A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages

Article on Invented Languages on the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) Online

I have had a new article published today on the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) Online, titled: “Inventing a Whole Language”. In this article I discuss imaginary languages, from early modern traveller’s tales and Victorian fantasy, to Tolkien, of course, as well as George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. This piece builds on the research I did with Andrew Higgins for our edition of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages (HarperCollins, 2016) and argues for language invention as an enduring form of art.

You can read the entire article here.

Continue reading this article on the Times Literary Supplement Online: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/how-to-invent-a-language-tolkien-burgess/

Tolkien Sessions at IMC Leeds, July 2017

imc_postcard_2017_front_1I am very pleased to announce that all four sessions on J.R.R. Tolkien I proposed for the International Medieval Congress at Leeds 2017 have been accepted! This will be the third consecutive year of papers on J.R.R. Tolkien at IMC Leeds, after a successful series of sessions in 2015 and 2016. Leeds is, indeed, a Tolkien-related location, and it is very fitting that his work will be explored in this prestigious conference. I am looking forward to a series of brilliant sessions and papers from well-established Tolkien scholars, alongside new voices and perspectives!

Here are the sessions titles, abstracts, papers, speakers and times:


Session 242: J. R. R. Tolkien: Medieval Roots and Modern Branches

Session Time: Mon. 03 July – 14.15-15.45

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Moderator: Andrew Higgins

Session Abstract:

This session will address aspects of Tolkien’s medievalism. Yvette Kisor examines the frequent use    of the word ‘knight’ in Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, especially to translate a range of Old English terms. Anahit Behrooz addresses the complexities of orality and frame narratives in the earliest version of Tolkien’s mythology, The Book of Lost Tales. Aurélie Brémont discusses the transformations of the Corrigan, from Breton folklore to Tolkien’s The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. Victoria Holtz-Wodzak considers the ways in which medieval Franciscan theology shaped Tolkien’s portrayal of the natural world.

Paper Titles and Speakers:

Tolkien’s Beowulf: Translating Knights (Yvette Kisor, Ramapo College, New Jersey)

Elvish Ears: Medieval Orality in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales (Anahit Behrooz, University of Edinburgh)

Tales of the Corrigan: From Folklore to Nationalist Reinvention (Aurélie Brémont, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne)

Treebeard’s Priesthood and the Franciscan Sanctity of Tolkien’s Natural World (Victoria Holtz-Wodzak, Viterbo University)

Session 342: ‘New’ Tolkien: Expanding the Canon

Session Time: Mon. 03 July – 16.30-18.00

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Moderator: Dimitra Fimi

Session Abstract:

This session will focus on ‘new’ works by J. R. R. Tolkien: creative works published posthumously during the last few years. Participants will examine all or a selection of the following works: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009), The Fall of Arthur (2013), The Story of Kullervo (2015), A Secret Vice (2016) and The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun (2016). Verlyn Flieger will examine the complex ways in which Tolkien’s creative adaptation of medieval literature shaped some of his best-known fictional characters. Brad Eden will focus on Tolkien’s use of the liminal forest in terms of setting, language and characterization. Kristine Larsen will concentrate on medieval lunar symbolism in the representation of female characters, and Andrew Higgins will explore the use of the Indo-European model and Tolkien’s expertise in philology in the development of Tolkien’s invented languages.

Paper Titles and Speakers:

Tolkien, Tradition, and the Individual Talent (Verlyn Flieger, University of Maryland)

Mirkwood as Otherness: ‘New’ Tolkien and the Liminal Forest (Brad Eden, Valparaiso University)

Magic, Matrimony, and the Moon: Medieval Lunar Symbolism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun and The Fall of Arthur (Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University)

A Secret Vice, the 1930’s and the Growth of Tolkien’s ‘Tree of Tongues’ (Andrew Higgins, Independent Scholar)

Session 442: The Road Goes Ever On: The Future of Tolkien Scholarship – A Round Table Discussion

Session Time: Mon. 03 July – 19.00-20.00

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Chair: Carl Phelpstead

Round Table Abstract:

Tolkien’s legendarium has often been approached by scholarship via the lens of medievalism. Scholars have been long interested in Tolkien’s medieval intertexts (e.g. Old and Middle English works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and such studies have established a clear view of Middle-earth as a world that engages with the heroic code, material culture, philosophical, and theological concepts, as well as fantastical beings, from the literature of the European Middle Ages. However, a more recent trend is to examine Tolkien’s work in terms of its engagement with the cultural moment(s) it was created, spanning six decades of literary and cultural history. Where is Tolkien scholarship heading? Should we move away from ‘Tolkien the medievalist’ and focus more on Tolkien as 20th-century author? And what about recent developments in literary theory? This round table discussion will debate the complexities of such questions and will interrogate scholarly practices and expectations in Tolkien Studies.


Brad Eden (Valparaiso University)

Dimitra Fimi (Cardiff Metropolitan University)

Verlyn Flieger (University of Maryland)

Michael Wodzak (Viterbo University)

Session 1019: Otherness in Tolkien’s Medievalism

Session Time: Wed. 05 July – 09.00-10.30

Organiser: Dimitra Fimi
Moderator:  Kristine Larsen

Session Abstract:

This session explores various aspects of the construction and role of the ‘other’ in J.R.R. Tolkien’s medievalism. Irina Metzler surveys the representation of disability in Tolkien’s mythology and its medieval analogies and constructions. Thomas Honegger focuses on Tolkien’s critique of chivalry in his medieval scholarship but also in his construction of the ‘other’ Middle Ages in his creative work. Sara Brown addresses an important figure of medieval literature and legend, the Dwarf, focusing on the ‘othering’ of female Dwarves by their very absence. Gaëlle Abaléa interrogates the world of the Dead as ‘other’ in Tolkien’s legendarium, examining its boundaries, and its relation to Faerie.

