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  • The Mystical Philology of J.R.R. Tolkien and Sir Israel GollanczMonsters and Critics
  • H. L. Spencer (bio)

I. The Gollancz lectures

One of Tolkien's best known works of non-fiction (familiar to readers of his fiction and students of Old English alike) is the lecture which he gave on 25 November 1936 to the British Academy: "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics."1 It was a brilliant, assured performance in which Tolkien gave considerable license to his own imaginative engagement with the poem, and to his wit. Though its influence has recently been reassessed, it may still fairly be said that it effected a bouleversement in academic study of the Old English epic.

"The Monsters and the Critics" was one in a series of lectures by various speakers, given biennially in honor of the British Academy's founding Secretary, Sir Israel Gollancz. A senior Establishment figure, medieval and Shakespeare scholar, Gollancz had been the first Jewish professor of English in a British university (King's College, London). He had been knighted in 1919. Gollancz had himself persuaded a wealthy donor and personal friend, Mrs. Frida Mond, wife of the industrialist, Ludwig Mond, to give the money to the Academy which provided for the biennial lectures (Annual Report). Tolkien was one of many medieval scholars to benefit from the generosity which had created this most distinguished showcase for their talents, although, thanks to Tolkien's later fame as much as its own merits, "The Monsters and the Critics" is probably the most widely known of these performances.

The lectures had been created as a means of perpetuating Gollancz's memory after his death in 1930. In that they have succeeded. Medievalists, and specialists in Old English in particular, know his name, in part, it must be said, because of the success of Tolkien's lecture, but also as an editor who did much to make accessible texts which are now regarded as essential for the study of medieval English literature, especially the fourteenth-century poems surviving uniquely in a single manuscript (British Library, MS Cotton Nero A. x), in particular Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Perhaps inevitably, Gollancz's editions have since been superseded, not least by the work of Tolkien himself and his co-editor E. V. Gordon. Indeed, their edition of Gawain was published in Gollancz's lifetime, and was in competition with his work on the poem. [End Page 9]

The two men belonged to different generations: Gollancz was born in 1863; Tolkien in 1892. The up-and-coming younger man who gave the memorial lecture in 1936 was also a rival seeking to displace a patriarchal older figure who was becoming unfashionable in the 1930s. The obvious, and explicit, target for Tolkien's criticisms in the lecture was another of the previous generation, the distinguished Scottish literary scholar, W. P. Ker (1855–1923), mentioned repeatedly in the lecture, even while Tolkien stressed that he honored him.2 As for Gollancz, although it is not evident that Tolkien had known him personally, they certainly both knew of each other. Gollancz had published very widely, and Tolkien found that when he set about carving out his own career and literary interests, Gollancz's prints were everywhere. It cannot be doubted that Tolkien knew that he was following in the older man's footsteps, and it is extremely unlikely that he would have wished to do so slavishly.

Indeed, Gollancz's literary interests and enthusiasms coincided remarkably with Tolkien's own. In the circumstances, the odd thing about Tolkien's Gollancz Lecture—intended to perpetuate Gollancz's memory—is that he did not mention Gollancz's name even once.3 Although not obligatory—another Gollancz lecturer, Robin Flower, also simply got on with his chosen task4—the majority of the lecturers did have something to say about the man they were commemorating. It seems a striking omission: at the very least piquant. It is, of course, difficult to argue from silence. We can only guess why Tolkien did not mention Gollancz. But the circumstances themselves suggest that the failure to mention him was a positive choice, not a simple piece of...


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