Book Description
Introduction
A-Z Entries List
Thematic Entries
Contributors
Sample Entries
Reviews
Order Information
Contact Us
Routledge Library Reference Home


Scholars of Medieval Literature, Influence of

Tolkien's thinking was dominated by the discipline in which he had been trained—comparative philology, the major achievement in the soft sciences of the nineteenth century. To understand this, one should remember that by the late eighteenth century the learned world of Europe had very largely forgotten its early past. No-one could read Old English with any accuracy. Despite the efforts of a number of early collectors and antiquarians, Old Norse mythology was little known. The single manuscript of Beowulf lay almost undisturbed in the British Museum. While the major manuscript of the Old Norse Poetic Edda had been discovered in an Icelandic farmhouse and sent to the Danish royal library, most of it had never been edited. Those who tried to read such texts could only guess at their meaning by comparison with surviving languages, such as Dutch and Icelandic.

This situation changed dramatically as a result of the work of several scholars. The Dane Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) brought out the first satisfactory grammar of Old Norse in 1811, and of Old English in 1817; the Icelander Grímur Thorkelin (1752-1829) had transcripts of Beowulf made in 1787-9, and finally brought out his edition of the poem in 1815; the brothers Grimm edited poems from the Edda and the Old High German Hildebrandslied, among many other works, in the early 1810s. Most significantly, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) brought new order to the study of ancient Northern languages with his Deutsche Grammatik, which began to appear in 1819. Not only did this build on the work of Rask by providing adequate grammars of early languages, it also offered a system for explaining the way that languages changed. Armed by Grimm, scholars could (and did) correct error in early manuscripts and early editions, sometimes without seeing the manuscripts, and could "reconstruct" whole extinct languages, such as "Proto-Germanic" or "Early Indo-European."

They also became able to read surviving texts very much better, and during the early nineteenth century a whole string of poems suddenly became readable, including Beowulf, the Poetic Edda, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied and Kudrun, the Old French Chanson de Roland, as well as many prose sagas in Old Norse. The rediscovery of some of these poems, however, created a problem for scholarship. They clearly dealt with events in pre-literate periods. It seemed impossible that people without writing could develop long and complex poems, especially as the poems surviving were usually clearly the product of Christian writers. It was concluded that surviving epics, long, complex and Christian, must have been based on earlier, short, pagan poems, which the Germans called Lieder and English-speakers "lays" or "ballads." Many German scholars decided that the thing to do was to dissect out the original (and in their opinion far superior) Lieder from the mass of later epic additions.

Pioneers in this field included Karl Lachmann (1793-1851), who edited the Nibelungenlied in 1840 as a compilation of twenty lays. In England, the historian Thomas (later Lord) Macaulay (1800-59) decided that what was thought about Germanic poetry was probably true of Latin history, and wrote a sequence of Lays of Imperial Rome (1842), presented as the original ballads on something like which the ancient historian Livy (d. AD 17) must have based his accounts of early Rome. Tolkien's first published poem, "The Battle of the Eastern Field," is a mock-heroic parody of Macaulay. In his Lays of Beleriand (1987), one can see him presenting the original poems on which (in his imagined history) later synopses like The Silmarillion would be based. It should be said that Liedertheorie, or "ballad-theory," while wildly speculative, was not without some grounds: the well-known Saga of the Volsungs, for instance, is clearly a synopsis based on earlier poems, though in this case many of the earlier poems survive—and Tolkien is known to have written a long poem, as yet unpublished, called "Volsungakviða En Nyja" or "The New Lay of the Volsungs," reorganising and perhaps completing the poetic cycle on this subject, see Letters p. 379 and note.

