The much-anticipated movie treatment of The Fellowship of the Ring has caused a surge in both the availability and the popularity of JRR Tolkien’s work. Occasionally I would see odd sorts reading LOTR on the subway or in the park, and perhaps I would even exchange knowing glances with them.
That book is badass.
To which I would get a winked reply:
Now I’m catching ordinary men, women, and children from all walks of life reading Tolkien’s work just about everywhere, many to prepare for the cinematic event. Many of them likely have no prior exposure either to Tolkien or to the genre of “fantasy.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the corporate stiffs reading LOTR on the subway haven’t heard the word Beowulf since sixth grade English.
Thus the surge of visibility is usually met with frenetic excitement by fans and with shrugging and confusion by those who either don’t care for Tolkien or who simply don’t understand what the big fuss is all about.
For the fans: if you’ve done your homework, you can probably skip this thread entirely. I’ll see you on line in TWO WEEKS!
For those who want to see what the fuss is about, well, this thread is for you. I certainly don’t want to try to convince anyone to like LOTR, but I would like to try to communicate what I (and 150 million others who bought Tolkien’s books in the past 50 years) find so special.
My remarks are largely unoriginal. They are informed especially by four books: The Letters of JRR Tolkien, recently republished after years of being out of print; the biography of JRR Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter, The Road to Middle Earth by Tom Shippey, and Tolkien: Author of the Century, also by Tom Shippey. I cite especially Shippey throughout.
First, a brief disclosure about myself and my relationship to Tolkien and his works. I am something of a student of medieval literature, and I hope to be accepted as a PhD candidate this spring. This by no means makes me uniquely qualified to discuss his works. I mention it only to demonstrate the depth that JRRT has influenced my academic interests, the way I spend my time, and the career I desperately hope for. I first became interested in medieval literature after reading LOTR when I was a kid, and I haven’t let go since.
Please read this essay before deciding whether I am a geek or a scholar.
A Brief Bio
Tolkien’s life defies biography, largely because most of it was so “boring.” He lived at home, taught his classes, remained faithful to his wife, and lived like a celebrity in no way whatsoever. When he was made the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon in 1925, his “exciting” life rather ended.
He was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, of English parents, who moved when he was a child to the area around Birmingham. His father died when he was four, and at 12, his mother converted to Roman Catholicism. Tolkien remained devout for his entire life. At 16 he met his future wife, but was forbidded by the family priest to see her until he was 21. On the eve of his 21st birthday, he wrote her a letter proposing marriage. They were married while he was studying at Oxford.
But upon graduation he enlisted in the Lancashire Fusiliers and went to war. He saw his two best friends die on the Somme, where he fought from July to October 1916, and only escaped the war due to a nearly mortal case of trench fever.
After he recovered, he worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, received a Readership and then a Chair at Leeds, and finally assumed the Chair at Oxford in 1925. He worked, wrote, and remained a devout Catholic until his death in 1975, two years after his wife.
It is not his outer life but his inner life that so fascinates.
Tolkien was a philologist: someone who studies the historical and dialectical forms of a language and related languages while working within literary texts. In his letter of application to the Oxford Chair, he argues cogently that linguistic and literary study are inextricably linked.
Unfortunately, this was neither a popular academic view now nor was it in 1925.
His central field of study was Old and Middle English (roughly AD 700 - AD 1100, and AD 1100- AD 1500). His greatest academic accomplishments are in the field of Old English, particularly lyric and epic poetry.
There is really no doubt in the academic OE community that Tolkien is the greatest scholar of Old English who ever lived. His only published essay on the subject, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics surpassed all previous works on the poem, and single-handedly wrenched OE studies out of stagnation. It has yet to be equaled. Many scholars even mourn the fact that Tolkien was so interested in writing fiction that he failed to produce more scholarly works. I believe that this view is misguided. Tolkien also found the production of scholarly work quite dreary and boring, and I can’t say that I blame him.
Continued in Next Post…
[Edited by Ukulele Ike on 11-26-2001 at 10:16 AM]