Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Friday, May 05, 2006

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Love of Words: The Revelatory Nature of Tolkien’s Aphorisms in The Lord of the Rings

Charles E. Bressler, Ph. D, Professor of English
Benjamin Walker, Undergraduate English Major

Fact: Without question, J. R. R. Tolkien is one of Oxford University’s most famous philologists, his Lord of the Rings being voted “the book of the century” by a 1996 Waterstone bookstore poll of 26,000 readers.

Fact: As a philologist, Tolkien loved words in all their various combinations: in isolation and those found in phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs.

Fact: As a master of many languages, including several created by himself, Tolkien knew the etymology of countless words, phrases, maxims, adages, and aphorisms. Included in his vast word storehouse are not only the roots and meanings of these words and expressions but also their cultural milieu.

Fact: Tolkien uses well over one hundred aphorisms in The Lord of the Rings. For the most part, scholars have neglected studying these aphorisms, with only a few Tolkienites such as Tom Shippey even mentioning such constructions in their writings.

Our essay centers on Tolkien’s creation and use of aphorisms in The Lord of the Rings. It is our contention that Tolkien uses this type of construction to reveal the deep truths of his cosmogony and mythology. Being ever the watchful philologist, Tolkien knew the original purpose and cultural milieu of an aphorism. Because of such knowledge, Tolkien has many of his characters speak in aphoristic statements in order to bring healing to the creatures of Middle-earth and to provide them with encouragement, chastisement, and understanding not only of themselves but also of other created species of the world they inhabit. An overall analysis of Tolkien’s aphorisms will help us, we believe, to clarify the underlying truths upon which Tolkien bases his mythology.

About 138 aphorisms weave their way through the text of The Lord of the Rings, ranging from the rather simple aphorisms of the Gaffer—“And all’s well as ends better,” and “Whenever you open your big mouth you put your foot in it”—to the more sophisticated of Aragorn—“The wolf that one hears is worse than the orc that one fears, ” and “One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters”—to those mouthed by Gandalf, the White wizard: “I will not say do not weep; for not all tears are evil,” and “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Discerning each individual aphorism in The Lord of the Rings is in itself not a simple task. Is an aphorism one statement? One clause? A series of clauses? Or could an aphorism be considered a group of sentences. For example, in Book Three, Aragorn and company meet up for the first time with Eomer and his outlawed followers.

During their conversation, Eomer says: ‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’

‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’ (427-28)

Should any of these words or sentences be considered an aphorism, or is there such a construction as a “near aphorism”? Or can an entire paragraph(s) be considered an aphoristic passage? Our first task, then, is to define and thereby limit the scope of the term aphorism itself.

A survey of over 30 dictionaries of various kinds reveals that an aphorism is a short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature. For the sake of our discussion, it will be helpful to distinguish an aphorism from its synonyms: axiom, proverb, maxim, and adage. An aphorism differs from an axiom in that its expressed truth is not capable of scientific demonstration as is the axiom’s. And it differs from a proverb in that it is more philosophical and less homely. Like the proverb, both the adage and maxim are familiar statements expressing an observation or principle generally accepted as wise or true. The maxim is a saying that is widely accepted on its own merits. Often times it is obvious, but not always meaningful, and may actually contradict other maxims. Like the proverb and maxim, the adage is a condensed but memorable saying embodying some important fact of experience that is taken as true by many people. Although the definitions of all these terms are somewhat similar, the aphorism stands out in that its content has not necessarily gained esteem through long use, but is distinguished by its particular philosophical depth. Based on such distinctions of terms, we can define an aphorism as a tersely expressed principle or truth articulated in a short and pithy sentence in such a way that when heard is unlikely to pass from memory, although its content has not necessarily gained credibility through long use.

Tolkien himself would have known this definition of an aphorism along with its multiple synonyms. But he would also have known the original meaning and cultural milieu of this term. Coming into English through Late Latin and Middle French, the English word aphorism originated in Greek (aphorismos ‘definition’) and was first used by Hippocrates in his text entitled Aphorisms, referring specially to briefly stated medical principles. Hippocrates’ now famous opening line commences the use of aphorisms in Western literature: “Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experimenting dangerous, reasoning difficult.” Throughout his work, Hippocrates lists his medical principles or what he called aphorisms. A few examples follow: “Patients cured of chronic hemorrhoids which had been bleeding much are in danger of dropsy or consumption unless one pile tumor is left to continue bleeding,” and “In prolonged diarrohea involuntary vomiting may be curative.” Tolkien would have known that the primary purpose of Hippocrates’ original aphorisms was to instruct and help physicians in the art of healing. Similarly, many of Tolkien’s aphorisms in The Lord of the Rings help to muster courage, to provide encouragement, and to bring a type of psychological, spiritual, and even physical healing both to their speakers and the listeners. As noted earlier, aphorisms are usually original with their speakers, for the statements themselves have not yet gained credibility through long usage. Like maxims or adages, they can be rather simple (“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones) or sophisticated (“To make a decision is to invite change”).

