On Learning Languages (2)


On Learning Languages (2) – Norwegian, Vietnamese, and Arabic?

About a week ago, the technical theatre society in Oxford held a training day at a college theatre with a couple of lighting and sound workshops. The preferred pub happened to be full at lunchtime, so we ended up at a nearby pizza place – all of which would have absolutely no relevance at all to (another) post about languages, except for a very minor if amusing query that came up at the table: what exactly was one of the languages on the bottle of San Pellegrino? I posited Vietnamese; some discussion ensued; it was Googled; it was Vietnamese.

Uncomplicated, and perhaps also uninteresting. Except for the bit where I was asked to explain the train of thought that led to “Vietnamese” … because, first, I don’t speak Vietnamese, have never studied it, have never studied anything closely related to it, and had absolutely no clue what the text on the bottle said. Secondly, explaining how my brain works when it comes to languages is one of those things that could take … a rather long time. I did, very briefly, touch on ‘deciphering languages I don’t actually know’ in my last post on the topic, but didn’t go into any particular detail.

So let’s start with a different, somewhat easier example: Norwegian. I’ve never visited Norway, don’t have any friends who speak the language, and have never formally studied it. It is distantly related to Old Norse – in about the same way that Old English is related to Modern English but they’re not the same language (see this post if that’s confusing).

However, one of my supervisor’s colleagues recently invited me to visit Bergen for a (funded!) conference and study trip in April. Cue the decision that I should probably acquire some Norwegian in the near future. But this is not nearly as hard as it might seem – for illustration purposes, let’s look at the lyrics of (what I think is) a fairly well-known Norwegian song, by Sissel Kyrkjebø. (I don’t know her music, but a Google search for “best Norwegian singers” turned up her name, so here goes)

Å Vestland, Vestland når eg ser deg slik

Med fagre fjell og fjord og tronge vik.

Det stig i all sin venleik stort og vilt

Og atter møter meg so mjukt og mildt.

Og gleda strøymer i meg still og stor

med glans av bjørkeli og blåe fjord

Og i meg sjølv eg kjenner dypter av

den stille skogen og det store hav.

Min lette båt ein solblank kveld eg ror,

sjå fjell og himmel sym på stille fjord

og djupe dalen med sitt grøne fang,

som skin av lauv og blom frå li og vang.

Sjå skuggane som kliv dei kvasse fjell

lik dagsens timar tøyer seg mot kveld

Det sveiper seg om tind og tronge dal

eit draumeslør av sommarnatti sval.

It might seem a startling claim, but I don’t need to have studied any Norwegian to be able to read this. Why? Well, look at the cognates: (obligatory disclaimer: any errors are mine; I have not double-checked the following with a dictionary; that would a) take forever and b) entirely defeat the point of the exercise, which is writing down what immediately comes to mind)

Vestland = West-land (straightforward Old English/modern English; w <=> v are well-known to be interchangeable in related languages; Swedish and Danish only recently introduced “w” into their alphabets; “vestur” = west in modern Icelandic; “vest” in Danish; vestr in Old Norse.)

når = Well, what it immediately reminds me of the Quenya verb for to be (infinitive na / plural nar; there’s also Sindarin naur, which is fire …), but this is not likely to be terribly helpful! So let’s leave it and come back.

eg = I (ek = I in Old Norse; ic in Old English; ik in Gothic; ih in Old High German; ich in Modern German; ég in modern Icelandic; jeg in modern Danish; jag in Swedish)

ser = presumably first person singular form of the verb to see; in Old Norse, the infinitive form of the verb is “sja” (which also appears later in the song), which when conjugated is also “sér”. Danish: “ser”; modern Icelandic: “sé”.

med = with; again, every Germanic/Nordic language ever has a cognate. Earlier ones are with final eth or thorn instead of d – because Verner’s law. The voiced dental fricative then became plosive in most if not quite all Germanic languages. Closest form is actually Old Norse and modern Icelandic með, with. Compare Gothic miþ. The Proto-Germanic form is likely *midi, if I remember correctly, and is distantly related to Ancient Greek μετά (meta), meaning ‘between’ or ‘with’ (metamorphosis, metaphor, metastasis, etc.). English “mid” (midterm, midway, etc.) is our version; German mit (because d => t in a later stage of the Old High German consonant shift). For a word with a similar history of final sound changes, compare Old Norse góðr/modern Icelandic góður, which is English good (final d), and German gut (final t).

deg = you (singular, accusative?). The only trick to this one is to entertain the possibility that Norwegian still has inflected pronouns. “du” / accusative form “dig” is the equivalent in Danish. Also du / dig in Swedish. German du / dich. þu / þec in Old English; þú / þik in Old Norse. (The thorn/eth/d shifts are quite normal – see med, above. The precise form of said letters (and whether certain words are spelled with an eth, a thorn, or a d) is often helpful when trying to date medieval Icelandic manuscripts.)

slik = such, so (slíkr in Old Norse)

fagre = fair, beautiful (Old Norse: fagr; Icelandic fagur – this changing around of the “r” ending is quite normal: “-r” was the masculine singular nominative ending in Old Norse, which has universally become “-ur” in modern Icelandic, since roughly the 14th century, so “-ur” is actually the commonest spelling in many of the riddarasögur for instance)

fjell = mountain(s) – English fell; Danish fjeld; Icelandic fjall; Swedish fjäll (as in the lyrics of the national anthem – “Du fjällhöga nord”). Also part of the name of that Icelandic volcano that none of the reporters could pronounce.

og = and: ok in Old Norse; og in modern Icelandic; Proto-Germanic *auk; thus Old English eac; Old Saxon ok. Old Gutnish oc. Og in Faroese. Modern Swedish och; German auch.

fjord = fjord(s). We’ve got the same word in English; enough said.

og = see above.

tronge = Closest thing I can think of is Old Norse þrǫngr, meaning narrow, which in context of the next word makes sense.

vík = inlet(s), small bay. Old Norse vík (as in Reykjavík and vikingur aka vikings – etymology of the term ‘vikings’ is a matter some debate but the most prevalent explanation is from this word.) vík in modern Icelandic; vík in Faroese (where it can also mean creek, I think); the related Old English word is wīc, meaning camp or dwelling place.

So we have:

O Westland, Westland, (when? given the context) I see you so,

With beautiful mountains and fjords and narrow inlets …

Writing all of that out (and I’m going to stop now, because the idea is hopefully clear) is an excessively, excessively long way of describing what my brain does in fractions of a second, instinctively and automatically, upon reading a text in a language I don’t know, or don’t know very well: try to match words with their counterparts in related languages, using known sound changes and various principles of historical linguistics to help with the process. It doesn’t, in fact, particularly matter what the language in question is – trying to decipher a Portuguese newspaper, for instance, is a similar process, except that instead of constantly referencing English/German/Old English/Old Norse/Icelandic, I’m referencing French/Spanish/Latin/Italian. And when I visited Denmark this past March, I did so never having studied any Danish whatsoever (this situation has clearly improved somewhat – but at the time, I hadn’t even looked up “Thank you” or “Do you speak English” or “Can you give me directions to the Canadian consulate” before getting on the plane.) This was not a problem: like Norwegian, much of Danish is cognate with Icelandic/Old Norse/Old English/German. Cue a virtually identical process of deciphering instructions for getting bus tickets, reading maps and street signs, and making sense of displays at museums.

This, of course, is not an infallible method – “false friends” (as they’re known – words that look similar but have different meanings/etymologies) can easily result in misreadings or misinterpretations. But these tend to be fairly few and far between, and often identifiable by context.

This does make learning vocabulary in a new language much easier. And it can help with the really annoying problem of having to memorize all the genders of various nouns in languages that have grammatical gender – while this doesn’t really work for French and German, say, it does work for more closely related languages, like Swedish/Icelandic – if a word is declined as feminine in Icelandic, it’s more likely to be feminine in Swedish as well. Particularly if it was also feminine in Old Norse.

