Tolkien stated in The Silmarillion that Melkor was the mightiest of the Ainur and surpassed his brethren in many ways. He had a share in everything others knew, but how he chose to apply his unique gifts is a matter for another discussion. While very often Melkor comes across as a pure machinery adept and keen on technology, he had a talent which could make even Fëanor twitch with envy: the First Dark Lord was a gifted linguist.

From The Silmarillion we catch a glimpse of how good Melkor was with words, and possessed a power of persuasion by means of his speeches:

When he saw that many leaned towards him, Melkor would often walk among them, and amid his fair words others were woven, so subtly that many who heard them believed in recollection that they arose from their own thought.

(Silmarillion, p. 69 )

Tolkien speaks more explicitly on this matter in his manuscript Ósanwe-kenta, which was published in Vinyar Tengwar (issue 39, 1998). While the whole work looks mainly into the issue of thought-transmission, a part of it is dedicated to Melkor’s linguistic talent and usages he put it to. It backs the idea put forward in The Silmarillion of how masterful the Ainu was in using Quenya:

«Alas!» says Pengolodh, «in Valinor Melkor used the Quenya with such mastery that all the Eldar were amazed, for his use could not be bettered, scarce equalled even, by the poets and the loremasters».


However, his interest in languages did not end in pure learning and polishing its usage to the state of perfection, and was not an innocent interest at all. Melkor mastered Quenya with ease and could do the same with any language spoken by incarnate beings. He also created the language for those who served him. But being who he was, Melkor twisted this gift and turned it to evil purposes, for he used language as a weapon in mastering those he wanted to make use of.

It needs pointing out here, that among themselves the Ainur could communicate by thought alone and they were not in a dire need of a physical language. They could penetrate other minds but never did so as it was, strictly speaking, illegal if a mind was unwilling to open and be read. No law could stop Melkor, though. When he realised that those who were uncorrupted at heart – and those who he mostly desired to dominate – could feel his intrusion into their minds and shut him out of their thoughts, he took to mastering languages as a tool of reaching his evil purposes. It is made very clear why he chose language as his weapon:

And their language, though it comes from the spirit or mind, operates through and with the body: it is not the sáma* nor its sanwe**, but it may express the sanwe in its mode and
according to its capacity. Upon the body and upon the indweller, therefore, such pressure and such fear may be exerted that the incarnate person may be forced to speak.


Using threats in some cases and subtlety in others, but always based on deceit, treachery and lies, Melkor managed both – to worm secrets out of some reluctant minds and to plant the ideas he felt fit to into others’ so that they did not perceive them as an outside intrusion but rather as their own thoughts. These lies, subtly woven into seemingly fair speeches, sowed the seeds of doubt and unrest among the Noldor which led to their rebellion against the Valar.

Thus Tolkien puts yet another emphasis on how powerful a tool a language can be, and also how dangerous when put to evil uses.


*sáma – mind

**sanwe – a thought; an action of sáma.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Ósanwe-kenta.

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

12 thoughts on “Melkor’s secret vice.

  1. Thank you for this, Olga. I very much like the way you have introduced the Osanwe Kenta here, and Melkor’s ability to use words to sway the minds of the Noldor. You always give me something to think about.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
      It all just struck me as I was reading this incredible manuscript. Ósanwe-kenta is definitely one of my most favourite pieces.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Tom! You always give me a lot to think about. I wonder to what extent Tolkien is revealing something of his own inner life and struggles. It is a principle that he often alludes to that the people of light are aware of the temptation to darkness whereas those who have chosen the dark cannot imagine any other choice but their own. Tolkien, more than most, knew the power of language for good and for ill use.

    1. Oh, thank you for these kind words 🙂
      It’s an interesting idea to ponder. I guess Tolkien’s being aware of the power of language made him so particular about the words he himself used. Hence numerous changes he made even in the tiniest details in his manuscripts – he wanted to be understood properly and they way he’d intended. And, I believe, Tolkien himself experienced the power of words over himself when reading Beowulf, for instance, or merely hearing the sound of Finnish which enchanted him.

      1. I have read that Tolkien could feel the reality of a word and could do so in many languages. It was probably what made him unhappy about the thinness of so much modern literature. Perhaps it also points to the power of his own writing.

      2. What an incredible talent he had! I really can’t stop admiring it. No wonder he created his own languages so carefully, making sure the words reflected their meanings and suited it.

  3. What an amazing insight. I haven’t read this issue of VT and I had no idea Tolkien had written on Melkor’s abilities as a language manipulator–though of course I know that Sauron was himself a (largely unsuccessful) language creator.

    I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the splintering of the Black Speech Sauron invented, and the general splintering and petering out and fracturing of the auxiliary languages which were all the rage in Europe during Tolkien’s youth.

    1. Thank you! 🙂
      That’s an interesting point you’ve got here. It does need some pondering. The Black Speech seems a rather feeble language to me. Falling out of use so quickly after Sauron’s downfall in the Second Age and returning with his arising again hint at a rather dependant existence of the language. It seems like “while the master is not looking, let’s use some other language”. Not a very viable creation.

  4. I have just come back to this and have re-read it in the light of our conversation about Melkor’s inability to create in the way that Aule does (although only with the permission of Illuvatar.) His ability with language also seems to belong to the period before he withdraws to his fortress of Angband. I agree entirely with you that as his soul grows darker so he is increasingly left with only his massive power to rely upon. I am grateful to you for this insight, that reliance upon power is the consequence of and leads to a shrinking of the soul. If only we understood this but I fear that there are those who think that the soul is of little value in comparison to gaining power over others.

    1. I believe you’re right here in saying that his language skill is essentially pre-return to Angband. His lust for power ruined him and all of his great skills. Melkor’s spirit reduced to naught and the bodily prevailed over the spiritual.

  5. As Tolkien lived through the early half of the 20th century when Nazism was rearing it’s ugly head, he was probably very much aware of how people like Hitler were able to sway people into beleiving, agreeing with and carrying out atrocious acts by making them believe that it was for the greater good. Watch the film about Sophie Scholl and what happened to her and her friends. He even wrote a letter to a German publisher rebuffing them for assuming that he was in agreement with the Nazi regime. It’s clearly a warning to how your way of thinking, the ideas you have, what you believe, how you act and how your morals can be twisted and misused.

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