For Tolkien, the social and spiritual sophistication of the speaker of an aphorism and the depth of the aphorism’s philosophical content are directly related to Tolkien’s cosmogony and mythology.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is philosophical grounded in his created mythology that appears ever so slightly in the work itself. His mythology—his overall story that “makes concrete and particular a special perception of human beings or a cosmic view” (Harmon, A Handbook) is contained in his lifelong work The Silmarillion, published posthumously by his son, Christopher. In this text, Tolkien makes clear his cosmogony, or his account of creation, the origin of all spiritual beings in his created universe, and the created order of his mythic world. Without question, Tolkien’s story of creation and of its creator reveals an established hierarchy involving not only the creator and all created spiritual beings but all created beings, with each species or group possessing different physical and intellectual traits and responsibilities.

At the apex of Tolkien’s hierarchy is Illuvatar, the All-Father, the creator of all things who dwells in the Timeless Halls. Shaping all events to fulfill his stated purposes, Illuvatar rarely intervenes directly in his creation, but chooses to work through fifteen created spiritual beings called Valar. Created with the Flame Imperishable, these Valar are responsible for carrying out the will of Illuvatar in his created universe. As with all created beings in Tolkien’s mythic universe, the Valar are hierarchical, with Manwe, the Good and Pure, being the highest and noblest, and thus named the Lord of the Valar. His spouse, Varda, called by various names such as Elbereth and Gilthoniel, made the stars and established the courses of the sun and moon. Next in line comes Melkor or “He who arises in Might,” the Valar to whom Illuvatar gave the greatest power and knowledge. To each of the fifteen Valar, Illuvatar gave special gifts and responsibilities.

The helpers of the Valar are the Maiar. Some Maiar, like Gandalf the White, have chosen to take on bodily form, to encourage and aid the created peoples of Middle-earth, while others like Sauron (“abominable”) chose to become a follower of Melkor or Morgoth. Like the Valar, however, these created beings have freedom of the will. And like Melkor who rejected Illuvatar’s will and wished to take his place, some Maiar, namely the Balrogs (“power terrors”) chose to rebel with Melkor and have since become Melkor’s horrific servants.

Next in line are men and the Elves—each with their own subdivisions--followed by the dwarves, ents, the animal world, the botanical world, and lastly the inorganic or mineral world, each with its own subordinate divisions. Like the “good” peoples of Middle-earth, the “bad” side (Tolkien’s own words) are also arranged hierarchically, with Sauron being their leader, followed by a host of various “bound” creatures like the orcs who also have various ranks or classes within their kind. And scattered throughout Tolkien’s universe are other beings like Tom Bombadil and Treebeard who somewhat escape classification.

Within this created world, Tolkien’s characters live, move, and speak. Their language, however, is not merely coincidental. Carefully constructing each people’s and character’s spoken words, Tolkien reveals through language the hierarchical nature of his mythology and cosmogony. Characters’ words reflect their social class, their education or learning, their moral development, their ethics, and their overall relationship--either consciously or unconsciously--to Illuvatar. Giving only ever-so-slight hints of his detailed mythology in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien similarly structures his characters’ utterance of aphorisms to reflect his hierarchical mythology and cosmogony. A starting point for such an observation resides in the number of aphorisms spoken by the various kinds of created beings. For example, the character who speaks the most aphorisms, 30 in all, is Gandalf, a Maiar. The next is Aragorn, both a Numenorean and, by the text’s end, Gondor’s newly-crowned king, with 13. Théoden, king of Rohan, utters 8. Faramir, the younger son of the Steward of Gondor, speaks 5, and so forth, with a many other characters, such as Maggot, Haldir, Hama, and a few orcs uttering one each. On the surface, it would appear that the higher the social status of each character within each species and in relationship to the created order of that character in the hierarchical structure of creation, the more aphorisms that character will utter, revealing that the higher ordered characters, like Gandalf, are the wiser, with the lower ordered characters speaking forth lesser wisdom, like the Gaffer. Such data would allow us to argue that the aphorisms in The Lord of the Rings appear to be on a continuum, from the lesser aphorisms (or maxims) of the lower class characters such as the Gaffer (“It’s an ill wind as blows nobody no good”) to those uttered by the wisest character of all, Gandalf (“The guest who has escaped from the roof will think twice before he comes back in by the door”).