This process of making connections – tracing how words (and their definitions) and languages have changed and diverged over time – was the single most enjoyable part of the spelling competitions, and the keystone of my studying strategy: I didn’t need to have ever heard of the words weltschmerz or scherenschnitte in order to spell them correctly. Or foliiform, or skeuomorph, or dephlogisticate, or mahimahi. I just needed to know enough about the phonology and morphology of the relevant languages that English has borrowed from, and/or enough word roots.

That attraction hasn’t ever managed to disappear – though, ten years later, it has taken ever-more-amusing twists and turns along the way. The summer before I came to Oxford, to go on a slight tangent for a moment, I worked a slightly silly number of jobs (lifeguard, LX crew with IATSE, standardized test (SAT) course instructor, background in a series of films, filming a show for CBC …), frequently clocking 60-70 hours a week in a quest to earn money for Oxford. The first job on that list, lifeguard, was for an outdoor apartment pool in Ottawa’s south end. We had patrons who spoke a variety of languages other than English (French, Spanish, and Arabic were the most common), and once they learned that I studied languages, this led to much enthusiasm (on their part) and many opportunities to practice (on my part).

The most fascinating linguistic acquaintance I made that summer, however, was not in fact a patron, but the guy in charge of maintenance, who came in for about twenty minutes every morning to clean. He was originally from Algeria; his first language was Arabic, second French, and English a distant third. French thus became the natural lingua franca, as the language that we could both converse in comfortably.

And then he decided to start teaching me basic Arabic. Still with French as the language of communication.

This was both ridiculously fun and required much mental gymnastics on my part – Arabic was and is still the only language that I’ve tried to learn with reference to a language other than English. I would get words and phrases in Arabic … translated into French. Arabic grammar and writing were explained … in French. And while my French is not too shabby (re: pretending to be a francophone student for calculus/theatre history/etc. courses at the University of Ottawa), it was the first time I’d tried to use it in that way.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Arabic is still not much better than nonexistent – limited to the sort of phrases you’d probably find on the first two pages of a ‘basics for tourists’ book. But the process of trying to learn a language without any reference to English – and building connections in my brain between languages without using English as an intermediary – that I would like to keep working on.


Back to Vietnamese and San Pellegrino bottles, with that background.

The list of languages I have dabbled in – not necessarily speak; dabbled is the operative word here; enough to at least say hello and goodbye, sing a national anthem, know some basic grammar, or count to twenty, say – is long and perpetually growing. English. French. Old French. Spanish. Italian. German. Old High German. Gothic. Old Irish. Old West Norse. Old East Norse. Old Saxon. Modern Icelandic. Welsh. Finnish. Quenya. Sindarin. Esperanto. Swedish. Danish. Russian. Arabic. Mandarin. Japanese. Korean. Latin. Classical Greek. Modern Greek. Akkadian. Maori. Old Frisian. Armenian.

There’s clearly an even longer list, though, of languages that I have not studied in and of themselves, but that I have encountered in passing, either as part of preparations for the spelling bee, or because they happen to be related to something else that I do study in a linguistically interesting way: Norwegian. Hawaiian. Cree. Wyandot. Afrikaans. Faroese. Portuguese. Maltese. Polish. Hebrew. Romanian. Swahili. Old Gutnish. Dutch. Sanskrit. Mi’kmaq.

… and at this point, it becomes obvious that – with a few notable exceptions – we’ve also managed to cover almost every major language family and almost every major region of the world.

So when I encounter a language that I don’t immediately recognize, there are a limited number of possibilities. If it’s definitely a modern language currently spoken somewhere in the world by a reasonably large number of speakers, there are also then a pretty limited number of possible locations. If it’s also not obviously related to any language I recognize, i.e. doesn’t appear to have cognates in or any of a long list of possible parallels with any of the languages I’m familiar with, that eliminates most of the world.

… and then all that is required is for me to remember reading passages in an AP World History textbook with similar (phonologically speaking) words and names (or similar words/names in a Neal Stephenson novel …), and Vietnamese – or something closely related to it – seems like the most likely option.

Simple as that.

(But not also something I could explain in sixty seconds in a pizza parlour!)


What is Old English?


When I tell people that I study Old English, the single most common reply is the following: “So, like, Shakespeare?” (Or, occasionally: “So, Chaucer?”) This is perhaps understandable to a certain degree: for anyone from Canada who didn’t study English after high school, the oldest English text they’ve read was probably one of a short list of Shakespeare’s plays prescribed by the public school curriculum.

It’s also totally erroneous: Shakespeare is Modern English, and the simplest way to explain this is with an example or two.

Here is a short excerpt of Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, part 1: the scene is the prelude to a duel between Prince Henry (the future Henry V) and Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, who is leading a rebellion against the crown.

This is the text in Old English prose (my translation – leaving personal names intact):



Gif ic ne bēo bedroren, þū eart Harry Monmouth.


þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan.


Mīn nama bið Harry Percy.


Hwæt! þa ic sceāwige

wiþfeohtend ārhwætne mid þām naman.

iċ eom ætheling Brytenlandes; ond ne tale, Percy,

nu in mīn æsctīras efngedǣlan.

swā twēġen steorran in anum hwyrft ne magon belīfan,

swā Albion ne mæġ habban cyningas twēġen:

ǣġðer Harry Percy, ġe ætheling Brytenlandes.


I’m pretty sure that Ontario high school students would be less than thrilled if that was assigned as required reading! Now, Shakespeare’s version, c. 1597:



If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.


Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.


My name is Harry Percy.


Why, then I see

A very valiant rebel of the name.

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,

To share with me in glory any more:

Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;

Nor can one England brook a double reign,

Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.


One of these is intelligible to the average native English speaker; the other … not so much! While Old English is still recognizably related to the language we speak today (“gif” as the predecessor of “if”, “nama” as the predecessor of “name”, and “þū eart” as the predecessor of “thou art”, which is now admittedly archaic), the grammar, vocabulary, and spelling have shifted significantly – signficantly enough that you can’t really sit down and read Old English texts without learning a new language.

The opening lines of the only Old English poem anyone has usually heard of – Beowulf – should suffice to demonstrate this:

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð

feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!


Aside from “we” and “in” and “oft” – which still retain basically the same senses in modern English – and the last sentence (þæt wæs god cyning! = “that was (a) good king!”), most of this is not even close to something that would be comprehensible today.

So we’ve gone back way before Shakespeare. More than five hundred years before, in fact, and to a time when “England” as a country did not even exist – when scholars talk about “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon”, they’re referring to the language spoken by the Germanic tribes who conquered and then settled the land that would become England, in the period from about 500 to 1066 C.E. “Middle English” refers to the period immediately after the Norman Conquest, from about 1066 to 1450. Middle English is the English of Chaucer – “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote” is a little bit more intelligible than “Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum”, but it’s still quite difficult to read. And finally, by the time we get to the Renaissance (and Shakespeare), we’re firmly in the realm of Modern English.

(To put those dates in perspective, there’s still more time between the end of the Old English period and Shakespeare than there is separating Shakespeare and the speaker of modern English today.)

It’s not surprising, then, that in the course of fifteen hundred years, the language has undergone some significant changes – including some changes that can make Old English a bit of a headache for those used to the modern version:


  1. Like Latin, and modern French, German, Spanish, and Icelandic, Old English nouns have grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter).
  1. Like Latin, Old Norse, and German, Old English is an inflected language: meaning is created not through word order, but through little suffixes attached to the end of words, which tell you whether the word in question is the subject, object, verb, indirect object, etc. of the sentence. For example, in my translation of Henry IV, above, the word “nama” (name) appears with a couple of different endings. In Hotspur’s line, “Mīn nama bið Harry Percy” [My name is Harry Percy], “nama” is in the nominative (subject) case and thus has no ending. But in Prince Henry’s line immediately before, “þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan” [Thou speak’st as though I would deny my name], “naman” is the object of the verb, and thus in the accusative case, with a suffixed –n. This also means that writers and poets can become very creative with word order – to go back to the opening lines of Beowulf as an example, in Old English we have:


           We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.


A word-for-word translation without changing the word order:



So! (“Listen!” or “Hey! Pay attention, I’m starting the story!”)


