Tolkien as translator: the anthropology of Middle-Earth

[Author’s note: Sorry for the great delay in posting! I promise that I am not dead, and neither is this blog – I’ve been involved in an ethnographic project since, well, the day after my last post here, and while it doesn’t end for another two weeks, I thought I might check in, just in case anyone is still reading. Expect a flurry of posts to come in late August once I regain my bearings.]

Several months ago, the Tolkien Studies on the Web blog reported that the Maya epigraphist / linguist / archaeologist Marc Zender, who is a lecturer at Harvard, is currently offering (and presumably is nearly concluded?) a summer course entitled, ‘Tolkien as translator: Language, culture, and society in Middle-Earth‘. It looks like a really fascinating approach, from a scholar whose work on Maya hieroglyphic writing will doubtless provide many interesting parallels and contrasts with Middle-earth.

Tolkienophilia is often associated with medieval historians (and no, I haven’t forgotten about that list of sources on medieval anthropology), understandably given that the man was one of the great Anglo-Saxon scholars of the last century, but I’ve always felt a kinship with Tolkien from an anthropological perspective, despite any number of rather unsightly issues of class, race, and gender that exist within his oeuvre. His incredible focus on language, his deep concern with genealogy and kinship, and the foundational roles of myth and history in his worldbuilding, were what first attracted me to Tolkien’s writing, and still do.

There is no question that, even though I’ve hardly read any of his actual scholarship (and wouldn’t understand it if I could), Tolkien has been one of the more important scholarly influences on my work as well. One of my good friends (an archaeologist) once described me as a philologist in the style of Tolkien, and while that’s not actually true, I see what he means. I was about two hours away from leading a seminar discussion on the Elvish tengwar script (as well as other fictional writing systems) as part of a course on the anthropology of writing and literacy. That was the day Bruce Trigger died, and I cancelled class that day, and never taught the topic since.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

3 thoughts on “Tolkien as translator: the anthropology of Middle-Earth”

  1. tolkien sure knew how to build world views out of scratch. he was a man for the century (which is searching for meaning in a meaningless universe). mythology and myths still have their place in the scheme of things and science is not everything.

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