Fantasy, as Tolkien says, and I heartily support, is an escape from reality. “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
Critics in the past have described fantasy for children, an escape for their imaginations; or in other words, not for adults. But then Tolkien analogizes the real world as a prison. If you are stuck in prison, you don’t only think about what’s inside the prison, the walls and the guards. You imagine and think of the world outside of prison. And just because you can’t see that world, you still believe in it. The same goes for our reality. We are evidently, stuck, trapped here on earth, so why not imagine and fantasize about other worlds? The reason so many readers are captivated by fantasy every day (me included) is because it creates that secondary belief.
Our primary belief, of course, is Earth. Our abundant, lively planet. This secondary belief that Tolkien talks about, is the belief of the fantasy world. It is considered as “fantasy” because it doesn’t apply to the earthly rules, usually involving magic, mythical creatures, and faeries. But the thing is, most fantasy worlds have their own rules. And the more consistent that world is with its rules, the more believable it is, hence that secondary belief. We have a prime example with Tolkien’s own world, Middle Earth. What makes this world, this story, so fantastic, is that it’s deep. Oh, so very deep. Tolkien invented languages, traditions, countries, kingdoms, and most important of all history, to back up the story.
As you know, Tolkien was a philologist. The study of the history of languages, the etymology, the relation between. And naturally, Tolkien was a speaker of many Indo-European languages, very fond of the Germanic ones. And he aptly took this innate talent and interest of his, and he invented his very own languages, two of which being Quenya and Sindarin.
Surprisingly Quenya was most similar to Finnish in the real world, a language which Tolkien struggled to learn due to its difference from common Indo-European languages. Quenya is a very ethereal language, lilting, musical, and flowing language. But of course, inventing a language with no back story? No, that’s unacceptable. He wanted to know who spoke this language of his. Into which came the existence of the High Elves of Valinor, beings of light. It was this idea that the language was spoken by majestic beings of light, almost haunting in their beauty, that created these magical passages that we find littered through his Legendarium.
Here are some Quenyan words and phrases:
“Minë lambë lá ná farëa”, one language is never enough.
“Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo”, a star shall shine on the hour of our meeting.
And one of my favorites, “namárië”, a musical word of greeting.
Tolkien, being a philologist of course, was fascinated by grammar, which is the cause to the numerous accents that we find used in Quenya, for example “Ecë nin?” meaning please or may I (the ‘e’ with two dots on top, ‘ë,’ is pronounced “ay”, so as mentioned above). Tolkien always strived to perfect the grammar of his languages. The stem of this habit, came from the first story he wrote when he was a child, about a dragon. When he presented it to his mother, she replied with something along the lines of this. “You cannot say ‘a green great dragon’, it must be ‘a great green dragon’”. This drove him to master the form of grammar before attempting to write anything more, and his books are a testament to that mastery.
So, we have the High Elves, who left Middle Earth to return to the Undying Lands (Valinor) after the first age, and then there are the ones that stayed. They adapted Quenya to a more concise language, Sindarin, so most of the elvish names we see mentioned in the series such as Elrond, Legolas, and Galadriel, are all in Sindarin.
Probably the most famous example of Sindarin, is the inscription on the gates of Moria. “Ennyn Durin aran Moria, pedo mellon a minno”, The doors of Durin, lord of Moria, say “friend” and enter. Key point in the Fellowship of the Ring, and probably the first focused look at the language, especially when Gandalf is trying to decipher the meaning of the inscription.
Now Tolkien invented these two languages because he wanted his phrases, his music to have structure, depth, and proper meaning. These languages are the backbone of Tolkien’s fantasy, and instrumental to that secondary belief.
Earth as we know it has cultures. Built on different languages, different history, and different people. For example, America, the culture there is largely western, but it is influenced by a large variety of foreign cultures such as African, Native American, Asian, Polynesian, and Latin American. It also has its own social and cultural characteristics, such as dialect, their language, music, arts, social habits, cuisine, and folklore. These are the “rules” that define our modern world. People live and act within those boundaries. So, when a fantasy world, such as Tolkien’s, has set rules, and stays within them, it makes that same world (fantasy) so much more tangible and relatable to us readers.