Mythcon 47: Mythopoeia, Tolkien, and Propp

Our faculty have a busy summer: Prof JBH will be attending Mythcon 47 this summer to read a new paper on mythopoeia through the lens of Tolkien and Propp. The conference title and theme is “Faces of Mythology: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern.” As part of his Muggle disguise, Prof JBH has managed to infiltrate the Mythopoeic Society, the organizer for the Mythcon conference.


Here’s the title and a short blurb for his upcoming presentation:

Mythical Grammar according to J. R. R. Tolkien and Vladimir Propp: A Gesture Toward Conciliation Between Mythopoeia and Formalism

This paper sketches a framework for understanding how the radically different literary perspectives of Tolkien and the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp can be constructively compared, and the value of doing so. I will briefly explain Propp’s approach in the Morphology of the Folktale and how it can be used to explain the aesthetic satisfaction many readers experience and report when a tale conforms to a particular structure. Propp consciously disregarded questions of literary meaning, thus guilty by Tolkien’s lights of “using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence” (1947, 47). Tolkien has no truck with empirical and reductive methods like Propp’s. Propp is an analyst of form and syntax, Tolkien of content and meaning. Propp is an anatomist, Tolkien a psychologist (or poet). And yet their analyses of fairy tales converge on two noteworthy points. The first is the effect of a well-written tale on the reader. In previous research published on Propp, I have investigated his elliptical claim that his 31-function schema “is a measuring unit for individual tales” (1968, 64). It has been observed that the well-formed tale according to Propp’s scheme constitutes a cultural script marked by keen aesthetic satisfaction. The second point of convergence is on the question of origins, with both Tolkien and Propp, in their respective vocabularies, indicating the necessity of an Ur-story, a Protean form from which stories of an infinite variety of “amazing multi-formity, picturesqueness, and color” (1968, 21) have emerged under the sub-creative auspices of the “elvish craft.” Propp’s explanation is by design naturalized while Tolkien’s is metaphysical. Yet both reveal something essential to “incantation in Faërie,” a mythical grammar by which the storyteller may, if successful, wield an enchanter’s power.

Prof Hunter is drawing from the Manuscript B version of “On Fairy-Stories” published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947/1966, out of print). He is particularly enthusiastic about this paper because it will be his first attempt to build on his already-published Proppian analysis of the Harry Potter saga, which appears in The Ravenclaw Reader. It is also the fruit borne from a discussion with the Hogwarts Professor at a pub in St Andrews, Scotland four years ago. Pubs in Scotland are, parenthetically, where most good ideas originate. st-andrews-university-hotbed-of-mythopoeia

When the conference program is finalized, we’ll provide a link.

Students may use their holiday Hogsmeade pass to attend. If you don’t have a pass signed by your parent or guardian, please register online at the Mythcon 47 website. If you’ve already used your pass to attend the Leviosa! conference, then alternative routes out of school grounds are known to exist, but you can be assured that Mr Filch and Mrs Norris will be guarding them vigilantly.

St Andrews Conference Talk: Folktale Structure in Harry Potter

(Cross-posted at Joel Hunter PhD)

Unlocking Press, the publisher of Ravenclaw Reader, has posted the audio and slides of my presentation on the folktale structure in the Harry Potter series at the international conference on Harry Potter at the University of St Andrews in May 2012. I’m looking forward to participating in the upcoming webinar!


It starts slow as some house elves were helping me get the projector set up in the meeting room.

One point that I underplayed in this presentation was how well the entire series, taken as a single tale, conformed to Propp’s fairy tale structure. It is this fact together with the different responses to the particular books in the series that supports my hypothesis in answer to the question “Why do we love Harry Potter?”

Also, I attached three additional slides at the end that were part of an updated presentation of the research that I gave at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association meeting in February 2013. The content of these slides is a direct result of the discussions I had at St Andrews with colleagues and attendees of the conference. It’s a great example of how a good conference challenges and sharpens one’s scholarship.

