Introduction to Tolkien and his studies
The outline of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's life is well-known (see Carpenter 1977), and only a brief note is required about it here. Tolkien, born on January 3rd 1892, spent most of his formative years in the West Midlands of England. He was for his whole life a devout Roman Catholic, and this substantially informed his fiction (his collected letters invite reading, even by a curmudgeonly atheist like Alaric, as an powerful devotional work); but that is not the topic of this lecture. Tolkien won a scholarship to read Classics at Oxford, but found himself increasingly attracted to medieval language and literature. He served in the First World War, another experience which informed his writing. In 1920, Tolkien took up a lectureship in medieval English at the University of Leeds (where he also taught Old Icelandic and Middle Welsh), and his academic career was assured. In 1925, he became the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, where he spent most of the rest of his life. He died on September 2nd 1973. Tolkien published few works while an academic, but they tended to be profound, and often provide a template for the critical approaches which we should take in considering his own literature. I quote from these often.
Tolkien was inspired, as a scholar and as an author, by the languages of the medieval Germanic peoples: most prominent among these, of course, was English, in the various forms it has taken over time. To understand his use of these languages and their literatures, then, we require a brief history. English has been spoken in Britain since the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons around the 5th century AD (the Anglo- element giving rise to the word English), who spoke a language which we call Old English or Anglo-Saxon. English came to Britain as part of a series of expansions by peoples who originally spoke a language which we call Germanic, probably originating around what is now southern Scandinavia. Over time, the languages of the Germanic-speaking peoples developed in different ways. We call the earliest branch East Germanic, which was spoken by the earliest wave of migrants, the Goths (see map). These languages have all since died. However, the second wave of migrants, which included the Anglo-Saxons, spoke a branch called West Germanic, and this dialect gave rise to modern English, Scots, German, Dutch and Frisian. Finally came the spread of the Scandinavians, usually known in this context as the Vikings (Old Norse víkingar, 'pirates'). We call their dialects Old Norse, and this language formed the North Germanic branch of the Germanic family, from which Icelandic, Faroese, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are descended. Around the tenth century, Old Norse was also spoken in much of Britain. Although it later died, it has strongly influenced English vocabulary and British place-names.
From around the 11th century, Old English underwent major changes, so from then until around the 16th century, we speak of Middle English. In the Middle English period, English took a lot of vocabulary from French, on account of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and it has been particularly distinct from its Germanic relatives ever since.
Language was, then, essential to Tolkien's view of history and literature Accordingly, his mythological world had to contain plausible languages and linguistic relationships (hence his creation of the dialects of Quenya, Elvish). But it had also to convey the sensation of roots and echoes between languages which he felt and loved when working with the medieval counterparts of modern English, and the languages to which English is related. In Appendix Fi, The Lord of the Rings claims to be a translation of the hobbits' account of the War of the Ring, which they wrote in their own language, the Common Speech, or Westron. Accordingly, names and languages which the hobbits encountered which were related to their own are rendered with appropriate relatives of English. Thus, in The Hobbit, the men of Laketown and the Dale speak Old Norse (the name Bard derives from Old Icelandic Bárđr, Smaug is a past-tense verb, '(he) wormed his way in'). Meanwhile, the Riders of Rohan, whose native language is an archaic dialect of the hobbits' own, speak Old English. Strikingly, Gollum's real name, Sméagol, is also formed from Old English (it is ultimately based on the Old English form of the same verb as Smaug: sméagan, etymologically 'to burrow, worm one's way', but in Old English, 'to think (through), ponder'). If Gollum's name was transparently meaningful when he was given it, and if the hobbits' language changed at the same speed as its English counterparts, Gollum would be at least a thousand years old.