Pushing this analysis further, we note that those aphorisms uttered by the Gaffer and other characters of similar social status are shorter, less original, and of lower diction than those uttered by the wiser characters. For example, an orc driver says to Sam and Frodo, “Where there’s a whip, there’s a will, my slugs” (910) and the Gaffer notes, “All’s well that ends well.” Such mundane utterances can be juxtaposed to Legolas’s response to both Aragorn and Gimli shortly before they meet the riders of the Mark: “But rest, if you must. Yet do not cast all hope away. Tomorrow is unknown. Rede oft is found at the rising of the Sun” (419). The Gaffer’s aphorism (or maxim as it may be argued) is anything but original, and its level of diction, like the orc driver’s, is low. Often Tolkien notes the “borrowed” and overused content of the more simplistic and generalized aphorisms by italicizing them, as he does with most of the Gaffer’s sayings. In addition, such aphorisms, more frequently than not, come earlier in The Lord of the Rings (Books I, II, and III), with only a few exceptions. When compared to such simple and oft-repeated sayings, Legolas’s aphorism is a bit lengthier, possesses a much higher level of diction, and is original, both in content and word choice. Note, for example, Legolas’s use of the now archaic word rede, meaning to give advice or counsel, originating from Middle English reden, ‘to guide and direct,’ and from Old English raedan. Neither the Gaffer nor the orc driver nor any other lesser creature utilizes such a high level of diction as does Legolas the Elf or Aragorn the Numenorean and King of Gondor or the White Wizard, Gandalf.

That Tolkien’s wise characters—those in the upper portion of his “Great Chain of Being” cosmogony—utter the more profound and philosophically deft aphorisms is not surprising. What is fascinating, however, is the connection Tolkien makes between a character’s choices and each character’s spoken words. For Tolkien, a character can become wise by continually choosing the good, no matter what the character’s social class. As Legolas, Aragorn, and even Gandalf, for example, strive to do the will of Illuvatar, the will of the good that never changes (as we have already noted in Aragorn’s statement to Eomer), each becomes “more wise,” finally becoming a theotokos for those they serve and have come to love. And it is through their spoken aphorisms that Tolkien reveals such astounding growth of character, each becoming agents of grace and healing in the lives of their listeners. For example, in Book II when Legolas and company are leaving Lorien, Gimli weeps openly because of his sadness for his having to leave Galadriel, he asks Legolas, “Why did I come on this Quest? Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy.”

Legolas answers, “Alas for us all! And for all that walk the world in these after-days. For such is the way of it: to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream” (369). But after surviving many adventures and perils and constantly choosing to follow the good, we note Legolas’s response (and personal growth) to Gimli once again as they prepare to face the Dark Lord before his very gates: “Up with your beard, Durin’s son. Oft hope is born, when all is forlorn” (859). “Follow what may, greet deeds are not lessened in worth” (859). Through these words, an experienced-changed Legolas now breathes hope, courage, and honor in Gimli.
Similarly, in Book I Aragorn speaks a bit arrogantly when he says to Pippin concerning shortcuts through forests, “My cuts, short or long, don’t go wrong” (177). But when talking to the fellowship shortly after Gandalf’s supposed defeat by the Balrog, a more life-changed Aragorn says, “The counsel of Gandalf was not founded on the foreknowledge of safety, for himself or others. There are some things that it is better to begin then to refuse, even though the end be dark” (430). Through these words, Aragorn once again affirms the existence of absolutes, ennobling the fellowship to carry on in their tasks.

Even Gandalf’s aphorisms show his growth as a character. When speaking to Aragorn concerning Théoden, for example, Gandalf says, “A king will have his way in his own hall, be it folly or wisdom” (499). Such a statement is indeed true. But note Gandalf’s last aphorism appearing on the penultimate page of the work: “Well, here at last dear friends, on the shores of the sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say do not weep; for not all tears are evil” (1007). Here indeed are words not only of wisdom but also of grace and understanding and healing.

But through their choices two characters and their words outshine all others: Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. By choosing to do good—to follow the will of Illuvatar—both Sam and Frodo become agents of grace in the lives of many characters. For example, early on in the text, Frodo notes that “Short cuts make delays, but inns take longer ones” (86). What a change, however, takes places in Frodo’s aphorisms after bearing the Ring to the Cracks of Doom and experiencing its full power. This life-changed hobbit says about the pathetic Saruman who becomes the ruler of the Shire, “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing” (995). And to Sam, Frodo says some of his last recorded words: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them” (1006)—once again, words of grace, words of healing, and words of comfort.

Likewise, Sam Gamgee, another Ringbearer, is changed by life’s experiences and personal choices into a theotokos. Often speaking in Gafferisms—“Handsome is as handsome does,” “It’s the job never started as takes longest to finish,” and “Live and learn”--Sam, by being faithful to his commitment to Frodo, to the quest, and to truth and good, becomes the most completely developed of all Tolkien’s characters, despite his use of rather simplistic aphorisms. For when he sees the fallen Frodo unable to climb the final steps to Mount Doom, Sam says, “Come, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” This low-class hobbit, by following the path of honor and truth and the good, has learned the value of self sacrifice in the service of others and the joy in doing so.

Tolkien’s aphorisms do indeed reflect both the speaker’s social status and place in Tolkien’s hierarchical mythology and cosmogony. But as in all good literature, tension and ambiguity abound. By constantly seeking the good, characters like Frodo and Sam can become a theotokos despite social rank, education, or class.