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One of the recent clips from the upcoming biopic Tolkien (in limited release in May), features Edith encouraging Tolkien to tell her a story about “cellar door.”  I was pleased to see that the filmmakers had obviously done some research in their use of this phrase, which can be traced to one of Tolkien’s essays. I’ve been asked a couple of times about this choice of words in the trailer, so I wanted to identify here the source in Tolkien’s work. In doing some reading about the term, however, I discovered something new (to me, that is) — which is that the use of “cellar door” is not Tolkien’s own invention.

Tolkien does talk about “cellar door” in his essay, “English and Welsh,” which he delivered as the 1955 O’Donnell Lecture in Oxford. In the lecture, Tolkien discusses our “inherent linguistic predilections” (p. 190), explaining that he personally found the sound of Welsh very pleasurable and that everyone has a preference for certain sounds dissociated from the meanings of words. He writes:

Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.  Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent….” 

“English and Welsh,” p. 191

I haven’t seen the entire film yet, as some lucky conference-goers already have (see reviews by Chris Vaccaro and Dawn Walls-Thumma /Dawn Felagund), but just in looking at the brief clip below, I think that the filmmakers are trying to convey how Tolkien’s imagination, to echo Lewis’s phrase, goes “inside language,” feeling the beauty of the words and imagining something beyond them. He extracts the beginnings of a story, eschewing the more conventional and ready-made fairy-tale elements, which is what Edith seems to be suggesting. (Those who have already seen the movie, feel free to correct me!).

I think that the task of showing externally how someone is working internally with language in an imaginative way is a difficult prospect in the film medium, and I’m eager to see how the rest of the movie handles Tolkien’s creative inner life.

To my surprise, though, I’ve discovered that “cellar door” is not just Tolkien’s way of describing his phonetic aesthetic.  Apparently, the phrase was first used in a popular English song in 1894: “Shout down my rain barrel,/ Slide down my cellar door, /And we’ll be jolly friends forevermore” (see Geoff Nunberg, who points out how “slide down my cellar door became a catchphrase for innocent childhood play). In 1903 Cyrus Lauron Hooper, in his novel Gee-boy, considers the sound appeal of “cellar door.” You can read the entire novel at the Internet Archive , with the relevant passage here (pages 43-44 in the novel) , which I’ll copy:

He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

(Gee-boy, pp. 43-44)

Several years after Tolkien used the words in his 1955 lecture, C.S. Lewis wrote about their sound in a 1963 letter: “I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing cellar door as Selladore one produces an enchanting proper name.” Tolkien repeats this same idea in a 1966 interview, quoted in Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book on the Inklings:

Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me—‘cellar door,’ say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador,’ and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”

(quoted on p. 25)

But neither Tolkien nor Lewis was the only writer to say that “cellar door” sounded beautiful after Hooper introduced the idea in Gee-boy. Grant Barrett in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article listed a number of other writers both before and after Tolkien who refer to “cellar door.” Shortly afterwards, linguist Geoff Nunberg examined how and why “cellar door” might have been seen repeatedly in this light, concluding that it allowed aesthetes to prove that they could see beauty in ordinary things; furthermore, he believes that the attraction can be attributed to what English speakers might consider sounds from romanticized, “warm-blooded” or musical languages.

In other words, Tolkien’s use of “cellar door” is part of a tradition, one could say, a previously established way of alluding to the appeal of the sounds of words without reference to their meanings. I can’t wait to experience fully what the Tolkien movie does with the idea.

Works Cited

Barrett, Grant. “Cellar Door.” The New York Times Magazine. Feb. 11, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Hooper, Cyrus Lauron. Gee-boy. New York and London: John Lane, 1903. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/geeboy00hoopgoog/page/n6

Nunberg, Geoff. “The Romantic Side of Familiar Words.”  Language Log. Feb 26, 2010. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2142

Nunberg, Geoff. “Slide down my cellar door.” Language Log. March 16, 2014. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=11136

Tolkien, J.R.R. “English and Welsh.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 162-97.

Zaleski, Philip and Carol Zaleski. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2015.