of Medieval Literature, Influence of
thinking was dominated by the discipline in which he had been
trainedcomparative 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.
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."
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.
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 surviveand 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.
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
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.
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 singersjust 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
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 levelon 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
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
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 Englishleft 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).
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 KlaeberLawrence 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.
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.
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 readersanother
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.
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.
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 offensiveespecially
when voiced by the French, so long hostile to les anglo-saxons,
whether British or Americanand 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).
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.
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
worked closely for a while with E.V. Gordon (1896-1938), who succeeded
him in the Leeds Chair of English Language, and whose publicationsbesides
the co-edited Sir Gawaininclude 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.
Hans. The Study of Language in England 1780-1860. London:
Athlone Press, 1983.
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.
C. Beowulf and the Critics. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University
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.
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.
Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of Discipline.
3 vols., vol. II, "Literature and Philology." Damico,
Helen, Editor. New York and London: Garland, 1998.
The Rise of English Studies. London: Oxford University
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.
Tom. "Introduction." In Beowulf: the Critical Heritage.
Eds. T.A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder. London and New York: Routledge,
1998. pp. 1-74.
"'The Battle of the Eastern Field': A Commentary," Mallorn
13 (1979): 3-5.
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
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