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Some Thoughts on Ink

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  • Question Number Nine
  • Marked for Life
  • You Got a Better Idea?

    Question Number Nine

    The Green Books staff members get an amazing variety of questions for the Q&A section, from philosophically profound discussions of Tolkien's themes to embarrassing questions about Orlando Bloom. One that we receive fairly often is, "What is the Elvish for 'nine'?" The answer to this is complicated, in part because the person is not really clear on what he or she means by "Elvish," and in part because he or she is probably not asking us their real question, which is almost always, "How can I get a tattoo that looks like the one the cast members got?"

    First, let's address the specific technical question, because it demonstrates a lot of the confusion that has surrounded the use of the word "Elvish" in much of the press coverage of the movies. Most reporters are simply unaware that Tolkien created two main dialects of the Elvish languages, and are also unaware that he devised two writing systems (the runes and the tengwar; many carelessly refer to the tengwar as runes) that are represented in his published work. So when they are told that something (like a tattoo) is "in Elvish," they cannot clarify whether that means that it is written or spoken in one of Tolkien's dialects or written in one of his writing systems; and in the latter case, whether the letters or runes are representing English or some other language.

    In the case of the cast members' tattoo, the actual inscription is not in an Elvish language (nor is it the single tengwar glyph for the Elvish numeral "9"); it is the English word, "nine", transliterated into the tengwar. On the Tengwar Chart, this would be tengwa #17 (némen) written twice, with a dot over the first one (representing "i") and a dot below the second one (representing the silent "e").

    Marked for Life

    But the question arises: why would someone want to get a tattoo like this? When the nine Fellowship cast members[1] agreed to get this tattoo, they did so as a very personal way of commemorating their participation in this major film project. It will serve as a lifetime reminder for each of them of his bond with the other eight Fellowship members. But when a fan of the movies gets such a tattoo, it has no such significance; it is merely a slavish imitation, a memento of having seen and enjoyed the movies, with no more personal significance than a tattoo that reads, "I thought Lord of the Rings rocked!", and somewhat less originality. A similar argument can be applied to those who want to get a tattoo of the distinctive glyph that Tolkien used as a personal signature (seen on the bindings of Houghton Mifflin's Tolkien books). Again, this was Tolkien's personal mark, no one else's. For someone else to use it seems, at the very least, quite inappropriate if not disrespectful.

    Another commonly asked question raises this matter to a different level: "Can you send me an illustration of the Elvish writing on the Ring? It's for a tattoo." Perhaps the person thinks that this is a nice decoration -- after all, the letters are Elvish and exotic-looking (or kewl in the common tongue)! But as Gandalf tells Frodo, "The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode; but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here." To permanently mark one's self with Sauron's words in the evil Black Speech of Mordor seems an odd way to express one's devotion to J.R.R. Tolkien's work. It is certain that Tolkien himself thought so; in a letter to science fiction and fantasy writer Sterling Lanier, he expressed sympathy that a recent award had proven useless:

    I had a similar disappointment when a drinking goblet arrived (from a fan) which proved to be of steel engraved with the terrible words seen on the Ring. I of course have never drunk from it, but use it for tobacco ash. (Letters, #343)
    It does seem that sometimes people who describe themselves as admirers of Tolkien's work somehow miss the point. Perhaps the most extreme example is the Norwegian black-metal musician self-named Varg Vikernes (the name Varg means "wolf", and is cognate to "warg"). A neo-pagan Odinist, he was convicted for murder some years back. He presented himself in court as "Count Grishnackh" (from the Orc name in The Lord of the Rings) and records (from prison) as a one-man black-metal band named Burzum, the Black Speech word from the Ring meaning "darkness". See Satanist(?) Uses the Black Speech or Darker than Black if you have further morbid curiosity about this Tolkien "fan" who seems to have entirely failed to figure out who the heroes of the story are. It is easy to imagine Vikernes with a tattoo of the Ring inscription!

    It does seem regrettable, from this standpoint, that we see so much of the commercial material surrounding The Lord of the Rings accompanied by this same inscription, as though it were a simple Elvish decoration, without regard to its significance within the story itself. Perhaps the most surprising of all are people who want to present expensive replicas of the One Ring to a spouse as a wedding band, engraved with the "terrible words seen on the Ring."

    You Got a Better Idea?

    A tattoo is a very personal and permanent form of decoration; further, it is a form of communication. Getting a tattoo with Tolkien's tengwar or runes is one way that people will express their devotion to the books; but since this is a personal marking, would it not be best if the message chosen were one created by the owner, or perhaps a quote from Tolkien that has great personal significance? The lettering can be the tengwar or runic, but in either case the language represented by that lettering should usually be English and not Elvish (unless, of course, the original quote is an Elvish phrase like Mae govannen). This is for two reasons: first, translation to Elvish is an inexact art, not a science, and usually requires some extrapolation and invention beyond Tolkien's own linguistic creation. This also implies that even if someone skilled in such matters is able to read the letters of the tattoo, they may well not understand its meaning, which seems rather a shame[2]. By contrast, the reading of the tengwar or runes is quite well known, so that an inscription or tattoo written in English using Tolkien's lettering can be read with clarity by others who share one's love of Tolkien's work. Secondly, while there seems to be a recent general trend -- probably due to the presence of so much original "Elvish" in the films -- to disdain the use of English with the tengwar, Tolkien himself had no such reservations, and produced a great many English writings in the tengwar, ranging from one or two word doodles to beautiful and elaborate transliterations of poetry; Christopher Tolkien continued this tradition on the title pages of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and all twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. It might also be noted that the "Elvish love jewelry" offered by Shop Bag End dot Com has a love verse in English, transcribed into the tengwar, rather than obscure and dubious Quenya or Sindarin.

    Ideally, someone who wishes to get a tattoo (or specially inscribed jewelry) should create the inscription themselves, learning enough about the tengwar or runes to write the symbols the way they want them. This author is sometimes amused by people with tattoos in Chinese who are not certain of their meaning except for what they were told by the tattoo artist. There are many resources on the Web (or in the Appendix to The Lord of the Rings) for learning how to write the runes and tengwar (see, for example, The Letters of Middle-earth or Writing With Elvish Fonts), so there is little reason to rely on others to design the inscription (although getting someone skilled in calligraphy to execute the design is always a good idea).

    A tattoo or wedding band is supposed to last a lifetime; isn't it worth a bit of extra effort into making the inscription your own?


    [1] John Rhys-Davies did not participate; his on-camera double stood in for him.

    [2] Similar reasoning undoubtedly applied when Decipher decided to use English, transliterated into the tengwar, in their Anthologies cards for their The Lord of the Rings card game.

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