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  • A "Clerkes Compleinte":Tolkien and the Division of Lit. and Lang.
  • Jill Fitzgerald (bio)

In 1931, Tolkien delivered a lecture to the Philological Society of Oxford titled, "Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve's Tale," which was subsequently published in 1934 and recently reprinted by Tolkien Studies in 2008.1 This paper hopes to complement that reprint by setting Tolkien's lecture within his professional context at the time of its delivery and, additionally, by examining the role Chaucer played in Tolkien's scholarly and creative works. Tolkien's essay "Chaucer as a Philologist" is perhaps the most comprehensive account of the dialectic variations in The Reeve's Tale to date. Beneath its detailed surface argument, it is also a tonguein cheek attempt by Tolkien to convince his audience (and certainly his skeptics) that Chaucer was philologically savvy, and would have felt right at home within the Oxford "language school." A year before delivering this lecture Tolkien had weighed in on the long-standing pedagogical dispute between the programs known as "Lit." and "Lang." in an article for The Oxford Magazine. He wrote: "In the English School, owing to the accidents of history, the distinction between philology and literature is notoriously marked . . . its branches are customarily but loosely dubbed the 'language' and 'literature' side—titles which never were accurate, fortunately for both. History may explain their arising, but provides no defence for their retention" (778). As Tolkien implies, this debate had its roots in the Oxford English Department's fledgling years during the nineteenth century, and continued to intensify in the years between World War I and World War II.

It is no secret that Tolkien's anxiety over the state of philological studies at the university level was career-long, but aspects of his attitude about Lit. and Lang. are still in need of a fuller explanation. His underlying objective for the "Chaucer as a Philologist" lecture was not simply to pull the rug out from under those on the side of Lit. at Oxford, but also to demonstrate that the most compelling literary criticism rests on a substantive philological understanding.

It is hard to tell if the Lit. and Lang. feud had a distinct origin.2 In The Rise of English Studies (1965), D. J. Palmer documents that as far back as 1887, the split between philology and literature was, in reality, a split between those who studied the literature of the Middle Ages and those who read classical and modern literature. As for the anxiety surrounding language studies, one extreme of this attitude is expressed by John Churton Collins: "An English school will grow up, nourishing our language [End Page 41] not from the humanity of the Greeks and the Romans, but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance" (Palmer 101). Attitudes such as this one were not uncommon, and only forced philology into a category that grew increasingly synonymous with the pejorative connotations of the "dark ages" in the following decades. Yet, despite all the apparent drama, professors like D. B. Monro, W. P. Ker, Henry Nettleship, and C. H. Firth were actively concerned about giving equal weight to both language and literature. Nettleship published a pamphlet arguing that "whatever temporary misunderstandings may arise between them [philology] is a necessary adjunct to the study of literature" (Palmer 104). His argument fell on deaf ears, however, and was shortly followed up by Collins' rebuttal titled, "Philology versus Literature."

In 1905, W. A. Raleigh and A. S. Napier oversaw a structural reorganization of the English School at Oxford with the intention of keeping Lit. and Lang. from being exclusively identified with medieval and modern periods respectively. Their system aimed to provide English majors with something equivalent to modern "concentrations." The reform proposal, known as "bifurcation," allowed separate schemes for those perusing language study and "those who chose to specialize in literature (the great majority)" (Palmer 128). It was submitted in 1905, and subsequently passed in 1906 (129). But questions over how to balance Lit. and Lang. never went away entirely. By Tolkien's time, lines had been conspicuously drawn.

The ideological and pedagogical quarrels of the nineteenth century were...


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