Tolkien’s Genius

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aren't just whimsical high fantasies, they're unprecedented works of invented philology and folklore. A Sullivan reader encapsulates:

Please allow me to geek out a bit over Tolkien's strange and fascinating translation practices.

Even more than just the weird provenance of the hobbits' names as they appear in the book is how they interact with Tolkien's translation convention - the idea that Tolkien was merely translating the Red Book of Westmarch from the original Westron and Elvish tongues into English for modern readers. Tolkien had a complicated way of translating even Westron names into English. For instance, Meriadoc Brandybuck's name in Westron was Kalimac Brandagamba. "Kali" in Westron was a close pun (something the hobbits in particular were fond of) of a word meaning "happy," so Tolkien, in communicating that meaning, transposed Kalimac into Meriadoc.

As another example, the Brandywine River in the Shire was originally known as the Baranduin in Sindarin (an Elvish language), which then corrupted to Branda-nin ("border water" in Westron, since it was originally the eastern border of the Shire) in hobbit-speak, which further turned into Bralda-him ("heady ale," for the color of its water). Tolkien "chooses" to take the English translation from the alcoholic pun, while still keeping it phonetically similar enough to the Elvish Baranduin that we can see its descent - though it does lose the intermediate step until we are informed of it in an appendix.

Even further, he alters some colloquialisms of the Rohirrim and Gondorin to show their languages' relationship to Westron. Hobbits in Rohan are known as "hobylta," demonstrating that hobbits had more exposure to Rohan of old than they did to Gondor or other Edain (Elvish-speaking) humans. Gondor, relying still on the much more foreign Sindarin, calls the hobbits "perrinaith." (And even the names for hobbit is a stand-in word, with Tolkien borrowing Old and Middle English words and word-parts to construct them - in Westron, "hobbit" was in fact "kuduk," and "hobylta" was "kud-dukan.")

All of this illustrates not just how important the names were to Tolkien, but also how important it was that even his English "translations" capture the spirit, character, and descent of the languages. This is just one stance in a long and involved debate among translators on how to participate in translation - particularly as to whether and how to translate "sense for sense," as opposed to word for word. For Tolkien, this is especially important because, while he held an apparently quite extensive internal knowledge of the function and purpose of his languages, he never wrote the "original" Westron version of the Lord of the Rings, and so we have no way of gleaning any contextual meaning past what Tolkien includes in the English translation.

Modern scholars can debate for weeks over what passages in the Bible would've meant to a contemporary reader in the original Greek, and whether the King James or NIV gets the meaning right, but we can't do that for the Red Book. Tolkien instead does all the contextual assignment for us. Reading with this in mind makes a lot of the otherwise strange discussions on language and meaning in LOTR far more fascinating.

The Hobbit, according to Tolkien, was a children's version of a more serious historical account, and he intended to write a second version of The Hobbit that's more in keeping with the tone of The Lord of the Rings, but it was never finished. I believe this is what Peter Jackson is attempting to do (and successfully so) with the movie adaptation of The Hobbit -- a more grown-up version of the story that lines up seamlessly with The Lord of the Rings.

In spite of what Christopher Tolkien and other Tolkien purists have said, the Peter Jackson adaptations of the books only add to the depth and detail of what Tolkien was trying to achieve.

  • D_C_Wilson

    This week’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast had a discussion with a Tolkien scholar that agrees with you, Bob. Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit is the more mature version of the story Tolkien had meant to do.

    The fiction that Tolkien was translating the Red Book was more than just a literary device. Tolkien was a linguist by academic training and loved playing with language. All of the character names in The Hobbit were taken out of Norse and Old English literature (Gandalf literally means “Elf with a wand”) He spent a lot of time thinking about how names in one language would get changed as they passed into another one. It’s one of the many reasons why Middle Earth feels like a real world.

    • mrbrink

      Great follow up.

  • muselet

    Tolkien fans will probably enjoy this podcast. Be sure to watch the video of the weather forecast. And the comment by “seedydub” is interesting, and tracks with what little I remember about Tolkien’s life.


  • Draxiar

    Supremely cool article!

    I’ll probably get harpooned for this but it is my opinion that Jackson is a better movie maker than Tolkien is a writer. His writing is ponderous and dry. Just my opinion.

    That said…

    The world that Tolkien created is unchallenged, unmatched, and breathtakingly detailed in ways I can only dream to achieve (I do fantasy writing myself). He is THE icon of fantasy literature and I greatly admire and love his creation if not his writing style.

    Side note: I find it vastly bewildering that JRRT went through all the trouble of creating several languages along with his whole world of Middle-Earth in tremendous detail but uses a Gregorian Calender for dates. It just seems odd to me to have names of months that reference Latin in setting where Rome didn’t exist. It’s a small thing in a grand sweep I realize so it’s nothing I’ll get my knickers in a twist over.

