Leafshaped lips and high language


I discovered Lord of the Rings when I was about 13. It was a revelation.

For some reason I always had a taste for books without people in them. I would be happy amongst my elves or animals, but as soon as a human appeared it seemed as though a shadow fell so that the fantastic dulled and dwindled. It was as though ordinary dust had been sprinkled over the story.

Contrariwise I did like historical novels – a sort of fantasy – and in these cheerfully accepted the characters ( ‘so Aristotle, how’s your back this morning?’) relishing the otherness as well as the insights they promised into the lives and times that they dramatised.

Lord of the Rings was a revelation because it was a fantasy, that also had the flavour of a historical novel.  It was like an addiction at first. I gulped it down so that it was a while before I realised that it owed so much to language. Names, words, the distinctions of species as well as lineage were all substantiated through language. The clue was in the appendices. There they all were – Sindarin, the Eldar tongue, dwarf runes and flowing elvish script. It seemed that LOTR was located as confidently in its romantic past as the Mabinogion or Kalavala.

I haven’t read LOTR for years now, but that first sense of delight and discovery came back to me this morning when I read this poem by UA Fanthorpe:

(for J R R Tolkien)

In the beginning were the words,
Aristocratic, cryptic, chromatic.
Vowels as direct as mid-day,
Consonants lanky as long-swords.

Mouths materialized to speak the words:

Tranquil tongues for the tree-creatures,
Slits and slobbers for the lower orders.

Deeds came next, words’ children.
Legs by walking evolved a landscape.
Continents and chronologies occurred,
Complex and casual as an implication.

Arched over all, alarming nimbus,
Magic’s disorderly thunder and lightning.

The sage sat in his suburban fastness,
Garrisoned against progress. He grieved
At what the Duke’s men did to our words
(Whose war memorial is every signpost).

The sage sat. And middle-earth
Rose around him like a rumour.
Grave grammarians, Grimm and Werner,
Gave it laws, granted it charters.

The sage sat. But the ghosts walked
Of the Birmingham schoolboy, the Somme soldier,
Whose bones lay under the hobbit burrows,
Who endured darkness, and friends dying,

Whom words waylaid in a Snow Hill siding,
Coal truck pit names, grimy, gracious,
Blaen-Rhondda, Nantyglo, Senghenydd.
In these deeps middle-earth was mined.

These were the words in the beginning.

I found the poem in Fanthorpe’s Selected Poems

Leafshaped lips and high language

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