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Book Sections Year : 2019

The Old English Beowulf and Tolkien's Middle-earth

Leo Carruthers
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Abstract

Language and literature as inspiration Although J.R.R. Tolkien became world-famous for his fictional writings, he was first and foremost a philologist, a specialist in ancient languages, who taught the early forms of English, Norse and Welsh at university, and also prepared scholarly editions of medieval texts. Without his linguistic training and knowledge of medieval literature, he would never have written his best known creative works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; they in turn are elements in the wider mythology which was revealed in The Silmarillion, edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien. In fact, the entire history of Middle-earth depends on the author's fascination with language and his love of Germanic and Celtic legends. The Old English Beowulf (early 8 th century) has a particular importance in this respect. Tolkien loved the poem, its symbolism and its language, which he taught professionally for years, and this overflowed in many ways into his fictional writings. Among other English works which attracted him were the prose Ancrene Wisse (c. 1200), a rule for female anchorites, and the alliterative romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1390), both of which he edited; it is no coincidence that all three texts originated in the West Midlands, a region of personal interest to Tolkien. Despite his passion for language, his involvement in works such as these was not restricted to linguistic matters; he was also a lover of literature, of the imagination, of the manner in which great writers of the past had given expression to human ideals and aspirations. This is nowhere more evident than in his 1936 British Academy lecture on Beowulf. Tolkien was introduced to Beowulf as a teenager at grammar school in Birmingham, which he attended between 1900 and 1911. Encouraged by a teacher, he read it first in translation, later in the original Old English. Soon Tolkien, unusually for pupils of his age, was reciting passages from Beowulf, as well as the Old Norse Völsungasaga. Following his studies in Oxford (1911-15), after the Great War he would go on to make his career as a teacher of English and Germanic philology; he spent five years at Leeds University before returning to Oxford, firstly as Professor of Anglo-Saxon (1925-45), then as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature (1945-59). Tolkien saw the history of literature as the story of language: history lay in words, in what they revealed of the people who had given birth to a particular language. What he loved most was the Germanic languages of the North European peoples with whom he felt a deep sense of identity. 1 Beowulf, the longest and most important Old English poem, had a prominent place in his lectures; and when reciting passages from it in the classroom, Tolkien, with his natural gift for story-telling, would give a dramatic performance (Carpenter, 1977: 138). In 1926, early in his teaching career, he translated the poem into Modern English, but this was not published until 2014. 2 His most famous lecture, 'Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics', delivered to the British Academy on 25 November 1936, was to mark a turning point in scholarly attitudes to the Anglo-Saxon poem. In the 19 th century, when Beowulf first entered university curricula, there was little appreciation of its literary value; considered to be badly constructed, its main interest was thought to be historical. This was due in part to a lack of understanding of the work, its structure and meaning, but perhaps even more to the separation that existed in university departments between Language and Literature. As a result, anything in English before Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1385-1400) was hardly reckoned to be worth reading. Tolkien was anxious to redress the balance, to show that both sides were diminished by a rigid distinction between the two disciplines, and to demonstrate that medieval poetry deserved to
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Dates and versions

hal-03961565 , version 1 (29-01-2023)

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Cite

Leo Carruthers. The Old English Beowulf and Tolkien's Middle-earth. Davide Astori, Elisa Sicuri. Creating Worlds through Languages. Tolkien between Philology and Conlanging, Bottega del Libro, pp.73-90, 2019, Tolkien between Philology and Conlanging, 978-883 215 822 9. ⟨hal-03961565⟩
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