14 December, 2019 • • 41.3History

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Tolkien as Chaucer?

Daniel Sutton

John M. Bowers
Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer
Oxford University Press

In 1937, CS Lewis reviewed The Hobbit for the Times Literary Supplement, famously ending with the line “Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” Less well-known is the penultimate sentence, in which Lewis remarked that “The Hobbit… will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true.” I must confess that I’ve only read The Hobbit once, and slept through the third instalment of the film adaptation. But if I’ve learned one thing from John Bowers’ Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, it’s that on this occasion, Lewis sold JRR Tolkien short. Bowers takes just one of Tolkien’s myriad academic passions—the life and writings of Geoffrey Chaucer—and illustrates how many months of painstaking work and how much of his heart Tolkien invested in it. For anyone seriously interested in either Tolkien or Chaucer, Bowers’ book will be indispensable. For others, it is a meticulous, elegant, and at times moving look into how one great author read another.

Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer weaves together two stories. The first is about Tolkien’s many difficulties in editing and publishing a Clarendon edition of some of Chaucer’s writings, which was to be titled Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, while a professor here in Oxford. He began work on it in 1922, essentially abandoned it in 1928, and was obliged to return his papers to Oxford University Press in 1951, after which his project was lost in the bowels of the Oxford University Press basement. Through Tolkien’s notes, a vast array of correspondence and the odd piece of oral history, Bowers reconstructs a relatable tale of academic highs and lows. The reader learns about Tolkien’s inability to keep to deadlines or from digressions, his struggles with lecturing audibly and his frustration with word-limits. Bowers shows just how long Tolkien could spend analysing one word (he wrote almost his entire commentary on Chaucer’s To Rosemounde about the term ‘tregentyll’, which didn’t even belong to Chaucer, but came from a note by his scribe) and how patient Tolkien’s commissioner was with his pedantry.

We are introduced to each of Tolkien’s key colleagues and predecessors: the Victorian polymath Walter Skeat, the long-suffering Kenneth Sisam from Oxford University Press, Tolkien’s co-editor George Gordon, who promised much but published little, and Tolkien’s friend CS Lewis, who shared his love of Chaucer but lacked his patience for editorial notes. Bowers sketches a picture of Oxford in the early twentieth century which captures its charm: reading Beowulf over beers in Magdalen, walking round the idyllic Merton Fellows Garden, sharing stories in the Eagle and Child on St Giles’. But it also reflects the slowness and the struggles of academia. Far from the image of the superstar author, for whom everything came easy, we read how trying Tolkien found his career at times. In one letter he wrote after sending The Hobbit to George Gordon for review, he wryly noted that “Professor Gordon has actually read the book (supposed to be a rare event), and assures me he will recommend it”.     

The second story which Bowers tells is about the content of Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, as well as Tolkien’s notes and lectures on Chaucer, and the echoes of these in Tolkien’s published fiction, chiefly The Lord of the Rings. Bowers is explicit that he thinks “what will really interest readers today is the connection between Chaucer’s fabliau and Tolkien’s early draft of what would become The Lord of the Rings.” And indeed, in many cases, even to a non-Tolkienite like myself, these links are fascinating. Bowers’ study of Tolkien’s lectures on the Pardoner’s Tale from the early 1950s is a highlight: he shows that Tolkien thought about the structure of The Lord of the Rings in a very similar way, and conceived of it as part of the same literary tradition. Bowers begins by noting that Tolkien saw the Pardoner’s Tale as one iteration of a core story, which had been told in many different times and cultures. He then quotes this remarkable passage from Tolkien’s lectures:

Here is the core… Two men find an unguarded or ownerless treasure. The effect on them is disastrous for it creates greed in their hearts, and they kill one another—and so neither of them enjoys any of it at all…

As Bowers rightly suggests, these lines could just as easily describe Tolkien’s own story of Déagol and Smeágol as any of the older tales which he had been discussing. Likewise, when Tolkien introduces the other characters in this core story, Bowers quotes a passage showing that one of them bears an uncanny resemblance to Gandalf:

There now enters another element. A ‘wise man’. In a sense he represents the teller of the moral story. But his place in the machinery is to warn the finders. He must therefore already know about the treasure. At least he must know what it is, and where it is at the moment lying—but he may know more than that: he may know about its nature and origin. And a reason must be given for two things: (a) why he tells the finders about it, and (b) why he himself eschews it… The wise man is apt to be also a wizard.

