JM Bowers. Tolkien's Lost Chaucer. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2019. pp 310.
When I first read-through the Chronology volume of Scull and Hammond's JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006); I was astonished by the 'saga' of Tolkien's involvement in trying to co-write a (basic!) textbook for students entitled Selections from Chaucer's Poetry and Prose, to be published by the Clarendon imprint of Oxford University Press (OUP) - because this attempt extended from 1922 up to 1951, and he had still not finished it!
Indeed, Tolkien eventually handed-over (very reluctantly) his notes to the OUP and, after a period of trying to find another author or re-launch the project, the book was never published. The proofs and manuscript copy languished in the basements of the OUP for some fifty years until rediscovered through the offices of Professor Bowers - leading to this book.
Thus, JM Bowers has written this new book about this extraordinary episode; which illustrates Tolkien at something likes his extremes of fascinating scholarly inspiration and thoroughness on the one hand; and maddening, obtuse inefficiency and ineffectiveness on the other - all compounded by a stubborn refusal to admit defeat and allow somebody else to do the job (until it was too late).
This book would be appreciated by two main kinds of people: those who are intensely interested by the way Tolkien thought and worked as a writer; and those who are interested by Chaucer. But most appreciated by those who are, like me, keen on both! As such, there is - especially in the earliest chapters, a great deal of worthwhile and important material here. I found myself talking to the family about what I was reading; which is always a good sign!
There is also significant material about Oxford University and Oxford University Press in the middle of the twentieth century; which, again, is something that has long interested me. For example, chapter three is about 'Four Chaucerians': Walter W Skeat, Kenneth Sisam, George S Gordon and CS Lewis. I was particularly pleased to find out more about that rather shadowy, but oft-present, person of Sisam; who was variously Tolkien's tutor, a competitor for the Anglo Saxon Professorship that Tolkien (improbably!) won, and his editor - both successfully as in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight of 1925, and unsuccessfully - as here; and that colossus of British philology: Skeat.
When one looks at Middle English, as I do, Skeat seems to have been everywhere; if not first, then definitively. And Bowers presents a pretty convincing thesis that Tolkien suffered a long term sense of rivalry and inadequacy when measuring himself against Skeat's vast, towering contributions (more than seventy books!). There are some striking examples cited where Tolkien gives minimal acknowledgement to Skeat, despite relying very heavily on him; and others when Tolkien makes too much of rather minute disagreements with Skeat's decisions about editing and etymology, seemingly in order to assert his independence and superiority.
The most interesting aspects of this book for me were the account of the history of the 'Clarendon Chaucer', and the very detailed accounts of Tolkien's editorial work on the text and glossary and his notes for Chaucer; during which I picked up quite a lot of fresh knowledge about these vital but neglected literary skills: compounded of hard work, knowledge and creativity. Here we see Tolkien, often in first draft, and in the process of thinking-though various matters of judgment and interpretation.
On the negative side; I found some parts of the book tedious. There is way, way too much assertion of parallels and influences between details of Chaucer's writing and details of Tolkien's writing; and a whole chapter that compares aspects of Chaucer's and Tolkien's lives and personalities; and their relationships with their sons.
Many of these comparisons I found forced and unconvincing. Especially far-fetched to me was the idea, pursued across 14 pages, that Tolkien was rewriting and correcting The Pardoner's Tale - a simple and cliched parable about greed - throughout The Lord of the Rings. Even if such influences (whether unconscious or conscious) were true they seem to be trivial. These numerous instances I found to be a significant flaw in the book.
However, the main text ends delightfully by describing how Christopher Tolkien, in effect, completed one aspect of the Clarendon Chaucer; by writing the notes and glossary for The Nun's Priest's Tale in the wonderful Harrap edition of 1959 that I studied with such delight for my 'O-Level' (16-plus) exams. I still have the copy, covered in hundreds of minute pencilled annotations; and it was this book (and the excellent teaching of Nigel Hamilton, a Durham graduate who was grounded in Tolkien-style philology) that led to my lifelong enjoyment of Chaucer in the original language.
And led, therefore, to my reading of this book!
Thank you very much for this insightful and helpful review.
Tolkien was Niggle. What should have been seminal books on Beowulf, Finnesburh, Pearl and Sir Gawain only survive as prefaces and lecture notes because every line sent his fertile, learned mind into new vistas of a distant past which meant a world to him. For the very reason that each leaf was a tree, he never saw the tree whole. He actually completed The Lord of the Rings because, in Middle Earth, he was the lord of the footnotes amd did not have to fret about Skeat's edition of the Red Book.
Thanks for this! I'm hoping Tolkien's Lost Chaucer complements Christopher's Beowulf volume in giving us a further sense of Tolkien the lecturer and tutor. I'm also curious to see what, if anything, it has about The Hous of Fame and The Book of the Duchess.
David Llewellyn Dodds
@David LD - If you spot this note, please could you e-mail me - address in the sidebar?
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