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Tolkien Studies 4 (2007) 113-176

J.R.R. Tolkien's Medieval Scholarship and Its Significance
Michael D. C. Drout

J. R. R. Tolkien is almost certainly the most famous professor of medieval literature of the twentieth century and perhaps the most well-recognized literature professor in Anglo-American history. Obviously the extent of this fame is due to Tolkien's authorship of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien's academic reputation rests upon some very secure foundations: even if he had only ever written "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and no other papers, he would have been among the most cited medievalists of the twentieth century. But there is also a sense among medievalists—first given voice in Humphrey Carpenter's biography and in Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth—that Tolkien failed in his promise and in the end had a somewhat disappointing academic career. Shippey, in discussing Tolkien's academic reputation in 1989, gives a brief, evaluative survey of Tolkien's scholarship, concluding that "Tolkien was the most talented philologist of his generation" (22) but that he failed to advance additional research in his field. This essay seeks to update and expand Shippey's work by evaluating the significance of Tolkien's scholarship in somewhat more detail and in the context of current scholarship (this context has changed somewhat in the eighteen years since the publication of Shippey's essay).

"Significance" can be measured in several ways. Some of Tolkien's scholarship is significant because it influenced a great many later scholars. Other pieces are ground-breaking or particularly original even if they have not been widely influential. Still other pieces are significant because of their influence beyond Tolkien's technical fields. The Appendices to this essay provide complete lists of Tolkien's academic publications (including posthumous material up through 2006).1 But what seems simple at first reveals new levels of complexity when examined in detail. It is difficult even to count Tolkien's published works of scholarship. Work by other scholars, most significantly Simonne d'Ardenne, is often credited to Tolkien.2 D'Ardenne's Þe Liflade ant te Passiun of Seinte Iuliene, for example, has been said to represent Tolkien's most fully articulated thoughts on Middle English (Carpenter 140-41), and her edition of Seinte Katerine was begun with Tolkien's collaboration.3 A few other pieces are even more difficult to categorize. E. V. Gordon's edition of Pearl includes some material by Tolkien (Carpenter 140 n.1), but Gordon's widow Ida (who completed the edition) stated that she had to rework the Pearl [End Page 113] edition thoroughly in order to bring it into line with modern scholarship (E. Gordon, Pearl iii-iv). Additionally, Mary Salu's edition of The Ancrene Riwle has been on occasion, probably unfairly, credited to Tolkien. I gather from Prof. Arne Zettersten that Tolkien could produce important scholarly insights in the midst of conversations—C. S. Lewis once called him "an inspired speaker of footnotes" (Sayer 21). Some of these insights may have ended up in the published record of Tolkien's students, such as Zettersten or Bruce Mitchell (who entitled one of his first important articles "Until the Dragon Comes" and sent an offprint to Tolkien, which he saved).4 Even this somewhat expanded canon leaves out the hundreds and hundreds of pages of unpublished, unfinished material in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.5

The difficulty of attributing this material illuminates a more important philosophical problem. Even scholars who might live the romantic ideal of lonely writing and research are influenced by others, and active scholars who teach a great deal, particularly at elite institutions, are often far more influential than their published records might show. Tolkien taught several decades worth of students at Oxford, and many of his ideas that never found their way into his own published works have nevertheless circulated through the field of medieval studies. Ideas and insights can have complicated pedigrees involving many people. Alan...