Few people working with the English language in the modern period have thought about the power of language in the ways that JRR Tolkien has. Author of what many consider a modern metamyth – The Lord of the Rings – that is matched only by sacred texts, Tolkien was deeply concerned that word not only meant something, but we should stand before them in awe and not allow ourselves to flatten their meaning into simplistic and easily defined categories.
Take for example his reflections on the word “argent” taken from a letter to Jane Neave written on 22 November 1961 – one year before his friend CS Lewis would die:
the meaning of fine words… [fine, especially for the English, I think, means not just precise, but great, perfect, glorious] the meaning of fine words cannot be made ‘obvious’, least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. [That's a deadly separation, and that accounts for bad Bible translations all over the place.] They think the word argent ’means’silver. [The dictionary says so.] It does not. It and silver have a reference to x, or the chemical Ag, but in each case x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation, x + y or x + z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different emotional responses, but also because they are not in fact used … in the same way. We must learn to appreciate the intrinsic heraldic overtones that a word like argent has, in addition to its on peculiar sound, which the word ‘silver’ does not have. I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter 134, to Jane Neave, 22 November 1961.
The phrase “We will not propagate a Bible-in-basic-English attitude” is something I think should be stamped on the bulletins of every church in America and proclaimed on every church sign on the motorways and street corners of the land. Perhaps by offering up this manifesto it will come true and churches will return once again to be places where the prophetic imagination that breaks open language to seek its deeper and more abiding meaning is not questioned nor look down upon. What would it mean to have churches that loved the beauty of language, the poetry of the human heart set free, the abandon of the soul released with an artist’s drive and honesty to create for the sake of the Lord? What would such a place be like?
It would certainly be worth so much more than silver… that’s for sure…