Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer

Cover of Bowers' "Tolkien's Lost Chaucer" [1]2,268 words

“Tolkien knows more about Chaucer than any living man.” — John Masefield, Poet Laureate (1930-67)

John M. Bowers’ book Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer (Oxford 2019) finally puts paid to the recently concocted mythology propagated in spurious articles like The Telegraph’s September 2009 piece “J.R.R. Tolkien Trained as a British Spy” and Elansea’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-Master, Hero: An Un-Authorized Biography (2015), that the creator of Middle-Earth was some kind of tweed-jacketed Indiana Jones, or indeed, a pipe-smoking incarnation of le Carré’s George Smiley from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974).

Far from being a mysterious code-cracker or secret agent, Tolkien was studying and drawing influence from one of the most intriguing poets of the Middle Ages.

Tolkien may well have been called upon to train at Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park during World War Two. More likely, he was at home sitting in front of a blazing log fire reading Kolbitar Club, navigating the intricacies of original Chaucerian texts, rather than orchestrating missions on behalf of Britain’s Special Operations Executive. It could be argued, though, that as a long-time subscriber to A. K. Chesterton’s Catholic-oriented patriotic publication, Candour, he may have regretted his lack of involvement.

Bowers’ investigation into Tolkien’s scholarship does, however, begin rather inauspiciously with the American writer admitting:

Everyone has his own Tolkien story, and mine almost disqualifies me from writing this book. I never read The Hobbit in high school or the Lord of the Rings at university because I was put off by the Tolkien cult whose members wore FRODO LIVES t-shirts. Reading the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings did not motivate me to tackle the original work. And when I arrived as a student at Oxford in 1973, I sensed the lingering resentment toward Tolkien as a professor who published bestsellers about fairies instead of scholarly books about Beowulf. So I remained a holdout.

And of course, that resentment still remains with celebrity intellectuals like the feminist zealot Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970), saying “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of fully grown women wearing puff sleeves, clutching teddies and babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th Century. The bad dream has been realized.” This viewpoint was shared by Edmund Wilson, the famous American literary critic who was heavily influenced by both Freud and Marx, who described The Lord of the Rings as “juvenile trash,” adding “Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form.”

Criticism of Tolkien persists to this day on more than simple literary grounds. Johann Hari wrote a toxic hit-piece on Tolkien in The Independent in 2003, after the Waterstone’s book store chain named The Lord of the Rings as the best novel of the 20th century, and the BBC’s Big Read Competition was set to name Tolkien’s magnus opus the country’s favorite book. Hari’s article describes Tolkien’s works as a “dire trilogy” and one that “isn’t loved because it’s a good novel, but because it taps into some of the most atavistic and ugly impulses of our times.”

The most obvious of these so-called ugly impulses is, as usual, racism. The purely evil Orcs are, in Tolkien’s words, “squat, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant-eyes.” The chief enemy of the novels is the Dark Lord, who lives in the Black Land. The heroic hobbits and elves are, by contrast, seemingly über-Aryan and ethnically pure. The noble ideal of “blood” and its purity consistently appears throughout Tolkien’s narrative; for example, the Men of Gondor — “the high men” — are descendants of the Numenorians, the greatest of all warriors. Over the centuries of the novels, their bloodline “degraded” due to breeding with inferior races. Prior to this, however, the Gondor bloodline was pure (such as those descended from Aragorn), and the “strength of the original Lords of the West [was] retained.”

Hari is not alone in her criticism. Dr. Stephen Shapiro, an “expert” on cultural studies, race, and slavery, denounced Tolkien’s classic as an “epic rooted in racism . . . Put simply, Tolkien’s good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde.” Shapiro does offer one insignificant concession, stating that “Tolkien was not a Nazi but he was a Nordicist in that his works hark back to England’s original culture before the Norman invasion.”

This insight, while meant to be derisive in the hands of Shapiro, actually serves as a relevant starting point for Bowers; he picks up on Tolkien’s Nordicism at the very beginning of Lost Chaucer, noting that “Tolkien was a specialist in early Germanic languages haunted by how much had disappeared, regretting especially the lost mythology of pre-Christian England and the lost poetry of the Anglo Saxons.”

Several of Tolkien’s titles reflect what his official biographer Humphrey Carpenter describes as his “deep sense of impending loss,” riffing on the idea that “nothing was safe; nothing would last.” With titles like The Lost Road, The Cottage of Lost Play, The Book of Lost Tales, and of course the majestic Silmarillion which Bowers rightfully describes as a “chronicle of loss upon loss” that Tolkien jestingly hinted was full of the “heigh stile,” a phrase he directly borrowed from Chaucer. Tolkien, therefore, expresses his ethereal sentiments with frequent references to Chaucer, an example of which may be advice given to wives that they should be “light as leef on Lind” — appearing in Tolkien’s Lay of Beren and Luthien:

Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that come down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Luthien. Of their lives was made the Lay of Leithian, Release from Bondage, which is the longest save one of the songs concerning the world of old . . .

Tolkien’s fascination with Chaucer was not limited to passing reference in his fiction. In fact, he sustained his affection for Chaucer over many decades — as a schoolboy he came to medieval literature by way of The Canterbury Tales, and as an undergraduate, he took copious notes on Sir Walter Raleigh’s Chaucer lectures and wrote essays on Chaucer’s Dialect for his then-tutor Arthur Sisam. During his first academic appointment at Leeds, he lectured on the General Prologue as well as Chaucer’s Language. At Oxford he had given lectures on The Pardoner’s Tale. When he became Oxford’s Merton Professor of Language and Literature in 1945, twenty years later, he lectured on Chaucer once more. The Pardoner’s Tale was a set text in the Literature course and The Clerk’s Tale for the Language course, the latter replaced by The Parlement of Foules in 1948, as noted by Bowers.    

