Tolkien’s Spell

Peter Godman

  • The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, editor Christopher Tolkien
    Allen and Unwin, 240 pp, £9.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 04 809019 0
  • The Road to Middle-Earth by T.A. Shippey
    Allen and Unwin, 252 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 04 809018 2
  • Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode by J.R.R. Tolkien, editor Alan Bliss
    Allen and Unwin, 180 pp, £9.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 04 829003 3

Among the terms of abuse which J.R.R. Tolkien was accustomed to apply to an Oxford college of which he was (and I am) a member, there is one that makes an odd impression. It is the adjective ‘medieval’, pointedly used in its pejorative sense by this philologist and professor of Anglo-Saxon.

As Anglo-Saxon scholar and philologist Tolkien is not remembered by the world at large, although this is the aspect of his work that W.H. Auden chose to commemorate in a genial poem. What interests the reading public is the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Practitioners of Tolkien’s academic subject often deplore this fact, but posterity’s judgment does him no great injustice. The energies devoted to Tolkien’s fiction were often denied to the Germanic languages and literatures of which he was such an acute interpreter, and the last of the books listed above, based on unpublished lectures which in their earliest form go back to the 1920s, bears witness to his ability to generate scholarly ideas and his reluctance to work them up for publication. ‘Bone-idle’ was what one of Tolkien’s opposite numbers in Cambridge called him – unjustly but not absurdly – ‘forever inventing new languages of his own, as if there weren’t enough of them about already’. ‘Medieval’ as a term of abuse would never have slipped from the fastidious lips of that stern Medievalist, whose business was facts and whose interests did not run to fiction. His attention was fixed on the vernacular languages of the Middle Ages with a single-mindedness Tolkien lacked. These three books, in their different ways, are attempts to make sense of the diverseness of Tolkien’s activities.

The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays takes its title from Tolkien’s justly famous British Academy lecture on Beowulf of 1936. Like that lecture, all the items in this volume, save a paper on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, have previously been published (some of them more than once), and the book provides further evidence, if evidence be needed, of Christopher Tolkien’s enterprising combination of filial piety and commercial flair. For many readers, the convenience of having these disparate pieces of Tolkien’s legacy assembled between two covers will be counterbalanced by their price; and libraries, in this age of austerity, may think twice before buying duplicates of material they already possess. The Road to Middle-Earth, by T.A. Shippey, sets out to explore Tolkien’s imaginative writing in relation to the texts he studied and to the scholarship he published. Shippey thereby ‘reaches’, the dust-jacket assures us, ‘the core of Tolkien’s creativity and explains the secrets of his appeal in a way unmatched by any other critic’. Alan Bliss’s purpose is more modest. Twenty years ago he had the idea of publishing a paper on the Anglo-Saxon story of Finn and Hengest. Discovering that nearly all his conclusions had been anticipated in lectures by Tolkien (the diffident words are Bliss’s), he renounced the project, but Tolkien offered him his notes and this material was passed to Bliss in 1979. Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode is Bliss’s edition of the lectures Tolkien delivered in Oxford over a period that extends from 1928 to 1963, supplemented by a number of self-effacing but substantial contributions by Bliss himself.

Both Bliss and Shippey knew Tolkien personally; both consulted him about their work; and both take him very seriously indeed. The intensity of their interest is remarkable and perhaps surprising, for Tolkien, unlike literary and linguistic scholars such as Erich Auerbach and E.R. Dodds who achieved and deserved fame in this century, was not an intellectual. The reasons why one might take up his scholarship or his fiction are not the same as those that make us read Mimesis or The Greeks and the Irrational – books that transformed, and continue to influence, our understanding of significant problems in European intellectual and cultural development. The worlds to which Tolkien’s writings take us are the old Scandinavian North, Medieval England and Middle-Earth, and in his chosen spheres of history and fantasy not much room is made for ideas. Tolkien’s claim to attention rests on a contribution to scholarship, which Bliss succeeds in enlarging; on the works of imaginative fiction, which Shippey attempts to illuminate; and on Tolkien’s considerable personal impact upon colleagues and pupils.

