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lectures, not essays
on 4 September 2011
I suppose all Tolkien fans know that, for decades before Lord of the Rings was published, he was an Oxford professor specialising in Old and Middle English. This volume brings together his most important work in the fields which were (eventually) the twin mainsprings of Middle Earth: philology and mythology. For him the two naturally went together: the `northern' epics which fed his imagination were in relatively obscure or forgotten languages like Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic. The title piece here is a good example, with its thesis - groundbreaking at the time and surely obvious today - that the monstrous, mythological element in Beowulf is what gives the poem its power. In other cases they're treated separately, as with the seminal `On Fairy Stories' (originally published in Tree and Leaf) on the one hand, or `English and Welsh' on the other. The first is a brilliant piece of analysis which goes a long way to explaining why LotR has such power. The second certainly does not demonstrate, as it claims, that a knowledge of Welsh is important to English philology; but it does record Tolkien's interest in and appreciation of Welsh, seemingly based on the fact that it is `the senior language of the men of Britain'.
Such a comment is typical of a man whose interest in language was that of, not a communicator, but (as he might have put it) a student of ancient lore: a man who habitually gives the written precedence over the spoken. He valued words as much for their sound and form as their meaning. There are a lot of people who will understand his idea that Celtic is `the native language to which, in unexplored desire, we would still go home' - though probably in relation to Gaelic more often than Welsh - but you feel that his knowledge of it, and perhaps of some others, does not run terribly deep. Still, he was certainly wide-ranging, and always remembered the fact (obvious but easily forgotten) that literary expression is inseparable from the actual language used. He turned his aesthetic interest to good account in constructing `Elvish' and other invented languages, a hobby which is the subject of the ingenuously-titled `A Secret Vice'.
His preference for the written, though, is the weakness of this collection. Despite the title, most of the pieces were not originally essays but lectures: written to be performed rather than read. I think Tolkien was at his fluent best when he felt he was addressing himself to a single, particular reader; with a larger audience, present in the room with him, he seems to have become uncertain of how to pitch it. The lecture form also brought out a certain arch donnishness which is a little irritating at times. Nevertheless I think these writings are more interesting in themselves, and more illuminating in relation to Middle Earth, than your books of Lost Tales etc.
It's inexplicable, in a book for a general readership, that the editor did not think it necesssary to gloss the numerous non-English expressions in the text. Naturally this does not help enjoyment of the Beowulf material, especially; although I don't think overall understanding is too much impaired.