Besides Jacob Grimm, major figures in this era of scholarship include Jacob's brother Wilhelm (1786-1859), who also of course collaborated on the immensely influential Grimms' Fairy-Tales, first published in German in 1812. The Grimms were rivalled by the Dane N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), and succeeded in Germany by Karl Viktor Müllenhoff (1818-84): these two are probably the "old voices … now generally shouted down" who proclaim that Beowulf is a "mythical allegory" in Tolkien's allegory of Babel in "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics." Grundtvig published on Beowulf for fifty years between 1815 and 1865, and also wrote two very different versions of his work on Nordens Mytologi, or "The Mythology of the North," in 1808 and 1832, the latter rivalled by Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie of 1835 (later much expanded, and translated into English as Teutonic Mythology by J.S. Stallybrass, 4 volumes, 1882-8). Stallybrass's careful retitling of Grimm's work should remind us that scholarship in this era was intensely nationalistic, a situation not eased by the fact that parts of Germany were ruled by Denmark till the Prusso-Danish war of 1864, while after that large areas of Denmark were ruled by Prussia. Grundtvig's work did a great deal to establish and preserve Danish identity at a time when it was under threat.

One other early philologist gave even more to his country. In the early nineteenth century a country doctor, Elias Lönnroth (1802-84) found himself in an ideal situation for a Lieder-theorist. Travelling in remote Finnish-speaking areas of Karelia, he began to collect runor, short poems on mythological themes sung by traditional non-literate singers—just what Liedertheorie predicted. Lönnroth concluded, though, that rather than being the raw material for some future epic, these were the remains of an epic which must once have existed in complete form. He accordingly re-assembled many of the runor into the epic now known as the Kalevala, first published in 1835, much expanded in 1849. His work was immensely successful both as literature and politically: some say that without the sense of ancient identity crafted by Lönnroth, Finland would not now exist as a nation. In 1910 or 1911 Tolkien discovered the Kalevala in W.F. Kirby's translation of 1907, and was deeply affected by it. The works of Grimm, Grundtvig and Lönnroth give added point to Tolkien's stated aim of creating, or re-creating, a mythology for his country, England. It should be remembered that in Tolkien's time as now "England" was not a political entity, its autonomy having been merged (some would say, lost) within the United Kingdom: Tolkien was not irrational in his belief that native tradition was as threatened in England as in Denmark or Finland.

Philology, however, did not catch on in England to anything like the same extent that it did elsewhere in northern Europe. British scholars in this field in the nineteenth century were mostly dismissed by the Germans and Scandinavians as mere amateurs. J.M. Kemble (1807-57) indeed brought out an edition, a second edition, and a translation of Beowulf between 1833 and 1837, and this had some effect on Jacob Grimm, to whom Kemble was devoted: Kemble was another who thought the poem contained strong elements of myth. But Kemble was cranky and unstable, and managed to alienate even Grimm in the end. Sharon Turner (1768-1847), a lawyer, had made a praiseworthy effort to popularize the poem even earlier, with successive editions of his History of the Anglo-Saxons from 1799, but he could not read or understand it even on the most elementary level—on his first reading he had got the pages in the wrong order. Later on "old John Earle" (1824-1903), as Tolkien calls him, not entirely respectfully, had excitedly announced his solution to the origin of the poem in three articles in the Times in 1884-5, and repeated it in his 1892 translation: his view was based on odd scraps of information and never at any point taken seriously. One might almost say that the only serious philologists in Britain during the later nineteenth century were the Icelanders Guthbrandur Vígfusson (1827-89) and Eiríkur Magnússon (1833-1913): the former, for instance, had brought out the still-valuable Corpus Poeticum Boreale, or "Complete Set of the Poetry of the North," in 1883, with the assistance of F. York Powell.

By the time Tolkien reached Oxford, things were looking up. Hector Munro Chadwick (1870-1947) published his The Origins of the English Nation in 1907, and The Heroic Age in 1912. He and his wife, Nora Kershaw Chadwick (1891-1972) had a great influence on the field till her death, but were based in Cambridge, always competitive with Tolkien's Oxford. Liedertheorie had meanwhile, received a mortal wound from W.P.Ker's (1855-1923) work Epic and Romance (1897), which pointed out how unlikely it was that one could simply assemble short poems into a long one. Ker repeated his points in less academic form in his English Literature: Medieval (1912), dubbed Ker's "shilling shocker" by Tolkien in "The Monsters and the Critics," and they were rubbed home in much more academic form, for German scholars, by Andreas Heusler (1865-1949) in his Lied und Epos (1905). Tolkien paid tribute to Ker when he gave the Ker Memorial Lecture on "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" in Glasgow on 15th April 1953, since printed in The Monsters and the Critics and other essays (1983). After Ker and Heusler Liedertheorie was effectively dead, but found no immediate replacement, especially in Beowulf studies.

