Minds@Work: Vickie Holtz-Wodzak presenting Rhetoric vs. Witness: Tolkien's Response to the Language of Conflict

In The Silmarillion, Feanor is “a master of words, and his tongue had great power over hearts when he would use it.” His words bring the Noldor to grief and inspire his sons to destructive oath-taking. Saruman is similarly a master of language, and “those who listened unwarily to that voice…all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves.” Even Gandalf comes close to abusing the power of language when he enables Bilbo to relinquish the Ring to Frodo. These examples, and others, suggest a wariness on Tolkien’s part of the power of language that is exerted to persuade. Given the historical backdrop of the propaganda efforts of two world wars, such wariness seems wise. So, what is the proper response of the writer to such abuse of language? Carolyn Forche describes what she terms "the poetry of witness," saying "the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation. When we read the poem as witness, we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us." Similarly, Wilfred Owen, in the preface to his posthumously published collection of poems writes, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. . . . All a poet can do today is warn." I argue that Tolkien's work demonstrates the dangers of persuasive language and exemplifies Forche's poetry of witness. It functions, like Owen's work, to both invoke pity and offer sober warning.


  • Brophy Center room 122
  • Thursday, Feb. 25, 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm