Novak (novak) wrote,
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Personal/Theological Notebook: Tolkien and the Speech of the Orc-Minded

Tolkien hits the nail on the head in this passage on the moral power of language, both as shaping and as revealing a person. It stood out to me today as I paged through Appendix F, "On Translation," at the end of The Lord of the Rings where he discusses his created languages in the pretext of having "translated" the novel into English from its original languages:
But Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; and their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it. I do not suppose that any will wish for a closer rendering, though models are easy to find. Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.
What a sadly perfect expression of far too many people that I've met. In particular, I can think of some of the kids growing up in the impoverished rural areas close to my home in Illinois who, even before high school, were already well on the road to this kind of ruin of their person, and the blaring swagger of their speech is exactly captured here.

I'm too much of an Augustinian to fall for the false hope that education equals moral development. Certainly it is the moral failings among those better- or even brilliantly-educated that have had even more terrible effects on our history, and it is not at all difficult to draw a line from the so-called Enlightenment and its appropriation of the sciences straight to the horrors of the Nazis or the Soviets. But I do think that education gives its own kinds of chances or opportunities for moral formation and even for grace. The richness of language is the richness of human imagination and potential. To see my nieces spelling away and starting to read by the age of two, and to see kids here in the inner city whose parents haven't started them at this before the age of six, is like seeing one great common future for all our children, but one that is stolen from some kids before they ever have the chance to even imagine it, leaving them vulnerable to such limited, "orcish" destinies.

(I suppose some people might call this kind of observation arrogant, or classist, or condescending. That's one of those intelligent-sounding responses you often hear to something like this, but which really shows that the respondant hasn't thought through the potential truth of a critique. In fact, such a response belongs to that entire category of responses – much-loved by those who want to deny any moral critique whatsoever – that allows you to actually avoid responding to the point at all. For Americans, this can often come from the silly confusion of our democratic philosophies of government with reality, as though to imply that all men are not created equal is some horrible attack against justice, as opposed to being the most simple of observations. That we have an agreed-to legal convention of making all people equal before the law is a very great gift of our Founders to us. It is, however, childish to mistake that for being a description of real people in our real world.)
Tags: art, books, cultural, education, ethical, personal, quotations, theological notebook, tolkien
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