Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf and Trends in Scholarship: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXIV

Christopher Tolkien says that in compiling the commentary to accompany his father's translation of Beowulf he intended to paint a portrait of his father's thought.  That portrait, as it emerges in the commentary, is very much of its place and time.  One observes all the tools and habits of fin de siecle philology: questions of multiple traditions being stitched together, inquires into lost Teutonic mythology, careful reconstructions of corrupted portions of the text.  On the other hand, we can also see in Tolkien's treatment of Beowulf the unitary impulse (that is the desire to view texts as the work of one mind organizing traditional material to serve its purposes rather than viewing texts as accretions that evolved under the hands of innumerable redactors with conflicting agendas) that was simultaneously arising in Homeric scholarship in the 1930s and 40s (see Milman Perry and A.B. Lord).  The unique factor that J.R.R. Tolkien contributes is to blend these two approaches with a maverick willingness to use his imagination in seeking answers to scholarly questions.  In painting this portrait, then, Christopher Tolkien is not only raising a memorial to his father, he is also bringing important information to light for those interested in the intellectual history of the 20th century.

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