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I am reading The Lord of the Rings. As a non-native speaker, I found it particularly hard

  1. to visualize in my head the settings of the scenes and also the landscapes established by the author,
  2. particularly to understand the English in general. Had Tolkien purposely made his writings look old/ancient for this kind of story?
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  • Some authors write more visually than others. One way to rephrase the question (instead of focusing on the foreign-language aspect) would be to ask whether Tolkien's style (i.e. the way deals with sensory impressions and sensation, or, conversely, the relative lack of it) contributes to the difficulty to visualise what is going on.
    – Tsundoku
    May 23 at 20:06
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    This now looks like two entirely separate questions. Visualization and understanding are completely different (source: me, a person unable to visualize things but still able to understand them)
    – bobble
    May 24 at 14:29
  • For context, which English books have you read and found to be more comprehensible?
    – mikado
    May 26 at 7:24

1 Answer 1

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Tolkien was, by profession, a philologist. This is an academic that studies the intersection between literary criticism, history and linguistics, with a particular eye to the developing cultural history of texts. As such, he had an extremely deep understanding of the etymology of English words and how that history can impact the reader in unconscious ways.

Take, for example, place names in the Shire. They are archetypically English: even the word "shire" is the generic English name for a county. The "farthings" are derived from the old English feorðing, meaning "quarter", and the name survives in many English villages today. There are further examples. Aside from the Baggins family, many hobbits in the shire bear similarly English names like Sam and Pippin.

The action then moves to Bree. Bree is not an English name: it is a Welsh word, meaning "Hill". The characters the hobbits meet there also bear Welsh names like Archet, which derives from "ar chet" meaning "the wood" or Combe which is from the Welsh "cwm", for "valley".

This is deliberate. Tolkien believed that by these subtle markers of language he was communicating something important to the reader. Namely that the hobbits start out somewhere familiar and safe and gradually move away from that familiarity into danger. Bree is Wales: foreign, but a known quantity. In Rohan, the place and character names are derived from Old English, conjuring Britain's distant past. Gondor is the ultimate alien place, where people and places are named in a wholly invented language with no linguistic connection to English at all.

This may be the root of some of the problems you're experiencing. If you're not a native speaker, a lot of these subtle linguistic allusions may be lost on you, making the tale as a whole harder to understand and appreciate. Yes, Tolkien was purposely making his writings look ancient for this kind of story. He wanted to recreate the lost mythology of England and to echo the mythic language of other European mythic epics. He had the professional knowledge to do it, and employed that knowledge in very detailed, specific ways that may be impenetrable to non-native speakers.

References:

  • JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey
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    I think these subtle linguistic allusions may be lost on some of us native English speakers too.
    – user14111
    May 25 at 4:17
  • A minor point, "Archet" and "Combe" are not characters, but places. They are two of the four villiages o Bree,. The story never visits them, but people from those villages are I think present at the "Prancing Pony" inn. Another point, the "farthings" also echo the "Ridings", which are the divisions of Yorkshire. That word was originally "thirdings", that is a division into three parts, as teh farthings are a division into four. Jun 5 at 16:40

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