Glossary: Terms and Definitions
The following is a short ‘dictionary’ of terms, sometimes coined by the author, and frequently used by Tolkien in his writings, together with reference information on where in his works the terms appear and how they are used.
- What is Anglo-Saxon? What is Old English?
In Leeds then in Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien taught "Anglo-Saxon", that is the (Germanic) language of the Anglo-Saxon peoples and their descendants between the 5th century and the 12th century - and the literature written in that language, also called Old-English. The "Anglo-Saxon" period of British history was ended with the Norman conquest, in 1066.
- What is a cradle tongue?
- What does "eucatastrophe" mean?
The “good catastrophe”, the event that marks the dénouement of a fairy tale.
A word of Tolkien’s coining built on catastrophe (Greek kata “down”and “strophe “to turn’), the downturn of fortune in Greek tragedy that leads to the protagonist’s fall. Adding Greek eu “good” as a prefix, Tolkien reverses the meaning (and the direction) so that the “turn” leads upward to the happy ending.
See “On Fairy-stories”, The Lord of the Rings.
- What is "Faërie" in J.R.R Tolkien's work?
An archaic name for both Fairyland and the magic it produces. Found in medieval English poetry. Tolkien used it to mean both the Otherworld a parallel reality tangential in time and space to the ordinary world — and the altered mental or psychological state brought about by enchantment, especially the use of words to create. In his short story, Smith of Wootton Major, Faërie is the magical place/state to which the protagonist, Smith, journeys out of time and space and from which he returns reluctantly to the “real” world. An example in The Lord of the Rings would be Lórien.
See “On Fairy-stories”, Smith of Wootton Major
- Can we define "fantasy"?
Unreality, images of strangeness and wonder unlike observed reality (see Faërie).
One of the chief requirements for fairy-story. As Tolkien knew, the word fantasy comes from Greek phantazein (“to make visible”), and thus suggests the power, especially the power of words, to create in the imagination things not present in the Primary World.
See “On Fairy-stories”.
- What does "Legendarium" mean?
Tolkien’s term for his entire corpus of stories and poems of Middle-earth. It is a variant of “legendary” in its older sense of “collection of legends”. The suffix -arium, Latin “place of, housing for”, (cp. planetarium) converts legend from a singular noun to a collective plural, a “housing” of legends. Tolkien may have used the word to distinguish his fictive mythology from primary,“ real world” mythologies.
- What does "Middle-earth" mean?
An archaic word-compound meaning, “The lands inhabited by humankind, amidst the seas”. From Middle English Middel-erde, related to Old English Middangeard, Old Norse Midgard. The second elements O.E. geard and O.N. gard carry also the sense of enclosure or defense—“guard/yard”—that suggests a view of human dwelling as besieged by hostile external forces. The often-used but erroneous media form “Middle Earth” was not Tolkien’s preferred usage.
See The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The History of Middle-earth, Letters
- What is a mythology?
A more or less coherent body of stories in prose and verse comprising the history and beliefs of a culture or community. In an often-quoted letter, Tolkien declared his ambition to create a mythology he could dedicate “to England”. When referring to his own mythic fiction, Tolkien frequently substituted the term legendarium, perhaps to distinguish his fiction from a “true” or Primary World mythology.
See Letters, “On Fairy-stories”, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”
- What does "mythopoeic" mean?
The adjective mythopoeic literally means "myth-creating" (from the Greek poiein). The author himself used it for the title of his poem "Mythopoeia", published in the anthology Tree and Leaf (see our article on J.R.R. Tolkien's poetry). The word is thus used to refer to the act of creating myths, in J.R.R. Tolkien's work and elsewhere.
- What is "philology"?
Philology, ou the "love of learning" and of language, generally refers to the linguistic, historical, critical, study of languages and texts.
More specifically, when J.R.R. Tolkien was a Professor in Leeds and Oxford, and presented himself as a philologist, the term would refer to a scholar specialized in the study of languages, of their relationships and their historical developments.
- What is a "native language"?
An individual’s “inherent linguistic predilection”, taking native literally as meaning “born to”. The inherited as opposed to theenvironmentally learned language. Recall that Tolkien found Anglo-Saxon “recognizable “as a familiar tongue when he first encountered it.
Contrast “Cradle-tongue” above.
See Letters, “English and Welsh”, “The Notion Club Papers”.
- What is the "Primary World" according to Tolkien?
The world of everyday “reality”; our world as perceived by and reflected in ordinary, daily language.
See “On Fairy-stories”
- What was a "romance" originally?
A "romance" was originally (circa 1300) a story, written or recited, describing the adventures of a knight or a hero, and one would expect containing marvellous deeds and adventures. It is in this sense that J.R.R. Tolkien used the word, and that we use it in the website.
The later meaning of "love story" developed in the late 17th century, and the use of the word to define a love-affair only first dated in 1916!
- What does "Secondary Belief" mean?
Also called by Tolkien “enchantment.” The state produced by the suspension of disbelief or skepticism in the face of the marvelous or supernatural.
See “On Fairy-stories”
- What is the "Secondary World"?
Faërie, an otherworld envisioned in imagination, created in the receiving mind by words.
- What does "sub-creation" mean?
The arrangement of words and/or images in unfamiliar combinations to produce new form, a Secondary World. The Primary World is the original creation direct from the Prime Creator, God.
See “On Fairy-stories”
- What does "sub-creator" mean?
One who "creates" in imitation of Creation, using existing materials and patterns such as words or paint or clay (i.e. dependent on and subordinate to God the Creator). Humankind, creating in and by God’s example.
See “On Fairy-stories”, The Silmarillion, The History of Middle-earth