The impact of Tolkien’s example is amply displayed in T.A. Shippey’s book, which offers, to say the least of it, a highly personal view of his subject. The facts that Shippey was born abroad, was educated in Birmingham at Tolkien’s old school, taught Medieval English and English language at Oxford, and now holds Tolkien’s first Chair at Leeds, make him, in the words of the dust-jacket, ‘ideally suited to write about his predecessor ... in a way that Tolkien would have approved’. Perhaps this is so: but Shippey lacks one of the qualities that make his predecessor a pleasure to read – Tolkien’s elegant, robust and witty style. The Road to Middle-Earth has a tone that is by turns blunt and facetious, and it is punctuated with asides which may be suitable for the lecture-room but which rise to no more than a ponderous flippancy in print: ‘Matter closed’; ‘(They are laid out in Appendices E and F of The Lord of the Rings, for those who haven’t already noticed)’; ‘The point is not, though ... ’ What is valuable about Shippey’s book is the sympathy he brings to the Medieval literature upon which Tolkien drew, mounting to a brisk enthusiasm when, for example, Shippey explains how Tolkien reworked features of Old English poetry to spell out to modern readers things that an Anglo-Saxon would have known instinctively. But what is depressing about The Road to Middle-Earth is the solemnity with which Shippey approaches his subject.

This is plainest in Chapter One, where Shippey begins by discussing the reception of The Lord of the Rings. The critical judgments of reviewers such as Philip Toynbee and Edmund Wilson are explained by the animosity generated by the Oxford English School’s old and false distinction between Language and Literature. Tolkien had little time for literary critics, although literary criticism was an activity for which he himself had unusual gifts, as the essays on Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in The Monsters and the Critics reveal; and what Shippey takes to be the animus of Tolkien’s detractors is ascribed to the same kind of prejudice that made scholars blind to the merits of Old English. Tolkien sought to replace the term ‘language’ by ‘philology’, with the broader sense of literary and linguistic interpretation which that word possesses in Modern German but regrettably lacks in current English usage, and this leads Shippey into a potted history of 19th-century comparative philology, tenuously linked to the contentions that emerge obscurely from it.

‘The criticism of blank denial’ meets with an equally blank rejection from Shippey, on the grounds that it is advanced by members of what Tolkien regarded with irritation as the opposite camp. This tells us little about why The Lord of the Rings, despite its popularity, has not been regarded with the seriousness which Shippey thinks it deserves. Was the anonymous TLS reviewer of 1955 so very partisan and wrong-headed to say of The Lord of the Rings: ‘This is not a work that many adults will read right through more than once’? Was Edmund Wilson such a careless simpleton to spell ‘Gandalf’ as ‘Gandalph’? ‘Yes’ is Shippey’s answer, for ‘no compromise is possible between what one might call “the Gandalph mentality” and Tolkien’s. Tolkien’s mind was one of unmatchable subtlety.’ By adopting this combative position, and by attributing the views of Tolkien’s critics to what the first subheading of Chapter One disdainfully describes as ‘old antipathies’, Shippey commits himself to an unclear and unargued overstatement of his case.

Consider, for example, Shippey’s treatment of the first thing Tolkien ever published: the poem ‘Goblin’s Feet’ which appeared in the collection Oxford Poetry of 1915:

            I am off down the road
        Where the fairy lanterns glowed
   And the little pretty flittermice are flying:
           A slender band of grey
           It runs creepily away
 And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing.
           The air is full of wings
       And of blundering beetle-things
 That warn you with their whirring and their humming.
         O! I hear the tiny horns
        Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming.

‘This,’ notes Shippey, ‘is not very good.’ He then offers a gratuitous parody of the objections a literary critic might make to the poem (for, in the course of this book, the crude debate between ‘Lang.’ and ‘Lit.’, conducted by certain members of the Oxford English School during Tolkien’s lifetime and now defunct in the place of its origin, is lent a new and dreary lease of life). Better questions could be asked of this work, Shippey assures us, and he goes on to compare Tolkien’s poem with a piece of similar quality by Tolkien’s school friend G.B. Smith. Both poems refer to a road. Observing that ‘it may seem perverse to seek to identify this road, but on the other hand it isn’t very hard,’ Shippey goes on to inform his reader about two Roman roads near Oxford, speculates as to whether Beowulf might have been performed in a village near one of them (probably not), asks whether Tolkien might have told G.B. Smith about the Old English elegy ‘The Ruin’ (probably not), and wonders whether Tolkien’s poem is a ‘translation of the quest for the romantic realities of history’ (certainly not). Shippey concludes – on the evidence of this text – that Tolkien shared with his school friend a ‘feeling for ancient roads’ which ‘could possess a creepiness for him’ and that he was making up words as early as 1915. All this, in Shippey’s view, hints ‘at the early complexity of Tolkien’s inner life’. It hints rather at Shippey’s faith in a freely associative style of biographical criticism, intent on wringing every ounce of significance from each of Tolkien’s writings, no matter how negligible it may be. Large tracts of this book are humourless travesties of a type of literary criticism that Shippey himself attacks so often and so vociferously.

