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Tolkien on the use of archaic language

Our family has begun using the New City Catechism as part of our family worship and Bible study time. The catechism is a combined adult/child catechism that adapts many historic catechisms into the 52 question and answer plan.

One of the features that the authors note of this catechism is that they retained much of the older language from the historic sources. I thought their explanation of why they chose to do this was instructive:

When people complained to J.R.R. Tolkien about the archaic language he sometimes used, he answered that language carries cultural values and therefore his use of older forms was not nostalgia—it was principled. He believed that older ways of speaking conveyed older ways of understanding life that modern forms cannot convey, because modern language is enmeshed with modern views of life.

As an example, Tolkien points to a passage in The Lord of the Rings where members of the Fellowship are choosing weapons and the (archaic) wording runs as follows: “Helms too they chose.” Some (wrongly) class the wording as an “inversion”, since normal order is “They also chose helmets” or “They chose helmets too.” But, Tolkien comments that modern English has lost the trick of putting the word that one desires to be emphasized (for pictorial, emotional, or logical reasons) into prominent first place, without the addition of a lot of little “empty” words. The much terser and more vivid ancient styles often convey gravity and meaning in a way they would not were they modernized. (See Tolkien’s letter to Professor Hugh Brogan in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, published by Houghton Mifflin, 1981.)

Just another evidence of the way culture carries meaning beyond what we might expect.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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