How J R R Tolkien changed the world

I never stop marvelling at how the mind and work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has flowed into everyday life around the western world. Even the lives of those who haven’t read his books or seen the Peter Jackson movie adaptations.

Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three 'life size' trolls. Cool.
Probably Bert and Tom, I think. Two of the three ‘life size’ trolls at The Hobbit premiere. Cool.

Take the word dwarf, for instance. In 1930, when Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, the plural was dwarfs. But Tolkien didn’t like it, and not just because the plural of ‘elf’ was ‘elves’. As a philologist and English scholar he knew that in Old English the word for dwarf was dweorh, pluralised as dwarrows. In old German it was twerg or dwergaz, and in Norse it was dvergr. ‘Dwarf’? Boring.

So Tolkien decided to make a more interesting plural of the English word – dwarves. He was the only one who did it. Just him. It wasn’t an easy one to get through his editors at Allen and Unwin, who kept correcting it back to ‘dwarfs’. But he managed it in the end.

And guess what – that’s how dwarf is pluralised now, always, right down to the point where my edition of Word 2010 doesn’t recognise it as a typo.

I even saw a title of a novel with the word spelt that way.

Technically it’s a neologism coined by Tolkien, but you wouldn’t think so at this juncture. And isn’t that just fantastic. This one spelling alone – now ‘correct’ and universal – shows the power writers have to work their ideas into wider society. The way writers can influence. The way imagination and creativity can spread from a single author’s ideas. And it’s all happened in the two generations since The Lord Of The Rings was published.

And that’s without considering the way his ideas have flowed into our lives in other ways – through music inspired by his motifs, through his influence on literature and fantasy writing, through the ubiquity of his work. Even, dare I say it, through the way the movies have been commercialised, opening up the vistas of Middle Earth to new generations and new audiences, mainstreaming the whole mythos in ways literature alone could not.

I am fairly sure Tolkien never intended it. People who truly change the world never do.

How has Tolkien influenced your world?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


14 thoughts on “How J R R Tolkien changed the world

  1. Without Tolkien, there would be no Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game and that was my gateway to fantasy fiction, along with Andre Norton’s “Quag Keep”. Trying to break with Tolkien’s standard conventions is a tough road for a new author. Re-creating elves, for example. Most everyone has the image that he created so If an author uses the term “elf” the image is already in the reader’s mind.

    1. Absolutely true. Who’d know, now, that elves were originally funny ‘fairy’ creatures? I get the impression that Tolkien’s full re-creation of them hadn’t been entirely achieved by the time he wrote The Hobbit; the laughing ‘fairy’ type elves Bilbo meets ar Rivendell early in the book are hard to reconcile with the beings of power and gravitas we meet there in The Lord Of The Rings.

      Did you play the original ‘hardback’ D&D? I was led into the game in its hardback-and-dice TSR version, via my Tolkien enthusiasms. I believe the earliest editions used Tolkien’s creature names. I had problems with Gary Gygax’s ideas, though, and with friends of mine ended up inventing an entirely new RPG, half tongue-in-cheek, which we played for some time, based around a Tolkien-esque map where most of the place names referenced either the Harvard Lampoon ‘Bored Of The Rings’, motorcycle parts manufacturers, or 1980s Brit synth pop bands (don’t ask!).

      1. I started out in 1978 with the small brown three book set and dice. friend had the original “Chainmail” book. Since then I played through version 3.0. I still have a complete set of 2nd edition books. I think there are 23. I’ve been thinking about selling them but so far, I can’t bring myself to part with them. Sounds like you played an interesting game. 😉

  2. You write such wonderful posts on Tolkien, Matthew. Every time, I learn something. Dwarves? Even my voice recognition software to gives it a Tolkien spelling, and now I “know the rest of the story.”

    Your point about new generations experiencing Tolkien through movies is an important one. I like to think that the movies send/return people to the original words, which may be naïve on my part. Yet,Tolkien’s world is one for every generation to experience.

    Looking forward to your review of “The Hobbit” movie.


    1. Thank you. Yes, the more I’ve looked into Tolkien, the more amazing his work and contribution has become – and the more I can see his imagination weaving threads into so much of the modern world. I still haven’t seen the film, you have to book it here in NZ everybody absolutely is going to see it – but I hope soon. Definitely will review.

      1. Only read The Hobbit once, many years ago, so guess what one of my Christmas presents – book vouchers – went towards.

          1. Actually, that’s a movie I need to see. Not very good, apparently, but they did get Dickie Attenborough to be the narrator, and I’m a bit of a Goon Completist.

    1. Indeed – and not too unusual either! I know someone whose first name is Kirdan (his mum spelt it phonetically to avoid Cirdan = “Sir-Dan”). So yes, absolutely influential!

    1. He did, and what a fantastic achievement! It’s not often we get to see English being created like this – usually the words simply ooze into common usage without any obvious origin, and it’s up to the philologists to dig it out. But Tolkien gave it to us directly.Wonderful stuff.

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