Thursday, January 8, 2015

First mainstream appearance of tengwar outside Tolkien?

A few months ago, I wrote about the history of the hobbit/habit pun (read the post). During the course of that discussion, I referred to an early piece on Tolkien appearing in Life magazine, “Can America Kick the Hobbit? The Tolkien Caper”, which was published in the 24 February 1967 issue. Because these earlier weeklies often printed letters to the editor, I thought it would interesting to see whether this particular opinion piece had generated any mail. It had, and I discovered something very interesting: what may well be the first appearance of tengwar in a mainstream publication other than Tolkien’s own work. If anyone knows of an earlier example, I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, I think we can take this as the earliest so far known.

A selection of the letters Charles Elliott’s piece elicited were printed three weeks later, in the issued of 17 March 1967, under the heading, “Tolkien Caper” on p. 26. There are four short letters. In the interests of research value, I will copy these letters below.

The first, from Diana L. Yost or Orefield, PA, reads:
Sirs: Mr. Elliott’s review, “Can America Kick the Hobbit?” (Feb. 24), was disappointing. If the reader goes no deeper than the level of Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, The Lord of the Rings is of course an innocent child-sized story — but only because the reader himself has set that level. Fortunately, the campus Tolkien followers have probed deeper to find a work rich in symbolism. This is why the trilogy is popular, not because it is the undemanding and comfortable tale your reviewer has settled for.
The second, from Sherry Lee Snider of New York, NY:
Sirs: Bravo! Those are my sentiments exactly. I was raised on C.S. Lewis as a child and drifted naturally into Middle Earth from Narnia where my love of heroic deeds and that “other world apart” had been carefully nurtured. In those days (actually up to about four years ago) if a veiled reference to Middle Earth crept into the conversation you knew you had encountered someone like yourself. Nothing was said but a bond was formed. Alas — that thrill of silent understanding is gone now — a true Tolkien lover would never discuss it — and all of us who are secret romantics are forced to wander without hope of a chance encounter. Why couldn’t these faddists have remained with Henry Miller and left us Tolkien? You can’t trust anybody these days.
The third has the great distinction of having been written in tengwar from the point of view of Frodo Baggins himself. You can see the letter in reproduction above right, and the editors of Life added the following note:
The above is a communication in Tengwar, one of the scripts Tolkien invented for his mythical creatures. It translates, “Dear Sirs, I am writing on behalf of all Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Men and Hobbits and all other things dwelling upon Middle Earth. The article in your Feb. 24 issue is very disrupting to our Hobbit children. Frodo Baggins.” — ED.
And finally, the fourth and tersest, from G. Sachs of New York, NY:
Sirs: Mr. Elliott is an Orc.
I haven’t studied these tengwar closely yet or transliterated the letter myself to check the editors’ own transcription for accuracy, but of course, they surely got the intent. Any errors would be those of the letter’s author. We know that Tolkien received letters from his admirers written in runes and asking him to respond with them too (which he sometimes did), but this is the one of the only mainstream appearances of Tolkien’s runes that I can recall seeing, and certainly the earliest — by many years. By mainstream, I mean outside a Tolkien or fantasy related publication. I have no doubt that other magazines have received such letters, but Life took the additional step of actually printing one in facsimile — which is still immense fun for us, almost fifty years later!


  1. Jason, I’ve made the following translitteration of the tengwar letter:

    dₑ◌ᵃr sᶤrs,
      ◌ᶤ ◌ᵃm wrᶤ■tᶤng ◌ᶤn
    bₑhᵃlf ◌ᵒf ◌ᵃll ◌ₑlvₑs,
    ■ dwᵃrvₑs, ◌ₑnts, mₑn ◌ᵃnd
    hᵒbbᶤts ◌ᵃnd ◌ᵃll ◌ᵒþₑr
    þᶤngs dwₑllᶤng ◌ᵘpᵒn
    mᶤddlₑ ◌ₑ◌ᵃrþ. þₑ ◌ᵃrtᶤklₑ ◌ᶤn
    yᵒ◌ᵘr fₑb. 24 ◌ᶤssᵘ▪ₑ ◌ᶤs vᶤₑry
    dᶤsrᵘptᶤng tᵒ ◌ᵒ◌ᵘr hᵒbbᶤt ʧᶤldₑn.
         frᵒdᵒ : bᵃggᶤns

    I’ve represented the tehtar as super- and subscript letters after (rather than above respectively below) the letter representing the tengwa above respectively below which they are placed, otherwise they would not be readable in this medium. And I’ve used the dotted circle to draw attention to the missing characters. The black squares represent sections blacked out.

    The letter is written in a straightforward strictly orthografic mode, in which each latin letter in the normal spelling of English is transcribed as a single and invariable tengwa or tehta, irrespective of phonetic or phonemic value. Two digraphs are, however, transcribed as a single tengwa: th as súle (þ) and ch as calma (ʧ) (quesse is used for k and anga for g).

    The only real errors are the consistent omission of carriers when tehtar cannot be placed above or below a preceding tengwa; and the misspellings of ‘very’ as «viery» and of ‘children’ as «childen». Also, the use of dot below (nuntixe) for e is bordering on the erroneous, if not, it marks a non-standard mode. Tolkien used the dot below virtually only for shwa (ə) or to mark syllabic consonants in phonemic or mixed orthographic-phonemic modes.

    Not wrong, but decidedly non-standard is the absence of abbreviational tehtar, namely underbar for doubling and overbar for preceding homorganic nasal. ‘ll’, ‘bb’, ‘gg’, ‘nd’ and ‘nt’ are all written out. So also is ‘ng’, representing ŋ in all occurences in the letter, for which the standard spelling would have been noldo, so used by Tolkien even in orthographic modes.

    The formen (F) ornated with dots is doubtlessly intended as Frodo’s monogram. Normal latin interpunction is used, limited to comma and full stop, and normal latin-arabic digits are used for the one number in the letter.

    I am not comfortable with your use of ‘runes’ to include tengwar. I’ve seen the use of ‘runes’ for any form of non-latin alphabet, or even non-alphabetic script elsewhere, and it seems to be on the increase, but I do not feel this is correct. Properly, ‘runes’ applies to alphabets consisting of letters that are composed of straight vertical and diagonal strokes, clearly intended for inscribing on hard materials.

    The Cirth conform to this description, and are indeed called ‘runes’ in Tolkien’s texts on many occasions, sometimes ‘elven runes’ or ‘dwarf-runes’. And their shapes were doubtlessly modelled by him on the Germanic runes.

    But the tengwar are not of this type, their shapes seem to have been based on the insular minuscules of the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts with which Tolkien was so familiar, combined with the hebrew vowel signs and the medieval latin abbreviatures. In the texts they are called ‘(fëanorian) letters’ and contrasted with ‘runes’, explicitly so in Appendix E II of «The Lord of the Rings».

    1. Thanks for the meticulous transcription, Mithrennaith. And your correction about runes is well taken. I admit I use the term a bit too casually, but you're right: Tolkien makes a distinction.

  2. Plus ca change. Diana L. Yost's letter could be written today, and in some places still would have to be written.

  3. Hi. This article was published in the Saturday Evening Post issue of 2 July 1966. See the third pin at first page.
    (I am Igor Ayala, member of the Sociedad Tolkiendili de México. Greetings.)