings: "We will conquer the world because you fools think that words are labels that are properly or improperly pasted onto things. We know that words are little dynamite sticks in people's minds, and we hold the fuse." That's the most complete form of scepticism.

Now, Tolkien helps us to reverse that, not by philosophical argument, but by showing, as appositely as possible, a philosophy of language. First of all, it's by seeing that words are loveable, words are beautiful. This makes sense for a Christian, for whom the most beautiful thing human eyes have ever seen is called the Word of God. Tolkien loved words, especially proper names. Proper names name persons, which alone are made in God's image. One of the great philosophers of our time, John Paul II, said, "Man is the only thing God created for its own sake." It's a person, it's His image. Proper names are the linguistic expression of that.

Tolkien loved proper names so much that he gave all of his favorite things many names, not just one. He loved to linger long over the art of naming. For instance, in the Silmarillion:

Taniquetil the elves name that holy mountain, and Oiolossë Ever-Lasting Whiteness, and Elerrína Crowned with Stars, and many names beside. But the Sindar spoke of it in their later tongue as Amon Uilos.

and when speaking of the two trees:

Telperion the one was called in Valinor, and Silpion, and Ninquelótë, and many other names; but Laurelin the other was, and Malinalda, and Culúrien, and many names in song beside. 12

Why more names than one? T. S. Eliot knew; in his sage advice at the beginning of his book Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, he says,

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn't just one of your holiday games;

You may think at first I'm mad as a hatter

When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

If even a cat, how much more a mountain?

Words were important to Tolkien not just instrumentally, but metaphysically; not just through their power on human reading and thought and life, but also through their source and basis and foundations. We did not invent language; we inherited it. In the beginning was the Word. A word was the origin of the world! Christ in Genesis. Genesis 1, verse 3: "and God said." That's Christ. First there was saying "light", and there was light.

And a word was the origin of Tolkien's first published work, The Hobbit, and thus its sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Here's Tolkien's account of that event:

All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time… But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930s, and … Since The Hobbit was a success, a sequel was called for;13

One thing leads to another. Thank that dull student who wrote a dull examination paper for the greatest book of the twentieth century.

Earlier, Tolkien's whole mythology of The Silmarillion and its offspring of The Lord of the Rings began with words. Tolkien first invented the elvish language, then he needed a race to speak it, the elves, and then they needed a history, and then a world. Well, it was language that came first. He says about the Ents in one of his letters, "The Ents seem to have been a success …. As usually with me they grew rather out of their name, than the other way about."14 Everything grows out of its name.

Because of this implicitly divine source of language, it has power and intoxication. Tolkien found languages literally intoxicating, not to his body like alcohol, but to his spirit. He writes in Letter 163, "Most important perhaps after Gothic was my discovery in Exeter College library, when I was supposed to be reading for Honour Mods, of a Finnish grammar. It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It totally intoxicated me."15 Now, can you imagine yourself in a library, picking up a volume of Finnish grammar, an alien language in which you know no word at all, and being more intoxicated than you would by wine? No? Then you can't write The Lord of the Rings. That's why you can't write The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien also writes, "It was just as the 1914 war burst on me that I made the discovery that legends depend on the language to which they belong, and that a living language also depends on the legends that it conveys by tradition. For instance, the Greek mythology depends far more on the marvellous aesthetic of its language and so of its nomenclature of persons and places and less on its content than we realize."16 Which is why translation is impossible.

God certainly in His providence raised up not only the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, as part of the providence for the incarnation, but also the Greek language. No language in the history of the world is a more fitting conduit for divine revelation. Well, modern readers not only don't understand that; they dislike it. They dislike the plethora of names in The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion. One reviewer complained, "The Silmarillion sounds like a Swedish railway conductor with a head cold announcing railway stations." I would call that a fascinating aural experience, intoxicating like wine. In fact, I was once not in Sweden but in Norway, and there was a railway conductor with a funny voice, and he was announcing stations, and it was like singing.

Tolkien's love of every word gives his language a character that most modern language doesn't have. One expression of that is his penchant for capital letters. The fashion now is to de-capitalize whatever you can. And de-capitalizing is like decapitating. But Tolkien's words are heavy and vertical. They're a bit like Hebrew. Max Picard says, in The World of Silence,

The architecture of the [Hebrew] language is vertical. Each word sinks down vertically, column-wise, into the sentence. In language today we have lost the static quality of the ancient tongues. The sentence has become dynamic; every word in every sentence speeds on quickly to the next … each word comes more from the preceding word than from the silence and moves on more to the next word in front of it than to the silence. …

A quiver full of steel arrows, a firmly secured anchor rope, a brazen trumpet splitting the air with its few piercing tones: that is the Hebrew language—It can say little, but what it says is like the beating of hammers on an anvil.17

That makes you want to learn Hebrew, doesn't it?

