Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Philology in the Notion Club Papers


Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and his professional career spanned the tail-end of the 'romantic' era of philology and the establishment of philology as a professional academic specialization - en route (as it turned out) to its fragmentation and extinction into linguistics, sociolinguistics and so on.


It is often forgotten that Nietzsche was a philologist in his early academic career, at a time when philology was somewhere near the zenith of prestige in academia.

At that point philology was something of a 'master discipline' in the German university system; a creative science which fused history and intuitive speculation in a rediscovery of culture and modes of thought.

Tom (T.A.) Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth is, of course, the indispensable study of Tolkien as philologist - and is probably the most important book ever written about Tolkien.


Shippey describes Tolkien's method of going from words to speculate on the roots of words, and from there to inferences about the kind of life which would have led to words having that set of association and connotations.

In this sense, the Tolkien cosmology began with his iterative speculations on a possible society which might have led to the word Earendil as it appeared in the Old English poem Crist.

Tolkien often asserted this in interviews - that the language came first, and the mythic fantasy served (merely) to create a situation which might have generated the language.


As might be expected, The Notion Club Papers is full of philology - both the main protagonists (Ramer in Part One and Lowdham in Part Two) are professional philologists. And Lowdham is, in this respect, the most like Tolkien.

Indeed, The NCPs served as the stimulus for Tolkien to invent (or discover) yet another language, following-on from Quenya (language of the high elves in the undying lands) and Sindarin (language of the grey elves of Middle Earth and the exiled Noldor): this time Adunaic (everyday langauge of the Numenoreans).


Among the real world Inklings, it was probably the marginal and occasional figure of Owen Barfield who influenced Tolkien most, in a philological sense (Tolkien seemed to have been utterly dismissive of Jack Lewis's dabblings in philology in his book Studies in Words; although he had good things to say - including a mention in The NCPs - about Lewis's partial invented language of Old Solar).

Barfield wrote a book called Poetic Diction, adapted from his BLitt thesis, that had a major impact on Tolkien, and the whole way he thought about words and history.

(As I understand it) Barfield explained that modern words differ from ancient words not merely in meaning, but in their whole nature - ancient words refer to things which have no equivalent among modern words.

So that a single ancient usage - especially of a word like 'spirit' - had numerous *simultaneous* connotations; which cannot actually be captured by a linear and sequential list of all the specific meanings of that word in its various usages.


This is exactly the point made by Jeremy in The NCPs when he talks of real history becoming more mythical - as one goes further back in time:

"Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like." [Page 227]


I see one of the therapeutic aspects of writing The NCPs was a recovery of Tolkien's delight in philology, epitomized by the exuberant act of commencing to invent a new language.

Yet, somewhat ironically, even as he renewed his delight in philology, and even as he had (from 1945) just attained promotion to a more senior Professorship in Oxford (indeed, one of the most prestigious academic Chairs in the world), Tolkien was also turning-away from professional academic philology towards the philology of his own imagined world.

From onward, 1945 Tolkien barely published any heavyweight academic philology - although he would normally have been expected to do so. His best energies went instead into his creative writings, and into the philology which underlay them.

It is likely that a crucial change in perspective behind this came from the writing of the lecture and essay On Fairy Stories, during which he clarified to himself the validity, the importance, of sub-creation - that sub-creation might actually be more important than academic philology.

And of course history has proved him to be correct. Academic philology has disappeared, while Tolkien's sub-creative writing (including his 'old fashioned, romantic philology) has gone from strength to strength.


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