    • Bob Cesca

      Yeah, I object to the accusation that Jackson/Walsh/Boyens left out too much of the books even though the movies ended up being 12 hours long back-to-back not including The Hobbit trilogy. The books as written are unfilmable — or they’re filmable but no one would go see them because they’d be unwatchable, likely clocking in at a gazillion hours or so. Even with the streamlining, the movies are accused of being too long and too talky. Hell, a lot of the same people who accused LotR of being too streamlined are accusing The Hobbit of not being streamlined enough. Some people are never satisfied, even when presented with a clear masterpiece.

      • Draxiar

        In their wisdom Jackson/Walsh/Boyens dismantled the chronology of the books and reassembled them into linear order (yes, I watched all of the feature discs of the extended editions) so it would be easier to follow.

        I agree, LotR is a masterpiece (The Hobbit is already on the same track) and nothing less. It did for fantasy what Star Wars did for science fiction: It made it a respected genre. And while there were other fantasy movies before it that were very good- great even- none of them busted the genre out like LotR.

        “Even with the streamlining, the movies are accused of being too long and too talky”. Imagine if they made the meeting with Elrond last 3 days like JRRT did in the book!

        As for The Hobbit being 3 movies and not “streamlined” I say WOOT! It’ll be more of what I adore.

      • IrishGrrrl

        Bob, totally agree that the books are unfilmable. The Tolkien purists kind of remind me of the whiny progressives in that they just can’t accept that what looks great on paper doesn’t always work so well in the real world. ;)

      • D_C_Wilson

        But . . but . . but . . . Elves at Helmsdeep!

        Seriously, people always get bent out of shape whenever their favorite book gets adapted. They whine about what gets left out or altered instead of judging whether the movie works as a movie. I ignore people like that.

  • zirgar

    Gosh, Bob responded to everyone but me on this posting. Is it because of my effluvium?

    • Bob Cesca

      It was your lack of effluvium, actually.

      • zirgar

        I dunno. You obviously haven’t seen this abscess. Blech!

  • bphoon

    I’ll bet you go to Star Trek conventions, too…

    Seriously, I loved The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy as much as anybody when I read them and a theoretical discussion of how Tolkien came up with all this is intriguing. But, really, don’t we have more serious topics to spend our time and efforts on?

    • Bob Cesca

      >>But, really, don’t we have more serious topics to spend our time and efforts on?

      I’ll post about whatever the fuck I want. Most of the time, it’s 2000+ words a day on things like presidential politics, gun control, healthcare and the environment. You’re seriously questioning my time management and the seriousness of my posts? You’ve been around here long enough to know better.

      • bphoon

        Hey, man, it’s your blog, post away. I wasn’t questioning anything having to do with any of your other posts, I just expressed my opinion on this post alone. That’s all it is: my opinion…

    • Dianne Read Stucki

      Life isn’t always serious, though.

      And celebrating linguistic genius is important, in a world where politicians speak to each other like common street thugs.

      • mrbrink


  • chris castle

    I would have much preferred one Hobbit movie, a stand-alone directed by Guillermo delToro, that captured the wondrous spirit of the book without delving into the ancillary material. I love what Jackson did with LotR – even if he did emphasize the battles whereas Tolkien did not – but his Hobbit, although not a disaster, falls far short of the mark IMO (technically, script, performance, etc.) and gets the tone of the book completely wrong.

    • Bob Cesca

      It’s not really an adaptation of the children’s book. It’s about the more LotR-style rewrite Tolkien was working on. The Quest of Erebor, etc.

      And I hate having to repeat this all the time, but books and movies are so vastly different, from audiences to storytelling and all points between.

      • intoxination

        Very much like LOTR. When I saw The Hobbit a couple of weeks ago it really felt like it followed the same progression as Fellowship of the Rings. It would seem like that wouldn’t work, but I was amazed at how well it did.

    • D_C_Wilson

      Had they not already made LoTR, they could have made the Hobbit as a stand alone movie. But making the Hobbit after LoTR meant they had to integrate the two styles together. That meant making the movie less of the children’s fairy tale the book was and more of the high fantasy style of LoTR.

  • Chez Pazienza

    Dude — really?

    • Bob Cesca

      We can’t all be as cool and hip as you, Chez. Seriously, can you teach me how to be too-hip-for-the-room, too? Or can it not be taught?

      • IrishGrrrl

        Oh, Bob, we like you geeky…..mainly because a lot of us are the same way! I love this kind of Tolkien minutiae myself.

      • zirgar

        I’ve gone all day trying not to comment on your reply to Chez, but I had to respond with something: LOL. Obviously, you don’t care what other people consider cool, that you love Tolkien, and on that count I’m squarely in your corner, but this reminds me of that scene in A Christmas Story when the leg lamp/major award get’s broken and all Ralphie’s dad can muster is, “Not a finger.” I’m not criticizing you. I like it. I like that a guy who can go toe to toe with the likes of Glenn Greenwald and others, and often tears them to pieces on their positions, delivers this high school quality snark gem. LOL.

      • Chez Pazienza

        I love it when we quibble like old ladies.

  • zirgar

    In Westron, Bilbo is actually Bilba and Frodo is Froda (also an Old English name), the language having “a” as a masculine ending so Tolkien changed the names to the “o” ending to make them more suitable for the translation into English…

    Or something.