Well, The Silmarillion is like Hebrew. Of course, there's a lot of influence of the Hebrew language, as well as Finnish and Icelandic and some Celtic languages, but in The Silmarillion especially, every word seems like a thunderbolt from heaven, a miracle. That's why he has so many capital letters. That's also why there are so many nouns, both common nouns and proper nouns. That's the Anglo-Saxon style. The words are large like buildings, heavy and slow like glaciers. The sense of height and weight of words suggests a sense of ontological height and weight, a kind of supernaturalism. The reader is lifted out of himself into what Lewis would describe in Surprised by Joy as immense arctic skies18, into the realm of “splendid, remote, terrible, voluptuous, or celebrated things.”19 And he describes the Fisher King, Ransom, in That Hideous Strength this way: "Great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth."20 Tolkien too.

Words and Things

Because his language is not merely a device for communicating thoughts and feelings, or for eliciting them, the words aren't labels for concepts. Rather, it's in the words that the things live and move and have their being. And in the words they come to us.

Heidegger defines language as "the house of being". I think Tolkien would like that. I don't claim to know what Heidegger means most of the time, but I think this is a pretty clear sentence from his Introduction to Metaphysics.

Words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language, in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things. 21

If I come to you only in my body, then what you do to my body you do to me. As Christ says, "What you do to my little ones (who are my body) you do to me."

Apply that to the relation between words and things. If words are the house of things, then what you do to words, you do to things – which is why propaganda is so powerful. Remember, in 1984 the most powerful weapon of the totalitarian state is the new dictionary, a revised language. If you don't have a word anymore, like liberty, you don't have the concept. A concept is like a person. If you're homeless and you don't have a house to live in, you're not going to live very long; you're going to die. So if you don't have a word, the concept is going to die pretty soon. And once the concept dies, the reality dies. So the attack on metaphysical reality comes through the attack on language.

Confucius, the most successful reformer in the entire history of the world, who transformed the world's largest nation from a period of chaos, a period of warring states, to a twenty-one hundred year long history of basic unity and peace and stability, had something like six hundred principles of reform. Someone once asked him, if you could do only one, what one would you do? He would say the reformation of language – the restoration of proper words.

The word poetry means "making", literally – poiesis. Poetry is fundamental speech. Prose is less fundamental speech. Prose is fallen poetry; poetry is not decorated prose. The original language, for Heidegger and for Lewis in The Magician's Nephew, was music. Now music usually has words, so words are in the music. But those words are words for music. Take them out of the music and they're still poetry, but make them fall one step further and they're prose. Make them fall one step further and they're mathematics, which is the only univocal, unambiguous language in the world. The most ambiguous language in the world is music. And therefore it's the richest. How will the tower of Babel be undone; how will we understand each other in heaven? Will we all speak English, or Dutch? No, we'll all speak music.

Just as words can create, for Tolkien, they can also uncreate. In the Silmarillion he says, "Melkor is no longer counted among the Valar, and his name is not spoken upon the earth." You know, Voldemort in Harry Potter is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Tolkien writes, "Last of all is set the name of Melkor, He Who Rises in Might; but that name he has forfeited. And the Noldor, who among the elves suffered most from his malice will not utter it."22

You remember Gandalf will not utter the words on the ring in the language of Mordor in the Shire. He will not read those words. Only in the council of Elrond in Rivendell. And even in that safe and holy place, the words summon something of the presence of hell:

"Ash nazg, durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul."

The change in the wizard's voice was astounding. Suddenly it became menacing, powerful, harsh as stone. A shadow seemed to pass over the high sun, and the porch for a moment grew dark. All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears.

"Never before has any voice dared to utter words of that tongue in Imladris, Gandalf the Grey," said Elrond, as the shadow passed and the company breathed once more.23

Now, if you utter those words in English, they still have a little of their power, but not that much: "One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them; One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them, in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie." That's threatening, but not as threatening as "Ash nazg, durbatulûk".

Thus the power of words is based on the fact that real things are found in words. Words aren't things among other things, things with one additional feature, the ability to point to other things. No, words are the encompassing frame or house of the whole world of things. Things constitute a world only by the creative word of the author, whether it's a fictional world, or whether it's the real world. God speaks, and only then does the world come into being. Tolkien speaks, and only then does Middle-Earth come into being. Corollary: since the things are encompassed by the words, our wonder at the things is encompassed by our wonder at the words. And if we have no linguistic wonder, we will have no ontological wonder.

I hope you have either read or seen that numinous play Equus. There's an electrifying scene where a boy who has invented a religion of horse-worship, since there is nothing in his modern world to worship anymore, invokes the many names of his horse-god. It's deliberately shocking, but it's at the same time electrifying. When you read the Bible, what's the dullest part? The genealogies, right? For ancient readers, those are the most wonderful parts. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is still widely believed that when the name of a saint is pronounced, the saint becomes really present. And the icons of any saint in the church make that saint really present somehow. Presence is not a single thing; it's a range of things.

