The LOTR Movie Site
October 16, 2000

Feanor, Greatness, Language Evolution

Mark, you are a good writer and an intelligent guy, and I appreciate you taking the time to argue this question. It is good to know someone cares and pays attention to language, which was Tolkien’s pride and joy! But (you knew there was a “but” coming!) I have to take issue once again. And I don’t further this argument simply for the good of my ego. I truly believe keeping morality out of the “greatness” definition not only helps someone decipher and enjoy Tolkien’s writing, but also can do some good in more mainstream activities, such as absorbing history lessons.

You make the point that language evolves and dictionaries cannot be trusted, even recent editions. However, the multiple-meaning examples you give are in my dictionary, and in most dictionaries, including older editions. I think you are using words with several definitions to back your point in a way that does not quite wash. Yes, “intercourse” means discussion as well as physical sex. And “blue” is a color as well as a feeling. Etc. More to the topic, look at the word “great”. It has a plethora of meanings. Large in size. Aristocratic. Principal, eminent, skilled, powerful (i.e: the ones I have mentioned in previous posts). And a generalized term of approval, as when a surfer says he or she caught a great wave, for example. These are all in dictionaries, which are revised to meet the evolution of language you mentioned. In fact, the writers of dictionaries go to pained ends to keep up with ever-changing definitions! That is why there are so many new editions printed. Dictionaries are accurate barometers for the English language as it is presently constituted, and I will mention again that no dictionary I can find mentions morality as part of any of the several meanings for “great” or “greatness”. If you wish to create a meaning which works better for you personally, that is fine. But make no mistake, the ones found in dictionaries will more accurately reflect social changes. In other words, your definition of “greatness” is indeed defensible, but not by saying it is more on the pulse of language evolution.

Just as a clarification, Melkor was the greatest being in Ea. Iluvatar did not reside in Ea, so he would not outrank Melkor in that realm. On the other hand, Iluvatar obviously was the greatest being in all of Tolkien’s universe, which would include Ea. And hopefully my initial point has not been lost in all of this, lest anyone think I was saying Feanor was the greatest being period. He was the greatest non-Ainu, or Child of Iluvatar. It is important to include the category, if you want to make an hierarchy, which brings me to my last point...

My side of the argument is not nullified by the celebrities you mentioned, nor do they make dictionary definitions of “great” stand on their head. No one would claim that they are “great sentient beings”, or great politicians, or great world leaders, or any such thing. If someone did, he or she would be a great knucklehead. It IS valid, however, to say that they are great entertainers, as they have incredible influence in the entertainment industry. Again, it is important to clarify the type of person we are talking about, or we will be using the word “great” incorrectly, as you suggest.