Tolkien's "'Celtic' type of legends": Merging Traditions
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Tolkien’s “‘Celtic’ type of legends”:
Merging Traditions

1. Tolkien's Celtic Library

After J.R.R. Tolkien's death, a number of books from his personal collection ended up in two Oxford libraries. A small number are in the Bodleian Library, within the Tolkien manuscript collection, in the section "Tolkien E16." A considerably larger number are to be found in the Library of the English Faculty. According to the library's own classification system, the books are shelved in section V, which is described as "Tolkien's Celtic Library."

An initial reaction to this description might be surprise. Tolkien's dislike for "things Celtic," strongly expressed in his much-quoted 1937 letter to Stanley Unwin (Letters 26), is well known and could be taken as a definitive discouragement to research in Tolkien's Celtic sources. It is only recently that scholarship has attempted a serious evaluation of the Celtic elements of Tolkien's inspiration (see Burns; Fimi; Flieger Interrupted Music). Nevertheless, Tolkien's "Celtic Library" holds exciting revelations, if only for its sheer size. Over three hundred books originally owned by Tolkien are held in the Bodleian and the English Faculty Library, of which approximately a third belong to the discipline of Celtic Studies. It is, of course, not easy to determine what percentage of the whole body of Tolkien's books they comprise. It is known that the bulk of Tolkien's books passed initially to his son Christopher, and that only a small part of these were donated to the two Oxford libraries mentioned above, while others were sold through an Oxford bookseller (Anderson "Personal"). Still, this data is both valuable and significant for Tolkien scholarship, especially in terms of his involvement with Celtic Studies. Tolkien's "Celtic Library" at the English Faculty Library consists of books on Celtic languages (including Welsh, Old and Middle Irish, Gaelic, and Breton), and also an important number on Irish and Welsh medieval literature, together with translations, editions and even facsimiles of manuscripts of original texts. An example of how specialized this collection can be is the so-called "Mabinogion" from both the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch in four editions: those by Rhŷs and Evans (1887), by Evans (1907), by Edwards (1921) and by Mühlhausen (1925), as well as its famous translation by Lady Guest (1913). Tolkien also owned a copy of Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, being a reduced reproduction [End Page 51] of a part of the Rhŷs and Evans 1887 edition, bequeathed to him by his school friend G.B. Smith, who died in the Great War. This is the only Celtic book found within the Tolkien MS collection in the Bodleian library (Tolkien E16/20).1

Many of the books in Tolkien's "Celtic library" are dated by him, and it is notable that one third of them were bought between 1920 and 1926, most of them in 1922. Of course, that could be a reflection of the book-buying zeal of a young academic who finds himself in his first full-time job—in 1920 Tolkien was appointed Reader and four years later Professor in English Language at Leeds University, and many of his non-Celtic books are also dated within this period. But, revealingly, it was in 1922 that he started working with his colleague E. V. Gordon on the edition of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was finally published in 1925. During this period he also contributed to the "Philology: General Works" section of the Year's Work in English Studies, for three consecutive years, presenting and reviewing academic works pertaining to philology. In his 1923 and 1924 articles he commented on publications of English place-names, including their Celtic elements, and he voiced his views on the ongoing debate on the adventus Saxonum and the role of the Celtic population of Britain (Tolkien "Philology 1923" 30-32; "Philology 1924" 58-59). His interest in Celtic Studies was, therefore, very much at the core of his academic work of this time.

The contents of Tolkien's "Celtic Library" not only add to our knowledge of what he...