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:

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Tinfang Warble

the-night-before-christmas-illustrated-by-douglas-gorslineFollowing family tradition, the bedtime book I read to my near-four-year-old son on Christmas Eve was “The Night Before Christmas”, aka “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, by Clement Clarke Moore*. I used my mum’s old copy of the poem, a picturebook lavishly illustrated by Douglas Gorsline.

As I read it aloud, another poem kept coming into mind: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Over Old Hills and Far Away” (1915). This is one of only two poems about Tolkien’s elusive early character, Tinfang Warble, variously described as a “leprawn” (Tolkien’s idiosyncratic spelling for “leprechaun”), a “fay”, an “elf”, or a “quaint spirit” of mixed origin. Tinfang Warble also appears in The Book of Lost Tales, the earliest draft of what we know today as The Silmarillion.


Tinfang Warble, by Mirach Ravaia via DeviantArt

In “Over Old Hills and Far Away”, Tinfang Warble is clearly a “fairy” creature, akin to other such (often small or even diminutive) beings in Tolkien’s early poems**. Tinfang is described as a white-haired “old elf”, who is, nevertheless, a merry piper, lithe and nimble, running fervently and dancing, and eventually luring the speaker of the poem to follow his piping.

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” – probably one of the best-known Christmas poems ever – is, of course, about the nightly visit of St Nicholas to leave presents for some children on Christmas eve, as spied by their father, who wakes up to witness his arrival. So what is the connection? I have tried to show a number of parallels and similarities in these colour-coded versions of the two poems, which I will explain further below.


To begin with, the metre of the two poems connects them at once. They are both written in anapestic tetrameter, a rather unusual metre for the English language, the morphology of which fits iambic compositions much better. This fact alone makes anapestic metres both rhythmical and memorable – perhaps one of the reasons behind the success of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. To illustrate this, compare the stressed syllables of the opening lines of each poem:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house (Moore)

“It was early and still in the night of June, (Tolkien)

The two openings seem to chime in other ways too: in both first lines we have an indication of time (the night before Christmas vs. a night of June) and Tolkien’s first draft was even closer to Moore’s, shortening ‘It was’ to ‘Twas’: “‘Twas a very quiet evening once in June”.

Though Tolkien’s poem takes place in the summer, while Moore’s poem is emphatically set in the snowy winter, Tolkien describes Tinfang Warble’s white hair as sparkling “like frost in a winter moon” (l. 23). Moore’s moon, on the other hand, is also associated with bright light: as it falls “of the new-fallen snow” (l. 13) it gives “a lustre of midday to objects below” (l. 14). Sun/moon, summer/winter – we have a number of mixed metaphors and images here.

Our two protagonists, St Nicholas and Tinfang Warble, also show a number of similarities, not only on a lexical level, but in terms of imagery too. They are both small, little, even diminutive: St Nicholas is “little” and drives a “miniature” sleigh driven by “tiny” reindeer (ll. 16-17); while Tinfang Warble has “little feet” and a “slim little body” (ll. 29, 35). They both have the ability to leap high (up the chimney, l. 52, or up in the air, l. 31, respectively) and they both laugh happily. Most importantly, they are both old, with white hair – indeed, St. Nicholas is memorably described as a “jolly old elf” (l. 45) while Tinfang Warble is “the old elf” (l. 52). It was this last parallel, alongside the sing-song metre of both poems, that initially spurred my interest to look closer and compare these two compositions.

The narrators of the two poems also show remarkable similarities: they are both awoken at night, hearing something in their sleep, and they both approach their respective windows to find out what is going on (ll. 10-11 and 5-6 respectively). They both then spy on their otherworldly visitors – though Tolkien’s speaker goes one step further by following Tinfang, almost compulsively.

In the colour-coded picture above, I have noted a few other – less pronounced – connections in terms of structure, lexis, and imagery.

Now there is, of course, nothing Christmassy about Tolkien’s poem, but there is most definitely something elvish about Moore’s poem. Moore’s poem was certainly as popular in Britain from the second half of the 19th century on as it was on the other side of the Atlantic, and there were numerous illustrated editions that became ubiquitous and very influential in the shaping of the modern, now universal, Santa Claus. Moore’s poem is whimsical and jolly and not taking itself too seriously – a marked difference from the nostalgic, wistful tone of Tolkien’s poem. For me, however, the image of the tiny, white-haired “old elf” that moves nimbly and draws the attention of the speaker, rousing him from his bed, is a tantalizing link between the two poems, underlined musically by their anapestic rhythms.

Tolkien did go on to create a Christmas mythology (parallel to his Middle-earth legendarium) in his Letters from Father Christmas, and his central character – the British equivalent of St Nicholas/Santa Claus – is indeed whimsical and dressed in red and white (a tradition that originated with early illustrations of the American figure – as opposed to the usually green garments of early depictions of Father Christmas). But I like to think that Tinfang Warble has something Christmassy about him too – if only some vague echo of Moore’s “jolly old elf”.







Notes and Sources

* Though the authorship of the poem is contested – some scholars have argued it was written by Henry Livingston, Jr.; see here for an overview of the controversy.

** For Tolkien’s “fairy” creatures in his early mythology, shaped by folklore, Victorian fairylore and fairy paintings, see Chapters 2, 3 and 4 of my book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History, as well as my article here.

