J. R. R. Tolkien has successfully bestowed multiple aspects to his legendarium; works like J. R. R. Tolkien – Artist and Illustrator have allowed us to discover an intimate side of his artistic personality, as a painter of Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s conception of Faërie – the Elvish realm of creative imagination – is very strongly related to the process through which he embodied his universe. In a way, considering how he regarded himself the relation between primary imagination, Dream, and the realization of that Dream, we can say that the art of Tolkien aimed at a true Elvish craft: creating a desirable secondary world into which the mind can enter, as he puts it in his famous essay On Fairy Stories.
Once it is understood that the heart, the intimate flame of such a personal art is eminently philological
, his wanting to enhance the faëric enchantment by featuring it in writing systems appears as a very natural development. As he was wont to, Tolkien the enchanter during his lifetime just “sprinkled” his fairy tale with that graphic linguistic spice, using it at well-chosen moments to enhance its magic. The appendices to The Lord of the Rings
make us glimpse of a far wider field of realization than the magical samples of the gates of Moria
, the One Ring inscription
or the runes on Balin’s tomb
. The posthumous publication of more intimate works by Christopher Tolkien
, his third son and literary executor, have revealed that particular aspect of his art still further.
Therefore a website aiming at introducing and giving the desire to taste Tolkien’s invented languages would not have been fully complete, in our feeling, without enabling to draw out the linguistic experience by accessing those writings. That implies taking up a number of challenges, but also meeting some technical pre-requisites that would not have been fulfilled only a few years ago.
The first pre-requisite is of course the existence of computer fonts able to represent Tolkien’s invented writings. Although some forms of writing such as the cirth are inspired by real world systems like the Germanic runes, others like the tengwar or the sarati are entirely fictional. For many years now, several enthusiasts have made possible to use on computers the writings of Tolkien’s legendarium by their work of analysis, compilation and design, in particular Måns Björkman Berg, Dan Smith, Johan Winge and Enrique Mombello. May they be warmly thanked for that long-term endeavour!
However, the existence of these fonts does not warrant an easy web usage. For many years, the support of web browsers for web fonts remained quite limited. Current web technologies now allow an easy, clear, simple and dynamic experience to the user. Nevertheless, Tolkienian writings set up additional challenges. Computer technologies have evolved in the first place with the Latin alphabet as basic character set, and left to right as reference writing direction; and while the specifics of the major languages written in the Latin alphabet were soon taken into account, it required a lot of time for the support of other writing systems gradually to appear, of other character sets and above all of other writing mechanisms. The handling of ligatures between characters and of diacritics, in particular, is a major issue for many systems in our world, as well as for Tolkienian systems.
The OpenType format specifications precisely allow to enlarge the feature range of fonts that are already available to us. For the tengwar, the existing fonts provide a system for handling diacritics based on a “trick” allowing until now both to avoid using OpenType and/or defining within the font all possible combinations between basic glyphs and diacritics. But the sarati are a far more complex matter: on the one hand, the amount of possible combinations is astronomical, on the other hand, diacritics may combine themselves together depending on the context. To solve this specific problem, we forked from Måns Björkman Berg’s font Sarati Eldamar and modified it to add the OpenType GPOS tables and anchors required for handling diacritics. We found the result really convincing and think it a good proof of concept for the evolution of Tolkienian fonts, to which a more general use of those OpenType features would be of benefit – this includes tengwar fonts.
The fonts used by Glǽmscribe
have undergone many other modifications to add more features and a better web compatibility. These fonts, as well as the history of these changes, are available on the github repository of Glǽmscribe
The other major issue is the transcription itself. A font cannot “understand” by itself how to convert a text in Elvish (or any other Tolkienian language) written in a Latin alphabet into a sequence of corresponding symbols in a Tolkienian writing system (tengwar or any other). Historically, Dan Smith’s tengwar fonts were designed around a keyboard-based character entry system relying upon a parallelism between the layout of a qwerty keyboard and the tengwar phonetic table given by Tolkien in the Appendix E of the Lord of the Rings. This makes entering tengwar easier, but does not relieve us from knowing the writing system itself. This difficulty of transcribing texts written in the Latin alphabet into Tolkienian writing systems determined the apparition of technical solutions under the form of transcribers, the most famous and oldest being TengScribe by Måns Björkman Berg.
In the case of Glǽmscrafu
, that kind of tool proves essential, because typing texts by hand would be too tedious and prone to errors. No existing transcriber however allowed us to work with cirth
, nor provided us with the degree of accuracy that we needed. Therefore we developed our own transcriber
in Ruby, enabling to handle all kind of writings and all transcription modes of the languages displayed on the website. Today we present the result of this lengthy work, namely: Glǽmscribe
For the making of this transcriber, we relied a lot on Måns Björkman Berg
’s website, Amanyë Tenceli
, an invaluable source of knowledge on Tolkien’s writing systems.
Thanks to Måns for all that work we could enjoy during this project!