A Secret Vice by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.


A Secret Vice is the title of a lecture written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1931, given at a conference. Some twenty years later, Tolkien revised the manuscript for a second presentation.

It deals with constructed languages in general, and the relation of a mythology to its language. Tolkien contrasts international auxiliary languages with artistic languages constructed for aesthetic pleasure. Tolkien also discusses phonaesthetics, citing Greek, Finnish, and Welsh as examples of “languages which have a very characteristic and in their different ways beautiful word-form”.

Tolkien’s opinion of the relation of mythology and language is reflected in examples cited in Quenya and Noldorin, the predecessors of Quenya and Sindarin. The essay contains three Quenya poems, Oilima Markirya (“The Last Ark”), Nieninque, and Earendel, as well as an eight-line passage in Noldorin.


Although I’m always excited about a new Tolkien book, I was hesitant about spending money on A Secret Vice since the essay that forms the core of the book is published in The Monsters and the Critics, which I already own.  Ultimately, I do think A Secret Vice is an engaging critical edition, and the editors made a good call to republish the essay as a standalone book with additional supporting material (including an introduction, another essay on phonetic symbolism, a look at the various manuscripts/revisions of the essay, and a coda about the legacy of Tolkien’s languages).  The Monsters and the Critics basically just collects several of Tolkien’s academic lectures.   The limited external commentary means the lectures can be overwhelming or confusing to readers who don’t already have some knowledge about the topics the lectures address.  A Secret Vice fixes that problem and provides a nice introduction to settle readers into the linguistic theory that Tolkien used to invent the languages of Middle-Earth, while also offering more in-depth material for more academically minded readers.  (Basically, I think this book works well for both a general audience and scholars.)

The Introduction

The editors’ introduction to A Secret Vice is a quick but comprehensive overview of what Tolkien covers in the essay “A Secret Vice” itself and of some of the contemporary linguistic theory that informed Tolkien’s work on languages.  It is a nice reminder, as well, that Tolkien was interested in linguistics and philology, which I think is still overlooked, even as Tolkien’s other academic work (medieval literary studies) continues to gain recognition.

The editors outline four major characters Tolkien desired his languages to have, which I found a useful way to organize the information from the book:

  1. aesthetically pleasing word forms
  2. fitness between form and meaning
  3. elaborate grammars
  4. illusion of historicity

I was initially skeptical about point two, since what I know about language theory is from Saussure, who declares that the signifier is unrelated to the signified (words-their forms or sounds-are not related at all to the objects or ideas they describe). Saussure’s theory dominates academia today.  However, the introduction presents a brief overview of earlier scholars who argued word form and meaning could be related and how this might be.  I like the idea that Tolkien tried to adhere to this theory in his own language invention, even if success in that area must be largely subjective.

My one gripe is that the introduction occasionally repeats itself in a manner I find odd.  My only explanation is that the authors were thinking that readers might skip about the introduction and read only certain subsections they found interesting. While such selective reading is common in academia (Who reads an entire monograph from start to end?), I think it would be unusual for someone not to read the introduction with some care, particularly when the introduction (and the book as a whole) are not very long.  Repeating the same point three times is unnecessary.

A Secret Vice

I admit it: I enjoyed this essay much more with the context of the introduction than I would have without it.  The “essay” is really a lecture that Tolkien read aloud to an undergraduate society at Oxford, and reading it reminded me of similar lectures I have attended throughout my own academic career. Unlike actual essays, which tend to have a strong thesis/focus/structure, these lectures (somewhere between formal and informal), tend to be meandering.  I often leave them asking myself, “What was the main point?” and Tolkien’s work is no exception.

Tolkien, you see, begins with some general ponderings on language and language construction. He talks a lot about Esperanto.  He, eventually, gets to reflecting on people he knows who have created languages.  He takes an odd digression into why some of these languages do not actually count as invented languages or contribute to his argument. Finally, he gets to the topic one would have thought was the point all along: his own invented languages.  With a bit of explanation of his process and some examples of poems he’s written in his own languages, the lecture is done.  I suppose it’s more of a narrative than an essay. Tolkien eases into his main topic; he doesn’t forefront it with a clear thesis.  This isn’t my favorite structure, so I appreciated that the introduction outlined some main take-aways of the lecture.  Frankly, I think it might be possible for a reader to miss them.  However, once you have your bearings with the lecture, it does offer fascinating insight into Tolkien’s invented language production.

Essay on Phonetic Symbolism

This essay is more technical.  It isn’t entirely clear what audience Tolkien intended it for.  The book does a lot of cross-referencing between this essay and “A Secret Vice,” so for many readers it’s going to be most useful to shed light on “A Secret Vice.”  The editors point out that the essay appears to have been written in one sitting, and I do think it reads like a draft.  It’s a bit confusing at times, but the editorial notes are helpful.

The Manuscripts

Publishing every existing manuscript/draft of a work is currently a popular scholarly practice and has been standard practice for all of the most recent Tolkien books.  Scholars want to avoid publishing a “definitive” version of a text if one doesn’t clearly exist, and they also want to provide readers with the chance to see an author’s process and how his/her ideas developed and changed over drafts.  In theory, this is interesting. In practice, I don’t read these sections of the book. Unless I’m doing an academic study,I don’t have a lot of personal interest in reading five versions of the same text to pick out what’s different between them.  I think a general audience would agree with me for the most part, but if you’re really into Tolkien studies, this section of the book will be useful to you and give you access to material you’d otherwise need to get from the Bodleian library.


This section of the book reads most like something the authors intended for a general audience, rather than an academic one. It starts with an overview of Tolkien’s work that will be old news to many serious Tolkien fans.  However, it does offer some new information specifically on Tolkien’s language invention and ends with a reflection on how Tolkien’s work has influenced fantasy.  I learned, for instance, that linguists are routinely hired to help create fantasy languages for books or for books turned to movies. (Apparently George R. R. Martin mentions Dothraki briefly in A Song of Ice and Fire, but HBO hired linguists to flesh it out for the television series.)  It’s not an earth-shattering section, but it’s entertaining and nicely wraps up the book as a whole.

4 stars

5 thoughts on “A Secret Vice by J.R.R. Tolkien

  1. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Really good to know this works for both general audiences and scholars!! I studied linguistics for a bit- and you’d think that would make me more interested in reading this- but to be honest the mention of Saussure and phonetics still make me break out in hives 😉


  2. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    This is one of the books I read for Tolkien Reading Day. I agree that the editorial notes were actually very helpful in this book – sometimes I find they don’t really add anything to the original text. You also make a good point about the inclusive of different manuscripts. I appreciate that they’re being made available, but I don’t feel any need to read them at this time…


    • Briana says:

      All the new Tolkien books have the manuscripts, and I get that it’s a thing for some academic work, and it’s probably really great if now you don’t need to prance over to England to see the originals for yourself to do your work but…yeah, I really have no use for them, and when the books are particularly short they can come off as filler even when I know they technically aren’t.


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