“Over Old Hills and Far Away” can be found in The Book of Lost Tales I, pp. 108-10.

“A Visit from St Nicholas” is out of copyright and can be accessed freely online – here is a good version.


First impressions count? On academic book covers

Should you care whether your academic monograph or edited collection has an appealing cover? Does it matter? And can you/should you get involved?

My answer to all of the above is yes! I know there are brilliant academic books out there with boring, samey or just random covers, so I’m not saying that outward appearance necessarily equals inward quality or originality. But, at the same time, should academics just be satisfied with covers clearly chosen by publishers without much care for aesthetics or relevance to the topic, perhaps in the belief that only specific libraries/specialists will buy the book, a small but guaranteed readership, unaffected by the cover? In our times of emphasis on public engagement and “impact”, why should you not wish for your book to be appealing to any reader? And if you believe your own research to be exciting, fascinating and worth reading, shouldn’t your book cover express that too?

I’m writing these reflections in a rare moment of calm (the term has just ended!) just after Palgrave Macmillan have released the cover of my new monograph on their website. I’m really proud of this cover and I’ve been wanting to share it for a few months now – so this is indeed an exiting time. I was actively involved with the cover design of both of my monographs, and this seems like a good time to reflect on my engagement with this task – and the results!


The cover of my forthcoming monograph with Palgrave Macmillan

My new book focuses on the creative uses of ‘Celtic’ myth (Irish and Welsh) in contemporary fantasy literature written for children or young adults. It explores the work of fantasists from the 1960s (e.g. Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, etc.) all the way to our times (e.g. Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge, published in 2006, and Henry Neff’s The Tapestry series, the last volume of which was published in 2014).


The cover of Charles Squire’s Celtic Myth & Legend, Poetry & Romance (1910)


The frontispiece of Charles Squire’s Celtic Myth & Legend, Poetry & Romance (1910)

One of the books I had to consult a lot during my research, was Charles Squire’s Celtic Myth & Legend, Poetry & Romance (1910). Now this is not quite an academic book but despite its early date it’s never been out of print and it was definitely read by a number of my fantasy authors and shaped their imaginations. Squire’s book contains striking colour illustrations by J.H.F. Bacon, two of which I considered for my cover. The one which I nearly chose was “Cuchulainn meets the Morrígú”, which chimes with Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Mórrígan and Henry Neff’s The Tapestry series. But I finally chose “The Making of Blodeuwedd” for a number of reasons:

a) It depicts the moment of the creation of a girl out of flowers by the magicians Math and Gwydion, a scene from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi in the Welsh Mabinogion. This part of the story became a central inspiration for Alan Garner’s iconic (and rather haunting) The Owl Service. This is one of the best-known books my monograph explores, and one of the earliest.

b) Blodeuwedd herself is not here a young woman, but a child, a prepubescent girl, thus serving as a nice allegory of the shaping of ‘Celtic’ myth for children/adolescents that my fantasy authors have undertaken. They haven’t quite taken flowers and turned them into a child, but they have taken medieval sources (and their later retellings) and turned them into new, original fantasy plots and characters for young readers.

c) At the same time, the two magicians look rather classical/Roman, in their togas and clean-shaven faces (though I am aware I’m referring to popular perceptions here). Their portrayal points to one of the central points of my book, the fact that ‘Celtic’ myth has often been retold in such a way so as to “fit” with classical ideas of a pantheon of gods and legendary heroes that may not necessarily work with the original, medieval material. My authors have often relied on these retellings, rather than revisit the medieval sources first hand, and therefore their adaptations have an added layer of complexity in terms of attitudes and perceptions of things “Celtic”.



My first monograph, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, was published in 2008, also by Palgrave. I remember vividly being given the option to be involved in the cover design, and getting quite excited with the sheer range of possibilities! I had just returned from my last research trip to Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog, both in the outskirts of Birmingham, and both important locations of Tolkien’s childhood and related to his vision of the Shire. I wrote to my publishers with a PowerPoint presentation “proposal” for the book cover, based on a photograph I had taken myself. In short, here was my rationale for my suggested book cover:


The first edition of The Silmarillion, featuring the emblem of Lúthien Tinúviel on its cover

  • Tolkien liked drawing kaleidoscopic images and patterns, e.g. the Elvish heraldic devices, one of which was chosen for the cover of the first edition of The Silmarillion.
  • As a child, Tolkien and his brother Hillary, used to play in Moseley Bog, a place Tolkien later claimed to be an important inspiration for the Shire.
  • For the book cover, I have used one of my own photos of Moseley Bog, which I have turned into a kaleidoscopic image via an image editing software

My photo of Moseley Bog, July 2008

I am really grateful that Palgrave trusted me with this idea – the book still gets great comments for its cover! And here is my photo of Moseley Bog, taken with what I am sure now is considered a pretty basic digital camera, which served as the raw material for my kaleidoscopic manipulation!

The moral of the story, I suppose – if I can call it a moral – is trust yourself as an expert on your own research. You know better than anyone what may make a good, eye-catching, but also appropriate cover. If you are given the chance to be involved in the choice of cover, take the opportunity! If no one mentions anything, still ask and show interest and willingness to engage with this process.  In both cases, make sure you have given the matter some thought, so that your book ends up with a cover that at least has some significance and makes sense – at least to you!