A Chance Find
A while ago I was hunting around on the internet looking for old magazines with Tolkien articles in. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a webpage that seemed to be linking Tolkien to the artificial language Esperanto. I wasn't entirely sure though, because the page wasn't in English.
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 under the heading . (See the white box 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 has picked up on this contribution at the time of writing -
Following the Trail
The Esperanto community seems to have "re-discovered" the letter in 1987 when it was reprinted in the Jubilee edition of - the bulletin of the British Esperanto Association. This was an anthology of articles, poems and letters issued to celebrate the centenary of the Esperanto language. The original year of publication (1932) was given, but not the name of the original publication.
The letter was reprinted again in 1993 in the July issue of - bulletin of the Esperanto League for North America - under the title [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 recorded both reprints. His note also stated (in error) that the letter was not published in 1932 merely written then - presumably the reprint did not state where it was printed originally, or maybe Wayne was unable to trace at that time.
In 1995 William Auld published his translation of under the title . Tolkien's letter was reprinted again (with the source named as ), this time accompanied by an Esperanto translation.
Volume 17 of the journal was published in 2000 - this includes a long article by Arden R. Smith and Patrick Wynne entitled . 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 (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 and the 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 (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 was reproduced in facsimile in , 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 . This can be found, together with six more essays of a literary and/or philological nature, in .
. Vol.28, May 1932. British Esperanto Association. See page 182.
. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. 1983. George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0048090190. See pages 198-223.
. Jubilee Issue. July 1987. British Esperanto Association. ISSN 0007-067X. See page 268.
. 1992. Bodleian Library. ISBN 1851240276. See page 18.
. Vol.29, No.4. July 1993. Esperanto League for North America. ISSN 1056-0297. See page ???.
. Issue 6. March 1994. See pages 26-27.
. Translated by William Auld. Serio Mondliteraturo, No. 3. 1995. Sezonoj. ISBN 5745004576. See pages 11-14.
. Vol.17. 2000. The Marion E. Wade Center. ISSN 0271-3012. See pages 27-46.
A Philologist on Esperanto
(from The British Esperantist - May 1932)
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 ) 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.