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 effects 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 to 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).
Beautiful! 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.
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!