Monday, December 13, 2004

Did Tolkien Know Hebrew?

Did J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of Lord of the Rings, know Hebrew?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: My love for Tolkien's writings long predated my interest in Hebrew. But when I became a Hebraist, I naturally wondered whether Tolkien, the great philologist of the Germanic languages, might also have known Hebrew or other Semitic languages. My curiosity was also piqued by this fact: the English translation of the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 lists J.R.R. Tolkien as one of the "principal collaborators in translation and literary revision."

Finally, when I read Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, I found in the list of Tolkien's writings that he had contributed some work to the translation of the book of Jonah. (Why Jonah? I don't know.) This certainly seemed to point to some knowledge of Hebrew; but perhaps he had been working only as a reviser of an already existing translation.

A couple of years ago, my curiosity about this grew finally strong enough for me to write to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, keeper of Tolkien's manuscripts. The curator of the literary MSS at the Bodley wrote back to say that there were 45 folios of material relating to Tolkien's translation of Jonah among Tolkien's surviving papers -- including a draft translation of Jonah with pencil notes of several Hebrew words in the margin, in Tolkien's handwriting. That settled it; Tolkien knew Hebrew.

(I thought about writing an article on this material, but they won't make copies; you have to come see it yourself. Since I am not going to be in the Oxford area any time soon, I had to give up any plans in this direction. If any readers in the UK are interested in Tolkien and are Hebraists, you are welcome to take over this project. Email me and I'll send you the contact info I have. Note: to publish any of the material you need permission from Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien estate.)

All right, Tolkien knew Hebrew; did it have any affect at all on his imaginative writings, especially his made-up languages of Middle-Earth? I'm no expert on Elvish, but as far as I can tell, the two main dialects of Elvish, Sindarin and Quenya, owe nothing to Hebrew or the other Semitic languages. However (and I owe this knowledge to the website of Helge Kåre Fauskanger, an expert in Tolkienian linguistics), two of the lesser languages of Middle Earth, namely Adunaic (the language of Numenor) and Khuzdul (the language of the dwarves) are based on the Semitic model of triconsonantal roots and are intended to have a "faintly Semitic flavour" (Tolkien's words). The words themselves are not derived from the Semitic languages; but in Adunaic the word for "she" is hi, "ear" is huzun, and "to, towards" is ad, ada. Sounds like Hebrew to me. So if you're ever in Numenor...

4 comments:

Milton Stanley said...

No kidding: I wondered this same thing myself. I enjoyed reading what you found out. Peace.

Zimri said...

The Dwarves are definitely stand-ins for the Jews. When Tolkien started out with the "Book of Lost Tales", the Dwarves were Wagner-inspired and so took on Wagner's anti-Semitic attributes by circumstance (greed, duplicity, hatred of strangers, etc).

I suspect that Tolkien realised that Wagner was anti-Semitic later on. Instead of de-Judaising the Dwarves, though, he emphasised their work ethic and joy of life - making them even more Jewish, in effect, but in a philo-Semitic way.

That would seem to make Moria the Dwarvish Jerusalem.

Anonymous said...
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Damien said...

Dear Zimri,

Regarding Wagner, this is rather the reverse: Tolkien was not fond of Wagner when he was young (the comment quoted by Carpenter comes from his student years), but came to appreciate his music later on. See _Tolkien and Wagner: Mythmakers_, by Renée Vink.

It is thus unlikely that Tolkien would have based his depiction of Dwarves on Jews in his early texts. In addition, his later positive description of Dwarves as inspired by Jews is unlikely to come from Wagner either.

Best regards,
Damien