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languages and literatures of which he was such an acute interpreter, and the last of the books listed above, based on unpublished lectures which in their earliest form go back to the 1920s, bears witness to his ability to generate scholarly ideas and his reluctance to work them up for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.

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