World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin (3)

Part III–and the last–of my mini-series on how world building and artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.

To set the table for our thrilling conclusion, here are the key points from the first two posts in this series.

J. R. R. Tolkien in his Oxford rooms






In Part I, I introduced you to our two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: the “elvish craft” of enchantment (Tolkien) and translucence (Le Guin). We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish. We also began to compare the similarities in the Nna Mmoy way of life and Elvish culture.

In Part II, we examined Le Guin’s notion of translucence more closely by stepping through key passages in “The Nna Mmoy Language.” We saw that the source of translucence in story-telling is in the relationship between the language and the broader culture of a people. The translucence of the Elven language originates in their deep history and wrestling with the wider Powers of Arda, their sometimes ill-conceived oaths, and struggles against the Enemies of harmony, beauty, freedom, and delight in living things. The Nna Mmoy have none of these difficulties, nor self-awareness of their own history. The translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the complexities of the language itself because they live in a “safe,” unchallenging environment. For any language to have translucence, it must be fed by springs of complexity and variety.

In this final post in the series, I want to show that translucence is actually always and already present in our language. Our best writers have that elvish craft, that ability to enchant with translucent diction. But translucence also works on listeners and readers, and the attentive reader uses and understands language that is closer to Nna Mmoy than you might think. If you learn to detect translucence, you may embark on an exploration of unexpected meaning, challenges, and discoveries that open up to you.


The Map

The idea that translucence explains how layers of meaning are assembled and integrated into a whole work is at first difficult to grasp. I think an analogy with how maps function illustrates what’s going on.

Compare the author gifted with the Elvish Craft, or the adult Nna Mmoy speaker, to a mapmaker.

The mapmaker translates his or her knowledge of a place, its terrain and features, onto a two-dimensional representation of the place. Without exception, the mapmaker must compromise between clarity and richness, simplicity and comprehensiveness, detail and practical applicability, and so on. The map is not in a transparent, one-for-one correspondence relation with the terrain it depicts. The map is a selective image of the real place. The map is like geography. Both maps and geography abstract from the familiar concrete world of ordinary experience in order to give the map reader a useful tool to orient himself in the real place.

The map reader uses the map to navigate the place, explore its features, and reach destinations. Now every map reader knows this: the experience of studying the map is nothing like experiencing the place itself. You can’t study the geography or a map of the Everglades to obtain first-hand experience of what it’s actually like. The point of the map is to usefully guide; it does not act as a substitute experience of the place.

But there’s something else every map reader knows. Before you ever pick up a map, you’ve already encountered many of the features depicted on the map: road, stream, hill, swamp, town. You have a familiarity with the ordinary (Primary) world that the mapmaker depends on to communicate a more comprehensive understanding of the place. What the successful map (Secondary World) does is manifold:

  • It calls attention to specific features in the Primary World;
  • It allows you to experience familiar features in the Primary World differently;
  • It allows you to experience new features in familiar places.

We pick up a map of a new place handicapped by our myopic, partial vision of the real world. We take a journey to the broader world depicted by the map and our vision gets corrected, our perspective is elevated a little higher, and we glimpse how much more interesting–perhaps scary, perhaps wonderful–the Primary World is. The map is by necessity selective. It can’t show everything. If we seek to know and experience the Primary World in all its richness and terrible desolation, we will need good maps.

Translucence is what makes the good map work. There are enough familiar, easily identifiable objects in the terrain that the novice reader can get underway. Though an image, and an incomplete representation, the good map is accurate. And once you visit the actual place, you find the real landscape exceeds what the symbols on the map only hint at: the heights and depths of the ground below, the brilliance of the sky above, the ruggedness of the coastline, the colors and smells of the city, the expansive vistas of the high plains. None of this was on the map, and yet it stands out to you once you’ve been oriented by the map. Translucence teaches you that there’s more to what you see than what you see. From your original familiarity with some features the mapmaker can draw on, your vision of the real world penetrates to new features and rises to new perspectives.

