Interview with him, Helge Kåre Fauskanger! He talks about his start as a language fanatic teen (yes each one of us) and how he amounted to be such a respected Tolkien linguist. He also talks about his study and analysis method, as well as ideas for a better ‘The Lord of The Rings’ prequel movie (not Hobbit-like). Enjoy:
1. How and when were you first introduced to Tolkien and his works?
I simply picked up “The Lord of the Rings” in the local library, as a teenager in the late eighties. I remember that I was instantly captivated by the samples of Elvish writing on the title page, and I got Volume 3 out of the library and started studying the Appendices on scripts and languages before I ever read the novel as such!
2. What made you begin studying Tolkien’s languages?
I was fascinated by them, what else can I say? From an early age, I was interested in mysterious scripts, symbols and words.
3. How did you go about learning the languages?
Actual grammatical writings of Tolkien’s have been published only in recent years (and since these grammars date from the earlier phases of his work, they are not always “valid” for the languages as they appear in The Lord of the Rings anyhow). So when I started learning, and to a considerable extent even now, I and other students are simply analyzing actual samples of the languages. The Rosetta stone method, if you like. A very simple example, drawn from the Quenya or “High-elven” language: By considering such words as Elda “Elf” pl. Eldar or Vala “angel, god”, pl. Valar and many others, we can tell that one Quenya plural ending is -r. We knew that long before there finally turned up explicit notes of Tolkien’s to the same effect.
Here and there, Tolkien will indeed provide a note on some aspects of grammar, and he once did produce a list of the Quenya case endings. As Tolkien-linguists, we are trying to bring together all the information provided by the Professor and the data we have gleaned from our own analyses, and so hopefully arrive at an understanding of the languages that is as complete as possible. The fact that Tolkien very often changed his mind about the details is an added complication! Many sources plainly contradict one another, so part of our task is to distinguish between the various “conceptual phases”, as we call them.
4. What sort of resources were available when you were first learning the languages?
Little else than the “primary sources” themselves, the original books, such as had appeared around 1990. But the information found in them is generally widely scattered and not set out in a very “user-friendly” format, since these sources usually touched on the languages more or less incidentally and were not intended as tutorials.
5. What other languages do you speak?
Is the implication that I “speak” any Tolkien-language? While I do believe that Quenya in particular could be developed into a spoken idiom, enthusiasts tend to be widely scattered and are rarely able to practice spoken “Elvish” (foreseeable advances in telepresence and virtual reality are likely to fix that problem, though). But for now, the only languages I can fluently speak are English and my native Norwegian. I can read the other Scandinavian languages, I once tried to study German with limited success, and I have some knowledge of Classical Hebrew and Greek. (The latter two are of course not languages you study in order to “speak” them, but to read ancient texts.)
6. What is your academic background in linguistics?
I studied Nordic (Scandinavian) languages at the University of Bergen. In recent years I have also been studying Classical Hebrew and now Greek, as noted above.
7. Why did you decide to create a website and provide resources for other students of Tolkien’s languages?
In the mid-nineties, when I started developing that site, there were no good resources available online. Fresh learners had nowhere to turn to absorb the basics. To some extent, each new student had to reinvent the wheel by studying the primary sources. I had the time, and at least some of the knowledge, required to improve the situation. (Since then, quite a few high-quality sites have appeared.)
8. How does it feel to be one of the most well-known Elvish experts? Did you ever think you would get to that point?
Whatever field you work in, you obviously hope that eventually, you will stop being a Nobody and actually be counted as a Somebody — one whose opinions are at least noted. But I guess I never expected that my articles would be translated into lots of languages.
At the same time, I never call myself an “expert” — if anything, you can call me a “long-term student.” While some of my theories have been vindicated by later publications, others have turned out to be completely wrong (or at least simplistic). In this field, we typically have very few examples to go on, and the publication of just a few new forms may completely shift the balance of the evidence.
