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I've noticed that sometimes Tolkien uses the older version "is come" (i.e. replacing the auxiliary verb "to have" with the auxiliary verb "to be", as was the custom for the verb "to come" in older English), while sometimes he uses the more modern "has come".

Sometimes in the very same work, and rather near one another, he uses both forms. In both cases, I am not talking about characters speaking, but the narrator himself.

When does he choose each form of the verb? Does this signify anything?

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    Can you give examples? Is this strictly in the text itself, or is it a form that certain characters use?
    – DavidW
    Jul 17, 2021 at 21:16
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    Well, I did the research, typed up an answer and accidentally deleted the whole thing before posting. Not doing it again, it is an interesting point though and "is come" centers around formality by and when addressing Aragorn and Denethor (and some Entish poetry at one point) also heightened emotional situations - "Ai, ai -a Balrog is come" by legolas. "Has come" sometimes is used about Aragorn, but never in his presence, and always by non-royal characters. Sorry it's not an answer, I'm not risking deleting it again. Jul 17, 2021 at 22:04
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    This might be a better fit for ELU.
    – Spencer
    Jul 18, 2021 at 0:51
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    “Is come” appears 11 times and “has come” appears 28 times. Beyond the raw numbers, I don’t see any grammatical pattern differentiating the two in Tolkien’s text. Web searches suggest “is come” is the archaic form of “has come”, which doesn’t explain why Tolkien used them in the same work. It’s unlikely to be a mistake given his excellent knowledge of English. Perhaps some characters speak one way and others another, but I didn’t see that pattern in the search results either. I agree with Spencer that perhaps this will get a better answer at ELU, and the question itself is not about fantasy. Jul 18, 2021 at 4:53
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    @spencer Thsi is not relevant for ELU since I know what the difference is in terms of English - this is simply the older form. The question is why Tolkien is switching around between them. This is more or less like the question why he capitalizes certain words; it's not a question about English, it's a question about his work.
    – Wade
    Jul 18, 2021 at 7:00

1 Answer 1

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English grammar 401.

The verb be plus an intransitive verb such as one of motion like come or arrive or go indicates the state in which the subject of the verb to be is currently in. So if he wrote "the king is come", that means that we're to understand the emphasis is upon the present location of the kind being among us -- he is here. Nothing is implied about the king's actions or about his agency or volitionality of action. First he wasn't here and now he is come.

The auxiliary verb have plus a verb of motion indicates something about the nature of the action itself. So if he wrote "the king has come", that means that we're to understand the emphasis is upon the journey in some way. This construction explicitly marks the king as the agent of the verb come: he has initiated a journey, he has journeyed and now he has arrived.

Notice also that have + verb also has an aspectual nature:

the king came --- perfect aspect, the action of coming is understood to be a single point of reference, a momentary action

the king has come --- present perfect, the action began in the past and continued for a while into the present and is now complete

the king had come --- past perfect, the action began in the past and continued for a while and ended in the past

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    This is a good start - a great completion would be explaining how these distinctions actually apply to quotes from the text. I assumed this is what I would find by looking at examples from LoTR but it doesn’t seem like these shades of meaning are relevant to Tolkien’s use of either form. I could be wrong. I just think this answer would be complete if it explained how the theory here applies to specific examples. Jul 18, 2021 at 12:39
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    I disagree with this answer. I can't be sure, but, given the context of Tolkien's use of language, I am fairly certain that he uses "is" in "He is come" as an auxiliary verb; that is, it is present perfect, just with "is" as an auxiliary verb rather than "has". This is incorrect in modern English but used to be the correct way of speaking. You still see similar things in German, btw.
    – Wade
    Jul 18, 2021 at 15:52
  • @Wade, also still the case in Dutch, for what it's worth.
    – J W
    Jul 18, 2021 at 19:31
  • @JW Interesting. Also French btw. I think Tolkien was more affected by the Germanic roots of English, though.
    – Wade
    Jul 18, 2021 at 20:43

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