2017 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of John Roland Reuel Tolkien, better known as J.R.R. Tolkien, English author, poet, philologist and university professor (1892 – 1973). Tolkien is, of course, best known for writing TheLord of the Rings and its forerunner The Hobbit.
It may surprise some to learn that Tolkien was a great fan of Latin. His love of the language likely began within the Catholic Church. In his childhood, Latin and Greek were considered the cornerstones of a good arts education so Tolkien started learning them at school from the age of
11. In those days, students would be educated to a level where they could actually speak these ancient languages and Tolkien became sufficiently fluent in Latin that he could translate English poetry into Latin verse, as well as debate and write reports in Latin.
Not only did the young Tolkien demonstrate a particular talent for the Classical languages, but he was a remarkably gifted linguist in general. Having mastered Latin and Greek, he also became fluent in other ancient and
modern languages such as Gothic, Welsh and Finnish and even started making up his own languages for fun – among them Nevbosh and Naffarin (both clearly influenced by Latin).
Tolkien was admitted to Oxford University to study Classics, although he subsequently switched to English language and literature. In spite of this he always professed to have a particular love for Latin and said that it was against Latin that he came to measure all other languages.
Interestingly, Tolkien’s fantasy writing was created to provide a world for his invented languages rather than the other way round. Scholars have identified Latin as one of the three linguistic bases on which High-elven (or Quenya) in The Lord of the Rings was modelled.
Tolkien even admitted, in one of his letters, that Quenya (a language he devised and which was used by the Elves in his legendarium) was actually conceived of as a kind of high-elven Latin. Tolkien was not only motivated linguistically by Latin, but seems to have found inspiration in tales from the ancient world. For instance, there are striking parallels between Aeneas, hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, and Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings - both are heroes and kings, both are driven by pietas, both journey to the underworld and both are oath-breakers.
The Hobbit written in 1937, when Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, was initially a tale he developed to tell his children and only came to be published by chance.
The manuscript happened to be seen by an employee of a London publishing
house who persuaded him to submit it for publication. The excellent reception of The Hobbit when it came out made the publishers keen for a second book. However, it took more than 15 years for Tolkien to write the sequel, The Lord of the Rings, which was published in 1954.
Tolkien was always uncomfortable with the cult following that his books inspired and considered himself a scholar first and a writer second. We can only wonder what he would have made of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films which brought his stories of Middle Earth to a whole new generation of fans via the big screen.
Latin sparked his love of language and set him on course for life. In fact, it is
doubtful whether The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings would ever have been written had Tolkien not studied Latin. It would seem that fans of Tolkien’s epic
tales of hobbits, dwarves, elves, orcs, balrogs, ends, Smaug, Sauron and the like have a lot to thank Latin for!
Can you translate the opening line of Hobbitus Ille (The Hobbit in Latin )?
In foramine terrae habitabat hobbitus.
Parts of the Face in Latin
One parent's feedback
Every year we ask parents for feedback on the programme and what effect, if any, it has had on their children.
This year Sophia emailed us her feedback directly. Audrey, her daughter, started at St Peter's Eaton Square in January 2016. In her previous school she had not studied Latin and Sophia was worried about how Audrey would adjust, not only to her new school, but also with a subject that was brand new to her.
Here is some of Sophia’s feedback, in her own words, on the impact The Latin Programme has had on Audrey.
Do you think Latin has enhanced your Audrey's performance at school?
Audrey started at St Peter's Eaton Square in January 2016. She had no exposure to Latin prior to joining her new school. I must admit, we were initially extremely worried that she would not be able to cope (as other children already had several months of exposure that she hadn’t had). We are very happy with how she has come to enjoy her Latin lessons in a very short amount of time!
What do you see as the benefits of learning Latin?
Audrey has shown a lot of interest in history and vocabulary through Latin. (Many questions at the dinner table ;) She enjoys the stories behind a word, learning how a particular word came about. She LOVES all words derived from Latin.
My second language at school was English. The two Classic languages I had to study were Classic Japanese and Classic Chinese. I was very worried that I simply wouldn’t be able to help her with Latin. In fact, we came to enjoy learning it together.
As was the case with the Classic languages I studied, I can see how it helps one with languages in general (vocabulary in particular) and develops an interest in history.
Audrey takes French lessons outside of school and her Latin lessons have helped her with that as well.
Did Audrey mention anything about Latin class? If so, what did she say?
Audrey talked a lot about Latin class! It started with “I have no idea what is going on in Latin...” to sharing the words and stories she learned in class over the weeks. She says she is very comfortable in her Latin class now and that she enjoys it very much. It is one of her favourite subjects. She seems to have developed a healthy level of confidence regarding the subject, which is very positive.
Currently we focus on teaching children English grammar, the roots of English words, some Classical history and mythology. Is there anything more you would like us to include?
I wish it was offered more often!
Would it influence your choice of school if one school offered Latin classes as part of the curriculum and another did not?
As English continues to emerge as the dominant language globally, I can only imagine that the importance of Latin will increase. We were delighted to learn that Audrey’s school offered Latin to children (Year 3 is an excellent age to start) and are relieved that Audrey was able to feel comfortable in the environment so quickly. We hope she will have the opportunity to continue her Latin studies in the future.
I've never had a Latin lesson in my life! So it has been a learning experience for me as well. Audrey and I worked off the Latin worksheet, played online Latin games and viewed Latin (kids) videos on Youtube. I feel like it has expanded our world. It has been enriching. I also enjoy the emails from The Latin Programme. I share the topics with her throughout the term (such as company names that have Latin origins). Thank you!
Non tam praeclarum est scire Latine, quam turpe nescire It is not so much excellent to know Latin, as it is a shame not to know it.