Epaminondas: Who was he, and why was Tolkien interested in him? (or, what’s different in the paperback edition of A Secret Vice?)

Since the publication of the paperback edition of A Secret Vice, I have been asked a few times what’s different or new, compared to the original hardback edition. My good friend and fellow Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson actually asked me using the correct terminology: is the paperback a corrected reprint, or a revised edition? To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer. Most of the changes in the paperback text are just corrections of typos, or of words/word forms in Tolkien’s text we now know were misreadings. If those were the only changes, I would call the paperback a “corrected reprint”. However, there is one instance that murkies the water, and that’s the one I want to write about here.

There is a word in the hardback edition of A Secret Vice that Andrew Higgins and I had marked as {illeg} (p. 98), our shorthand for a word that was impossible to make out from Tolkien’s hasty handwriting. The truth is that it wasn’t quite illegible. Both Andy and I had a pretty clear sense of what we thought the word was. But it just didn’t quite make sense – it was a seemingly random name. A proper name in Greek, belonging to a historical personality from the 4th century BC. There was no other reference of that name anywhere else in Tolkien’s written work or in his interviews and reported words by friends and colleagues, and we just couldn’t quite connect it securely to the context of the (actually fragment of a) sentence in Tolkien’s notes. So we reached the decision that we must have misread it, and could not quite make out the actual word Tolkien had intended. In all honesty, we marked it “illegible”.

Statue of Epaminondas in the grounds of Stowe House

The word we thought we could see was “Epaminondas” (Ἐπαμεινώνδας). Epaminondas (410-362 BC) was Greek general and statesman from Thebes. He was an important leader and military strategist: he effectively undermined the post-Peloponnesian-War military dominance of Sparta and changed the balance of power among Greek city-states. His most famous battle was that at Leuctra (371 BC), which was won partially due to his innovative military tactics. Our main sources for Epaminondas’ exploits is Xenophon’s Hellenica.


Epaminondas didn’t quite seem like the sort of historical personality that Tolkien would normally invoke, and his name didn’t seem to fit the context of the sentence we thought we saw it in. The sentence was:

What makes Greek sound Greek ({illeg}) (Secret Vice hardback, p. 98)

Here Tolkien is clearly in a note-taking mode, in preparation for (or in relation to) his brief “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism”. In that essay he writes about his interest in what constitutes the aesthetics of the sounds of a language – he characteristically asks:

Thus – what makes Greek so Greek? In what lies the Greekness of Greek, the Welshness of Welsh, the Englishness of English? (Secret Vice, p. 71)

Why would Tolkien invoke Epaminondas here when he was talking about Greek sounds? Could it be possible that he was particularly impressed by the sounds of this particular name? If that was the case, why hadn’t he mention it anywhere else before, especially in essays such as “English and Welsh”, in which he commented again on “the Greekness of Greek” (Monsters and the Critics, p. 191).

Well, it turns out he HAD mentioned this name again, but in a record that didn’t surface until a few months after our edition of A Secret Vice was published. Thanks to Stuart Lee’s archival work, we now know that during the filming of the BBC documentary Tolkien in Oxford (first broadcast in 1968), there were a lot of recorded scenes and conversations with Tolkien that were not used in the final documentary. Stuart found those hitherto lost film rushes. He revealed some of them in a BBC Radio 4 “Archive on 4” programme titled Tolkien: The Lost Recordings (first broadcast in August 2016) and he eventually published transcripts of Tolkien’s words in Tolkien Studies 2018. I was actually allowed to watch all of the lost Tolkien “rushes” for the BBC Radio 4 programme, for which I was interviewed, and so I heard Tolkien with my own ears talking about “the beginnings of inventing language” and how – alongside languages he knew as a boy, such as French and German – he came across the “totally different Greek taste”:

… which I first only knew by words like… ‘Epaminondas‘, ‘Leonidas’ and ‘Aristoteles’ and things of that kind. I tried to invent a language which would incorporate a feeling of that. (quoted in Lee, 2018, 136)

This was, for me, the “aha!” moment! Yes, Tolkien had mentioned Epaminondas before, together with other better-known names from classical Greek history and philosophy, and clearly this name did strike him as particularly aesthetically pleasing or striking in its sounds. (Notice also how he uses the proper Greek sound for Aristotle: Aristoteles – Ἀριστοτέλης!) But of course I had been shown the film rushes confidentially, for the purposes of the radio programme, with the understanding that I would not share their contents with anyone else. And I didn’t. I stewed in my own juices for two years and didn’t even tell Andy about this solution to one of the Secret Vice puzzles that had been bugging both of us, until Stuart actually published the transcripts, and they were then available to all scholars to see. So when the opportunity for the paperback edition of A Secret Vice arose, Andy and I were overjoyed to be able to restore this word to Tolkien’s text – a word we thought we could see, but couldn’t be quite sure was right, but which we now knew was totally right, and cross-checked with Tolkien’s own words in another instance.

Is this addition of one word in p. 98 of the paperback (and an explanatory note to go with it in p. 114) enough to move this edition from a “corrected reprint” to a “revised edition”? You tell me!

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