Tolkien studies (a perspective)

From the perspective of my own shortcut to mushrooms, the history of Tolkien studies is a curious one involving two distinct phases.

Within a decade of Tolkien’s death in 1973 two books had appeared that still today define the state of the emerging field known as ‘Tolkien studies’:

Tom A. Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth. Allen & Unwin: London. 1982.

Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Kent State University Press: Ohio. 1983.

Shippey’s book established the proposition that Tolkien’s professional life as an Oxford philologist has much to do with how and why he imagined Middle-earth. Flieger’s book identified Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) as second only to Beowulf in its influence on Tolkien.

Now, in the natural course of things these two studies would together have opened up a road that should have been taken long ago. Shippey says Tolkien was a philologist, but does not tell us of what kind (and the history of comparative philology reveals many kinds). Flieger identifies the importance of Poetic Diction, which was evidently intended as a contribution to the kind of study that in Oxford might have been called philological. Hence, the natural line of research waiting to be taken since 1984 is to use Barfield to establish what kind of a linguist Tolkien was and thereby take Shippey’s thesis to a new level.

The main reason why this road has never been taken, I think, is that these two great works were born just as the world changed. In 1983, the same year in which Flieger’s Splintered Light appeared, Christopher Tolkien published his edition of his father’s Book of Lost Tales, the first of what became twelve volumes collectively bearing the title The History of Middle-earth (Home). Nor did Christopher Tolkien stop there, with subsequent publications including an important 2014 volume containing his father’s translation of and commentary on Beowulf. Only in 2017 did he announce an end to half a lifetime of editorial work.

The immediate effect of this wealth of new primary material was to make clear that the book that appeared in 1977 as The Silmarillion was a distillation by Christopher Tolkien of a set of stories that his father crafted and recrafted over most of his life and of which many versions exist. As a Victorian taste for origins still haunts us, and as Christopher began the Home series with his father’s earliest writings, the main focus of most writing on Tolkien for some while now has been with the origin of the ‘Silmarillion’ stories (of which the classic account is now: John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: On the Threshold of Middle-earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Boston, New York. 2003).

In the meanwhile, the two works of Shippey and Flieger have become classics in the sense that they are both constantly referenced yet rarely engaged with. Indeed, the extent to which the Home series has reshaped the whole field without anyone quite noticing is revealed by the way that Dimitra Fimi, in her Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: from Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan: London. 2008), politely places Shippey’s book on a pedestal while completely passing over Tolkien’s professional work (so we get elves in relation to Peter Pan but not to Beowulf).

Yet this silent dropping of Shippey’s basic premise has at least left him with less scars than Flieger. Her basic claim that The Silmarillion was inspired by Poetic Diction has been given a hard knock by the new evidence that Tolkien began his ‘Silmarillion’ stories over a decade before Barfield’s book was published. John Rateliff seems to be correct when, in his History of the Hobbit, he points out that there is no obvious change in the stories that may be correlated with the publication of Poetic Diction. Hence, while ritual homage to Splintered Light has become a commonplace of Tolkien studies, the inquiry into the significance of Owen Barfield’s ideas for Tolkien seems long ago to have been quietly shelved.

Like other people drawn into Tolkien studies only this side of the millenium, I began by reading whatever I could get my hands on. But my own interest has always been in the two hobbit stories rather than the earlier stories of the elves, and I soon discovered that the relevant Home volumes – which begin with The Lost Road (1987) – have so far attracted little attention. Returning to the two classic studies of the field after long submersion in these volumes has lead me to frame the above history.

And, of course, I do so because I wish to present this shortcut to mushrooms as a road that has been waiting to be taken since 1984.

My basic conclusions, as detailed in other entries, are:

  1. Shippey imposed an overly restrictive definition on philology that reflected that inquiries into poetic meaning once part of the world of thought of the Oxford philologist have subsequently been annexed by literary theory.
  2. Barfield’s Poetic Diction may indeed be discerned in the queer part of Tolkien’s linguistic thought, which is to say that both Oxford philologists share an idea of myth as containing original poetic meanings.
  3. Flieger had astonishing insight but made a mistake of interpretation. Tolkien engaged with Barfield’s Poetic Diction only in the mid-1930s, his influence is most clearly discerned in ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (in The Lost Road) and is a better guide to The Lord of the Rings than to The Silmarillion.

On this last point: when Flieger tries to relate Barfield to The Silmarillion what she is seeing is a combination of:  (a) various original elements compatible with Barfield’s ideas, and (b) an identification retrospectively imposed by Tolkien after composition of ‘The Fall of Númenor.’

Flieger also pushed a too simple identifiation of the thought of Barfield and Tolkien. We are looking at adaptation not simple adoption. Specifically, Tolkien recognized that Barfield was still hung up with a scholarly search for origins characteristic of Victorian philology at Oxford.

Where Barfield says that the first humans in history perceived – and so spoke of – the world mythically, Tolkien says that what the first humans perceived and said is beyond the reach of scientific inquiry and is properly treated by an artist inventing myths. Myths, for Tolkien, come before history. History is a series of falls, each of which leaves the survivors of the cataclysm with a handful of fragments of myths, which now become ‘fairy elements’ in fairy stories. These fairy elements, however, have a distinct affinity with the ‘original semantic unities’ at the heart of Barfield’s Poetic Diction.