Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Death of a Medievalist

Tolkien in his study
Time to break one of my rules and discuss a 20th century event.

Today is the 41st anniversary of the death of J.R.R.Tolkien. Born 3 January 1892, he learned to read and write by the time he was four, even learning a little Latin from his mother. Among his literary preferences were the fairy stories of Andrew Lang and the fantasy of George MacDonald. In his teens he added the Anglo-Saxon language to his Latin studies. He and his cousins played with inventing languages of their own, a pursuit that would help him lend artistic verisimilitude to his literary masterpiece The Lord of the Rings.

A career in World War I brought him home as an invalid, after coming down with trench fever. In 1920 he became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, on the strength of his linguistic knowledge. His first academic publication was a Middle English Vocabulary in 1922. A few years later, this was followed by an edition/translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that is still in print.

Although his focus was more on language than literature, he produced two scholarly works in the 1930s that bridged (what some would call) the gap between the two. His 1934 article "Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale" showed that Chaucer was well aware of dialects and deliberately gave some of his characters a different dialect to make their status plain to the audience

Then, in 1937, he published a lecture (given the year before) called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In it, he argued successfully that the poem Beowulf had value not just as a repository of Anglo-Saxon language and northern European history that could be used to cross-reference other references to history It was also a poem of literary merit. This essay continues to be fundamental to any modern study of the poem. His own translation of the poem was published a few months ago.

Current culture equates his name with a series of blockbuster adventure movies, but long after those have fallen out of favor, his academic work will still be fundamental to future scholarly endeavors.

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