The Analogy Explained

I tried to drop enough hints in the map analogy so that you could piece together its meaning on your own. But it’s not easy, so let me spell it out a bit more.

In the analogy, the mapmaker is the storyteller or author of the story, the world-builder. The map reader is the listener, or the reader of the story. The map is the story. The symbols and conventions used on the map are the language of the story. The map is a guide to a place in the world. The map reader comes to the map like the reader comes to the story with some pre-knowledge of both the symbols (the language) and the features represented (the world and its history). There’s another interesting similarity between maps and Tolkien’s idea of the Primary and Secondary. You’ll recall that Tolkien’s Secondary World is a fictional place, but a special kind of fictional place; namely, one that sheds new light on the ordinary, Primary world. The map is a representation of the Primary world through conventions of symbol, arrangement, and scale. The map purports to show the Primary world through these conventions and representation. The map is not a fictional world, but it can shed new light on the terrain and features of the Primary world.

Storytelling, or any other cultural form of expression, including handmade crafts, is also rooted in our prior familiarity with the world, the world we perceive and that perception gives us a hold on. We come to stories with our own stock of acquired vocabulary, concepts and meanings. The author (mapmaker) exploits this background knowledge and crafts original speech that creates new meaning. We may have been to a location a hundred times before, but never noticed the geological feature shown on the map. Indeed, it may be so hidden from sight that we would never have found the feature without the map. We now have an altered perspective on a familiar place. What was once hidden to us now stands out and opens new features for us to explore. But the new feature, the original speech, always rests on a background of already understood speech.

To understand translucence and how it works we have to examine something we take for granted: our familiar stock of words and why they seem to us easily comprehensible, usually univocal in meaning, and independent of the specific voices or script in which we first learned them. Small children who do not yet speak, whether Nna Mmoy, Elven, or Terran, encounter language as something already achieved by their society, as a meaningful world enveloping them, and which they must catch on to. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this situation in which we all, from ordinary speakers to poets and storytellers, find ourselves:

Speech is, therefore, that paradoxical operation through which, by using words of a given sense, and already available meanings, we try to followup an intention which necessarily outstrips, modifies, and itself, in the last analysis, stabilizes the meanings of the words which translate it. (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, 455-6)

In stories we are not simply using our stock of familiar words and straightforward meanings. Though much of our speech might be confined to the familiar and already constituted meanings (recall my example of the coffee shop in Part I), we forget how our familiar expressions have come to us by way of an obscure and ambiguous history. We require that pre-given stock of familiar words and meanings in order to read and understand stories of new and strange places, which simultaneously conceals the deep history of the familiar words and meanings. In Le Guin’s parlance, this is the inevitable effect of our speaking “snake.” It is only with additional effort that we notice the translucence of literal words or meanings and follow their allusions and suggestions into the infinite starfish branches of earlier, oft-forgotten or misappropriated, semantic depths. In their ordinary speech, the Nna Mmoy have no habitual and obvious meanings, for the simple concatenation of one syllable to another is sufficient to branch out into original speech. The Elves, on the other hand, speak “snake” like us, but they have not forgotten their history and have its semantic depths always available to them. We are either ignorant of the historical richness and depths of our language and the events of its formation, or we tend to overlook what is now habitual and obvious.

Storytelling arises obscurely out of its history and projects itself indefinitely into the future. I say “its” history because it is more than just the individual author’s history.

Are you still with me? Good, because here’s the punchline: translucence establishes our connection to our deep history. Light is shone on what is obscure. Surprising pathways to the familiar make them strange and new. Patterns we had not noticed suddenly take shape. (Some we invent, but the more accurate maps dispel confusion.) Aloof, superficial connections blaze with new significance and import.

