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Tom Shippey, ‘J.R.R. Tolkien and Philology’

Tom Shippey, a medievalist and a philologist, defines comparative philology and explains its importance for Tolkien’s literary works.

The professional discipline in which J.R.R. Tolkien was trained, and which in many ways animated his creative as well as his scholarly work was that of philology, in particular comparative philology. This was one of the breakthrough subjects of the nineteenth century, and for a while had a claim to being the nearest thing the humanities possessed to a hard science. It may be defined as the study of languages, and the relationships between them, and of their historical development from the time of the earliest records, and beyond.

Grimm and linguistic ‘laws’

Its founding father was Jacob Grimm, now famous mostly for having, with his brother Wilhelm, collected, edited and published the Grimms’ Fairy Tales (in German), in 1812. A few years later, however, Grimm began to publish his Deutsche Grammatik (1819-1840). Despite its title, this was not a ‘German grammar’, but a description of the known Germanic languages, including extinct ones such as Old English and Gothic, with an account of their development.

Especially productive was Grimm’s demonstration, now known as ‘Grimm’s Law’, of the regular relationship between words in Germanic and Classical languages. Some kind of relationship had always been familiar: anyone can see that there is some connection between words like Latin pater and German Vater, English ‘father’. But what of Latin quinque, German fünf, English ‘five’? And literally thousands of other examples, in apparently bewildering variety?

Grimm’s achievement was to reduce this linguistic flux to order, in a word to give it ‘laws’, which once understood seemed to operate with Newtonian universality. Hundreds of scholars exploited Grimm’s breakthrough, and in the process refined ideas of language-evolution, became able to read ancient languages and ancient texts forgotten for centuries, and created an entirely new history of the prehistoric.

Re-inventing languages, rewriting lost poems

One outcrop of the Grimmian revolution was a new and scientific interest in the history of words, which may be easily studied, for instance, by looking at the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, prepared by C.T. Onions – like Tolkien a Birmingham man, one of the four editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, or as Tolkien jokingly calls them (in Farmer Giles of Ham), ‘the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford’, and a senior colleague of Tolkien’s in his first Oxford job.

Such was the confidence of the new philologists, however, that they soon began to recreate, or ‘reconstruct’, languages of which no word had ever been recorded, such as Primitive Indo-European, and to write or rewrite poems which had vanished.

Tolkien shared fully in exercises of this kind. He wrote a poem in Gothic, one of the ‘Songs for the Philologists’ created by him and his Leeds colleague E.V. Gordon. In this he followed, for instance, August Schleicher, who wrote a fable in Indo-European, and the Dane Axel Olrik, who, distressed at the loss of the Old Norse poem Bjarkamál, reconstructed it in the original language. Tolkien may have done the same thing. Eight pages of the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda are missing, and seem to have contained the bulk of the ‘Great Lay of Sigurd the Volsung’. In letters to W.H. Auden Tolkien twice mentions that he had written a poem called Volsungakviða en nyja, ‘the New Lay of the Volsungs’, perhaps to fill exactly that gap. (Now published in an edition established by Christopher Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s early scholarly work, furthermore, consists largely of attempts to elucidate the meaning of difficult words, in Old and Middle English, with an interesting examination also of the name of the Celtic god Nodens.

Reconstructing mythologies

It should be noted that the success of the methods of comparative philology soon led to attempts to ‘reconstruct’, in similar ways, lost mythologies: another major work by Grimm was his Deutsche Mythologie, or ‘Teutonic Mythology’. It was not entirely unprecedented, then, for Tolkien first to begin to write his own fairy stories, or tales of the elves; to anchor these by the invention not only of elvish language, but of elvish languages developing and changing historically from a common root exactly as the real Indo-European languages had done; and to embed all these in an elaborate mythology, which one can see developing from The Book of Lost Tales through to the different versions of ‘The Silmarillion’.

But philology led in other directions too. Comparative philologists, like the Grimms and Tolkien, always showed deep interest in what one might call ‘survivor genres’, forms of literature, or of speech, which had been preserved orally (like language itself) down to the present day, and which might therefore retain genuine and fascinating scraps of information.

Fairy tales are an obvious example, in which the Grimms saw many cases of vestigial myth. But one should also note such forms as riddles, proverbs, nursery-rhymes, all of them consigned by post-medieval scholarship to children, old wives, and the illiterate classes generally, but rediscovered and given new importance by the philologists – including Tolkien, who took deep interest in all the genres mentioned, sometimes writing his own, or ‘reconstructing’ vanished but plausible Old English forms. The most widespread ‘survivor-genre’, however, is names, especially of people and of places. Since people usually no longer have any idea of what these mean, or meant, they tend not to change them; and as a result names are full of buried information. Tolkien took deep personal interest in names, and was always ready to consider their etymologies. It is literally true that he could take keen interest in a telephone directory, and even more, perhaps, in a map.

‘I always in writing, always start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story.’
Tolkien, audio interview by Denys Gueroult, 1965

Tolkien, philologist and scholar

Two other philological areas which deserve mention are the editing of ancient texts, and the study of modern dialects. Tolkien made his academic name as an editor of the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the problems he set himself to solve in that edition led also to elements of his fiction such as the ‘Woses’ of Drúadan Forest, an image drawn from what Tolkien took to be a mistake in the medieval text. Tolkien was also delighted to note that features of the language of that poem recurred, naturally and without affectation, in modern dialects, and commented on the fact in his Foreword to Haigh’s 1928 study of the dialect of Huddersfield.

Perhaps the most important facts about philology, for Tolkien, were these: it was a recombinant subject, where one had to study language and literature together, as also story and mythology. And it was a subject which continually observed continuity, from a heroic and often a forgotten past right through to the present day. ‘Don’t the great tales never end?’ asks Sam Gamgee on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, and for Tolkien they did not. It was comparative philology, however, which had brought them back into the light.