Thursday, 17 July 2014
In Loving Memory of a Name
The Hobbit is, I think, the most widely liked of Tolkien's books. This is partly because it's a kid's book, and although fantasy is becoming sort-of trendy these days, it's still easier for an adult to admit they like kid's fantasy books (The Hobbit, the Harry Potter books, His Dark Materials, etc.) than grown-up ones.
That said, I think Tolkien had a way of hitting on deep profundities in his work - this is why his books have such great appeal decades after his death - and a very simple example of this comes in The Hobbit in its genius for names.
Think about the places where the action happens in The Hobbit. The Misty Mountains. Mirkwood. The Lonely Mountain. Lake-town. The Long Lake. River Running. Notice anything? The names actually mean something. Tolkien, of course, had other words for these places, the names in his own invented languages. But he refrained from using them. This may have been simply to avoid putting off young readers, but it gives the places a concrete, real feeling: The Lonely Mountain is an incredibly evocative name because the name itself gives you a visualisation - a mountain, all on its own, in the middle of a wilderness. Likewise Mirkwood; it hardly needs a description once you've read the name. It's a dark forest. A murky wood. Lake-town: it's a town on a lake (literally).
I prefer this approach to fantasy naming. Compare The Lonely Mountain to Hespereth Strait. Lake-town to Sargava. Mirkwood to the Mwangi Jungle. I may be being slightly unfair picking on some deeply unevocative names I stumbled across in the Pathfinder wiki. But you get my drift.
Strangeness is at its most effective when there is something anchoring the person experiencing it, and sometimes the best way of doing this is simply through the use of language. Tolkien seems to have understood this well, if only implicitly: the concreteness and simplicity of the place names in The Hobbit give the reader something to hold on to - you don't have to struggle with imagining the Hespereth Strait and fumbling over the pronunciation of 'Mwangi' in your mind, and can devote your full attention to the story against the images which the words 'The Lonely Mountain' naturally bring up in your mind.