The conversion to Christianity,
which affected the Germanic peoples in roughly the order in
which they migrated, brought them literacy, and with it our earliest substantial
records not only of their languages but of their literature. Two of the
high-points of medieval English literature (indeed, of Literature)
are the poems Beowulf, composed in
Old English, perhaps (as Tolkien thought) around the eighth century;
and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, composed in Middle English
not long before 1400. These are the English analogues to The Lord of the Rings
which I focus on here. Each is about three thousand lines long, in the
traditional Germanic alliterative metre (which we will see soon); each survives
in only one manuscript (the Beowulf-manuscript being depicted),
both of which were nearly incinerated in 1731; and each, like almost all the
literature mentioned here, is anonymous.
tells first of the youth and then of the death of the heroic warrior, and king, Beowulf, and
the volatile world in which he lives and rules.
revolutionised the study of Beowulf with his British Academy lecture of
1936, 'Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics', which not only remains required
undergraduate reading, but is a work of literature in its own right.
Tolkien established a reading of Beowulf as the work
of a Christian poet, looking back from his recently-converted
society into its heroic, but pagan, past (1983
In some ways, Gawain is a similar work. This time richly playful, yet profoundly serious, it is a poem in which a religious author puts Christian faith to the test of the secular, chivalric world. Like the heroic setting of Beowulf, this is a world which is past--Gawain is a self-consciously late flourishing of courtly romance in England--but still felt to be close at hand. Like a reversal of Don Quixote, Gawain is a well-rounded and sympathetic character inserted into the fantastic world of medieval romance, to face his own reputation as a courtly knight and lover: a courtier who would look for windmills, but, to his dismay, finds only giants. As Tolkien and E. V. Gordon wrote of the Gawain-poet, 'Though an ancient tale of magic is the mainspring of his plot, magic concerns him not as a theme but as a device. It is understanding of man, not the supernatural, that gives his poem its power' (1967 , xxi). One of the most prominent issues in this analysis of man is, as Tolkien later discussed, 'lewté, "keeping faith" ' (Tolkien 1983 , 75). The similarities between Gawain and the protagonists of The Lord of the Rings--especially, but by no means only, the hobbits--will be evident.
Lastly, there is the Old Norse literature of Iceland, perhaps the most
remarkable corpus of literature in medieval Europe. Early Icelandic
literati, whose island was converted only in 1000 AD,
had both the precipitous perspective on a pagan past of the
and the burgeoning secular, vernacular literary context of thirteenth- and
fourteenth-century Europe which Gawain
so skilfully deploys: in short, the best
of both worlds. They composed the prose sögur ('sagas'--saga
is a modern borrowing from Icelandic), a
number of which are masterpieces. But perhaps even more strikingly,
the Icelanders also recorded many of the poems of their pagan forebears.
Most of the mythological poems occur, once more in only one manuscript,
in a collection
known as the Poetic Edda. They 'deal with matter of various origins, constantly
reworked, and never even at most more than partially systematized'
(Tolkien 1983 , 25). It is this material which seems most directly
to have influenced The Lord of the Rings. In scope and intensity,
the most dramatic of the poems is Völuspá ('The prophecy of the
völva'). In Völuspá Óđinn, the greatest of the gods, raises
a far-sighted giantess--a völva--from the dead to interrogate her about the gods' fate.
Her prophecy is a history of the world from its beginnings to
the Ragnarök, the 'destruction of the gods', and beyond. In this mythology, even the
gods cannot see their own end--though that end will surely come. It
is here that much of the emotive power of this brooding
mythology lies (Tolkien 1983
In keeping with the goal of showing how the ancient languages of these poems resonate with our own, I have always quoted the texts in the original. Translations of a sort are provided, but, as will be evident, they are not literary translations, to be read on their own: rather, they are there to help the reader to understand what the original texts say and to appreciate them in the original. In their ways, Old and Middle English and Old Norse are all languages which still belong to English-speakers, and I hope that readers can enjoy them as such! Sound-files are also provided: these help to show some of the pronunciation of unfamiliar letters, or letters whose sounds have changed. But they also aim to convey a little of the power of the poetry which I quote.
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