I guess I have considerable influence on what grammatica conventions others adopt for their own “Neo-Elvish” compositions (post-Tolkien texts written in his languages, as far as we understand them). Since I am the author of some of the most widely-consulted courses and tutorials available, that follows automatically. But it also means that I must take the blame if my theories turn out to be wrong. I am painfully aware that some of my writings are overdue for revision.
People should not treat me as a substitute for Tolkien himself, calling on me to pronounce “definite” answers or decisions on matters that are left vague in the Professor’s writings. This is especially true in the current situation, where a large part of Tolkien’s linguistic material is still unpublished and hence unavailable to me. Remember what I said about just a few new forms shifting the weight of the evidence completely!
9. Do you have a lot of correspondence with other people studying the languages?
I do subscribe to some mailing lists devoted to the subject, yes. How much I actively participate is of course very variable. I also handle many requests from people who want “Elvish” inscriptions for rings or tattoos. (When the movie hype peaked, there was a period when I simply had to remove my e-mail address from my site, or it would be too much to handle.)
10. About how much time do you devote to Tolkien’s languages?
That is also very variable. When new publications appear, I will (ideally speaking) try to update my wordlists and articles. Currently I am trying to translate certain ancient texts into Quenya, and on average I guess I spend around ten minutes a day on that project. Over a few months, this adds up to very substantial texts.
11. What sort of things do you do now in relation to the Elvish languages and the Tolkien community in general?
As for what I “do now”, see above. As for Tolkien-related stuff that is not narrowly linguistic, I have been working on a somewhat elaborate discussion of how the story of the Downfall of Númenor could be fleshed out as a movie, and many have taken an interest in my writings on the subject. I think it would be a far more powerful “prequel” to the Jackson trilogy than “The Hobbit” can ever be, though it would also have to be much darker in tone.
12. How do you find out new information, like when a word is newly published? In other words, what are your sources?
The publication of Tolkien’s linguistic material has been an extremely long process, and even now it is far from complete. It has now been going on for more than half a century, counting from the publication of The Lord of the Rings itself in the fifties. In the seventies and early eighties such books as The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales appeared, with new words and samples. Then Christopher Tolkien started publishing the History of Middle-earth series; in all, twelve volumes would appear before the series was completed in the late nineties. For our purposes, an especially important volume was The Lost Road (1988) which suddenly gave us an enormously extended Elvish vocabulary because it included “The Etymologies”, Tolkien’s list of hundreds of Elvish root-words and their derivatives. It suddenly became possible to compose actual texts in these languages, something that was scarcely possible before.
Yet Christopher Tolkien could not well include all of his father’s narrowly linguistic writings in this book series, since this material would be too obscure for readers in general. Starting in 1991, he sent photocopies of thousands of pages of material to a group of American Tolkien-linguists who have since, with irregular intervals, been presenting transcribed and edited versions of Tolkien’s writings in the journals Vinyar Tengwar and Parma Eldalamberon. Seventeen years into the project, estimates of how much material remains to be published range from 50 to 70 per cent of the total. (Tolkien really wrote a lot about his languages, you see!) I obviously take care to get each new publication, and I imagine the publication project will still be going on for at least ten more years.
13. Which of Tolkien’s languages is your favorite and why?
I spend most time on Quenya, for the simple reason that it is by far the most highly-developed Tolkien language. Tolkien held it to be the most beautiful language and I agree. Even so, I hope we will eventually see published more information especially about Sindarin, the other major Tolkien-language, which is itself highly euphonious (in a Celtic style).
14. Do you have any other comments or anecdotes about being a Tolkien linguist?
Well, do you recall the very first words we hear in the Jackson movies? I mean, Galadriel whispering, “i amar prestar aen”, which is intended to mean “the world is changed”? It was one of the lines developed for the movies by American Tolkien-lingustic David Salo. The innocent movie audience has no idea of the intensity, even vehemence, with which this sentence was discussed on Tolkien-linguistic mailing-lists: Had David Salo interpreted the use of the Sindarin participle aen correctly, or hadn’t he?! It is attested just once, in a single Tolkien text, and its exact meaning and function in the relevant sentence is disputed.