Here there had been two major trends. The long and politically-driven argument between German and Scandinavian scholars as to the origins of the poem seemed to have been settled decisively in favour of the latter. Beowulf, after all, was entirely set in Scandinavia; the claims of German scholars that it was nevertheless written in English, and English was not a Scandinavian but a West Germanic language, carried less weight, especially as a number of Scandinavian analogs had been found for the poem in the ever-increasing number of newly-published sagas. Significant figures in this field included the Dane Axel Olrik (1864-1917), whose work on early Danish tradition was translated, not entirely faithfully, by Lee Hollander (1880-1972) as The Heroic Legends of Denmark in 1919. Olrik also very remarkably, like Tolkien, decided to rewrite another major lost poem, the Bjarkamál, in Old Norse, basing his work on surviving fragments and a Latin epitome. Another prominent Scandinavian scholar was Sophus Bugge (1833-1907), whose argument that Eddic poems including the "Lay of Wayland" might have been the work of Norse settlers in England would have appealed to Tolkien.

Furthermore, something of a consensus was emerging among English-speaking scholars. The German Friedrich Klaeber (1863-1954) emigrated to Minnesota and there brought out his edition of Beowulf in 1922: in successive editions it has remained standard to this day. His 1911 article on "The Christian elements in Beowulf"—written in German, but now available in English—left no doubt that Christianity was too ingrained in the poem for this to be the work of a pagan author or authors, no matter how much it had been rehandled. The American W.W. Lawrence (1876-1958) published his Beowulf and Epic Tradition in 1928, in essence agreeing with Klaeber and Ker and Olrik and discarding Liedertheorie. In England, the major figure was R.W. Chambers (1874-1942).

If Tolkien had an academic role-model in his early years, it is likely to have been Chambers. His first major work was the 1912 edition of the Old English poem Widsith, subtitled A Study in Heroic Legend. Widsith (the word is a nickname meaning "far-travelled") is a relatively short poem consisting largely of lists of kings and peoples. Despite its lack of narrative content, it had been read eagerly by early scholars (especially Müllenhoff) as seeming to offer a guide to a lost world of heroic story. Chambers's edition fleshed this out with detailed commentary and quotation from across the whole range of rediscovered poems and chronicles. In 1921 he did something like the same service for Beowulf, bringing out a work modestly titled Beowulf: An Introduction. Like Klaeber's edition, this was revised twice, the second time by one of Tolkien's Oxford successors and fellow-Inklings, C.L. Wrenn (1895-1969), and is still one of the most useful aids a reader of the poem can have. What Chambers did in it was bring together long excerpts, in translation and also sometimes in the original language, from all other ancient works which seemed to cast any light on Beowulf. He added extensive commentary on problems which had seemed to defeat scholars; and he endorsed the Klaeber—Lawrence view of the poem, in essence descended from Olrik, which saw it as alluding to (without describing) the self-destruction of the Danish royal house, the Scyldings, and so being in a sense almost an anti-heroic poem.

Among Chambers's other distinguished works was his long essay On the Continuity of English Prose (1932), which among other things praises the prose treatise Ancrene Riwle, on which Tolkien spent so much time. But the most important connection with Tolkien lies in Chambers's style. Like Tolkien, Chambers wrote fluently, often colloquially, with more than a touch of the humor normally absent from philology. He was deeply affected by the romantic elements in what he edited, and especially by the romance of the lost works, which "gave glimpses of a large history in the background," forever "unattainable vistas"—qualities which Tolkien was to recognize and deliberately build into his own fiction, see Letters p. 333. Commenting on one passage of Widsith which seems to mention the Burgundian and historically-verified originals of the characters who became the heroes of the Nibelungenlied, Chambers cites lines from a late Roman poet, Sidonius Apollinaris, complaining about having to listen to barbarian, indeed Burgundian poetry, and breaks out indignantly: "how gladly now would we give all his [Sidonius's] verses for ten lines of the songs in which these 'long-haired, seven foot high, onion-eating barbarians' celebrated, it may be, the open-handedness of Gibica, or perhaps told how, in that last terrible battle, their fathers had fallen fighting around Gundahari." Tolkien surely sympathized with this attitude, and may have been encouraged by the boldness with which Chambers matched literary and linguistic studies together.