As The Road to Middle-Earth proceeds and the running feuds with Tolkien’s critics and with the Oxford English Dictionary persist, it becomes apparent that this book does not resemble (perhaps was never intended to be) a critical argument or commentary on Tolkien’s imaginative writings. Shippey’s strength as an interpreter of Tolkien’s fiction derives from the very activity of which Tolkien himself disapproved – the study of Tolkien’s sources, which gives rise to a number of interesting aperçus and to the first of two appendices. (The second appendix comprises three ingenious poems by Tolkien in Old English and one in Gothic.) The Road to Middle-Earth makes a case, discontinuous but not implausible, for the existence of points of cross-reference between Tolkien’s imaginative and scholarly works and it illustrates the spell which Tolkien still casts over those who knew and admire him. But it does not ‘show us why the appeal of The Lord of the Rings will be timeless,’ as the dust-jacket promises, nor does it explain much about ‘the problems of reading archaic literary modes’. One does not have to be a personal enemy of Tolkien’s, nor insensible to the element of fantasy in literature, to think it an exaggeration to set The Lord of the Rings on the same level of literary achievement as Beowulf, The Elder Edda and the Grimms’ Fairy-Tales. Tolkien himself made no such claims – not out of diffidence, but because he was a shrewder judge of literature than is his apologist in this book. Were a sustained critical argument in favour of the stature of Tolkien’s fiction to be attempted, it might do worse than to take its premises from Tolkien’s essay on fairy stories, reprinted in The Monsters and the Critics, which contains much that is pertinent to a just appreciation of The Lord of the Rings:

the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite – I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

This is the level of literature which interested Tolkien and about which he rightly felt no need to be ashamed. It reflects an order of imagination which elicits from Shippey, to judge from his book, little intuitive sympathy and no capacity for reasoned criticism. It will require a more persuasive advocate than Shippey if Tolkien’s fiction is to be regarded as more than an entertaining diversion for pre-teenage children, imaginatively informed by his Medieval interests.

Tolkien’s Medieval interests included the fragmentary lay known as The Fight at Finnesburg, sometimes regarded as the only surviving pagan narrative poem in Old English. This fragment is closely related to an episode in Beowulf that recounts allusively the story of Finn and Hengest, whose deeds have an important place among what Tolkien calls ‘the complex and stirring events in the northern waters which led to the Germanic colonisation of Britain’. The story of Finn and Hengest is a violent tale of conflicting loyalties, and its setting is the heroic age in which Danes, Frisians and Jutes feud, fight and intermarry.

In Tolkien’s lectures the texts of these difficult poems and their sources are analysed and expounded. Bliss has performed the hardly less demanding and delicate tasks of unravelling successive versions of Tolkien’s notes for these lectures, which extended over a period of more than three decades, and of producing from them a consistent and satisfactory text. Naturally enough, the book which results is a curious one: it incorporates long expositions of some material which either has appeared elsewhere or has been discussed equally well by other scholars. There is also some repetition that might have been avoided: it is hard, for example, to see why both texts appear twice in the book – once between Tolkien’s Introduction and Glossary of Names and once in an appendix, accompanied by Bliss’s excellent translation of the Fragment. Nonetheless the lectures are entertaining and instructive to read, as we follow Tolkien ranging from Bede to the 16th-century rhyme still current at the turn of this century,

Good butter and good cheese
Is good English and good Friese,

in order to demonstrate the sense of community and kinship between the English and Frisians in the early Middle Ages. Even the parts of this book whose titles seem least promising, such as the Glossary of Proper Names, contain lengthy discussions in continuous prose that shed light on the history, legends and language of the early Germanic peoples. Tolkien’s stature as a scholar and his excellence as a philologist would have been enhanced had these lectures been published by him in a revised form at an earlier date. Even now, thanks to Bliss’s efforts, they illustrate what a powerful and imaginative interpreter of these exacting texts Tolkien was – or might have been.

Bliss in his Preface disclaims that he has done anything more than establish the text of Tolkien’s lectures and add to them a brief introduction, a translation of the Fragment and an appendix on the nationality of Hengest. Bliss’s extreme modesty, evident in the design and execution of this book, should not disguise the facts that his notes at the foot of Tolkien’s page often, and always helpfully, expand upon what Tolkien had written and that his appendix on Hengest is a lucid and tactful correction of some of Tolkien’s misconceptions. The piety that led Bliss to edit Tolkien’s lectures should no longer prevent him from publishing the paper he wrote twenty years ago, for the most fitting tribute to the memory of Tolkien is a contribution to Tolkien’s subject.