Previously, I’ve posted about Ireland’s connection with one of the most-loved authors of our time – J.R.R. Tolkien. He had a special place in his heart for the Emerald Isle and was particularly drawn to the wilderland of The Burren. But there is another Celtic land which sparked Tolkien’s imagination – a land near to his own childhood home in the West Midlands of England. To Tolkien, Wales was a land which harbored a language that was both ancient and alive. The coal cars from Wales passing behind his house near the King’s Heath station bore names that fascinated him from an early age.
“So it came about that by pondering over Nantyglo, Senghenydd, Blaen-Rhondda, Penrhiwceiber, and Tredegar, he discovered the existence of the Welsh language. Later in childhood he went on a railway journey to Wales, and as the station names flashed past him he knew that here were words more appealing to him than any he had yet encountered….” (Carpenter, 1977, p. 26).
Before he penned The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created the languages that were heard throughout Middle-earth. For him – a linguist – the languages were primary, the story an after-thought. In The Hobbit, which grew out of a series of tales he told his children and drew upon the fairy-tale tradition, he populated Middle-earth with hobbits, dwarves, men, and elves. “The Lord of the Rings was…a continuation of Tolkien’s search for a mythology for his Elvish language. ‘The invention of language is the foundation,’ he said. ‘The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse.’ Tolkien once admitted that he had considered writing the entire book in Elvish, but much of the original Elvish was edited out. ‘Only as much language had been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers’” (Becker, 2012, p. 37).
Die-hard fans know that the Elves of Middle-earth speak Quenya – a language of nobility, high ritual, and wizards’ spells, inspired by Finnish – and Sindarin – a utilitarian Lingua Franca Tolkien based on Welsh. Although the Sindarin language never appears in the book The Hobbit, the Elves can be heard speaking it (accompanied by subtitles) in each of the three films by Peter Jackson.
For Tolkien, it was the sound of Welsh – a soft, supple sound – that he found so pleasing, and he infused that sound into Sindarin. He once said, “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful,’ especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent” (Carpenter, 1977, p. 56-57).
If you have an interest in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Welsh, there’s a wonderful interactive webpage you can explore: Why Do the Elves in The Hobbit Sound Welsh?
And for more fun, enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at filming an Elvish scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Actor Bret McKenzie, who plays Lindir, is told he has several lines of Sindarin to speak in a shoot that afternoon, and he has to master them virtually on the spot! He has a terrible time with it but in the end pulls it off beautifully. Bret’s adventure starts about 3:42 into the video:
And here’s how the perplexing scene turned out:
Becker, A. (ed.). (2012). A Tolkien treasury. Philadelphia: Running Press.
Carpenter, H. (1977). Tolkien: a biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.