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.
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