We Gardena                            in         geardagum

We of-the-spear-Danes        in         days-of-yore


þeodcyninga,                           þrym   gefrunon,

of-the-people’s-kings            glories have heard,


hu        ða        æþelingas         ellen              fremedon.

how     those princes           brave-deeds performed.


To get it into modern English word order, we have to do this:


Hwæt! We gefrunon þrym þeodcyninga Gardena in geardagum,

So! We have heard of the glories of the kings of the peoples of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,

hu ða æþelingas fremedon ellen.

how those princes performed brave deeds.


  1. Like Old Norse, modern Arabic, and Tolkien’s invented languages Sindarin and Quenya, Old English retains dual pronouns: “we (two)” or “you (two)” required a different pronoun than “we (group of three or more)” or “you (group of three or more)”
  1. Like Old Norse and modern Icelandic, Old English has a few extra letters: þ (“thorn” – borrowed from the runic alphabet, and pronounced “th” as in “thin”), æ (“ash” – pronounced like the “a” in “cat”), and ð (“eth” – pronounced “th” as in “then”).
  1. Like Old Norse poetry, Old English verse depends on alliteration, not end-rhyme: “Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, / monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah”


Despite the differences, though, the close relationship between the two languages – Old English and its modern descendant – is made clear when we look at the basic vocabulary. Although we’ve since borrowed all sorts of words from other languages like French and Latin, many of the most common words in English are still derived from Old English originals:

sprecan                      to speak

singan                         to sing

rinnan                         to run

hus                              house

fæder                          father

modor                         mother

blæc                            black

and/ond                     and

þæt                             that

eald                             old

god                              good

leoht                           light

nu                               now

hwa                             who

hwæt                          what

cyning                         king

sæ                               sea


(One obligatory caveat: while this is often helpful, even words that seem to look familiar may have changed their meanings significantly. Our modern English “queen”, for example, comes straight from Old English “cwen”. But in Old English, “cwen” simply meant “woman”, not “queen”. Similarly, modern English “churl” comes from Old English “ceorl”, but in Old English, “ceorl” had no negative connotations whatsoever, and was simply a word for a man. A “cniht” was a boy, not a knight in shining armour; a “wif” was any woman, not just a wife; an “eorl” was any man or warrior, not just a nobleman; and “sona” translates as “immediately” rather than “soon”.)

I have another post in the works that will cover the Old Norse side of things, but suffice it for the moment to say that while Old Norse is contemporary with Middle English, it’s much closer – linguistically – to Old English. And while neither Old English nor Old Norse would have been intelligible to Shakespeare, there’s a great deal of wonderful literature written in both languages that has survived for a millennium and more, available to be read and enjoyed – if only we take the time to learn the languages in which it’s written.

(And hopefully, Shakespeare doesn’t seem so bad, now?)

On Learning Languages (1)


So, I’ve always had a bit of a problem: there are far too many things I want to learn, and far too few hours in the day to actually do so. (See earlier post where someone felt obliged to inform my teenage self that trying to do two doctorates – in theoretical physics and medieval literature – was an exceedingly impractical idea.)

Perhaps this becomes most obvious, however, when we’re talking about foreign languages. A somewhat infamous example from my childhood may illustrate: when I was in Grade 3, my mother asked me what I wanted to study in school the next year. Because of the flexibility that homeschooling allowed, this was a fairly normal occurrence: if there was a topic that I was particularly interested in, it could usually be incorporated into the curriculum somehow. This was, for instance, how I ended up doing Grade 11 Chemistry at age ten: I told my mother I wanted to study chemistry, she found and bought an appropriate textbook, and I studied high school chemistry. (In sufficient depth that I walked straight into Grade 12 gifted chemistry in my first semester of high school, on the strength of work I’d done four years previous.)

When I was in Grade 3, however, my answer was not chemistry. Instead, it was a list of about a dozen languages, including more normal culprits like Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian, but also including a fair number of more obscure languages, like Finnish and Swahili.

(My longsuffering mother, who of course spoke none of the above, resorted to finding all the Berlitz language courses that were available from the library, and acquiring a whole series of books with titles like “First Thousand Words in French/Spanish/German/Latin/Japanese/Hebrew/etc.”)

I really don’t know where this interest came from – I can’t say Tolkien, because I hadn’t read any of The Lord of the Rings books at the time and didn’t know anything about Tolkien the linguist outside of, well, The Hobbit. (Discovering Tolkien admittedly provided much inspiration – but the interest seems to predate my exposure to him.) Certainly I was exposed to other languages from an early age: Latin and Greek show up on my homeschool report cards as early as Grade 1 or 2, and my parents always put a great emphasis on French, despite the fact that neither of them speak it particularly well – we read children’s books in French, my mother organized a French reading group at the local library, she arranged for various exchange students to come and give lessons, we had “French days”, on which no one (other than my father, who couldn’t manage this) was allowed to speak English, and we watched French films.

This latter activity, in fact, was a tried-and-true method that my sister and I used as children if we wanted to watch television – although watching Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons in English might be an unprofitable use of time, watching them in French was educational. (I still use the same reasoning to justify to myself the time I spend watching musicals like Roméo et Juliette and Notre Dame de Paris.)

Then I did discover Tolkien, shortly before competing in various spelling competitions, and my interests shifted to the elven languages Quenya and Sindarin, and the real-world languages they were inspired by – Finnish and Welsh. I really liked Finnish, but gave up on it fairly fast, mostly because … well, I have no problems with inflected languages. I’ve spend a lot of time studying them, and they allow for so many rhetorical effects that simply don’t translate into modern English, because our language no longer allows for them. But instead of the entirely reasonable four or five cases for nouns that Old English or Latin might have, Finnish has fifteen – nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, exessive, translative, instructive, abessive, and comitative.

(This is also why, at least in my opinion, Mandarin is a breath of fresh air: sure, the writing system involves a ton of memorization, but there are no inflections!)


The thing about learning languages, of course, is that once you’ve learned one or two, it becomes much easier to learn more. My Spanish, for instance, is really not all that great. But I can nonetheless sit down and make sense of newspaper articles or websites in Spanish, because my knowledge of French and Latin means that if I don’t actually know a vocabulary word in Spanish, the chances are really very high that I do know said vocabulary word’s cognate in French or Latin, and can therefore recognize it anyways.

Similarly, tackling German this summer – and this fall – has been a pretty quick study, if you consider that I compressed what Oxford would consider a year-long introductory course into about five weeks of somewhat sporadic poolside study, and then hopped into the intermediate reading course once I arrived. But the reasons for this are entirely straightforward:

1) if you already know how the nominative/genitive/dative/accusative/etc. work, you don’t have to learn again,

2) English and German (and Old English and Old Norse) are sufficiently closely related that if you understand the sound changes that have divided the two langugaes, figuring out the English equivalents of German words is not terribly complicated,

3) I had learned how to pronounce German as a child (thank the spelling bee!); also, many of the sounds that German has (that do not exist in English) are common to other languages that I’d studied,

4) if you know how all the verb tenses with auxiliaries (perfect, pluperfect, future perfect, the various passives, etc.) work in French and English, the German verb system is straightforward.


Now, popular wisdom would say that one should never learn more than one language at a time. This is one of those rules that I glance at every so often, and then shrug my shoulders as I proceed to flout it completely. Let’s face it: you can’t work with – or study – just one language at a time when dealing with early medieval literature. Reading knowledge of English, French, German, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English is not optional for what I’m currently doing – in the last couple months, I’ve had to read and/or translate and/or analyze texts in all of the above. (With varying degrees of facility depending on my experience with the language: everything from “this is a pleasant afternoon’s reading” (French, Old English) to “I require a grammar, a dictionary, and the vast resources of the Internet in order to make sense of this” (scholarly articles in German …).

This is not to mention the other languages that are somewhat less mandatory, but have nonetheless cropped up in the last few weeks: Old French (I was attending a lecture series on Beroul’s Tristan, an Old French romance – and also, a number of the Old Norse riddarasögur were translations or adaptations of Old French texts), Norwegian (Old Norse scholarship, including the only extant translation into any language of an Old Norse mathematical treatise that I have been translating into English), modern Icelandic (again, Old Norse scholarship, including the earliest book I can find on female poets in Old Norse literature) – and, just to make matters more interesting, Quenya (Oxford’s Tolkien society).