Putting It Into Practice

Let’s test your translucence powers! I’ve listed some simple words below, a mixture of concrete and abstract things, with which you can practice thinking and speaking starfish. Here’s what to do:

  1. Each word is the head, or center of the starfish. Let the beginning of your thought or story be the literal, physical representation elicited by the word from the pre-given knowledge you already have.
  2. Now move to another thought wherein the word indicates something more, something beyond, the limits of what the physical senses or the particular image you’ve drawn from tells you. This is an allusive, playful, suggestive movement. It could be something emotional, some moral value or disvalue, some invisible structure or pattern, and so on. Before going on to the next step, pause to reflect on two things: (a) Did your move draw from something in your knowledge of human history, including other arts and literature? (b) Did your move draw from something in the memory of your own experience?
  3. Now that you’ve made one starfish movement, use translucence again for your second movement (third thought). Let the originating word move into yet another direction (layer of meaning).

Ready? Here you go:



















Congratulations! You’re speaking like the Nna Mmoy. Your speech is translucent!

Let’s conclude with a few observations.

Each of the words in the list has a deep history of layered meaning. There is both cultural difference among these layers as well as cultural commonality. A snake, for example, may have either a dominantly positive or negative value association in a given culture. Most cultures have some degree of both (a lot of modern people are unaware of the ambiguities of meaning in their own tradition).

An author may intentionally or unintentionally draw the history of these words and ideas into her story or song. If intentional, she may pack layers of nonsuperficial meaning into her creation, but unless her new expression somehow outstrips or modifies the already available meanings, at best she is imitating rather than creating meaning. If unintentional, then she cannot foresee or control how her readers, who may have more comprehensive knowledge of the history informing the words and ideas in her story, will interpret and understand her meaning in diverse and sophisticated ways. Because of the obscurity behind her expressions and her unknowing appropriation of that history, her intended meaning is at the mercy of her readers who may recognize her expressions as familiar ones.

Not all stories are maps; not all authors speak or poets sing with translucence. Why is it seemingly so rare to encounter a story that draws you into its world like a magnet, that satisfies some deep longing, that thrills with its linguistic elegance or virtuosity, or seems to have its author always present with you as a partner “in making and delight?” It may be that the author’s diction, like textbooks or litanies of bare facts, favors opacity over translucence. Or it may be that the reader’s stock of meanings, our Elvish immersion in our cultural histories, is weak, myopic, or unformed. Such are the temptations of snake language. Our usual communication with one another (and our past) is through statements and questions that taper off into some univocal, single, surface meaning. We don’t ordinarily converse in starfish like the Nna Mmoy. We bifurcate our speech into “ordinary” and “artful,” with the dominating ordinary type valuing simplicity and practicality. In modern society we relegate the artful to the domain of private leisure and enjoyment.

Invented and novel connections to the deeper regions of our social and cultural histories requires listening and following authors from (or who are regular travelers to) those deeper regions. They are the mapmakers of the soul. Translucent stories allow us to visit the undiscovered country, to see ourselves more clearly as we really are, to transform our vision of our place, and to experience being known–and knowing–in ways that enrich and delight.

World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin (2)

Part II of my mini-series on how artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.


In Part I, I introduced you to my two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: “elvish craft” and “translucence.” We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish.

In this post, I want to take a closer look at the property of the Nna Mmoy language that allows their people to create stories and poetry like nature creates life. Le Guin calls that property translucence.

But first I want to return to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” for a moment to forge a tighter connection between his “elvish craft” and Le Guin’s translucence. Tolkien calls the elvish craft a “special skill,” one that requires “labour and thought,” is put to the “difficult tasks” of “story-making in its primary and most potent mode,” and when realized, is a “rare achievement of Art.” Unlike the Nna Mmoy, creating stories that satisfy our “ancient desires” does not come easily to us. It seems far from the easy, everyday construction of our ordinary speech. (I emphasize ‘seems’ because in the last post in the series, I’ll suggest that it need not be, that our language is closer to Nna Mmoy than we may realize!)

Tolkien rummages around his conceptual toolkit for the best way to describe the elvish craft:

We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above, but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. (…) To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. (…) Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight….