It was this pedigree that allowed Tolkien to compose the well-regarded landmark study “Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale” published in Transactions of the Philological Society (1934) and various references to the subject in his ‘Valedictory Address’ when retiring in June 1959. Tolkien’s knowledge of Chaucer, however, did not preclude hardship, as Bowers makes clear; his procrastination and perfectionism (a hallmark of his fictional universe) also blighted his academic aspirations. His collaborators frequently complained about Tolkien’s tardiness in polishing up 160 pages of annotations which he worked on occasionally.

Strangely enough, Tolkien’s most famous and closest friend between 1927 and 1940, the Christian apologist and Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis, who also published an influential article on Troilus and Criseyde in 1932 and an important critical re-assessment of Chaucer in his Allegory of Love (1936) was not called upon by Tolkien when this Clarendon project stalled and seems to have been completely unaware of Tolkien’s efforts in this regard. Perhaps, a sign of academic jealousy? Bowers certainly thinks that was a possibility. He writes:

Though six years younger, Lewis had academic proficiencies more far-ranging…Tolkien may have entrusted him with reading his first full draft of The Hobbit, but, academics being academics, some degree of competitiveness persisted. No man likes admitting failure to another; showing weakness did not figure among Lewis’s definitions of ‘friendship’ in The Four Loves. So it is understandable that Tolkien would have been unwilling to admit that he had stumbled — and his philological enterprise had come to ruin as well — for what should have been the elementary assignment of publishing a student reader of Chaucer.

John of Gaunt, the fourteenth-century poet, influenced in the 1370s by luminaries like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio and patronized by the Duke of Lancaster, certainly warranted Tolkien’s undivided attention. He was celebrated as “The Noble Philosophical Poet in English” and later the subject of Terry Jones’s (of Monty Python fame) two books Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1994) and Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery (2003), and in 1386 began his epic Canterbury Tales with the lines:  

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power,
As brings about the engendering of the flower, When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath

Interestingly enough, the above translation was rendered by Professor Nevill Coghill, an Oxford man, who like Tolkien served as Merton Professor of English Literature from 1957 to 1966. He was ably assisted by Tolkien’s own son and later literary executor, Christopher, who was a tutor in English Language at New College between 1964 and 1975.

Chaucer, like Tolkien, a man who enjoyed the favor of his contemporaries. Writers like John Gower (c. 1330-1408) who wrote his Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Shrift) in English, Vox Clamantis (The Voice of One Crying) in Latin, and Speculum Meditantis (the Mirror of One Meditating) in French, was a fan. The Prologue of his Confessio begins:

Of those who wrote in days of yore,
The books remain, and we therefore
May learn by what was written then

William Langland, (c. 1330-1386) whose great alliterative poem Piers Plowman stands alongside Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at the very centre of medieval English literature, was influenced as well. This is argued by A.V.C. Schmidt, whose path also crossed with Tolkien’s while employed at Tolkien’s own alma-mater Exeter College, Oxford. The Prologue to Langland’s masterpiece commences:

In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.

These worthy works command respect centuries after their creator’s quill scratched its way by candlelight across parchment; and Tolkien was expected to work on extracts, using the eminent Victorian Walter W. Skeat’s monumental Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer produced in the 1890s. Tolkien was not asked to take responsibility for selecting or editing the texts for the Clarendon Chaucer. But, as Bowers indicates:

He made almost no substantive emendations, although he insisted upon better punctuation as well as diacritical marks to help newcomers with pronouncing Middle-English. When he did make some minor change in spelling or word-order, however, he grew stubborn about it. Later in his fiction-writing when printers changed ‘dwarves’ to ‘dwarfs’ and ‘elven’ to ‘elfin’ in the first edition of the Lord of the Rings, he demanded that the original forms be restored throughout. This sort of obstinacy [was] already on display when editing Chaucer.

At the time, Tolkien seemed to resent this job by turns. He dismissed some of Skeat’s work, but later admitted when writing to Dan Davin of the Oxford University Press that he came to recognize Chaucerian influences in his own fictional characters. Examples of this were Troilus and Criseyde on the love and courtship of Faramir and Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings and The Pardoner’s Tale, where Chaucer’s core-story, Bowers asserts, revolves around “three men fighting over a golden treasure” which of course resonates with the core-story of Tolkien’s Third Age of Middle-Earth. Bowers continues:

Tolkien’s masterpiece came into being and changed the literary landscape, in short, because George Gordon finagled successfully to hire Tolkien at Oxford in some measure for the sake of completing their stalled Chaucer edition. Thus this humble-looking text book, albeit never finished and published, became a fateful link in the chain of events. If not for Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, it is just possible that we would never have heard of Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf the Grey.

And for that reason alone, this extremely well-written and informative academic piece by Bowers is well worth the time and pecuniary investment. For those looking for relevant, and perhaps canonical information on Tolkien to assist them in reading this, consider the following volumes:

Along with the Celtic myths, the Norse Sagas and the Finnish language, Chaucer can now be added to the boundless list of catalysts that ignited the imagination of this giant of fiction. And hopefully the value of this somewhat mysterious fourteenth-century squire, soldier, diplomat, astronomer, and Controller of Customs and Subsidy of Wools, Skins and Hides in the Port of London, buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, can be truly appreciated by Tolkien’s ever-growing army of serious-minded admirers across the globe.