Thursday, January 3, 2019

Birth of a Medievalist

This is a slightly different tack for DailyMedieval, but many fans of his fiction are unaware of his career as a medievalist.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (3 January 1892 - 2 September 1973) graduated college with a specialty in Old Norse before he went not fight in World War I. After the war, his first job was working for the Oxford English Dictionary, reviewing the history and etymology of Germanic words. He became an expert in Old Norse, Old English, Middle English, Old Icelandic, Gothic, and Medieval Welsh. He also taught himself some Finnish.

Later, at the University of Leeds, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a translation of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that is still in print.

One of his most significant additions to medieval studies was his long essay "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Delivered as a lecture in 1936, it argued for the beauty of the poem as Early English literature. Up to this point, Beowulf had been used largely as a primer on the language of Old English/Anglo-Saxon, and picked apart for its references to places and names that could be matched to historical facts.

He describes the attitude toward the poem with a parable:
A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man's distant forefathers had obtained their building material.
His essay created an atmosphere in which Beowulf could be seen as a poem worthy of being treated as a poem, not as an old document to be studied simply for clues to language and criticized as a dish-mosh of paganism and Christianity, mingled stories of heroism and monsters, history and myth.

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