The Ring of Words
Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
by Peter Gilliver,
Jeremy Marshall,
& Edmund Weiner

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Oxford University Press: 2006
234 pages

June 2007

Word-book & word-history

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary is by three lexicographers at the OED: Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner. Why Tolkien and a dictionary?

The uniqueness of Tolkien's involvement, as an imaginative writer, with the English language lies in his capacity to work from within the actual or potential development of any given word. In this intimate and active involvement with the histories of words, we can imagine Tolkien, perhaps, as an Ent in the forest of language, waking up old words that had fallen asleep — or, in the case of words taken from Old Norse, encouraging transplants to put down roots in new soil.

J.R.R. Tolkien is a philologist as well as a novelist, and a philologist first. Without his love of words and their scholarly histories, there would have been no Elvish languages created, no peoples of Middle Earth, and no great novels.

And there is no word-book and no word-history to match the Oxford English Dictionary.

Lexicographer, wordwright, word studies

There are three main sections in The Ring of Words:

Tolkien as Lexicographer deals with Tolkien's return to Oxford University after World War I, and his work on the vast and grand project of the Oxford English Dictionary. In miniature, we see here how the OED was built over half a century under its principal editors: James Murray, Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and Charles Onions. Craigie was Tolkien's tutor in Old Norse before the War, and Tolkien's special contributions to the OED are in words with Germanic roots and relatives of Old and Middle English words. The assembly of an etymological dictionary has deeper challenges than that of a dictionary only of contemporary usage. If you don't yet know of the puzzles and surprises in the intricate history of English, this is a fine introduction.

Tolkien as Wordwright begins with Tolkien's ability to reconstruct ancestral and missing-link forms of words, seeing parallels particularly in the other North European languages. This scholarly but creative lexicographic skill is one of the foundation blocks of Tolkien's great gift of novel-writing. Tolkien's fun with word-creation as well as his deep expertise shine through The Ring of Words.

Word Studies is not a word-list, but rather short studies of words, a paragraph up to several pages for each. Carrock, Beorn's place (and word); the fabulous giant ents; mathom, early adopted by fans; weapontake, the taking up of laid-aside arms; and so on. The word hobbit gets broad coverage: origins, dictionary entries, translation. Altogether a magical and glamorous grammar, too short by far.

Building a world & a word-hoard

Throughout, the authors provide thoughtful examples not only of diligent word-histories but of word-play; and references not only to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but to other Tolkien work such as Farmer Giles of Ham and his editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. There are parallels and contrasts from Beowulf and William Shakespeare and William Morris up through W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis. And plenty of references from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Ring of Words thus is an intersection of interests: of Tolkien's life and writings — as in Thomas A. Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth and John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War ; and of the OED and its creation — as in K. M. Elisabeth Murray's Caught in the Web of Words: James A. H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary.

I find Tolkien's parallel building of his world and word-hoard interesting and entertaining in their own right as well as evocative back-stories to The Lord of the Rings. And I have been fascinated by the history of the English language and the great word-hoard of the Oxford English Dictionary since I purchased the hefty single-volume Shorter OED while still in my teens.

Gilliver, Marshall, and Weiner clearly know and love the genius of Tolkien as they know and love their OED, and in The Ring of Words they do an excellent job of sharing that glorious intersection.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

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