Tolkien the Medievalist
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Tolkien the Medievalist

Jane Chance, Jane Chance

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Tolkien the Medievalist

Jane Chance, Jane Chance

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Interdisciplinary in approach, Tolkien the Medievalist provides a fresh perspective on J. R. R. Tolkien's Medievalism. In fifteen essays, eminent scholars and new voices explore how Professor Tolkien responded to a modern age of crisis - historical, academic and personal - by adapting his scholarship on medieval literature to his own personal voice. The four sections reveal the author influenced by his profession, religious faith and important issues of the time; by his relationships with other medievalists; by the medieval sources that he read and taught, and by his own medieval mythologizing.

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Histoire du monde
1 Introduction
Jane Chance
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was recently named “Book of the Century” in a survey of 25,000 British readers. The trilogy has sold over a hundred million copies worldwide since its publication in 1954 and has been translated into twenty-five different languages (most recently, Chinese). Tapping into Tolkien’s enormous popularity, producer Saul Zaentz (The English Patient) and director Peter Jackson (The Frighteners) launched a $400-million film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings; shooting began in 1999 on location in New Zealand. With the growing interest in the filming of Tolkien’s epic – the first of three full-length features that appeared in Christmas of 2001, to be followed by the next two on consecutive Christmases – there has been a parallel rise in interest in his writings and books about his writings. Copies of the 1955 British first edition, first printing, of the trilogy (with dust-jackets) recently sold on eBay for over $19,000, for example.
What is it that makes this “fairy-tale” appeal to readers of all ages in so many different countries? Why has its reputation increased in the years since Tolkien’s death? And what information does one need to appreciate the fantastical world that Tolkien created – with its own history, geography, and mythology – inhabited by peoples speaking fourteen different languages, all elaborately constructed by this medievalist scholar who taught at Oxford?
Although various critical studies of Tolkien appeared in the 1970s, in the past few years there has been only one new collection of essays about Tolkien’s writing and literary sources, both fiction and nonfiction: J. R. R. Tolkien and his Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth, edited by George Clark and Daniel Timmons (2000). The recent hard-cover collection of scholarly essays by Tolkien scholars, Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on “The History of Middle-earth” (2000), about the British medievalist’s background mythology – the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth compiled by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s unpublished drafts – has just been published by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter. The very important J. R. R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography, by Wayne G. Hammond and Douglas A. Anderson, appeared in hard cover in 1993 through Oak Knoll Books (significant because of the many reprintings and revisions published during Tolkien’s lifetime and thereafter, and therefore valuable to book collectors). New editions and reprintings of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been produced by HarperCollins in Great Britain, the press to which Allen & Unwin (Tolkien’s original press) was sold: a millennial The Lord of the Rings, with CD-ROM, published in seven small volumes (with the seventh being the appendices), in 1999; and, in 2000, a one-volume, leather-bound The Lord of the Rings, following the success last year of a similar leather-bound The Hobbit (the first printing of the former sold out in two months this year and has just been reprinted).1 Harold Bloom compiled a collection, Modern Critical Interpretations: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for Chelsea House in 2000, reprinting previously published and now canonical essays on Tolkien, a collection similar in intention (but superior in quality) to Katie de Koster’s Readings on J. R. R. Tolkien (2000).
That this commercial and popular interest in Tolkien has been propelled by popular interest in the trailer on the film of The Lord of the Rings – the most downloaded internet film trailer in history – is obvious. In addition, Tolkien has come to be accepted by high academic culture in varying ways: through the journal Seven, dedicated to the writings of the Inklings (see Hood, 59–71); through the 1992 conference on Tolkien held at Oxford, whose proceedings have been published (see Reynolds and GoodKnight); and through the acceptance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies for 2001 at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo of three sessions on Tolkien.2