Enchantment is the term that Tolkien uses to describe what is involved in the narrative art that “commands Secondary Belief” (belief in the Secondary World because of its artistic authenticity, inner credibility, and fulfillment of deep human desires). An enchanting (enchanted?) story is a Secondary world-building story “into which both designer and spectator can enter” and experience “shared enrichment” as “partners in making and delight.” Have you experienced that as a spectator (reader)? Have you felt the efflunariaects of the designer’s (author’s) enchantment?

If you have, then the author’s use of the language, his diction, was translucent. So that brings us to Le Guin’s idea. Talk of properties is rather abstract, so I’m going to break translucence down a bit. First,

A line of poetry can be translucent, as it were, to another meaning it could have if it were in a different context. The surface significance allows a possible alternate significance to register at the same time (167).

The example she gives shows that she’s not talking about double entendres (Breaking: stolen painting found by tree! Details at 11). Rather, it involves a slight adjustment to the original phrasing:

[I]f a syllable changes in one word, then “the crickets are singing in chorus in the starlight” becomes “the taxicabs are in gridlock at the intersection” (167).

This is, admittedly, a made-up example from the visitor’s supposed knowledge of Japanese. Note well that the two meanings both concern the mundane world. This kind of double meaning I’d call two-dimensional. Adjust a single syllable, and your statement can branch in two different ways, but their meanings remain in the plane of the concrete world of the bodily senses. They do not overlap or stack on one another with figurative or multi-referential senses. The figurative, the metaphorical, the allusive…these make language three-dimensional. They create depth.

But Nna Mmoy is more complex than the two-dimensional example.

[E]verything you say in Nna Mmoy is like that. Every statement is transparent to other possible statements because the meaning of every word is contingent on the meanings of the words around it. Which is why you probably can’t call them words.

A word in our language is a real thing, a sound with a fixed form to it. Take cat. In a sentence or standing by itself, it has a meaning; a certain kind of animal (…). As distinct as a pebble. Cat is a noun. Verbs are a little shiftier. What does it mean if you say the word had? All by itself? Not much. Had isn’t like cat; it needs context, a subject, an object.

No word in Nna Mmoy is like cat. Every word is Nna Mmoy is like had, only more so, much more (167-8).

Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine that you had none of your handy nouns with which to express yourself! Now this lovely image:

A Nna Mmoy syllable only has one written character. But it’s not a pebble. It’s a drop in the river.

Learning Nna Mmoy is like learning to weave water (168).

Needless towater-drop-by-cloki say, such a language would be extraordinarily difficult to understand, for the simple act of referring to something, of assigning a name, of defining, does not exist. Or rather, nouns and names exist, but they work like the multifunctional verb had. Not surprisingly, the visitor to Nna Mmoy had the easiest time communicating with the young children:

Their children’s words are more like our words, you can expect them to mean the same thing in different sentences. (…) Learning to read and write is a lifelong occupation [for the Nna Mmoy]. I suspect it involves not only learning the characters but inventing new ones, and new combinations of them–beautiful new patterns of meaning (169).

The translucence of their diction is inherent to the Nna Mmoy language in its most superficial form, but exploiting the textures of meaning available from its semi-transparence requires lots of practice. Conversation, speech and writing would be the central activity of their society.

Then they’d gather, along in the afternoon, under the trees, and they’d talk and laugh, having one of their long, long conversations.

The talking often ended up with people reciting, or getting out a paper or a book and reading from it. Some of them would be off reading by themselves, or writing. A lot of people wrote every day, very slowly, on flimsy bits of the paper they make out of cotton plant. They might bring that piece of writing to the group in the afternoon and pass it around, and people would read from it aloud. Or some people would be at the village workshop working on a piece of jewelry, the circlets and brooches and complicated necklaces they make out of gold wire and opals and amethysts and such. (…) I finally realised that some of the pieces of jewelry were sentences, or lines of poems. Maybe they all were (169-70).

gold-circletBeautiful! Their spoken and handmade arts converge in their meaning and use. And how consistent with what Tolkien calls an “uncorrupted” enchantment (see above): “it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight.”

