Talkin' Tolkien

David Salo's colleagues and classmates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have absolutely no idea how he spends his free time. It's not that the 32-year-old linguistics grad student is ashamed of his hobby (or obsession), which has occupied him for some 26 years. They simply cannot be bothered with it. "Most linguists feel that it's enough of a pain dealing with real-world languages to bother with invented ones," says the man whose life has been devoted, in large part, to the study and translation of the tongues "spoken" by elves and hobbits in the books of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Salo is a serious man, and so there is no attendant chuckle following his remark. As it turns out, the study of such imagined languages as Sindarin and Quenya--the latter so named by Tolkien in 1915, when he was a young Oxford University grad--is somber stuff plied by would-be academics tucked away in universities and, in one instance, the laboratories of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. So wipe that smirk off your face. And stop rolling your eyes. There's absolutely nothing funny going on here.

Just ask Salo, likely to become the best known of the copious Tolkien linguists on the Internet who share information, trade gossip, publish journals and, most surprising of all to those of us who have enough difficulty mastering the English language, slam rivals in vitriolic e-mails and mailing-list posts. As it turns out, bubbling beneath the culture like Mount Doom's molten lava is a rivalry among Tolkien linguists--a very real battle being waged over a made-up language. There are those who would consider discussing the subject "scandal-mongering" about a "singularly unsuitable topic," in the words of one prominent member of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, which publishes journals devoted to these fictional tongues. But there are considerable rewards at stake--among them, a piece of the publishing pie, which likely will only grow over the next two years, as New Line Pictures releases three three-hour Lord of the Rings films, beginning this week.

Salo's reputation among such elvish-language students will be cemented soon enough. Three years ago, he was hired to help in the development of art, props, sets and backgrounds that called for the use of Tolkien's invented alphabets. Director Peter Jackson, filmmaker as fetishist, wanted everything written and spoken to make sense according to Tolkien's mandate, and Salo was called upon to ensure everything said and seen was lucid, if not completely precise. For his work, Salo is cited for "Tolkien Language Translation" high in the end credits of The Fellowship of the Ring.

"Peter Jackson is interested in making sure that nobody can point to something and say, 'Hey, that looks nice, but it doesn't mean anything,'" Salo says. "So he went to great pains to make sure that everything would be at least intelligible, if not perfectly accurate, since Tolkien is now dead and nobody really has the ability to reproduce his languages the way he did, and he was always changing them. We can only hope we get things approximately accurate. But it's better than nothing."

Salo, born in Indiana and raised on the East Coast, has been a fan of Tolkien's work since he read The Hobbit at age 6; he became fascinated with the detailed maps of Middle-earth and the author's ability to transform ancient languages into lingo of his own design. In time, Salo would study Latin and Old English and other dead tongues while a classics major at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1995 his hobby became his crusade. But he found little information about Quenya, Sindarin and other Tolkien tongues on the Web or in libraries. He began writing his own articles and posting to a Web site, Ardalambion, run by a Norwegian named Helge Kåre Fauskanger--who earlier this year became something of a controversial figure in the world of Tolkien researchers when he tried to publish two "lost" Quenya texts written by Tolkien himself. He was rebuffed by the author's son Christopher and the Tolkien Estate, which guards against all outside comers with determined vigilance.

Which is where Salo's problems arise: For several years, he's been working on a Sindarin dictionary, now nearly complete. But Salo says he cannot get the book published and blames his troubles on two parties: HarperCollins Publishers, which holds the worldwide rights to Tolkien's work, and the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (E.L.F.), which publishes a journal called Vinyar Tengwar devoted to the study of the invented languages. The journal is edited and published by Carl F. Hostetter, a 36-year-old who works as a computer scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland--and who, in recent years, has become Salo's nemesis.

For years, Hostetter and a handful of colleagues have been working with Tolkien's son Christopher--now 77 and the author of the 12-volume History of Middle-earth--to classify, transcribe and amend his father's linguistic papers, which Christopher sends to the group in small, photocopied batches every so often. "It is this work that I and my colleagues have principally been engaged in over this time," Hostetter explains, "and from which we have published various items, including two very early (c. 1915-17) and substantial lexicons of Tolkien's two chief invented languages, Quenya and Goldogrin." (Hostetter wouldn't grant an interview but did send two e-mails detailing his work and relationship with the estate.)

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky