Posted by dogtrax on June 1, 2007
Peter has sent forth this interesting examination of the world of Tolkien and how words and story have shaped his own experience. It brought back many memories for me, too, as I remember sitting as a very young teen, snuggled on my bed with Lord of the Rings, for hours on end. I await the day I can really begin to move back into the books with my sons (that day is coming soon, I can tell, and The Hobbit was great success).
Do you know what Oliphaunt is? Let Peter tell you:
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“O” is for Oliphaunt.
The first mention of oliphaunt elicits a riddle in poetic form:
Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.
With horns in my mouth
I walk in the South,
Flapping big ears.
Beyond count of years
The person who recites the riddle is Samwise Gamgee, a devoted, honest, working-class hobbit in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The verse comes to mind when the possibility arises of actually seeing an oliphaunt, a creature from the cryptozoology of middle earth. Sam’s child-like wonder at encountering the mystical creature, his open and artless approach to new experiences, always reminds me of the wonder I experienced when first I cracked Tolkien’s opus in 1973, when I was a fourth-grader.
Reading The Lord of the Rings became an annual ritual for me all the way through the 1990s; I still read it once every year or two. For the longest time, it was my Christmas vacation treat; I would anticipate the opportunity of having the free time to luxuriate in the world created by Professor Tolkien’s words. But occasionally, I would begin to read at odd times of the year, often because I wanted to relive the terrifying darkness of traveling through the deserted Mines of Moria. Even had I made a conscious attempt to leave behind Middle Earth, I doubt I could have found success. I had been–to borrow a term author Neil Gaiman uses to describe his own fascination with the fantastic–infected. Infected by the idea that an author’s words can change the ways that I think, the ways that I believe, the ways that I behave.
“Oliphaunt” is what’s known as a “nonce word,” a word that is not part of any existing language yet is easily recognizable by virtue of its phonic or semantic similarities to actual words. Cultural theorist Pierre Macherey once said that literary texts operate ideologically through a mechanism similar to the nonce word. Texts create fictional realities that bear enough semblance to our own reality, how ever far separated the two may be, that as readers we filter our interpretations of the real world through the fictions we consume.
When I read Tolkien’s work as a child, I mostly wanted the adventure. Frodo, the hobbit protagonist, seemed like the most interesting character since all of the action revolved around his possession of the magical One Ring. But as an adult, my attention has been drawn more to Aragorn, a human who, in the face of a desperately uncertain future, struggles to attain a destiny shaped by his heritage, fortitude, and personal desires. Collectively, the book’s reality and the characters who inhabit it have worked ideologically to shape my own understanding of the reality I inhabit.
“Oliphaunt” may simply be a nonce word standing in for our own tusked and trunked pachyderms, but we should remember that it is also a touchstone identifying ideological connections between fiction and reality.
“O” is for Oliphaunt.