To illustrate a point you can relate an anecdote (it happened to me) or quote from a source (it happened to others, elsewhere, possibly in a book)—that’s called using testimony as a form of argument. But what if you need something tailor-made for the occasion of your argument? Well, then you fire-up your imagination and your Singer model 2.E (E for English) and fabricate your own testimony.
Yes, you call upon a fictional person, or indeed, you personify whomever you need—that’s the rhetorical figure of prosopopoeia.
As I hinted in my previous post on Tolkien’s fox, prosopopoeia isn’t limited to fictional characters, on the contrary, it can come to your aid in everyday conversation (If he were here he’d tell you [insert convenient pseudo-quote]), and even more so in carefully-crafted arguments.
Before he became the celebrated author behind the modern Lord of the Rings franchise, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was a philologist with a penchant for developing imaginary languages. Indeed, he says in his 1951 letter to Milton Waldman how “I have been at it since I could write” and how “behind my stories is now a nexus of languages”. That storytelling, nay, world-building can spring from such a low-level linguistic basis—language first, world later—fascinates me.
But perhaps it shouldn’t: in a lot of ways it’s one of the most logical places to start if you want a complex world which is self-consistent and complete. Because, ultimately, world-building is about cohesion on a grand scale.
In general, every unit of writing—phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, essay, poem—is supposed to be cohesive. Spacial proximity, sequential reading, and mere grammatical coherency of language do half of the job, but the rest is up to the author: sentence-to-sentence transitions, paragraph-to-paragraph ties, and overall unity of theme and purpose. It also has to make sense.
Now try inventing hundreds of names for things in a new world and agreeing on their meanings and implications. Each name brings along a network of associations (nation, history, mythology, famous people, orthographic resemblances) that need to slot in together in the reader’s mind. When writing about the real world, all that work has already been done for you, the language of your environment is in place. So Tolkien started from the very beginning in his efforts: he made a linguistic basis for his world and this ensured, as he said, “a certain character (a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity) to the nomenclature.”
Naturally, I was curious to dig deeper to find how he built up his language(s). He was a linguist, an expert, but the process, the starting point, it could be knowable to the rest of us too.
Now I’ll sensibly skip the details of my meanderings through secondary-literature—they but scrape the surface—and attend to one of Tolkien’s sources of inspiration, Old English, and in particular, the epic poem Beowulf, which is an important piece of Old English poetry from around 1000 AD.
In 1936, Tolkien gave a speech to the British Academy titled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, in which he (gently, knowingly) criticised the critics who called Beowulf an important poem, but then went on to study it as piece of history, disregarding most of its poetic qualities (poesis).
But the fairy godmother later invited to superintend [Beowulf’s] fortunes was History. And she brought with her Philologia, Mythologia, Archaeologia, and Laographia. Excellent ladies. But where was the child’s name-sake? Poesis was usually forgotten; occasionally admitted by a side-door; sometimes dismissed upon the door-step. ‘The Beowulf’, they said, ‘is hardly an affair of yours, and not in any case a protégé that you could be proud of. It is an historical document. Only as such does it interest the superior culture of today.’ And it is as an historical document that it has mainly been examined and dissected.
Note the quotation marks and the they said. Who? The excellent ladies who are the (metonymic) embodiments of History, Philology etc. Can they speak? Have they ever spoken? Well no, his citation is a fiction, and his audience is under no illusion. Tolkien even called his little exercise in prosopopoeia an allegory.
When he comes to summarising what the critics before him said, he resorts again to the trick of quoting (testimony) personified voices (prosopopoeia).
‘Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; … it is the confused product of a committee of muddleheaded and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons (this is a Gallic voice); … it is a wild folk-tale (general chorus); it is a poem of an aristocratic and country tradition (same voices); … It is a national epic; it is a translation from the Danish; it was imported by Frisian traders; it is a burden to English syllabuses’ and (final universal chorus of all voices) is it worth studying.’
Both the allegory and summary have been imbued with life: the former through making areas of study into ladies, the latter by attributing opinions to voices. This allowed Tolkien to insulate the meaning of his words (criticism) from the immediate experience of hearing them by inserting a mildly humorous, human sensibility in between. (Which allegory has been doing for millennia.)
If my route from Tolkien’s fox to prosopopoeia took six-hundred words, the return journey takes six.
Allegory meets Tolkien’s fox, via Aesop.
- Tolkien’s Fox, QQ.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien.
- The Monsters and the Critics, J. R. R. Tolkien.