Chambers, who held a Chair at University College London, refused the Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford when this became vacant on the resignation of W.A.Craigie (1867-1957) in 1925. Tolkien applied for the Chair, as did Kenneth Sisam (1887-1971). Sisam was older than Tolkien, had been his tutor, and already had a post at Oxford: he must have been very much the favorite candidate, though his only major work at this time was a student textbook, the Fourteenth Century English Reader (1921), to which Tolkien had contributed the Glossary. Just possibly the electors may have thought that philology had had quite enough student grammars and readers—another of Tolkien's teachers, Joseph Wright (1855-1930), produced little else, and while these might answer the question "what to teach," they strikingly did not say why. The edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which Tolkien brought out with E.V. Gordon that year was not only unusually rigorous in a scholarly way, it was also lively and interested in Chambers's manner. One would like to think that this consideration gave the casting vote to Tolkien.

When Tolkien gave his 1936 lecture to the British Academy on Beowulf, therefore, he could look back on 120 years of scholarly debate, much of which had proved completely fruitless; and on a relatively recent period in which there had been more general agreement. Both the early period and the later one, however, had shared one characteristic from which even Ker and Chambers were not immune. They wanted to read through the poem to reach something else, such as information about the origins of England (Chadwick), or the lost tale of the Fall of the House of the Scyldings (Chambers, Lawrence, and even Klaeber). Ker seemed not to like the poem much. All of them wanted more heroes and fewer monsters. The suggestion that the poem was primarily mythical, held in entirely different, and since discredited, ways by Kemble, Grimm, Grundtvig and Müllenhoff, had been forgotten. It was Tolkien's achievement at this point to insist on the poem's autonomy, to force scholarly attention on to what it did do as opposed to what it might have done. Scholarship has followed his lead ever since; though it has failed to pay much attention to Tolkien's rather different views expressed in the Oxford lectures which were edited by A.J. Bliss (1921-85) and published in 1982 as Finn and Hengest.

Even more irritating than misguided scholarship, though, was what one might call sub-scholarship. A familiar image of the Anglo-Saxons was one of strong, dull, stupid barbarians, probably half-stupefied by beer, quite incapable of any literary subtlety. This was the kind of thing one found (and finds) in journalism, in elementary histories, in student textbooks, and far too often among critics of later literature. Tolkien found it all deeply offensive—especially when voiced by the French, so long hostile to les anglo-saxons, whether British or American—and though he cut much of his fulmination out of the published version of his 1936 lecture, one can see that he had a major target in J.J. Jusserand (1855-1932), whose now-forgotten Literary History of the English People came out in 1895. Tolkien's irritation appears much more prominently in the early drafts of the lecture since edited by Michael Drout as Beowulf and the Critics (2002).

Mention should also be made of the connection between medieval scholarship and fairy-tale studies, first made by the Grimms. A characteristic figure is Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-96) who translated Snorri Sturluson's mythical handbook The Prose Edda in 1842, and Rasmus Rask's Old Norse grammar a year later, but also Popular Tales from the Norse in 1859, with an introduction (which Tolkien quotes) linking fairy-tales and philology. Tolkien mentions Dasent in "On Fairy-stories," and also repeatedly refers there to the fairy-stories and fairy-story collections of Andrew Lang (1844-1912). Tolkien is known to have read Lang's 1873 essay on "Mythology and Fairy-Tales" in the Fortnightly Review. Lang returned to the topic at greater length in his "Introduction" to Margaret Hunt's 1884 translation of Grimm's Household Tales, offering among other things a critique of the views of Max Müller (1823-1900), whom Tolkien cited only to contradict.

