Friday, July 3, 2020

John M. Bowers' "Tolkien's Lost Chaucer" Book Review

 Cover for 

Tolkiens Lost Chaucer

While at least some who discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s works as young people go on to study medieval literature, very few have first approached Tolkien after having established their careers as experts in the British Middle Ages. Professor John M. Bowers, a seasoned scholar on the Gawain poet, William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, brings to his investigation of Tolkien’s “lost Chaucer” a variety of engaging strategies enabling those familiar with either writer to enjoy the other one.

Bowers confesses that he barely knew of hobbit fantasies when Bowers glimpsed Tolkien during his Rhodes Scholar stint at Oxford, shortly before the master’s death in 1973. Familiar, however, with Tolkien’s academic contributions, Bowers only caught on to the popular appeal of the author of The Lord of the Rings after his sister gave him the film trilogy as a boxed set at the start of this century. The previous century found Tolkien arguably more appreciated by millions, contrasted with those who had been assigned the opening of The Canterbury Tales in high school. Bowers made up mid-career for his delayed start. Having explored Middle Earth attentively and with deep appreciation, he provides a welcome, fresh foray into both medieval and modern lore.

With so much academic work devoted to Chaucer, and an increasing amount to Tolkien (both deep within and on the fringes of the academy), innovations elude many publishing on these writers. Bowers’ acumen with Middle English and Chaucer’s oeuvre enlivens his parallel adventure into the papers left behind by Tolkien from his work on the Oxford University Press Clarendon Chaucer edition. As a harried lecturer with a growing family to support, Tolkien struggled to balance his invention of Middle Earth and its burgeoning intricacies with his professional duties. He longed to expand his beloved imaginary horizons beyond the podium.

Finding that Tolkien may have often begged off duties to devote precious time to his fabulous fiction, Bowers turns to his former dissertation advisor, V.A. Kolve. He was one of the last in the undergraduate program to work for Tolkien as a research assistant, back in 1958. Kolve recalls his mentor’s confiding: “He confessed to me once that some were disappointed by how little he had done in the academic way, but that he had chosen instead to explore his own vision of things.” The ties binding students to masters at Oxford meant only a chosen few could attend Tolkien’s tutorials and lectures, but these scholars spread the reputation of Tolkien through their own specialized monographs and articles, quoting Tolkien often on Beowulf or Old English.

This represents the attention paid to Tolkien the scholar, compared with the fabulist-on-the-side. Upending the common method, by which Tolkien enthusiasts tend to look to his medieval inspirations to track sources and analogies, Bowers comes from immersion in Chaucer back to his erstwhile scribe. In his annotated proofs and diligent notes for the Clarendon project, Bowers uncovers affinities galore. Out of this at first unprepossessing material in the Oxford archives, the “grey box” of sheets scribbled in Tolkien’s fastidious if eccentric handwriting remind Bowers of Gandalf poring over “the slashed, stabbed, and partly burned Book of Mazurbal.”

Bowers avers that Tolkien’s selling point, which under his sponsor George Gordon elevated Tolkien from his position at Leeds to a professorship at Oxford, was the fact that, if hired, the academic could labor on their stalled edition of Chaucer. However, 30 years’ of intermittent labor never was published. Tolkien abandoned it in 1951. Three years later, his trilogy appeared.

All the same, his skilled efforts at textual studies and etymological derivations inspired key episodes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bowers pulls out such small details as Tolkien’s service as a signaling officer in the Great War or his fear of being outed as a Catholic, too. Bowers shows how Tolkien’s life and legends interweave, and how his status at Oxford fared compared to his counterpart C.S. Lewis. This takes a bit of shine off the glory bestowed by admirers of the latter chronicler, but it necessarily proves that Tolkien faced severe obstacles, looming or subtle, that complicated his Chaucer contributions and diminished his learned output. These biographical surmises, backed by letters and lectures unpublished from the same archives, enrich what previous admirers have devoted to Tolkien’s impact. Bowers possesses balance; he avoids hagiography. Instead, he compares Tolkien’s career at times to that of Chaucer himself.

This clever set of affinities creates the most engaging part of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. How the Oxford don reacted to yew trees, mills and millers or “felled elms” in his childhood echoes in his Middle Earth world. Bowers, in one of many instances, demonstrates how his close reading of Tolkien’s archived manuscripts and notes strengthened Tolkien’s compulsion to pore most of his energy into a realm emerging that rivalled and perhaps surpassed the ambitious, unfinished plans of Chaucer for his great book of many pilgrims relating many stories. A coda takes Tolkien’s own unfinished project forward, through the editing of his son Christopher. While neither Chaucer nor Tolkien could complete their greatest works, they leave plenty behind for steady pioneers such as John Bowers to unearth, revealing that riches still await men who dig deep for gold.
Spectrum Culture 3/5/20

P.S. Delighted to verify in print, in this title I review, that my diss. advisor name-checked in this review (who far earlier advised similarly the author of this study) was one of JRRT's last "probationary B.Litt students" at Oxford in 1958. He'd arrive for tutoring at 11 AM and the professor poured gin out for them both from rather soiled glasses. So I'm two steps removed from the inspiration for my own medieval studies, as a boy 6000 miles away in dusty, smoggy SoCal, who read The Hobbit when I was nine.

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