Or remember that scene in (I think it's still the most successful series in television history) Roots – remember the scene near the end where the black family, finally freed and finally entering their promised land, solemnize this event by reciting their Genesis account, the words that have been faithfully preserved, word for word, repeated orally for generations: "One day Kunta Kinte went out to fell a tree and make a drum." Then follows all the list of ancestral names. That's the most memorable scene in the whole series. Or the scene in Hemingway's – is it For Whom the Bell Tolls, or is it A Farewell to Arms? – where the protagonist, who is totally disillusioned with war and human folly, says, "All words have become meaningless except the proper names of the dead." He's in a cemetery and he reads gravestones. Those are the only meaningful words – well, they're at least the most meaningful words.

The Power of Names

So words have a magical power, a power not just to communicate intellectually, not just to suggest emotionally, but power which can produce physical effects. Now here's a claim that most of you will probably be sceptical of. And maybe I'm wrong in thinking that Tolkien believed this, and maybe I'm wrong in thinking that it is in some way true. But maybe I'm not, so contemplate this rather striking notion.

Look at Tom Bombadil in The Lord of the Rings. His words save Merry from Old Man Willow, and then they save Frodo from the Barrow-wight. Why? As he explains: "None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master: His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."24 "His songs are stronger songs." Are God's songs the strongest songs? Yes. What are God's songs? Prayers. Or things wrought by prayer that the world only dreams of.

Frodo, too, uses the magical power of words when he calls Tom's name. Two miracles happen, one spiritual and one physical. First, "with that name, Frodo's voice seemed to grow strong."25 Second, Tom actually comes! If we find this unconvincing, it shows how little we have taken God at his word, when He repeatedly promises the same thing Bombadil did. To put the Biblical promise in contemporary words, "You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I'll come running to see you again. Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you've got to do is call, and I'll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah; I've got a friend." Thus endeth the daily devotional reading from the prophet James. I think James Taylor deliberately meant that. Taylor's been through hard times, but he's a very religious man. If you get a chance, listen to his new hymn – it's about two or three years old, but, moving.

Are there magic words? I think we all know there are; there are operative words. There are words that, whatever you believe theologically, are sacraments; they effect what they signify. I'll give you two that everybody knows are sacramental words: "I love you" and "I hate you". And for anybody who has any liturgical understanding, "I baptize thee", or "This is My body". These are not labels; they're spiritual weapons. They're arrows that pierce through flesh and into hearts.

Well, in a lesser but real way, the whole of The Lord of the Rings is an armour-piercing rocket that can get into your underground bunkers, your inner Afghanistans or Iraqs. And the most powerful of these arrows are the proper names, the names of persons, or places. When the Black Rider bangs on Fatty Bolger's door in Buckland saying, "Open in the name of Mordor," all the authority and terror and power of Mordor are really present there.

When Frodo on Weathertop faces the Black Rider, "he heard himself crying aloud: 'O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!'"26 He's speaking in tongues – He doesn't understand Elvish – as he strikes the Rider with his sword. Afterwards Aragorn commented on this event; he said, "all blades perish that pierce that dreadful King. More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth."27 Frodo again speaks in tongues in Shelob's lair. "'Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!' he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his."28

And when the tiny hobbit with the tiniest sword advanced on the most hideous creature in all of Middle-Earth with the phial of Galadriel, and in the name of Galadriel and El-Bereth, Shelob cowered. And later Sam did the same thing. "'Galadriel,' he said faintly, and then heard faintly voices far off but clear, the cry of the Elves as they walked under the stars in the beloved shadows of the Shire, and the music of the Elves … 'Gilthoniel A Elbereth!' And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know"29 He's not merely remembering his little dead picture of the live Elves. Somehow those Elves are made present. Because Shelob is not afraid of somebody's memories – Shelob is afraid of Elves.

What's in a name? In the name of Jesus, devils were exorcised. Hell was defeated. Heaven's gate was opened. What's in a name? In a name the whole universe was created. Everything is in a name, because that name was the Word of God, the mind of God, the logos. What's in a name? Moses asked God that question at the burning bush, and God answered I Am.

There's an old myth of an original language. It's in the Bible: the story of the tower of Babel – which is beginning to be undone by Pentecost. It's in Plato, in his Dialogue with the Kratulus. It's not a popular idea anymore, but it's in a lot of classical literature. Once upon a time, there was not only one language, but the right language, the perfect language. Well, if that is true, that would explain why every proper name of Tolkien's seems exactly right. That's a power even his critics marvel at. When we read those names, we're remembering; we're doing Plato's anamnesis unconsciously; our cognition is a re-cognition, a recognition. Our word detector buzzes when we meet the right word, the Platonic ideal, the Jungian archetype. We experience discovery rather than invention.

