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Old 07-23-2013, 05:10 AM   #1
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Ronald and Sprague

Has anyone here read the sections on Professor Tolkien in L. Sprague de Camp's Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers? I've been looking into it recently (mostly with reference to William Morris rather than Professor Tolkien). It's an interesting, if not altogether academically formal or rigorous, piece, scrutinising some detractors and mentioning the author and Professor Tolkien's meeting for pipes, beer and conversation in 1967 - an experience I could altogether envy, apart perhaps from the smoking.

Oddly, however, there are some bizarrely poorly-researched etymological assertions in the piece which seem dubious even considering the article's 1976 publication. I thought to someone who had met Tolkien and written about him it would be possible to distinguish the pure invention of Elvish with coincidentally similar words in real languages. Here are some of the more egregious instances:
"'Sauron' comes from the Greek sauros, 'lizard'." (pure coincidence)
"'Orcs' (from Latin orcus, "Hades," "death," "Pluto," cognate with "ogre")." (etymologically more substantiated, but Professor Tolkien derived it from 'orcnéas' in Beowulf when current knowledge was not aware of the conflation with Latin-derived terms)
"Arnor Thordson is a Norse skald in Snorri's Heimskringla, while Gondor is a province of Ethiopia." (so what?)

Yet there are also, strangely, partially correct ones:
e.g. "'Frodo' comes from the Old Norse names, "Froši" and "Froša," related to the adjective froše, "wise."" (isn't it more true to say that the adjective itself assisted in the formulation of the name?)
"Orthanc (Anglo-Saxon for "gadget")" (I see the connection, but a little bit of a disingenuous translation to use such a relatively modern word with purely modern associations)
"'wargs' (Anglo-Saxon wearg, 'criminal')." (in actual fact the Old Norse version, the word vargr, still meant 'wolf')

As well as some which are utterly pointless:
"'Valar' sounds suspiciously like the Old Norse Valir, 'Frenchmen.'" (pure irrelevant synophony)

It's probably unfair to criticise a book published nearly thirty years ago but it's frustrating to see someone who actually had the opportunity to spend time with Professor Tolkien present as fact some very iffy notions about the languages which were so important to him, as if he was just in the habit of picking an existing word which sounded basically right and changing a couple of letters, like they do in video games. "All the names in the book, and the languages, are of course constructed, and not at random." (Letter 165)

Peculiarly, Letter 297 is from 1967, the same year "Ronald and Sprague" (as they called each other, according to de Camp) met, and in it Professor Tolkien expresses his frustration at "many of the guess at the 'sources' of the nomenclature... If published, I do object to them, when... they appear to be unauthentic embroideries on my work... Many of them seem to show ignorance or disregard of the clues and information which are provided in notes, renderings and in the Appendices."

Further still, he explicitly remarks "To take a frequent case: there is no linguistic connexion, and therefore no connexion in significance, between Sauron... and the Greek <for> 'a lizard'." (I've abridged slightly there to limit the need to use Greek alphabetic characters with which I'm not familiar).

It seems incredibly strange that someone who met Professor Tolkien and conversed with him would also be one of the very people to publish these misleading linguistic coincidences as fact. Has anyone else read about de Camp's meeting with Professor Tolkien? I apologise for the length of this post, but I thought it was an interesting topic worth at least discussing.
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