The visitor hypothesizes that the Nna Mmoy invented such a language to compensate for the poverty of their environment. The world of the Nna Mmoy was engineered by their ancestors to be absolutely safe. “They took a great complex pattern and simplified it to perfection. A nursery room safe for the children.” And because the Nna Mmoy have no cultural memory of their ancestors, they do not share in or understand the common, darker side of the human condition: suffering, conflict, violence, natural dangers. They are world poor, as Heidegger might say. They use language to reintroduce “endlessly complicated, infinitely rich” patterns back into the world.

If you follow the logic here and apply it to our world, you’ll see why the literal, surface meaning has so much importance to us. We live in a world that is rich to explore, full of wonder and danger. Our openness to the world in both body and mind gives us the capacity to experience the full range of its delights and terrors. We don’t need a language like the Nna Mmoy to experience the “endlessly complicated, infinitely rich”…our world already is that. We simply have to live in it.ring-barahir-allyedfrown

Now let’s turn back to Middle Earth for a moment. The Nna Mmoy way of life is a lot like that of Tolkien’s elves. Do I need to say anything more than silmaril? The ring of Barahir? Anduril, the reforged Narsil? The feasts in Rivendell and the long evenings of song and poetry?

But Middle Earth ecology and culture has not been stripped down of its complexity; it’s a lot like our own world, full of pleasures and pains, fears and joys. With Elves in particular, there is also the weight of history. They are immortal and much of their culture is devoted to remembering their past. That’s a lot of story to tell. Here’s the key: the translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the language itself; the translucence of the Elven language originates in their history. For any language to have translucence, it must have complexity and variety. The Nna Mmoy diction and grammar is their only source for this. For Elves it is their world and history. They weave the inner world of experience and the outer world of nature, society and individuals into stories and songs. Their handmade crafts are of a piece with their verbal culture. Their elegant language has to be sufficient to express their experience with embodied immortality.

And now I’ve set you up for the final post in this series: how translucence works in our stories, how our two-dimensional language obtains its depth in new dimensions of meaning. How we are enchanted by the best stories in the way Sam Gamgee is moved hearing Gildor Inglorion’s company of elves sing:

Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean (Fellowship of the Rings, 92).

Stay tuned for Part III!


World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin

Nna-Mmoy-fullI wasn’t entirely pleased with my previous post on world building in Tolkien and Le Guin. Rather than replace it, however, I’m going to leave the old one in place and redo it by revising and refocusing it, and breaking it up into a short series of posts that I’ll have up this week.

What I’d like to explore with you is a comparison of Tolkien’s notion of the elvish craft and Ursula K. Le Guin‘s notion of translucence in “The Nna Mmoy Language.” I think this will be a handy tool for you writers out there, as well as serious readers of literature of all kinds.

In this first post I’ll start to forge the connection between Tolkien and Le Guin. Here’s the payoff: I think translucence gives us a very practical way to understand how literary meaning works. There are rich literary theories that explain how the layers of meaning beneath the surface reach the reader and open a door to the deepest folds of one’s heart. What translucence does is explain how those meaning-layers are assembled and integrated into a whole. When you read the artful story or hear the song, you’re being enchanted (Tolkien’s term). When you stand “outside” the story or song to examine it with a critical eye, with various theoretical approaches, it is the translucence of the language and diction that is the signature of works of enchantment, of those that are composed with the elvish craft.

Le-Guin-Wave-MindLe Guin wrote a lovely essay on Tolkien’s poetic diction, and how it is of a piece with his prose, called “Rhythmic Patterns in Lord of the Rings,” published in the collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). I highly recommend it.