Is this potentially confusing? Well, yes – but it is also a large part of why medieval literature is so much fun, and why I’ll (hopefully!) never get bored studying it: there are always going to be more languages to learn.

After all, I would still really like to acquire a more solid working knowledge of Spanish. And be able to speak German, as opposed to just reading it. And learn Italian. And Russian. And Finnish. And Welsh, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Mandarin, Gothic, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old East Slavic, Classical Greek …


… and when actually sitting down to work, practicality must return: German. Let’s see how many more vocabulary flashcards we can make today!

(One of my personal projects over the holidays – in addition to the assigned homework for my Oxford course – is to read The Hobbit in German. So far I’ve gotten about halfway through the first chapter, mostly because I keep stopping to look up every vocabulary word that I’m even slightly unsure about. Might have to stop doing that if I intend to get through the whole thing in the next few weeks!)

The Library in My Head


So I started this blog eight months ago with a list of books, and now that my MA is done, I thought I might as well post another list – this time, a list of books I actually read in the last year.

I must confess that this is not a new or particularly original idea. When I was growing up, my parents a) banned television and strictly limited computer games in favour of encouraging us to read, and b) provided the following incentive to ensure that my sister and I would in fact keep track of the books we read: for every one hundred books read, we would get to choose a new book of our own, which my parents would buy. Therefore, for every grade I was in school, there exist – somewhere, buried in my mother’s files – long lists of books that I read that year, and my report cards from kindergarten through Grade 9 (in the “Reading” or “English” sections) contain comments like “Over 250 books read this year” (Grade 1) or “Over 350 books read this year. Many more books read and not recorded. Try to work on this.” (Grade 4).

Naturally, as I got older, the books got longer, the lists of other work I had to do also got longer, and the number of books read got shorter – I certainly can’t claim that my speed-reading skills improved that much with age! But for anyone who was wondering – yes, this is how I can legimitately say that I read almost all of the 4,000-odd books in my basement, and mostly before age 14.

One of the things I noticed during my last year of university, however, was the rather unsettling fact that I had become so busy doing school, and work, and more work, and more school, and theatre, that I hadn’t spent very much time at all reading for pleasure. So at the beginning of May 2013, I decided to go back to the list-making, both as a way of making sure I prioritized reading, and as a way of keeping track of how much reading I was actually doing. This, twelve months later, is the result. I can’t say I got anywhere close to my youthful statistics, but 160 is also much better than I suspect the number would have been for my last year or two of undergrad!

There were a few rules I imposed on myself while making this list:

– 1. Skimming didn’t count.

– 2. Books that I only read a few articles from for research purposes didn’t count.

– 3. Textbooks would make the list if and only if I had completed them thoroughly enough that I would be comfortable being tested on all chapters.

– 4. Individual articles didn’t count – unless they were long enough to be books in and of themselves. (A somewhat flexible definition, admittedly, but I figured 200+ page articles of dense mathematics really ought to count …)

– 5. Books could only be listed once. (e.g. I have no idea how many times I read Beowulf this year – I had to translate the whole thing, amongst other details – but it appears once.)

The classifications are somewhat flexible (“classic” literature is in quotes for a reason!), but are perhaps illustrative nonetheless. Books are in no particular order otherwise, though I have tried to group books by the same author together. An asterisk (*) indicates that I had read the book at least once before.


Fantasy/Sci-fi: (52)

– His Majesty’s Dragon (Naomi Novik)
– Throne of Jade (Naomi Novik)
– Black Powder War (Naomi Novik)
– Trickster’s Choice (Tamora Pierce)*
– Trickster’s Queen (Tamora Pierce)*
– Magic Kingdom for Sale – Sold (Terry Brooks)
– The Black Unicorn (Terry Brooks)
– Belgarath the Sorcerer (David Eddings)*
– The Elder Gods (David and Leigh Eddings)
– The Treasured One (David and Leigh Eddings)
– Crystal Gorge (David and Leigh Eddings)
– The Younger Gods (David and Leigh Eddings)
– A Study in Silks (Emma Jane Holloway)
– A Study in Darkness (Emma Jane Holloway)
– A Study in Ashes (Emma Jane Holloway)
– The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan)*
– The Light Fantastic (Terry Pratchett)
– Mort (Terry Pratchett)
– Equal Rites (Terry Pratchett)
– Sourcery (Terry Pratchett)
– Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett)
– Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett)
– Lords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)
– The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)
– Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)
– Eric (Terry Pratchett)
– Small Gods (Terry Pratchett)
– Maskerade (Terry Pratchett)
– Interesting Times (Terry Pratchett)
– Gardens of the Moon (Steven Erikson)
– Deadhouse Gates (Steven Erikson)
– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)*
– Life, the Universe, and Everything (Douglas Adams)
– Mostly Harmless (Douglas Adams)
– Lord Foul’s Bane (Stephen R. Donaldson)*
– William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Ian Doescher)
– Allegiance in Exile (Star Trek – The Original Series; David R. George III)
– Space Cadet (Robert Heinlein)
– Star Trek: Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru (Michael A. Martin & Andy Mangels)
– Storm Front (Jim Butcher)
– Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)*
– Vulcan! (Kathleen Sky)
– The Wit and Wisdom of Tyrion Lannister (G.R.R. Martin)
– The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Chronicles: Art and Design (Daniel Falconer)
– The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Official Movie Guide (Jude Fisher)
– The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
– Dragon Prince (Melanie Rawn)
– Enterprise: The First Adventure (Vonda McIntyre)
– Star Trek: Legacy (Michael Jan Friedman)
– Star Trek TNG: Survivors (Jean Lorrah)
– The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
– The Fellowship of the Ring (J.R.R. Tolkien)*


“Classic” Literature: (30)

– The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)
– My Ántonia (Willa Cather)
– The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy)
– A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf)
– Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)
– Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)*
– The Metamorphosis (Kafka)
– The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)
– The Man Who Was Thursday (G.K. Chesterton)
– Beowulf* [Old English]
– Oroonoko (Aphra Behn)
– Svarfdale Saga and Other Tales
– Emma (Jane Austen)*
– Persuasion (Jane Austen)*
– Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky)
– The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)* [Middle English]
– The Saga of the Volsungs*
– Njal’s saga [Old Norse]
– Nitida saga [Old Norse]
– Klári saga [Old Norse]
– The Decameron (Boccaccio) [translation]
– The Teseida (Boccaccio) [translation]
– The Prose Edda (Snorri Sturluson)* [translation]
– The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
– Middlemarch (George Eliot)
– The Song of Roland* [translation]
– The Loeb Classical Library: Cicero [In Catilinam I-IV, Pro Murena, Pro Sulla, Pro Flacco]* [Latin]
– A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
– The Secret Agent (Joseph Conrad)
– Native Son (Richard Wright)


Math & Science: (15)

– The Cosmic Landscape (Leonard Susskind)*
– Quantum Electrodynamics (Richard Feynman)
– Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (Richard Feynman)
– What Do You Care What Other People Think? (Richard Feynman)
– Black Holes and Baby Universes and other essays (Stephen Hawking)
– An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Chris Hadfield)
– Heisenberg’s War (Thomas Powers)
– The Millennium Problems (Keith Devlin)
– A Mathematician’s Lament (Paul Lockhart)
– A Mathematician’s Apology (Hardy)
– Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science (Lawrence M. Krauss)
– Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (Edward Frenkel)
– Introduction to Computation and Programming Using Python (John V. Guttag)
– “Electromagnetic Duality and the Geometric Langlands Program” (Anton Kapustin and Edward Witten)
– “Modular elliptic curves and Fermat’s Last Theorem” (Andrew Wiles)*


Drama: (23)