C. S. Lewis understood this, too. When Mercury descended to earth in The Descent of the Gods in that chapter in That Hideous Strength, here's how he described it:

It was as if the words spoke themselves through him from some strong place at a distance – or as if they were not words at all, but the present operations of God. … For this was the language spoken before the Fall and beyond the Moon and the meanings were not given to the syllables by chance, or skill, or long tradition, but truly inherent in them, as the shape of the great Sun is inherent in the little water-drop. This was Language herself, as she first sprang at Maleldil's bidding out of the molten quicksilver of the star called Mercury on Earth but Viritrilbia in Deep Heaven. 30

The most important proper name to you is your own. In C. S. Lewis's Anthology of 365 Selections from George MacDonald, the one most readers find the most powerful and the most unforgettable is MacDonald's commentary on Revelation 2, verse 17 ("And I will give him a white stone, with a new name written in it, that no-one knows save he who receives it."): Here is MacDonald's commentary on that, and I think this deeply influenced Tolkien, who also loved MacDonald's spirit, though not his style:

The giving of the white stone with the new name is the communication of what God thinks about the man to the man. It is the divine judgement, the solemn holy doom of the righteous man, the "Come, thou blessed," spoken to the individual. … The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man's own symbol – his soul's picture, in a word – the sign which belongs to him and to no-one else. Who can give a man this, his own name? God alone, for no one but God sees who the man is. …

Hamlet has an identity crisis until he knows Shakespeare.

It is only when the man has become his name that God gives him the stone with the name upon it. For then first can he understand what his name signifies. … God's name for a man must be his expression of His own idea of the man, that being whom He had in His thought when He began to make the child, and whom He kept in His thought through the long process of creation that went to realize the idea. To tell the name is to seal the success – to say, "In thee also I am well pleased."31

Finally, the most magical language is music – a word about music in Tolkien. Music is clearly the language of creation; God and his angels sing the world into being. Tolkien begins The Silmarillion this way: "In the beginning, Eru, The One, who in the Elvish tongue is Illuvatar (All-Father) made the Ainur of his thought; and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun."32 Notice it's not that music was in the world, but that the world was in music. This is the "music of the spheres", in which everything is. This is the "Song of Songs" that includes all songs. All matter, all time, all space, all history – all are in this primal language. Plato knew the power of music. In The Republic, music is the very first step in education in the just society, and the very first step in corruption in the bad one. Nothing is more important to the good society, to education, to happiness.

The Lord of the Rings is full of music, full of music. One of the indices at the end of The Lord of the Rings lists songs or poems in the book. Proper names, yes. Places, yes. But songs or poems? There are so many that he needs an index. The hobbits sing high hymns to El-Bereth, and walking songs, and bath songs. Like Tolkien, Bombadil is a writer of prose who is bursting with poetry and music. Peter Beagle, in the introduction to A Tolkien Reader, calls him, "a writer whose own prose is itself taut with poetry."33 I think music is an essential part of the Elvish enchantment. When the Fellowship enters Lothlorien, Sam says, "I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning." And that's how we feel when we enter this whole book.


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter 134, to Jane Neave, 22 November 1961.
  2. C. S. Lewis, in Time and Tide (August 1954), p. 1082. Reprinted in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992), p. 133.
  4. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to "Paradise Lost" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 17, 21.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 139.
  6. J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories", in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 79.
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien, "Mythopoeia", in Tree and Leaf: including the poem Mythopoeia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), lines 61-64, 70.
  8. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), p. 69.
  9. Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), pp. 168, 171.
  10. "Mythopoeia", line 146
  11. Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica", in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 28, no. 3 (June 1926), pp. 126-127.
  12. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (London: HarperCollins, 1977), pp. 37-38.
  13. J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter 163, to W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955.
  14. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 157, to Katherine Farrer, 27 November 1954.
  15. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 163.
  16. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 180, to Mr. Thompson, 14 January 1956.
  17. Max Picard, The World of Silence (Chicago: Regnery, 1952), pp. 44-45.
  18. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 17.
  19. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 41.
  20. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 228.
  21. Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961), p. 11.
  22. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 31.
  23. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), p. 267.
  24. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 139.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., p. 191.
  27. Ibid., p. 193.
  28. Ibid., p. 704.
  29. Ibid., p. 712.
  30. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 319.
  31. C. S. Lewis, ed., George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 7-8.
  32. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (London: HarperCollins, 1977), p. 25.
  33. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), Foreward: "Tolkien's Magic Ring", p. xv.

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Transcribed from a talk, "Language of Beauty", given at Trinity Forum Academy (June 6, 2005).

This talk is based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book The Philosophy of Tolkien.

Copyright © 2012 Peter Kreeft

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