Michael Tolkien

APPENDIX 3. Tolkien's philology as root and source of his fantasies.

     This a good moment to bear in mind the philological sources of T's fantasy before going on to look at the nature of his Secondary or fantasy world, its characters and issues as well as some of his narrative skills.

     Profr. T.S. Shippey was one of Tolkien's successors to the Chair of English Language and Mediaeval Literature at Leeds university, and one of the few British academic colleagues who saw no contradiction between T.'s professional linguistic pursuits and fantasy writing. In 'The Road to Middle Earth'(a rigorous and engaging study of Tolkien's developing art and its sources) he contends that OFS, because it lacks philological bases and tries to argue in terms of the impact of literary art, is not the best way to understand the value T. placed on Fantasy or where its sources lay for him.(RTME pp38-9) Perhaps I have either been more reliant on OFS than I should have been, or I am among those Shippey comments on in a passage (RTME p.35) about T.'s attempt to 'reconcile the claims of scholarship and fantasy' which took place in  three crucial works of criticism: 'Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics(1936), OFS (1939), Preface to C.L.Wrenn's revision of the Clark Hall Translation of Beowulf(1940).

    ' None of these contains very much philology...and they have accordingly been fallen on gratefully by commentators who never wanted to learn any. However, philology still remains their essential guts: while they lead forward to fantasy they also look back to and rest on an intensely rigorous study of ' the word'.'

    He reminds us of Grimm's division of philologists into two classes

(in his Deutsches Wörterbuch): those who study words 1.) for the sake of things, or 2.) only for the sake of words.(RTME p.42)

   The second leads at best to lexicography, at worst to pedantry. Shippey puts T. in the first category, and traces in the later academic essays and lectures of the 1930s analysis of the words of the texts to see what feelings they conjure up. An important e.g. is found the above-mentioned Preface to a revised translation by one of the academics who queried the point of his fantasy work. (See L p.238)

    It reveals T.'s concern that too much emphasis on finding modern equivalents risks losing the vision that derives from the words. A.Saxon was for example rich in kennings, those double nouns which suggested a variety of ways at looking at the same object: e.g. swanrad (swan-road) for sea. T. found a discernible and living world view in such words. In his preface to C.L.Wrenn’s revision of Clarke Hall’s Translation of Beowulf(p.xxvii), as Shippey points out,  this is emphasised in an imaginative gloss on a brief excerpt from the heroic poem (LL 50-52) about the mysterious passage of the soul over both literal and imaginary seas after its heroic exploits. He says that the poet who spoke these words ‘saw in his thought the brave men walking under the vault of heaven upon the island earth (middangeard) beleaguered by the shoreless seas ( garsecg) and the outer darkness, enduring with stern courage the brief days of life

( laene lif) until the hour of fate ( metodsceaft)...for those who have ears to hear, profound feeling and poignant vision filled with the beauty and mortality of the world are aroused by brief phrases, light touches, short words resounding like harp strings sharply plucked...' A related concern is found in a letter to his aunt, Jane Naeve (l961) after she had returned some poems. He discusses words she thinks might be too inaccessible:

'...the meaning of fine words cannot be 'obvious'...least of all to adults who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning.' After going into the nuances of argent and silver he comments: '...this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is <why> many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words and very limited vocabularies...'(L p.310)

    It is also clear from his lecture/essay on Beowulf, 'The Monsters and The Critics', that he admired the Beowulf poet for including verbal material, as well as beliefs and practices from a past world (as he himself did in his fantasies) because it suited his heroic vision. E.g. the dragon in Beowulf is not just an emblem of certain evils but feels like a real physical danger. As Shippey says, he did not want dragons to be symbolic but to have 'a claw planted on fact'. This poet was doing in a less complex manner what T. did: both explored old stories (in T's case by studying a vast range of texts) and both fused them into a new whole. T deduced that various kinds of truth were embodied in the recurrent ingredients of what he read and from these he made a world of fiction(though very much rooted in the world we live in). But the binding force of this was language.

    His letters reiterate this preoccupation. 'Just as the 1914 War burst on me I made the discovery that legends depend on the language to which they belong, but a living language equally depends on the legends which it conveys by tradition.'(L p.231 §2) By way of argument he contended that Greek mythology depended more on the beauty of its language and the wonderful names of its persons and places than on its content and said he was more interested in ' the aesthetic rather than the functional aspects of language'. When he devised his own he invented legends that somehow accorded to the feelings and sound of that idiom, what he called 'legends' of the same 'taste'. In an earlier letter he maintained:-‘out of these languages are made nearly all the names...in my legends. This gives a cohesion, a consistency of linguistic style, and an illusion of historicity...'(L p.143)