– Britannicus (Racine) [French]
– Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)*
– Henry IV, part 1 (William Shakespeare)*
– Henry IV, part 2 (William Shakespeare)*
– Much Ado About Nothing (William Shakespeare)*
– Two Noble Kinsmen (William Shakespeare?)
– Double Falsehood (William Shakespeare?)
– Antony and Cleopatra (William Shakespeare)*
– A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (Thomas Middleton)
– A Fair Quarrel (Thomas Middleton / William Rowley)
– The Revenger’s Tragedy (Thomas Middleton)
– The Playboy of the Western World (J.M. Synge)*
– Six Characters in Search of an Author (Luigi Pirandello)
– Mary Stuart (Schiller)
– The Rez Sisters (Tomson Highway)
– Amigo’s Blue Guitar (Jean MacLeod)
– Copenhagen (Michael Frayn)
– A Short History of Night (John Mighton)
– Scientific Americans (John Mighton)
– Possible Worlds (John Mighton)
– Shadows in Little York (Kyle Climans)
– The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First (George Peele)
– Edmund Ironside (anonymous – possibly Shakespeare)


Other fiction: (18)

– The Iron King (Maurice Druon)
– Surveillance (Jonathan Raban)
– The Elusive Pimpernel (Baronness Orczy)
– Sir Percy Leads the Band (Baronness Orczy)
– The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel (Baronness Orczy)
– I Will Repay (Baronness Orczy)
– Illegal Action (Stella Rimington)
– Isaac’s Storm (Erik Larson)
– The Chess Machine (Robert Löhr)
– The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie)
– Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
– Tales from Watership Down (Richard Adams)*
– Field Guide: A Novel (Gwendolyn Cross)
– Letters from Pemberley (Jane Dawkins)
– More Letters from Pemberley (Jane Dawkins)
– Bee (Emily Short)
– The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
– Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Raleigh Legacy (L.B. Greenwood)


Literary Criticism & Theory: (19)

– Course in General Linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure)
– Writing and Difference (Jacques Derrida)
– The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga (Margaret Clunies Ross)
– Bridal-Quest Romance in Medieval Iceland (Marianne E. Kalinke)
– Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens: Women in early English Society (Kathleen Herbert)
– Old Norse Images of Women (Jenny Jochens)
– Women in Old Norse Society (Jenny Jochens)
– Women in Old Norse Literature: Bodies, Words, and Power (Jóhanna Katrín Fridriksdóttir)
– Old Norse Women’s Poetry: the Voices of Female Skalds (Sandra Ballif Straubhaar)
– English Medieval Cometry References Over a Thousand Years (E.G. Mardon, A.A. Mardon, C. Herrick)
– Chaucer’s Constance and Accursed Queens (Margaret Schlauch)
– Communicative Language Teaching Today (Jack C. Richards)
– The Medieval Archer (Jim Bradbury)
– Medieval Warfare (Helen Nicholson)
– The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow (Hugh D. Soar)
– Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England (Nicholas Howe)
– Modern Critical Interpretations: The Knight’s Tale (ed. Harold Bloom)
– Wisdom and Chivalry: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and Medieval Political Theory (Stephen H. Rigby)
– An Introduction to Old Norse (E.V. Gordon)*


Other: (3)

– Canadian Firearms Safety Course Handbook
– Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course Handbook
– The Unencyclopedia (Gideon Haigh)


To Write a Research Proposal (SSHRC)


Or, the elephant in the room: what I’ve really been spending the last three months doing when I’ve been holed up in either my room or the library or UOttawa’s library.


Preparing graduate applications involves pulling together quite a few different pieces, all of which are equally important and necessary … but to borrow shamelessly from George Orwell, some are more equal than others.


For anyone who hasn’t dealt with the grad school admissions process, the list of important pieces looks like this:

1. Transcripts.

2. Letters of recommendation – two or three, depending on the application.

3. CV: teaching experience, research experience, and publications.

4. For schools in the United States: the GRE General test, and the GRE English Literature subject test.

5. A 15-20 page writing sample.

6. The statement of purpose (MA) or research proposal (PhD).


Most of these I don’t have to lose too much sleep over. My transcripts are great, sure, and so are the transcripts of every other applicant. All that’s required here is to remember to order them, and check to make sure they’ve arrived. My recommenders know me and my work well – and I don’t see what they write, so there’s very little point in worrying about it. The only difficulty here is making sure that they get all the information they need: CV, transcripts, the graded copies of the essays I submitted in their classes, forms, and so forth. My CV is, again, respectable, but it’s not likely to make or break my application. Many, many students successfully apply to graduate school without any research or teaching experience whatsoever. My test scores? Well, I wrote the GRE tests halfway through my second year of undergrad, well before starting MA applications, and did sufficiently well that there would be absolutely no point to rewriting them this year. So no headaches on that score!


That leaves arguably the most important entries on the list: the writing sample and the research proposal. For most schools, it would be hard to overemphasize the importance of the writing sample – it’s a graduate program in English, for goodness’s sake, they want to know if you can write. And if you can develop a logical argument and so forth.


But in the case of grant applications, like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)’s doctoral fellowships, an applicant doesn’t submit a writing sample at all – the only sample of the applicant’s writing that the committee will ever see is the two-page research proposal.


In other words, of all the entries on the list, this is the time-consuming one. Which might seem baffling, at first glance. After all, two pages? Single-spaced? That’s only a thousand words!


Well, yes, but in those thousand words you must convince the reader of your own thorough knowledge of all the existing work in your field, establish your credentials to carry out research in this field, describe your proposed thesis, identify how your thesis will extend current knowledge in said field and engage with current questions or debates in the field, discuss your methodology or theoretical approach, demonstrate that you have a clear plan for how you will carry out this research, and make a cogent argument for why this research is so interesting and so necessary that the federal government must provide up to $105,000 worth of funding to support it. It must also, practically speaking, be written in such a way that any moderately intelligent non-specialist reader will understand it, because it could very well be read by committee members who specialize in Chinese history or developmental psychology.


Hence the reason that when I was applying for MA programs, I started work on my statement in April, when it wasn’t due until October.


I didn’t get started quite that early for PhD applications, mostly because I was in Vancouver for most of May and June, but on the other hand I was able to build on the work I’d previously done for the MA applications, so I guess it balanced out alright. My main project, for the last half of the summer, was the literature review: it’s very hard to obtain a thorough knowledge of all the existing work in a field without, well, reading said existing scholarship. Mercifully the University of Ottawa did not cut off my access to their online databases over the summer, which meant I was able to consult articles online without any difficulty, and in early August, I made a special trip to Toronto to get my library card and subsequently to borrow about thirty volumes from Robarts Library. (At last count, I now have just over fifty volumes checked out and piled on my desk.)


… and I’m in a pretty obscure field, as fields go! I shudder to think of what writing a research proposal that had anything to do with Shakespeare would entail.


All that being said, it’s a really useful exercise in terms of focusing a research project – it forces you to clarify ideas, to be concise, and to delve quite deeply into one narrow subsection of a field.


Or, at least for me it has been useful, since my problem with graduate statements has never been that I don’t have ideas for a proposal. My problem has, rather, been that I have far too many ideas, and writing a proposal forces me to pick one, and only one, and focus it down to something that I could reasonably finish in three years. 


At the same time, it’s definitely a relief to remember that I’m not setting the next three-to-five years of my life in stone. I am writing an application, and most students will change topics entirely or even change fields over the course of their graduate career. Obviously I’ve picked a project that I’m very much interested in and would like to pursue further; obviously I’ve chosen something that I could reasonably see myself spending three years or so developing into a thesis. But if I decide in six months’ time that I don’t want to write on anything to do with the Old Norse sagas or Anglo-Saxon poetry, and want to switch to American modernism instead, the world will not come to a crashing halt. (Er, that is definitely not going to happen, but the point is still valid!) This is especially true of MA applications, but it’s also true of PhD applications: you’re being evaluated on your ability to research and write an intelligent proposal. No one, apparently, expects you to follow it to the letter afterwards.


It still has to be written. So I am very, very relieved to say that SSHRC, at least for this year, is over.


