A medieval American historian explained how JRR Tolkien inspired his love for Welsh folk tales.
Rebecca Fox Blok, who worked at the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, said the theories of the linguist, scholar and author of the Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy “encouraged” her to study Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (The four branches of Mabinogi).
Mythological Tales in Welsh are the earliest prose stories in British literature.
Blok, who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and studied medieval Welsh literature at Bangor University, said the Welsh language and its literature “kind of got into my bones.”
In an article for the North American Welsh Newspaper, Ninnau, she explained how Tolkien, who was a professor of English language and literature at Oxford, gave a lecture in 1955 entitled “English and Welsh,” which she says did argue that “English philologists should study Welsh as carefully as Norse or French”.
The Welsh language was the basis of one of the languages he invented for the elves in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Rebecca Fox Blok said: “Unsurprisingly, the talk is mainly about languages and their history – how English and Welsh influenced each other in their development – but it is also very revealing of Tolkien’s ideas on language. ethnic identity and the value of a language that many Englishmen of his time pooped as irrelevant, obsolete and ugly.
“Many Welsh speakers will recognize my description of derogatory attitudes towards Welsh in the mid-twentieth century (and, in fact, today!).
“But in his lecture, Tolkien unexpectedly rejects such ignorant perspectives. The thrust of the conference is that English philologists should study Welsh as carefully as they do in Norse or French.
“Ignoring Welsh is ignoring an important part of the history of English,” Tolkien argues.
“But,” he concludes, “the real reasons why Welsh should be studied more are:“ Welsh is from this soil, from this island, the oldest language of the men of Great Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.
‘Pierced my linguistic heart’
“Tolkien describes the great aesthetic pleasure he finds in the Welsh language, which he had from an early age: ‘I heard it coming from the west. It struck me in the names on the coal trucks; and as it got closer it flashed on the station signs, a flash of strange spelling and a hint of an ancient yet living language… it pierced my linguistic heart. This love of Welsh lasted Tolkien’s life.
“His studies included medieval Welsh literature and Welsh even became the basis of one of the languages he invented for the elves of his famous trilogy of fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings.
“To readers of this esteemed publication who grew up with Welsh as their birthplace language, Tolkien’s fascination may seem strange. His raptures about the “satisfaction” and “delight” of the sound of Welsh “deeply stirring the strings of the harp in our linguistic nature” may even seem comical.
“But for readers like me who have been introduced to the language later in life or have persisted in using Siarad Cymraeg outside of places where it is commonly spoken, this may ring as true for you as it does for me.
“Like Tolkien, my first tastes of Welsh as a child were flashes of names. Their strangeness to my English-speaking ears made something vibrate deep within me. I loved the taste of the words I was slowly learning on my tongue.
“When people wondered why I, an American with no Welsh heritage, wanted so much to study this language and its literature, I could only answer that it had entered my bones somehow – it made me wonder. ‘delighted.
“It’s nice reading Tolkien’s lecture to learn that I’m not the only one feeling this.”