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.
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.
8 responses to “Tolkien’s “cellar door””
Fascinating, Anna! Thank you for doing all that research.
I remember singing the “cellar door” song as a child. My mother taught it to me. The cellar door in question would be outside the house, a sloped hatch near the ground opening into a root cellar where fresh vegetables could be kept cool, or people could hide out from tornados :
Playmate, come out and play with me.
Come bring your dollies three,
climb up my apple tree,
slide down my rain barrel
onto my cellar door,
and we’ll be jolly friends forever more.
Thanks, Kris. I also remember the song, at least the first stanza that you cite, which we sang as a clapping rhyme when I was a kid. But I can’t remember the two lines about the rain barrel and cellar door! Though I’m sure we used to sing the last line about being jolly friends. So it could be that my senior memory just doesn’t recall the two middle lines, or it could be that we didn’t sing them — after all, I don’t remember ever seeing a rain barrel or cellar door in the Montreal city neighborhoods I grew up in! My only image of a cellar door came from The Wizard of Oz.
Sorry if I already posted this – WordPress login is giving me trouble.
Reading John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit I noticed that the original washing up song of the dwarves has ‘splash the wine on the cellar door’ (later changed to ‘every door’).
But what really motivated me to comment was the idea of making a proper name out of ‘cellar door.’ I had never heard of this before but as soon as I read it I thought of Ursula LeGuin’s Selidor – ‘As long ago as forever and as far away as Selidor…’
Hi Simon, When I started this post I thought it would be a simple reference to Tolkien’s essay “English and Welsh,” but the web of connections just keeps growing! Thanks for this information!
Check the word “Selidor” uses by Ursula K. Leguin in her book “The other wind”. Sounds verte similar
When I hear “cellar door” I immediately think of the french “Je t’adore”, I wonder if this it not what subconsciously takes place when someone hears “cellar door” – and the meaning of “Je t’adore” is inherently pleasant.
I agree that “Je t’adore” has a similar and pleasant sound, but that only works if you know French or think in French. Tolkien did not favour the French language generally.
[…] In the film, this remark is brought to life in an interesting way. Tolkien and Edith are at tea in a rather swanky place and she challenges him to tell her a story, using “selladaw”. He takes up the challenge, groping for meaning, and quickly changes her suggestion—that it’s a person—to it being a place name. Here’s the LINK to a clip: https://annasmol.net/2019/04/13/tolkiens-cellar-door/ […]