Tolkien the Esperantist?
Search the Site
Links to Articles
A Chance Find
A bit more digging revealed that extracts from a letter that the Professor had written in 1932 to the secretary of the Education Committee of the British Esperanto Association had been published in a magazine called The British Esperantist under the heading A Philologist on Esperanto. (See below for a summary of what he had to say) The letter was preceded by a note stating that Tolkien had been appointed to the Board of Honorary Advisors of the B.E.A. Education Committee. This seems to be the only record of Tolkien's association with the British Esperanto Association. Only one of the online Tolkien bibliographies had picked up on this contribution at the time of writing - Well done to Åke Bertenstam!
Following the Trail
The letter was reprinted again in 1993 in the July issue of Esperanto USA - bulletin of the Esperanto League for North America - under the title Why I Support Esperanto [Not seen]. The Tolkien community appears to have found out about the letter at this time (most likely through Patrick Wynne, an avid Esperantist); and a note by Wayne Hammond in Issue 6 (March 1994) of The Tolkien Collector recorded both reprints. His note also stated (in error) that the letter was not published in 1932 merely written then - presumably the Esperanto USA reprint did not state where it was printed originally, or maybe Wayne was unable to trace The British Esperantist at that time.
In 1995 William Auld published his translation of The Fellowship of the Ring under the title La Kunularo de l' Ringo. Tolkien's letter was reprinted again (with the source named as The British Esperantist), this time accompanied by an Esperanto translation.
Volume 17 of the journal VII was published in 2000 - this includes a long article by Arden R. Smith and Patrick Wynne entitled Tolkien and Esperanto. It opens with a brief summary of the early history of Esperanto and then moves on to Tolkien's first experiences with invented languages - namely Animalic, Nevbosh and Naffarin. The article then reproduces some examples of Tolkien's use of Esperanto from the Book of Foxrook (one of Tolkien's notebooks, dating from 1909) together with some analysis. The authors go on to look at Tolkien's opinion of Esperanto, which appears to have been supportive in the 1930s, as evidenced by the essay A Secret Vice and the British Esperantist letter. The article reproduces the letter in full, and discusses some of the points that Tolkien makes. This is followed by some quotations from a revised version of A Secret Vice (from the 1940s) and a letter written in 1956, which seem to indicate that Tolkien's views had hardened somewhat, and that he was no longer sure that Esperanto and other international languages were "a good thing". This is a fascinating article and well worth tracking down.
A page from the Book of Foxrook was reproduced in facsimile in Tolkien: Life and Legend, the catalogue for an exhibition held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1992 to celebrate the centenary of Tolkien's birth.
Tolkien expressed his views on invented languages at greater length in an essay entitled A Secret Vice. This can be found, together with six more essays of a literary and/or philological nature, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays.
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 1983. George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0048090190. See pages 198-223.
La Brita Esperantisto. Jubilee Issue. July 1987. British Esperanto Association. ISSN 0007-067X. See page 268.
Tolkien: Life and Legend. 1992. Bodleian Library. ISBN 1851240276. See page 18.
Esperanto USA. Vol.29, No.4. July 1993. Esperanto League for North America. ISSN 1056-0297. See page ???.
The Tolkien Collector. Issue 6. March 1994. See pages 26-27.
La Kunularo de l' Ringo. Translated by William Auld. Serio Mondliteraturo, No. 3. 1995. Sezonoj. ISBN 5745004576. See pages 11-14.
VII: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Vol.17. 2000. The Marion E. Wade Center. ISSN 0271-3012. See pages 27-46.
A Philologist on Esperanto
The preamble to the letter states that Tolkien was the latest addition to the Board of Honorary Advisors of the B.E.A. Education Committee.
Tolkien says that although he takes an interest in the international language movement, and Esperanto in particular, he was not a "practical Esperantist" (which, he observes, perhaps advisors should be) and he could neither write nor speak it. He states that he had learned the language while he was a teenager (its grammar and structure) and read a fair amount written in it. Tolkien may be being a little disingenuous here. There is evidence (specifically, the Book of Foxrook) in the Bodleian Library to indicate that his knowledge of, and interest in, Esperanto was greater than he acknowledges in this letter. He goes on to say that he could only contribute as a philologist and critic, and that would probably be more of a hindrance than a help.
Tolkien states that he believes Esperanto to be superior to other similar languages, but that its chief claim for support was that it was already more widely used and accepted than its competitors. He goes on to compare it to the orthodox church, in that it faced an army of "not only unbelievers, but schismatics and heretics" and that the most important problem to solve would be universal acceptance - an inferior language that was widely accepted would be more worthy than a hundred theoretically more perfect. He also warned against over-attention to detail and that the "theorists and inventors (whose band I would delight to join)" would retard the advance of Esperanto if unanimity was sacrificed for so-called improvement.
He continues by saying that continual attempts at technical improvement can have a negative effect and spoil the aesthetic aspect of the language - a rather surprising comment considering what a "tinkerer" Tolkien was! He also comments that N** (Novial?), while being clever and easier than Esperanto, was hideous - it was obviously man-made and showed no signs of individuality.
Tolkien closes by saying "My advice to all who have the time or inclination to concern themselves with the international language movement would be: 'Back Esperanto loyally'".
You may be able to find the full text of the British Esperantist letter somewhere on the web - try this Google search.
Text © TolkienBooks.net 2003-2015 --- Images and quoted text remain copyright of the respective publishers and authors