The Secret Literary Theory Behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Books That Breaks All The Rules Of Writing

Language is not a communication tool but a portal into being.
Misty Forest
Image from Pixabay

Any modern writer who wants a measurable degree of success must follow strict rules. They have to jump a lot of hoops to please self-publishing platforms, search algorithms, mobile-friendly apps, and SEO. It’s increasingly hard to be found online.

Add to it the need to keep the highly volatile attention of the modern reader who suffers from acute attention deficit. 

Above all, the modern writer’s job is to maintain vibrant dynamism in every sentence to make sure the reader doesn’t lose interest. 

The words they use must be horizontal, not vertical. Each word must urge the reader to go to the next one, speed on to the next sentence or chapter — to satisfy their ever-growing curiosity about what’s going to happen next. 

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis broke all the rules of modern storytelling

The writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis create a stark contrast to this approach, yet they are very popular. The Inklings don’t seem to care whether they put you to sleep. If anything, they wake you up. And their fantasy worlds enjoy a worldwide audience.

Their writing style breaks all the molds without getting moldy. Turns out, there is a secret literary theory behind their fantasy worlds that touches human hearts on the deepest level. This theory is rooted in a unique view of language as “the house of being.”

It was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger who first coined the term. He spoke of words as “the house of being,” with no labels or tags on things.

For 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.

Language is not a communication tool but rather a portal into being—the invisible reality summoned into our world by the shape and sound of words. Properly speaking, words are incantations.

Why was language so important for Tolkien and C.S. Lewis?

A quiet pond
Image by author

Both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis believed that when words are spoken aright, they invoke the invisible reality from behind the veil of the world. They effect what they name.

For both writers, words are NOT communication tools primarily. They are not the “things” we use to convey a message. Strictly speaking, the message doesn’t come THROUGH words; rather, the words are the incarnation of the message — provided they are the right ones.

A lot of modern writers use language as a communication tool. Their only purpose is to use words to get the message across. So, the choice of words becomes message-driven. You search for words just to get the reader to move on from one word to the next one horizontally — to bring them to the message as quickly as possible.

Peter Kreeft, the philosophy professor at Boston College, pointed out that in modern writing, words have lost their vertical static quality:

Each word comes more from the preceding word rather than from the silence. It moves on to the next word in front of it rather than to the silence.

Have you ever heard words that make you stop breathing for a moment or two? If you have, you know why the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and other Inklings are so peculiar.

They use words vertically — not to speed the reader on but to allure them to the silence around the words. As Treebeard said:

Don’t be hasty, Master Meriadoc.

Why was Mao Tse Tung successful?

Dictators know the vertical power of words very well. Mao Tse Tung said:

“We will conquer the world because you, fools, think that words are labels… We know that words are little dynamite sticks in people’s minds and we hold the fuse.”

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the most powerful weapon of the totalitarian state is the revised dictionary. If you take a word out of the dictionary, the concept will die too, sooner or later.

When Confucius was asked which of his 600 principles of ruling he considered the most important, he answered: “The reformation of language.”

Whether used for good or for bad, proper words are dynamite sticks. They blow your mind. They shatter to pieces the world of the familiar and leave you speechless and in total silence.

“And there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”

Proper words are incantations. You hear them, and suddenly you see something entirely new. The old world is gone. You have been awakened. You have been spoken to.

How did Tolkien’s Ents come into existence?

Fairy tale forest
Image from Pixabay

According to Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings, the Ents were once trees but were awakened by the Elves:

“Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did… It was the Elves that cured us of dumbness long ago, and that was a great gift the cannot be forgotten.”

The Elves spoke to the trees, woke them up, and cured them of dumbness. Those Ents that continued speaking to the Elves remained awake, but those who stopped talking fell again into slumber and slowly turned back into the wood.

The words of the Elves were a wake-up call, a summons out of the abyss of unconsciousness. 

In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Elvish languages represent the one proper language, or “language as it should be.” It’s the primal proto-language, not yet divided by the curse of Babylon. That’s why it awakens, summons us from the abyss of dumbness, and teaches us to speak.

Where did Middle-earth come from?

Map of Middle earth
Image from Pixabay

Incidentally, Tolkien’s Middle-earth didn’t start as a story; it started with the invention of the Elvish tongue. The stories were born out of that tongue. Tolkien seems to have always had this curious penchant for the beauty of words. Discovering Finnish grammar was for Tolkien like:

“…discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me” (Letter 214).

C.S. Lewis’ journey to this high view of language was gradual—and looked more like a “pilgrim’s regress.” He had a complete mind change from a purely atheistic and Darwinian theory of language to seeing language as the primary reality — thanks to the influence of his friend Owen Barfield, whose linguistic intuitions seem to permeate the works of both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

We see Lewis’ “conversion” in the way Narnia was created—Aslan sang it into existence.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis describes the descent of the gods almost like Pentecost:

Dimble…raised his head, and great syllables of words that sounded like castles came out of his mouth. Everything else in the room seemed to have been intensely quiet; even the bird, and the bear, and the cat, were still, staring at the speaker. The voice did not sound like Dimble’s own: 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 present operations of God.

We see similar “magic” at work in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo stabs the Ringwraith at Weathertop with his sword and cries out in Elvish: “O Elbereth Gilthoniel!” Later, Aragorn explains what happened at that moment:

“More deadly to him [the Witch-king] was the name of Elbereth.”

The Inklings believed in the existence of the “proper” or “perfect” language, of which the present language is but a dim shadow. But they also believed that there is a way to undo the curse of Babylon and recover that perfect language.

Here’s how C.S. Lewis described this process in his cryptic poem “The Birth of Language.”

Yet if true verse but lift the curse, 
they [words] feel in dreams their native Sun [the Source].

For the Inklings, the “true verse” is that proper speech that lifts the curse of Babylon. It creates, makes, and effects what it names. The Greek word “poiesis,” from which we derive the modern word “poetry,” literally means “making.”

It is in speaking the right Words that the worlds are made. The Inklings don’t just communicate some “content” or “message” to the reader. They don’t spur you on to keep reading. They don’t want you to get anywhere or learn anything new. 

In fact, they want us to pause, be still, and hear — the words that stir, move, and awaken from dumbness. After all, it is a great gift that cannot be forgotten.

The final song “Into the West” performed by Annie Lennox at the end of the Return of the King movie, captures this motif of seeing through the veil of the world very well. The words are addressed to Frodo: “What can you see on the horizon? Why do the white gulls call?”

And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

Sea, sky, clouds
Image from Pixabay
I am a translator and blogger who believes that all change comes from inside out, not from outside in.

No Saves yet. Share it with your friends.

Write Your Diary

Get Free Access To Our Publishing Resources

Independent creators, thought-leaders, experts and individuals with unique perspectives use our free publishing tools to express themselves and create new ideas.