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Oxford, Tolkien, and the fair speech

From my visit to Oxford, August 2019

A few days ago I finished my third reading of The Two Towers, and now I’m on book 3. The landscapes of Middle-earth are lucid in my imagination. And yet I find myself thinking again and again about Oxford. This story (the best story, I believe, in English literature) was born out of the imagination and knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien. But Tolkien’s imaginary world could never have existed if our real world did not have the University of Oxford in it.

Yes, Oxford is one of the greatest seats of privilege in the world. Oxford has drawn heavily on the power and wealth of the British Empire. But that shows us, I believe, that no empire can sustain itself century after century — at least in any form that can do some good in the world along with the harm that empires do — unless it invests in all the things that the University of Oxford stands for.

Part of what I marvel at and am extremely grateful for is that it has been my privilege that the language of Oxford is my mother tongue. That is one thing that I can share with Oxford, though otherwise I have never had scrap nor morsel of its privilege. No matter how many languages a person may learn to speak later in life, it is the mother tongue that is connected most intimately with our minds and emotions. For years I have said, partly as a joke, that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings would be impossible to translate into French. Tolkien’s story, and Tolkien’s language, are Anglo-Saxon to the bone, alien, like oil and water, to Latin.

In book 2, The Two Towers, I found myself re-reading and savoring the passages in which Faramir interrogates Frodo, and in which trust develops between them as Faramir decides to give Frodo as much help as he can, though they both are far from home. Faramir speaks “the fair speech.” Others in the story speak the fair speech, too. The elves for example. But though hobbits are to some degree hicks, Frodo acquired the fair speech, from his mentors.

This dialogue between Faramir and Frodo is some of the most perfect dialogue in the story. Tolkien polished every word and phrase. Consider what Tolkien as an Oxford professor was able to draw on, all products of Oxford: the long history of the English language all the way back to German and beyond; the refinements of English diplomacy; the conventions by which the privileged (Faramir was a steward’s son) expressed (or displayed) their noblesse and fine breeding. I’ll make another joke at the expense of the French. To be polite in French, one must double the number of words. It’s difficult in French to be both courteous and concise. Whereas in English a high rhetorical tone can get straight to the point.

On the train from Edinburgh to Oxford, as the train approached Oxford, a Ph.D. student whom I had talked with on the train said, “I speak acquired English.” I replied, “I understand that, because I speak acquired American.” It was not just language that we had in common. It also was a kind of language that we had in common, an echo of the “fair speech.” Americans are quite capable of the fair speech, scarce as it is these days in our public discourse.

I have heard it said about us American Southerners — at least a kind of Southerner in short supply hereabouts — that, when there is conflict, whoever is most polite wins. If that is true, then I suspect it is something we learned from the English. Pray that we all can keep it, even though, as with many Southerners who have an aptitude for language, I will cut a person to shreds with my tongue when I think they need it. Too many do. And you can get shot for mere words, these days more than ever.

Even if we have to turn to literature to hear the fair speech, it’s something we ought to do from time to time. In dark times such as these, there is something that is encouraging and healing about it.


  1. Jo wrote:

    Very thought-provoking post. You have such a good grasp of language as evidenced by your good use of words. In conflict, the most polite wins! So very much needed today.

    Friday, August 21, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  2. Jim wrote:

    I suspect the reason you speak English is that one of your ancestors escaped the tyranny of socialism to settle in America. And you, generations later, co-opted the Oxford story for your purpose… ah, ignorance truly is bliss!

    Sunday, August 30, 2020 at 10:31 am | Permalink

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