(Now I just have to rewrite it and tailor it to each individual school and program that I’m applying to …)

“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”


Toronto International Film Festival. Chess Club. Memorizing paradigms. Carmen. Rapier Wit. Auditions. Physics Colloquium. Robarts. Gerstein. Teaching Fundamentals Certification. HH Chamber Strings. Copyediting. Translation assignments. Archery Club. The Mythgard Institute. Astronomy and Space Exploration Society. SSHRC and PhD applications. Quizbowl.

Free time???

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a Richard Feynman book because it really is a good phrase to describe my first two weeks in Toronto! I’ll get back to books, language, and science shortly, but since I haven’t written anything about Toronto yet and I’ve been doing a lot of exploring, I’m going to hit a few of the highlights:

Free Food

What can I say? Every student organization at this university has concluded that it is impossible to hold an orientation or a welcome without giving out free food. Grad House had a barbeque the night I arrived, the Graduate Student Union hosted a barbeque the next night, and the Graduate English Association has hosted more receptions than I can count. The Graduate English Association also seems to operate on the principle that no meeting is complete without visiting a pub afterwards and distributing free beer. (I say “free” … I am sure it’s included in my student fees somehow.) Grad House also hosts weekly coffee nights, and though 9 pm is much too late for coffee as far as I’m concerned, the cupcakes are delicious.

Grad House

The graduate student residence is lovely – I seem to have won a room on the Floor of Sepulchral Silence. This has a number of distinct advantages, the foremost being that I can study quite contentedly in my room if I don’t feel like walking to one of the libraries or to my individual study carrel in the English building. My suitemates are possibly quieter than me, if such a thing is possible! For violin, piano, vocal, and monologue practices, there is a music room in the basement, which has a well-tuned piano, sound-proof walls, and has been free every time I’ve stopped by. The subway is a very short walk; the bank is across the street; the library is next door; and there’s a grocery store within a block. Also, a ten-minute walk will put me in Chinatown, where there are a couple of fabulous inexpensive bakeries.

And for someone who’s used to getting up at 6:30 am to commute to 8:30 am classes, the five-minute walk to the Jackman Humanities Building is definitely a luxury!

On Stage: Carmen and Rapier Wit

About a month and a half ago, an audition notice went out for dancers and extra performers in a production of Carmen that just finished playing in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre (Opera Lyra). I had to talk myself out of auditioning, and I’m sorry to have missed it, because quite a few of my friends ended up performing! Last Friday, however, I did make it out to the ‘Buddies in Bad Times’ theatre here in Toronto, to see their production of Carmen. There were some stellar performances from the leads, and the most interesting thing about the production, for me, was the director’s choice to set the production in post-WWI New York City, explaining Don José’s erratic and violent behaviour as a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.

My own theatrical endeavours have also begun – I’m doing my next level of stage combat certification with Fight Directors Canada, so Tuesday nights I do two hours of unarmed martial arts followed by two hours of broadsword, and Wednesday nights are two hours of smallsword followed by two hours of rapier and dagger. Rapier and dagger is one of my personal favourites (two blades equals twice as much mental gymnastics equals twice as much fun), but I’m also a big fan of smallsword, because it requires so much precision. Smallsword is also the one weapon where I can keep switching hands – I’ve made a point of learning to be ambidextrous when it comes to stage combat, but whether you’re right- or left-handed doesn’t really matter for broadsword or rapier and dagger, since you automatically use both hands anyways.

About a third of Tuesday’s class was dedicated to obstacle rolls, which was a great refresher – it’s a lovely technique to be able to pull out of your back pocket on set, or on stage, mostly because sporadically dive-rolling over a hospital bed dodging bullets, or picking up a rapier mid-roll, or rolling over a table with a quarterstaff in hand … well, just simply looks awesome. It’s also a technique that I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time practicing over the last few years, because when I was first introduced to unarmed stage combat techniques in Montreal back in 2010, I’d never done an aikido roll in my life – I didn’t even know what one was.

I’ve also had a few auditions , and though I won’t hear anything definite for a few days yet, it was good to dust off some of my monologues from the spring and play with them again.

The Physics Colloquium

The University of Toronto’s physics department has a weekly colloquium on Thursday afternoons, where invited speakers from all over North America give a one-hour talk on some aspect of their current research, followed by a time for questions and discussion. Last week’s presentation was by Jim Sethna, of Cornell University, and concerned the mathematical methods that scientists use to model reactions in systems biology. It was a cool presentation for a number of reasons – one, his research draws on fields that normally don’t talk to each other much (using differential geometry and geodesics and hyper-ribbons to work out problems in cell biology); and two, the mathematical results are beautiful.

He and his team have been looking at a long sequence of protein reactions (it’s not just a single sequence – there are two secondary pathways and a feedback loop thrown in as well, but for simplicity’s sake, it’s a series of reactions that results in the production of a certain amount of a new protein). Theoretically, in order to create a model that would accurately describe the results, they would have to account for forty-eight different independent parametres; when you actually look at the equations, this works out to a system of twenty-nine (non-linear, of course, everything interesting has to be modelled by a non-linear equation!) differential equations. It’s impossible to find these individual parametres with any degree of accuracy – the most accurate ones vary by a factor of fifty, and the least accurate can vary by factors of almost a million.

However, it turns out that certain combinations of parametres affect possible predictions more than other combinations of parametres. One of Professor Sethna’s recent students, Mark Transtrum, worked out a way (which makes perfect mathematical sense, but does require a decent knowledge of differential geometry to understand, so I won’t go into depth here – for details, the department posts recordings of all of their colloquia online*) to figure out which combinations of parametres were “stiff”, and which ones were “sloppy” – in other words, which parametres could be effectively discarded while maintaining a model that fit the experimental data as well as the original model. A conceptually parallel approach, known as renormalization, has been actually used in quantum field theory since the 1940s.

Bottom line is that instead of a system of twenty-nine non-linear differential equations with forty-eight parametres, it becomes a system of six differential equations with twelve parametres (AKA it is, in fact, possible to solve!) and the new model still makes highly accurate predictions about the amounts of the different proteins that are produced.

This week’s colloquium – and yes, it’s definitely in my calendar – is entitled “The Lunar Surface: A Dusty Plasma Laboratory”, and will include an update on the status of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission, which was just launched on September 9th.

The Varsity

I used to copyedit and (very occasionally) write for the University of Ottawa’s student newspaper, The Fulcrum, so over the summer I did a little research on U of T’s journalism scene, and sent off an email to the senior copyeditor of The Varsity, which has been published since 1880 and therefore is apparently the second-oldest student newspaper in Canada. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, therefore, have been spent with pen and highlighter in hand – correcting spelling errors, changing awkward wording, and adding the missing Oxford commas.

I’ll also be writing for the science section in a few upcoming papers – I had already purchased tickets to the inaugural Toronto Science Festival, coming up at the end of the month and featuring a keynote talk by astronaut Julie Payette, so I’ll be covering that, and apparently I’ve also been volun(told) to write a couple of other articles.


I play academic trivia because it’s a great deal of fun, it’s a good way to meet awesome people, and it’s a guaranteed way to learn quirky, interesting, or simply bizarre random facts – not because I’ve ever been exceptionally good at it. However, I thoroughly approve of question packs that allow me to power questions on Tolkien’s obscure works and minor characters in Carmen, and then have bonus questions on both a) founder of structural linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure and b) black holes, event horizons, and the work of Jacob Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking on the “no hair” theorem. (Packs that include both Tolkien and black holes are pretty rare!)

Oh, Yes, Classes …

Lest everyone now think that Jen is spending all her time in Toronto taking in the sights and running around to various extracurriculars without doing any work, I should probably mention that everything I’ve talked about thus far is what I’ve been doing in my, er, free time, and that the majority of the hours of any given day have actually been spent buried in books, translations, and linguistic paradigms.

I have three classes this semester, and the highlight of the entire week was a guest lecture in my Old English course, given by Professor Andy Orchard. Prof. Orchard has taught at the University of Toronto for years, but is leaving to take up the Bosworth and Rawlinson Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford – the post that Tolkien once held, and arguably the single most prestigious position in the field. He’s an excellent lecturer, and it was really quite exciting to meet him in person after having read far more of his books than I should probably admit to.