Paper Titles and Speakers:

Disability in Tolkien’s Texts: Medieval ‘Otherness’? (Irina Metzler, Swansea University)

Tolkien’s Other Middle Ages (Thomas Honegger, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität)

The Invisible Other: Tolkien’s Dwarf-Women and the ‘Feminine Lack’ (Sara Brown, Rydal Penrhos School)

Our World, the Other World, and Those In-Between: Community with and Separation from the Dead in Tolkien’s Work (Gaëlle Abaléa, Université Paris IV – Sorbonne)

Tolkien’s A Secret Vice: first reviews

As promised in yesterday’s blog post, I have tried to put together some extracts from the first reviews of A Secret Vice: Tolkien and Invented Languages, mainly so that I don’t forget the thrill of reading them and so that I keep on remembering that the book is now done, out there, and read by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts all over the world. Since its publication, I have seen the book in the hands of friends and strangers and I have had the pleasure of signing copies, including at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May. The reviews below are from the press and online reviewing platforms. I am awaiting eagerly the first reviews in academic journals and periodicals.

Signing SV

With Andrew Higgins, signing copies of _A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages_ at Kalamazoo

New Statesman SV review
From Teach yourself Dwarvish: behind Tolkien’s invented languages, by John Garth, The New Statesman, 15 April 2016

[Tolkien’s] talk is a vigorous defence of the [language invention] “hobby” and, with the support of the background commentaries provided by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, it becomes clear that the invention of languages has been a surprisingly widespread activity. A Secret Vice is a thoroughly engaging introduction for the outsider. […] This edition includes not only the 1931 paper but also the various notes that Tolkien made in preparing it. It’s a mishmash, with something for the Elvish buff and something for those who enjoy unlikely cultural collisions. A good example of the latter is a note by Tolkien on the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Read the entire review here.


SV in BlackwellsFrom A Model of Scholarship, by Arthur Morgan (a former student of Christopher Tolkien), Amazon.com, 16 April 2016

This is a fascinating and very well written account of the history and development of Tolkien’s invented languages. It has the virtues of the old scholars: clarity, sharp focus, detail, careful examination and analysis of the evidence, and an absence of the clogging jargon that has become a disfigurement of academic writing and often a substitute for thought and insight. […] The range of knowledge revealed here is extraordinary, yet it is lightly worn and is subordinated to underpinning the conclusions which the two authors reach. […] The text proper of ‘A Secret Vice’ is given in a form that is a model of its kind, a very clear text that preserves cancellations and changes found in the original typescripts and manuscripts held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The editors have appended succinct and most helpful notes that explain or expand complexities in Tolkien’s argument. […] This is an unfailingly fascinating, thorough and comprehensive account of a largely technical subject that is central to an understanding of Tolkien and his work. It would be very surprising if it did not remain the standard text on this subject.

Read the entire review here.


From Tolkien As Professor, by John D. Cofield, Amazon.com, 20 May 2016

This book contains a lecture on invented languages [Tolkien] delivered to the Samuel Johnson Society of Pembroke College at Oxford University in 1931 as well as related material and essays, all ably edited and annotated by the notable scholars Dr. Dimitra Fimi and Dr. Andrew Higgins. […] After the introduction we have the essay itself, with Tolkien’s own crossings out and emendations, accompanied by Fimi and Higgins’ wonderfully detailed Notes. Next is Tolkien’s related essay on “Phonetic Symbolism,” which contains many of the same themes, though with some differences in emphasis and detail. This is also meticulously annotated by Fimi and Higgins. The third segment discusses manuscripts and notes pertaining to the essays which are held in the Bodleian, and a Coda details the ongoing interest in invented languages which Tolkien helped inspire. […] This is a marvelous work which adds much to Tolkien scholarship.

Read the entire review here.

SV in Forbidden PlanetFrom Review of A Secret Vice, by Thomas, Goodreads.com, 21 May 2016

As a huge Tolkien fan and as a linguist I highly appreciate the efforts the editors made, in order to show us the creative process of the two essays that are annotated in this book. […] The editors Fimi and Higgins are to be commended for their highly interesting attempts at tracing the origins of certain phrases and terms. […] It is worth a philological and careful read by those who have an interest in Tolkienian languages, sound symbolism and those who wish to read an interesting book.

Read the entire review here.

From Review of A Secret Vice, by Bookworm Sean, Goodreads.com, 27 May 2016

Let’s just face the facts people, Tolkien was a genius. He was the inventor of languages and mythology; he was the designer of races and cultures: he was the creator of worlds. He created modern fantasy. So here’s a book that gets right down to the nitty-gritty of Tolkien’s wonderful world; it explains the logic, and the success, behind his imagination: the language itself. Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice” is replicated in here. Certainly, the essay is available, along with many others, in editions that collect his writings. You may even be able to find it for free online. That’s great, but this edition goes into a great deal of detail. The scholarship of the editors is of the highest quality. The introduction, notes and explanatory sections are extensive and illuminating. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have appreciated the full importance of Tolkien’s arguments without the extensive efforts the editors have gone to. This really is good stuff.

Read the entire review here.

Last but not least, for a Storify story about how the book has fared in blogs and social media see here.