Another question that I think translucence gives us a key to answer is one I’ve heard from many students and fellow readers: Why does Tolkien include so much verse in The Lord of the Rings? There’s more than one reason, I think, and the enchantment that occurs by way of translucent language is one of those reasons. But let’s set the table with Tolkien’s description of the elvish craft. Says Tolkien in his oft-revised “On Fairy Stories:”

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Le-Guin-Changing-PlanesIn the chapter called “The Nna Mmoy Language” in Changing Planes, Le Guin’s travelogue to this world focuses extensively on the language of the Nna Mmoy people. What Le Guin invites us to imagine is a world in which Tolkien’s narrative art of of Secondary World-building is not a difficult task, but the way the Nna Mmoy ordinarily speak and write, a language in which the layers of meaning are built into the very unfolding of one word following another in ordinary speech.

Picture a scene from ordinary life in our world: you enter a coffee shop, order a cup of coffee, and make light references to the news of the day. Now imagine that the words exchanged between you and your coffee mates were imbued with metaphorical, allegorical, even mythological significance, and that you couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) strip those layers from a supposed “literal” bottom-line, straightforward, unambiguous meaning. This would, of course, be maddening for us. But that is because we speak “snake”:

A snake can go any direction, but only one direction at a time, following its head (165).

We can begin an English sentence with any word, but as each word is appended, the direction (meaning) of the sentence becomes quickly set, and by the timhyperbolic-conee you reach the end of the sentence, there are usually very few words that will fit (often only one)…Madlibs notwithstanding…though it is the disruptive meaning of unexpected or nonsense words that plays against the words that fit in ordinary speech which make them work (i.e., Madlibs are funny because we speak snake).

The Nna Mmoy, on the other hand, speak “starfish:”

A starfish doesn’t go anywhere much. It has no head. It keeps more choices handy, even if it doesn’t use them. (…) When you say something in Nna Mmoy, there is a center to what you say, but the statement goes in more than one direction from the center–or to the center (165-6).

Le Guin suggests that Japanese works more like Nna Mmoy [I’d like to confirm this with any Japanese-speaking readers!]Hyperbolic-space Starfish speech, like snake speech, has a definite beginning. But on Le Guin’s spatial metaphor, the beginning of a Nna Mmoy statement is a center rather than an end. Because it can go in multiple directions in one statement, the appended words spread out from the center in an infinity of end points. Snake speech, on the other hand, ends in a definite point, the tail.

The point in “The Nna Mmoy Language” when the light bulb went off for me was, strangely enough, not all of this interesting linguistic analysis, but the description of the Nna Mmoy way of life:

The Nna Mmoy are excellent gardeners, vegetarians by necessity [Prof JBH: because very few forms of life remained after their ancestors had caused a mass extinction of species]. Their arts are cookery, jewelry, and poetry. (…) No mining has been observed, but opals, peridots, amethysts, garnets, topazes, and colored quartzes may be picked up in any stream bed; jewels are bartered for unworked or reused gold or silver. (…) shells are traded for finished jewelry and for poems–if that is what the written texts, single sheets, booklets, and scrolls, so beautiful and teasing to the eye, actually are (163-4).

I can’t help but picture Tolkien’s elves, especially those of the First Age, from this description of the Nna Mmoy! They are creators. Though elves do not speak like the Nna Mmoy (more about that later), they esteem craftmaking of all kinds, beautifully made things, movement, music, and lore. They treasure and nurture growing things. And their conversations in times of peace are unrushed. I compare these nighttime conclaves to a quilting society, where the quilt that the assembly of elves makes is the conversation itself. It seems to me that these similarities in the elven and Nna Mmoy culture extend to their respective languages; they must share some kind of important, creative, enchanting property.

In the next post, I’ll have a closer look at the property Le Guin calls translucence, explaining what it is and how it concerns the serious reader of literature of all kinds. I’ll spoil the surprise by telling you now what my “hook” is into the last post in the series: translucence is actually always and already present in our language. Our language, at times, is closer to Nna Mmoy than you might think. Stay tuned!