One way to understand Tolkien’s popularity that has emerged, slowly, over the forty-five years since the publication of The Lord of the Rings is to acknowledge the indebtedness of his creative work to the medieval languages and literatures he professed at Oxford and other universities over his lifetime. In the interval since his death, scholars have come to embrace the view that Tolkien was attempting to create what his biographer Humphrey Carpenter has termed a “mythology for England” in the space of his fiction by creating an imaginary world with its own languages, history, cultures, origin, and peoples.3 Tolkien achieved this aim, scholars believe, by drawing not only on the extant languages and literatures in Old and Middle English, but also on those languages that influenced the cultural and historical development of Great Britain, namely, Finnish, Welsh, Old Norse, and Old High and Middle German – as a “tribute to England.” Tolkien’s desire to attempt this in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion has been most fully expressed in Tolkien’s letter to the publisher Milton Waldman, letter 131, written in response to the Collins editor’s request to explain how The Lord of the Rings relates to The Silmarillion. The text of the long letter (over ten thousand words) was published in full when Humphrey Carpenter’s edition of Tolkien’s Letters appeared (1980–81), although it had also been published in excerpted form in Carpenter’s Biography (1977) (Tolkien, Letters, 143–61). In this circa-1951 letter, Tolkien expresses his desire to
make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country.
(Letters, 144)
This “mythology for England” (his biographer’s words) was necessary because of what Tolkien understood as
the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), nor of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.
(Letters, 144)
Where Tolkien turned to find the stuff and fabric of this “mythology for England” was clearly the medieval world he knew so well from his scholarly studies: he had labeled an early notebook on which he began the work now known as The Silmarillion “The Book of Lost Tales” (Biography, 90). Later, in his description of the criteria he sought to match in his creation of this lost world as described in the letter to Waldman – those of “tone” and “quality” – he invoked British and Celtic “beauty”:
It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and quality of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine ancient Celtic things), it should be “high,” purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry
(Letters, 144)
By “Celtic” Tolkien meant what made up that body of faĂ«rie mythology common to Great Britain and its outposts and suggests at first glance those Elves so dear to Tolkien.
Over the past twenty-five years, Tolkien scholars have argued in various ways about the meaning and scope of Carpenter’s phrase “mythology for England” – that is, whether it refers to the specifically Old and Middle English works of literature Tolkien himself discussed in his nonfiction prose, to his work as a tribute to his nation (with all that means in the 1930s and 1940s), or to his desire to write a “true English epic” (meaning Anglo-Saxon epic) – and about its origins in what was apparently Carpenter’s conflation of Tolkien letter 131 (to Waldman) and letter 180, to someone named “Mr. Thompson,” but not actually a phrase written by Tolkien.4
Despite the recurrence of this phrase in such previous studies, the implications of Tolkien’s medievalness has only been touched on. Three previous books from the late 1970s and early 1980s have focused on Tolkien as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and a teacher of Old and Middle English Language and Literature. First, Mary Salu and Robert Farrell’s J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam (1979) in three sections examines Tolkien’s life, the study of Old and Middle English (that is, essays on medieval English subjects by his former students, colleagues, and friends), and Tolkien’s use of the romance, philology, and the New Testament. Second, Tolkien’s Art: A “Mythology for England” (1979; 2001) by Jane Chance (Nitzsche) sketches Tolkien’s interest in medieval literature in his minor works, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. Third and last, Thomas A. Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth (1982; 1992) examines Tolkien’s use of individual medieval words and his philology as a means of accessing his medievalized literature.
No other collection or single monograph has examined anew the question of Tolkien’s medievalness, his capturing of that medieval form or theme or symbol for his own mythologized fiction.5 On the other hand, since Tolkien’s death a collection of his letters has appeared (1980), and his long-languishing The Silmarillion has been completed and published by his son Christopher Tolkien (1977). In addition, other works Tolkien did not succeed in completing during his lifetime – earlier drafts or alternate recensions, including Unfinished Tales (1979; 1980) and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth (1983–95; 1984–96) – have subsequently appeared in print, thanks to Christopher. Two additional children’s stories have also been recovered – Mr. Bliss (1982) and Roverandom (1998) – as well as several editions and translations of Old and Middle English poems, completed by Tolkien’s own former students (Tolkien, The Old English Exodus [1981]; Finn and Hengest [1982; 1983]; and “The Monsters and the Critics” and Other Essays [1983; 1984]).