My other classes are Old Norse (we’re currently translating selections from the Prose Edda), and Critical Topographies, which is common to all English MA students at the University of Toronto and charts developments in literary theory. It’s quite similar to the critical theory course I took as an undergrad, but with about twice as much reading. I have already read about half of the reading on the course syllabus, thanks to previous work, so for those who have accused me of starting to write final essays on the day the assignment is given out … in the case of Critical Topographies, I must confess the accusation to be justified. And in the case of Old English, I have no final essay, but over the last couple of days I’ve finished the weekly translation assignments through until almost the end of October; I can claim no such diligence in Old Norse, though, mostly because I don’t know it nearly as well!

The other major project I have underway is my research proposal for PhD applications – but that’s going to have to be a separate post, because it’s almost midnight.

… and because I’m both a Tolkien nerd and an Old English nerd, I have to close, at least once, with the following:

Wes þú hál!


In Defense of The Silmarillion


I’m used to being the only one in a given conversation who has read the posthumously-published prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and I’m also used to hearing about its flaws from people who loved either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, started The Silmarillion, and then gave up partway through because they couldn’t take it, it was too difficult, there were too many names that started with the letters “Fin,” and it just didn’t read like a novel.

I typically manage to ignore these complaints, because for me, The Silmarillion is only difficult in the way that King Lear or The Iliad is difficult. Yes, unless you have a pretty stellar vocabulary and solid reading skills, both Shakespeare and Homer are complicated. They’re still classics, and the fact that we have to work a little harder to appreciate them doesn’t detract from that. And the complaints were ones that I couldn’t really relate to – when I first read The Silmarillion, I was thirteen and on a quest to read everything that J.R.R. Tolkien ever wrote, and I devoured the book just as I devoured the History of Middle-Earth series, all of Tolkien’s academic essays on obscure philological topics, and his translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.

But within the last few months, I’ve heard similar complaints about The Silmarillion from the most unlikely sources. Independently, two good friends – avid fantasy fans, voracious readers, well-used to enjoying complicated texts à la the Malazan series, one of them has a degree in English and history and is as much of a Lord of the Rings nut as I am – have expressed similar opinions. They couldn’t get through it. Or they did manage it once but it was boring. It was just so different from The Lord of the Rings. 

So, because today is the 40th anniversary of Tolkien’s death, I’m going to attempt to explain why The Silmarillion matters – why it is the heart of Tolkien’s mythology, why it’s impossible to understand the rest of Tolkien’s work without it, and why I think it is one of the most moving and tragically beautiful stories ever written.

(And, yes, why if you set me on a desert island and told me I could only have one book, I’ve always said that I wouldn’t take The Lord of the Rings – I’d take The Silmarillion.)


I’d like to start by going back to the very beginning of Tolkien’s mythology. Although The Hobbit was published in 1937, Tolkien’s work on what would become The Silmarillion started much earlier. The four “Great Tales” – the stories of Beren and Lúthien, of Túrin Turambar, of the Fall of Gondolin, and of Eärendil – were first written in 1917, while Tolkien was recovering from trench fever. Together with some additional framing material composed around the same time, “it is not too much to say that the outline of The Silmarillion was visible by the end of 1917 – or would have been if it had found any readers” (Professor Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth, p. 224).

These stories grew out of Tolkien’s love of invented languages. Most fantasy authors today start with a story and some characters, and then realize that they’d like a cool language to go with it, so they cobble a few words of something together and call it a language. Tolkien’s stories, on the other hand, were created because he had already started by inventing the languages, and then wanted to write about the sort of peoples who might speak them.

Sixty years, (1917 – 1977) elapsed between the earliest versions of Tolkien’s mythology, and the version that we have today. The stories that make up The Silmarillion were, however, the closest to Tolkien’s heart, and certainly of all his fiction the closest relatives to his academic work. The fact that there was a sixty-year delay in publishing them was not for lack of effort.

(When publishers clamoured for a sequel to The Hobbit – which originally had very little relation to the earlier legends, but was drawn into them gradually – Tolkien sent them the poetic version of the romance of Beren and Lúthien, and the prose text of the Silmarillion. Through a complicated mix-up at the publishing house, only the former was ever actually read, and Tolkien was returned a polite letter asking him if he would, please, start work on a sequel to The Hobbit. When he finally finished The Lord of the Rings, he initially insisted that anyone wanting to publish it had to commit to publishing The Silmarillion as well, with it. Several stalling and/or skeptical publishers later, he eventually relented and let them publish The Lord of the Rings on its own.)

But to read The Lord of the Rings without The Silmarillion is to miss much of the depth and power and sheer complexity of The Lord of the Rings itself. There’s a great deal that happens in The Lord of the Rings that only fits together because of the legends behind it – the legends that make up The Silmarillion. In fact, although The Lord of the Rings is usually read as a stand-alone work, it is the one place where Tolkien brings together and resolves all the strands of narrative and story that have played out over the last seven thousand years of Middle-earth’s history.

Case in point: Galadriel.

Tolkien’s elves are not perfect, pristine, all-powerful, all-knowing creatures, no matter how they may seem on screen – in fact, they’re very flawed and very complicated. The angelic Galadriel of Peter Jackson’s films was actually a fiery warrior princess – given the name Nerwen, “man-maiden,” essentially because of her strength and her stubbornness – who wanted her own kingdom to rule, was a leader in the elven rebellion against the Valar, saw her uncle, five brothers, three cousins, and all their children slaughtered fighting a hopeless war, and proudly scorned the Valar’s offer of pardon to the exiled elves at the end of the First Age. Why is that scene in Lothlórien when Frodo offers her the Ring so crucial? Because she is tempted, because the Ring represents the power that she has always dreamed of, the power that she once would have taken for herself without hesitation: “…my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer,” she says. “For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 410). When she rejects that power, the ban keeping her out of Valinor is finally lifted. That is why she can then say “I pass the test … I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel” (p. 411). But until that moment, she has quite literally been exiled from all of her remaining family for the previous seven THOUSAND years of the Second and Third Ages – and none of that can one possibly understand without the background of The Silmarillion.

The stories of Arwen and Aragorn, of Elrond, of Gandalf, of Glorfindel, of Éowyn and the Witch-King, of the Men of the West, of Sauron, of the Ents, of the hostility between Dwarves and the Elves, of the Balrog and even of the stars that Frodo and Sam see from Mordor – all of these are, similarly, inextricably bound up with the earlier legends.

But I’d like to stay with Galadriel for a moment, because both she and Celeborn know very well what it is to stare failure in the face and not bow to it: “… through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (p. 400). She is not just referring to the fading of the Elves at the end of the Third Age: she is referring to the entirety of Elven history, in which the Elves have faced evil that is not in their power to defeat, and have kept fighting regardless. And in that, The Silmarillion shares a very close kinship with the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon legends that Tolkien was in part inspired by.

I’d like to quote part of Tolkien’s own commentary on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, because it applies equally well to The Silmarillion. Speaking of the pre-Christian English mythology, he points out that both the gods and the heroes of Norse mythology are “within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and the outer darkness” (p. 25).

Throughout Beowulf, the reader is continually reminded that any victory is only temporary. Recall that on the Norse side of things, the world ends when the gods and heroes lose at Ragnarök. In Beowulf, every time the hero achieves a great victory, the poet turns around and notes that treachery and destruction will follow eventually. Of the great golden hall of Heorot, that Beowulf defends, the poet writes:

the hall towered,

its gables wide and high and awaiting

a barbarous burning. That doom abided,

but in time it would come: the killer instinct

unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant. (81-85, trans. Seamus Heaney)

Though the Shielding nation is described as “not yet familiar with feud and betrayal” (1018), such feuding is shown to be unavoidable, and the hall is doomed to fall.

