A critical edition of “A Secret Vice”—Tolkien’s insightful essay on language invention—has been published by HarperCollins.
“A Secret Vice” is the title of a lecture by Tolkien on the subject of constructed languages and world-building. Together with “On Fairy-Stories”, it is one of the most important insights into Tolkien’s sub-creative methodology.
First delivered in November 1931 to a literary society at Pembroke College, Oxford, it underwent subsequent revision and was eventually published by his son in The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays in 1983.
Edited by Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins, A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages prints the original essay alongside previously unpublished drafts and notes, together with a substantial introduction on Tolkien’s linguistic invention and editorial notes throughout.
It also see the publication of “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism”—in which Tolkien ponders the idea that the sounds of words may fit their meanings—for the first time.
In the days leading up to its publication, the editors have been teasing us with sneak peaks from the book. See 18 reasons to read “A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages”.
Dimitra Fimi has also written an article on The Conversation to mark the publication. See How to invent a Tolkien-style language.
A Secret Vice has a RRP of £16.99 and is available in bookshops in the UK now.
First ever critical study of Tolkien’s little-known essay, which reveals how language invention shaped the creation of Middle-earth and beyond, to George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s linguistic invention was a fundamental part of his artistic output, to the extent that later on in life he attributed the existence of his mythology to the desire to give his languages a home and peoples to speak them. As Tolkien puts it in ‘A Secret Vice’, ‘the making of language and mythology are related functions’’.
In the 1930s, Tolkien composed and delivered two lectures, in which he explored these two key elements of his sub-creative methodology. The second of these, the seminal Andrew Lang Lecture for 1938–9, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, which he delivered at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is well known. But many years before, in 1931, Tolkien gave a talk to a literary society entitled ‘A Hobby for the Home’, where he unveiled for the first time to a listening public the art that he had both himself encountered and been involved with since his earliest childhood: ‘the construction of imaginary languages in full or outline for amusement’.
This talk would be edited by Christopher Tolkien for inclusion as ‘A Secret Vice’ in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays and serves as the principal exposition of Tolkien’s art of inventing languages. This new critical edition, which includes previously unpublished notes and drafts by Tolkien connected with the essay, including his ‘Essay on Phonetic Symbolism’, goes some way towards re-opening the debate on the importance of linguistic invention in Tolkien’s mythology and the role of imaginary languages in fantasy literature.
John Garth, ‘Teach yourself Dwarvish: behind Tolkien’s invented languages‘, New Statesman (15 April 2016)
Daniel is an Officer without Portfolio and Trustee of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2014, he is mainly responsible for the Society’s digital operations, including this website.