Another important area of philological activity was the compilation of dictionaries, especially the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which was eventually retitled as the Oxford English Dictionary. The distinctive feature of this massive work is that it aims to give not only definitions of meaning, but also to show how meanings changed over the years: the Dictionary gives citations from the earliest recorded uses to the present day. In 1919 Tolkien was hired to work on this project, which by that time had been continuing ever since 1878, by Henry Bradley (1845-1923), the Dictionary's second editor. Tolkien learned a great deal while engaged in this work; his colleagues included the third and fourth editors, respectively W.A. Craigie (see above), and C. T. Onions (1873-1965), another Birmingham man eventually responsible for the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966). Tolkien was to mock the OED's definition of "blunderbuss" in Farmer Giles, where his joking reference to "the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford" is clearly to the OED's four first editors, James Murray (1837-1915), Bradley, Craigie and Onions. In "On Fairy-stories" he corrects one of the medieval citations given under "fairy"; and his images of creatures such as "elf," "dwarf" and "wraith" are often markedly different from what the OED tells us. Tolkien, however, had every respect for the aims and intentions of the OED, while reserving the right, as a lexicographer himself, to disagree with some of its conclusions.

Tolkien also worked closely for a while with E.V. Gordon (1896-1938), who succeeded him in the Leeds Chair of English Language, and whose publications—besides the co-edited Sir Gawain—include an Introduction to Old Norse (1927), which has remained valuable to the present day, and an edition of The Battle of Maldon (1937), clearly in Tolkien's mind while working on "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth." Gordon's widow Ida Gordon completed his edition of Pearl (1953), thanking Tolkien for his contributions to it. Another Leeds professor was Bruce Dickins (1889-1979), who succeeded Gordon and Tolkien in the Leeds Chair, and whose publications include an edition of Runic and Heroic Poems from 1915.

One may say in conclusion that Tolkien was deeply affected by the notion, strongly present to all philologists, of loss: lost languages, lost poems, lost manuscripts. His first extended attempt at fiction was The Book of Lost Tales. The Silmarillion itself is presented as a synopsis of much older stories in vanished works, while The Lays of Beleriand are seen as intermediate stages in the "Silmarillion" tradition. Tolkien was keenly aware of the glamour of "unattainable vistas" of story, and deliberately introduced a sense of it into The Lord of the Rings. Two works on "the lost literature of medieval England" which Tolkien is accordingly likely to have read with interest and sympathy are, first, an essay by Chambers with that title published in 1925, and a longer book by R.M. Wilson (born 1908) with the same title, published in 1952 but based on articles which had appeared earlier.

Tom Shippey

Further Reading

Aarsleff, Hans. The Study of Language in England 1780-1860. London: Athlone Press, 1983.

Anderson, Douglas A. "'An Industrious Little Devil': E.V. Gordon as Friend and Collaborator with Tolkien." In Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. pp. 15-25.

Drout, Michael C. Beowulf and the Critics. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University Press, 2002.

Flieger, Verlyn. "A Mythology for Finland: Tolkien and Lönnrot as Mythmakers." In Tolkien and the Invention of Myth. Ed. Jane Chance. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 277-83.

Gilliver, Peter M. "'At the Wordface': J.R.R. Tolkien's Work on the Oxford English Dictionary." In Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference. Eds. Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. GoodKnight. Milton Keynes: Tolkien Society, and Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press, 1995. pp. 173-86.

Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of Discipline. 3 vols., vol. II, "Literature and Philology." Damico, Helen, Editor. New York and London: Garland, 1998.

Palmer, D.J. The Rise of English Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Payne, Richard C. "The Rediscovery of Old English Poetry in the English Literary Tradition." In Anglo-Saxon Scholarship: the First Three Centuries. Eds. Carl T. Berkhout and Milton McC. Gatch. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982. pp. 149-66.

Shippey, Tom. "Introduction." In Beowulf: the Critical Heritage. Eds. T.A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. pp. 1-74.

Yates, Jessica. "'The Battle of the Eastern Field': A Commentary," Mallorn 13 (1979): 3-5.

See also Finland: Literary Sources; German Folktale; Germanic Mythology; Gordon, E.V.; Obituary for Henry Bradley; Old Norse Literature; Oral Tradition; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Edition by Tolkien and E.V. Gordon; Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics; Beowulf and the Critics

Sample Entries

Description | Introduction | A-Z Entries List | Thematic Entries | Contributors
Reviews | Order Information | Order Online | Contact Us
Routledge Library Reference Home