Even events that should be (theoretically!) joyful occasions are marked by this omnipresent foreshadowing of doom: at one point in the poem, it is mentioned that the Danes and the Heathobards, two warring peoples, plan to mend their feud and make peace through the marriage of Freawaru (princess of one tribe) to Ingeld (son of the leader of the other tribe). Although they hope that this woman “will heal old wounds / and grievous feuds” (2028-2029), destruction cannot be avoided so easily. Beowulf’s prophecy concerns future events, but he speaks as though they have already happened, emphasizing the futility of fighting against fate: the mood of the spearman “will darken” (2043, emphasis mine) and he will begin to incite violence. This strife is clearly inevitable, which is why Beowulf can speak about these future events as certain and as though they had already happened. Internal strife, feuding between in-laws, is the fatal threat:

“Then on both sides the oath-bound lords

will break the peace, a passionate hate

will build up in Ingeld and love for his bride

will falter in him as the feud rankles.” (2063-2066)

When Beowulf slays the dragon at the end of the poem – and in doing so, saves his people from the immediate threat of a flying fire-breathing creature incinerating them and their homes – the poet ever so cheerfully reminds us that his victory really was pointless. Because Beowulf died in the process of slaying the dragon, he has left his people without a strong leader, and they shall promptly be attacked, raided, and slaughtered by neighbouring tribes.

Within Beowulf, then, death is inevitable. Defeat is inevitable. Victories are only temporary.

In his essay “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien continues: “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’ So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work, even as it did work with the go∂lauss viking, without gods: marital heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” (p. 25-26, emphasis mine).

That potent but terrible solution is the potent but terrible solution behind the entire action of the First Age of Middle-earth.

For those who may not have read The Silmarillion (or who may have given up before finishing the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta and therefore never got to the Quenta Silmarillion proper!), I’ll summarize in brief:

The Elves originally awoke in Middle-earth, under the stars, but the Valar (akin to angels, the guardians of the world) talked them into travelling over the sea to Valinor, ostensibly for their own safety. The Dark Lord, Morgoth (Sauron’s former master), destroyed the two trees of light that provided light in Valinor, and stole the Silmarils, three jewels that were the greatest work of Fëanor, greatest craftsman of the Elves (and ancestor of Celebrimbor, who would later forge the Rings of Power!) Fëanor swears a terrible oath of vengeance and leads a great portion of the Elves out of Valinor, and back to their homeland in Middle-earth, to wage war on Morgoth directly, since the Valar don’t seem to be doing anything useful:

“.. turning to the herald he [Fëanor] cried: ‘Say this to Manwë Súlimo, High King of Arda [= head of the Valar]: if Fëanor cannot overthrow Morgoth, at least he delays not to assail him, and sits not idle in grief. […] Such hurt at the least will I do to the Foe of the Valar that even the mighty in the Ring of Doom shall wonder to hear it. Yea, in the end they shall follow me. Farewell!” (The Silmarillion, p. 91)

The Elves who leave Valinor do so knowing that if they do, they can never return. “[F]rom end to end of the hosts of the Noldor [=Elves] the voice was heard speaking the curse and prophecy which is called the Prophecy of the North and the Doom of the Noldor. Much it foretold in dark words, which the Noldor understood not until the woes indeed after befell them; but all heart the curse that was uttered upon those that would not stay nor seek the doom and pardon of the Valar.

‘Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. […] To evil end shall all things turn that they being well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.” (p.94-95)

The Elves then spend the entirety of the First Age of Middle-earth in exile waging war against Morgoth, who is a fallen Vala and therefore has godlike powers and cannot be killed.

They are fighting a hopeless war, a war in which the only possibility is that they will eventually die without having achieved any sort of lasting victory.

Recall what Galadriel said: “… through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat” (p. 400).

Within Time, the “monsters” will win. But the Elves refuse to bow to tyranny, refuse to cave in or surrender, refuse to back down. They find, in short, “a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.”

It’s a solution that leads to Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor, challenging Morgoth to single combat before the gates of Angband, Morgoth’s fortress.* It’s a solution that leads to Beren and Lúthien sneaking into the very heart of Angband, because her father has decreed that he’ll only approve of the (mortal, human) Beren if the man shows up with a Silmaril from the iron crown of Morgoth himself. It’s a solution that leads to the last stand of Fingon at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and the last stand of Huor, and the twenty-eight-year imprisonment of Húrin while Morgoth tortures him by making him watch every single horrible thing that happens to his family in that time.

And in perhaps the saddest and yet most beautiful story of the entire legendarium, The Fall of Gondolin, the hidden city of Gondolin is betrayed to Morgoth by one of its own people. The story is told in much greater detail in the Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, but I’ll quote from the published Silmarillion here:

“…the red light mounted the hills in the north and not in the east; and there was no stay in the advance of the foe until they were beneath the very walls of Gondolin, and the city was beleaguered without hope. Of the deeds of desperate valour there done, by the chieftains of the noble houses and their warriors, and not least by Tuor, much is told in The Fall of Gondolin: of the battle of Ecthelion of the Fountain with Gothmog Lord of Balrogs in the very square of the King, where each slew the other, and of the defence of the tower of Turgon by the people of his household, until the tower was overthrown; and mighty was its fall and the fall of Turgon in its ruin.” (p. 291)

The city is sacked, the inhabitants are slaughtered, and the few who aren’t only make it out alive after terrible sacrifices. Glorfindel (yes, the same Glorfindel who – later reincarnated a couple ages later – prophesied that no man would defeat the Witch-King, and who met Aragorn and the hobbits on their way to Rivendell) duelled a Balrog to ensure that Idril  and Tuor and Eärendil escaped.

And even then, with their cities in ruins, their lands destroyed, their children and friends and relatives dead – the elves simply don’t give up. Even in the face of complete and utter destruction, they fight on.

That is the tragedy, and the power, and the beauty, and – yes – the terror of The Silmarillion.

Yes, it’s bleak. Yes, it’s difficult. Yes, it’s complicated and most of the chieftains of the Noldor have similar sounding names – but so do the heroes of the Norse sagas, and if you’ve ever had to keep Thorkell, Thorlak, Thorleif, Thormar, Thormod, Thorod, Thorolf, and four different Thorsteins straight, Fingolfin and Finrod don’t look so bad by comparison.

Tolkien wasn’t trying to write a novel when he wrote The Silmarillion – so yes, The Silmarillion doesn’t pretend to follow novelistic conventions. What he was trying to write was a mythology. He knew quite well that readers didn’t always have a taste for that – in a 1956 letter, he noted that he did “not think it would have the appeal of the L.R. – no hobbits! Full of mythology, and elvishness, and all that ‘heigh style’ (as Chaucer might say), which has been so little to the taste of many reviewers” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 238).

The mediation provided by the hobbits – more relatable, perhaps, to the average reader than the heroic characters of the older legends – is entirely absent from The Silmarillion. As Christopher Tolkien writes in his introduction to the Book of Lost Tales, “in ‘The Silmarillion’ the draught is pure and unmixed; and the reader is worlds away from such ‘mediation’”.

Perhaps I’m biased in my love of myths and epics and heroic legends – I’ve always found them fascinating, and clearly fascinating enough to do a grad degree in them. But I think there is something about myths and legends that has fascinated millions of people for thousands of years – because they speak to our hearts and to our imaginations, because they move us, because they inspire us, because they reflect who we are or who we want to be.

And for me the very factors that people object to about The Silmarillion – the heightened style, the lack of mediation, the unmixed draught of mythology as it were, the sheer scope and horror of the tragedy and yet the determination that emerges from that tragedy – are what I love most about it.

So if you’re expecting a second Lord of the Rings – yes, you will be disappointed in The Silmarillion.

But if you’re looking for timeless myths?

Pick it up. Skip the endless list of names in the Valaquenta and start with the Quenta Silmarillion proper if you have to, and keep a finger in the back of the book to refer to the family tree of Fingolfin, Finrod, and the rest if you get confused. They really are distinct characters in their own rights, and if you stick with it, you should have no trouble telling them apart. Don’t expect it to be something it’s not, but appreciate it for everything that it is, and let the stories do the rest of the work.

(Wow, that ended up way longer than I intended. As always, comments / thoughts / arguments / other perspectives are welcome!)

*I won’t comment on this duel here because I’d just end up quoting the passage in its entirety – I can’t possibly do it justice. But together with the Fall of Gondolin, it is burned into my memory for all of time.