A Secret Vice – JRR Tolkien (ed. Dimtra Fimi and Andrew Wiggins)

A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages by J.R.R. Tolkien, Dimitra Fimi, Andrew Higgins
Also by this author: The Battle of Maldon: Together with the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, The History of the Hobbit, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Story Of Kullervo, Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by HarperCollins on April 7, 2016
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Tolkien
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First ever critical study of Tolkien’s little-known essay, which reveals how language invention shaped the creation of Middle-earth and beyond, to George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s linguistic invention was a fundamental part of his artistic output, to the extent that later on in life he attributed the existence of his mythology to the desire to give his languages a home and peoples to speak them. As Tolkien puts it in ‘A Secret Vice’, ‘the making of language and mythology are related functions’’.
In the 1930s, Tolkien composed and delivered two lectures, in which he explored these two key elements of his sub-creative methodology. The second of these, the seminal Andrew Lang Lecture for 1938–9, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, which he delivered at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is well known. But many years before, in 1931, Tolkien gave a talk to a literary society entitled ‘A Hobby for the Home’, where he unveiled for the first time to a listening public the art that he had both himself encountered and been involved with since his earliest childhood: ‘the construction of imaginary languages in full or outline for amusement’.
This talk would be edited by Christopher Tolkien for inclusion as ‘A Secret Vice’ in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays and serves as the principal exposition of Tolkien’s art of inventing languages. This new critical edition, which includes previously unpublished notes and drafts by Tolkien connected with the essay, including his ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’, goes some way towards re-opening the debate on the importance of linguistic invention in Tolkien’s mythology and the role of imaginary languages in fantasy literature.

Before he was a fantasy author, JRR Tolkien was a philologist. And I mean, before in the sense of prior to and in the sense of preceding in importance. In a very real way, it was Tolkien’s invented languages that served as the impetus for his stories and those invented languages continue to be studied today. This love of inventing languages is something that Tolkien somewhat tongue-in-cheek called A Secret Vice. Given that this love contributed heavily to Tolkien’s literary and academic success and that entire academic journals are devoted to it, it turns out that Tolkien’s love of invented languages was neither secret nor a vice.

Tolkien talked about his love of languages most thoroughly in A Secret Vice, a 1931 lecture that, along with “On Fairy-Stories,” forms the two foundational pillars of Tolkien’s literary methodology. The lecture was first delivered in November of 1931 to a literary society at Oxford and then, like most of Tolkien’s writings was tinkered with until his death and then published in a format edited by Christopher Tolkien. Fifty-two years after it was originally presented, A Secret Vice found widespread publication in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Thirty-three years after that, it was collected once more along with his “Essay on Phoenetic Symbolism” as part of the literary archaeology and criticism of Tolkien’s oeuvre.

That edition, published in 2016, is edited by Dmitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins. Fimi is the foremost expert on Tolkien and Fantasy literature, making her the natural choice to edit and examine Tolkien’s philological work. Andrew Higgins, also a Tolkien scholar, specializes in the role of language invention in fiction, making him a natural choice to join the project as well. Their scholarship in both Tolkien and invented language shines through as they are able to not just present the various stages of Tolkien’s work and thinking but explain it while charting its development.

A Secret Vice differs from The Monsters and the Critics in that it does more than just provide the text of Tolkien’s lecture. As I’ve done with the other books from this era of Tolkien literary criticism (see Verlyn Flieger’s Kullervo and Aotrou and Itroun), here is how the book is structured:


4 pages – Foreword by Fimi and Wiggins giving an overview of the book and detailing their methodology.

55 pages – A substantial introduction (I don’t believe I’ve ever seen introductory matter numbering go to “lxv” in the Roman numeral system before!) that thoroughly traces Tolkien’s history with invented languages, their importance to him, and how he used them in his writing.

Part 1 – A Secret Vice

32 pages – A faithful recreation of the manuscript copy of A Secret Vice, including formatting that indicates where Tolkien had underlined or struck out text.

25 pages – Notes and commentary from Fimi and Wiggins.

Part 2 – Essay on Phoenetic Symbolism

9 pages – A faith recreation of “An Essay on Phoenetic Symbolism.”

9 pages – Notes and Commentary

Part 3 – Manuscript drafts of the lectures

24 pages – Various reprintings of associated folios from the Bodleian Library’s collection of Tolkien’s writings.

11 pages – Notes and Commentary

Part 4 – Coda

16 pages – Concluding essay on the legacy of Tolkien’s invented languages

21 pages – Works Cited, Chronology, List of Abbreviations, etc.

The highlight of A Secret Vice, for me, was Fimi and Wiggins’ introductory and concluding essays that contextualized Tolkien’s philological work within his literary life and within the legendarium itself. Knowing that Tolkien utilized invented languages and even knowing how he did so is, in my opinion, meaningless if we do not understand why. It also provides value to this book for those who are simple Tolkien fans and have no desire to create their own languages or learn how to write in Tengwar.

Fimi and Wiggins’ notes and commentary are substantive without being overwhelming. Unlike the Flieger works, they utilize endnotes to connect the primary text to the note, making it easy for the reader to switch between Tolkien’s lecture and the editors’ explanations.

I’m not convinced that the section detailing the manuscript drafts of the lectures was necessary. They are historically interesting, but the attempt to reprint hand scrawled pages complete with marginalia, crossed-out sections, and so on just doesn’t translate visually. I would have preferred to have seen some high-quality scans of the actual manuscripts. But maybe I am just not enough of an academic.

Overall, this is more than just a reprint of Tolkien’s lectures to make money. Fimi and Wiggins’ contributions are the highlight of the book and make it worth buying even if you already have The Monsters and the Critics or even if you have no interest in the minutiae of linguistics. Invented language is at the heart of Tolkien’s writing and Fimi and Wiggins faithfully probe that heart and engage with readers on Tolkien’s (not-so-) Secret Vice.