With this fuller knowledge about Tolkien’s life and thinking about his own work, of which we now have everything of value, it is time to reconsider the question of Tolkien’s medievalness and to offer new and more informed ways of reading Tolkien. Within this fuller context of posthumous works by and about Tolkien’s mythology, Tolkien the Medievalist will demonstrate in varied fashion how Tolkien from the beginning responded to his modern contexts by retelling his medieval sources and adapting his medieval scholarship to his own voice. Tolkien was, over time, influenced by his own personal medievalism, his profession as a medievalist, his relationships with other medievalists, and his own mythologizing in constructing his major fiction. Interdisciplinary in approach, the essays in the collection will explore Tolkien’s position within the context of twentieth-century medieval scholarship and religious movements such as the Oxford movement in Britain, and his use of various works of medieval literature as a palimpsest for the development of his own ideas. In the first section, chapters focus on how Professor Tolkien, as a philologist, fairy-story writer, editor of Old and Middle English poems, citizen and Roman Catholic, and friend of C. S. Lewis (a fellow Inkling), invested his professional interests in his writing, and how those works and the movements of his day may have affected his fiction. In the second section, chapters focus on specific episodes and how they correspond to medieval literary antecedents, in Old Norse, Old and Middle English, medieval Latin, and medieval Catholicism. In the third section, the chapters discuss how his mythological retextualization in his fiction assumes a most medievalized form. The concluding section involves computer technology as a form of “recontextualization” to indicate some ways in which Tolkien’s intentions as a mythmaker can be more fully understood.
In the first part, on the modern contexts of Tolkien’s medievalism and scholarship, Douglas A. Anderson – in “‘An industrious little devil’: E. V Gordon as friend and collaborator with Tolkien” – examines Tolkien’s collaboration with Eric Valentine Gordon (1896–1938) on their edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925). The two philologists also worked together on several other editions, including The Pearl, The Wanderer, and The Seafarer, but with the early death of Gordon these projects were left uncompleted or were finished posthumously by Gordon’s widow. Gordon’s precise scholarship and graceful style, as manifested in his solo work – namely, An Introduction to Old Norse (1927) and an edition of The Battle of Maldon (1937) – and his friendship with Tolkien both motivated and influenced Tolkien’s own scholarship and creativity, especially in Tolkien’s “sequel” to “The Battle of Maldon,” “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” (1953).
In chapter 3, Verlyn Flieger, in “‘There would always be a fairy-tale’: J. R. R. Tolkien and the folklore controversy,” investigates Tolkien’s key essay “On FairyStories” in the context of folklore studies and its various schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all of which contended for hegemony within this new and just-formed discipline. Tolkien’s terminology in his essay “nature myth,” “disease of language,” and “Comparative Philology” – resonates with the identifying hallmarks of early folklorists such as MĂŒller, Dasent, Lang, and others. His citation of their work in philology, anthropology, and mythology is set against his own personalized disagreement with their theories, one connected to his emerging, still developing creative mythology. In large part, his reaction to the folklore controversies can be used to read his own fiction as an illustration in practice of his theory in “On Fairy-Stories.”
In chapter 4, “A kind of mid-wife: J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis – sharing influence,” Andrew Lazo examines the interinfluence of Tolkien and his friend and fellow medievalist C. S. Lewis by focusing on an unpublished letter by Lewis about Tolkien and his influence on him and by isolating one night (11 May 1926) when they had a row about the differences between religion and mythology and their appropriateness in their fiction. Tolkien’s subsequent writing of the poem “Mythopoeia” served to mark the turning point in their literary relationship and friendship. Although the two British scholars shared interests, professions, and a field, and spent much of their lives talking about books (their own and others’) and enjoying social experiences, their real bond lay in their writing and reading of each other’s work and the influence each had on the creative function.
In chapter 5, “‘I wish to speak’: Tolkien’s voice in his Beowulf essay,” Mary Faraci argues that – despite the fame of Tolkien’s 1937 essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” for its pivotal role in directing Anglo-Saxon studies to the study of the literary text itself and away from its historical and anthropological contexts – it remains relatively unknown as a work of linguistic artistry, particularly speech-act theory. In his rescue of Beowulf the poem from Beowulfina – that is, scholarly study that ignores the poem’s artistry – Tolkien uses several voices to construct his argument. His second nature in his dramatization is that of storyteller: by using the ancient Greek distinction between the active voice and the middle voice, Tolkien removes himself, the “I” in the essay, from the critics blind to its artistry. The “I” functions in the ancient middle voice inflection to perform the difficult task of perceiving the poem’s art previously hidden from Beowulf’s “experts.” That is, Tolkien’s “I,” as the subject in relation to the criticism process, acts as effected “inside the process” of the action of the verb (this volume, p. 58). In contrast, the critics occupy the role of the ancient active-voice inflection: the subject acts as agent outside the process of the action of the verb. The result is the dramatic projection of the “I” as questor of permission to release the monsters from their mistaken representation in Beowulfiana by these critics, who then assume the position (relative to the hero Beowulf) of the adversarial dragon.
Chapter 6, by Christine Chism, “Middle-earth, the Middle Ages, and the Aryan...