Language Plays Special Role in Tolkien's Trilogy; LITERATURE: How Welsh Influenced Lord of the Rings

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), February 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Language Plays Special Role in Tolkien's Trilogy; LITERATURE: How Welsh Influenced Lord of the Rings


Byline: RHODRI OWEN

ARE the Misty Mountains really based on the Black Mountains? Is Arwen the feminine form of the Welsh name Arwyn? Could Elfish be a sister language to Cymraeg?

For years fans of JRR Tolkien have mulled over such questions while debating the influence of Wales and Welsh on his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

With all the publicity surrounding the film version of the literary classic, the debate has been rekindled - and even the film's stars are chipping in.

"Sindarin [one of the languages spoken by elves in the story] is basically Welsh. More or less, " insists veteran star Christopher Lee, who plays evil wizard Sauron.

Elfish is "really beautiful, similar to Welsh" agrees Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who plays Galadriel, queen of the elves.

So, have these actors done their homework? Are they right?

The answer, generally-speaking, is yes.

According to Dr Carl Phelpstead, a lecturer in English literature at Cardiff University, the Welsh language does indeed lie at the root of Tolkien's tale.

Tolkien, he explains, was a language expert who not only mastered many unfashionable languages - such as Welsh, Finnish and old Norse - but invented many of his own.

And it was partly to create a world in which his languages could be brought to life that he wrote his stories, such as The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

"He invented the languages before he made the narratives, " says Dr Phelpstead, who specialises in old English and old Norse. "And the influence of Welsh on Tolkien's languages is really important - but it's not the only language that influenced them.

"He found many languages profoundly beautiful and one of those was Welsh. So he used it as a model when he came to invent his own languages."

As for Christopher Lee's suggestion that Sindarin is "basically Welsh", Dr Phelpstead concurs. "It has a few traits which are recognisably similar, " he says. "In particular it uses different mutations at the beginning of words much like in the Welsh language."

Dr Phelpstead also says many of the places and names in Tolkien's books sound distinctly Welsh.

"Arwen [a central character in the trilogy] could be a form of Arwyn, " he says.

There is documented evidence that Tolkien had links with Wales and Welsh. After his parents died he and his brother were put in the care of a Midlands-based Welsh priest, Father Francis Morgan. With prize money from an Oxford competition he bought a book on Welsh grammar. …

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