And so I could go on. If Tolkien saw his story as a finely-tuned machine, then Bowers takes us right under the bonnet. Equally, there are imaginative, but really quite plausible, explanations of where Tolkien found inspiration for some of his most distinctive characters. The Lord of Eagles, Bowers argues, finds his predecessor in Chaucer’s royal bird (who can also look unblinkingly into the sun). The Ents share their heron-like gait and their trumpet-like voices with characters from Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, which also includes a catalogue of trees. Bowers even has a theory about the origin of the name ‘hobbit’, though he caveats it quite heavily. Tolkien’s notes on Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose record that its continuator, Jean de Meung, was surnamed li Clompinel—‘the Hobbler’—and Bowers adds that Frodo, Sam, Peregrin and Meriadoc are all continuators of stories in their own right. Aside from being top-drawer trivia material, even someone allergic to The Lord of the Rings would have to admire the sheer depth of Bower’s research.    

Reading some of these passages, I began wonder whether Bowers was—consciously or not—trying to practice the same sort of philology on Tolkien’s work which Tolkien himself had used to study Chaucer’s. If so, he has had some success. But a number of Bowers’ links are more tenuous: for example, he suggests that in 1932 “The Hobbit’s Mirkwood episode could almost be read as an allegory for his own editorial impasse”. Moreover, particularly from Chapter Five onwards, it can sometimes seem as if Tolkien’s Chaucerian scholarship is treated like a commentary on The Lord of the Rings, which is itself treated like a commentary on The Canterbury Tales. Clearly Tolkien reflected profoundly on Chaucer’s work while writing his fiction, but understanding what Tolkien discovered about language, characters and themes in Chaucer’s writings is a worthy end in itself. When Bowers discusses these discoveries on their own terms—without Frodo or Gandalf butting in halfway through – he brings them out brilliantly. Some of the most impressive passages in the book are when Bowers explains how Tolkien innovatively analysed Chaucer’s use of dialects. Tolkien recognised that Chaucer had his characters speak in different dialects (particularly northern ones) as a way of humorously challenging preconceptions of social status, especially in the Reeve’s Tale. But where previous commentators had thought Chaucer had often failed to represent the dialects accurately, Tolkien argued that these errors were actually from fifteenth-century copyists who didn’t understand Chaucer’s point, and showed how Chaucer could well have heard speakers of all these dialects in London. Bowers shows that Tolkien conceived of Chaucer in his own image: a conscientious philologist, who appreciated the diversity of the English language and its local dialects.

That said, one of Bowers’ best insights is into how Tolkien used Chaucerian material in his fiction. Too often in intellectual history or biography, the study of an author’s influences (especially one as well-studied as Tolkien) falls into what we might call a cocktail-making fallacy. You measure what’s gone in—one part Beowulf, two parts Chaucer, another part his time at the Battle of the Somme, etc—taste the result, and assume any discrepancy is down to contextual shakings and stirrings. Bowers’ approach is much more nuanced than that. Following Jason Fisher’s article Tolkien and Source Criticism: Remarking and Remaking, Bowers notes that “Tolkien typically uses sources only to improve upon them”. So, whereas in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale three men murder one another because of greed for the treasure, in The Lord of the Rings the two good hobbits survive the fight for the Ring in Mount Doom. Similarly, Bowers suggests, the romance of Eowyn and Faramir improves on Troilus and Criseyde, and Merry and Pippin’s victory at Isengard improves on the Reeve’s Tale, again by constructing happier and more hopeful endings. This is a compelling way of understanding how Tolkien read Chaucer, and it helps us to grasp something of what made Tolkien such a powerful writer. He repeatedly took ancient stories—Bowers shows how Chaucer himself drew on much older traditions—which had proven their insightfulness, but then reshaped them to fit the world as he saw it, or perhaps wanted to see it. Tolkien was never obsequious to his sources—he debated with them fiercely.

Perhaps the most distinctive, but also puzzling, aspect of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer is the comparison Bowers draws between Tolkien and Chaucer as individuals. About halfway through the book, Bowers introduces the idea that Tolkien’s work on Chaucer could reveal interesting insights into Tolkien himself. He notes Christopher Tolkien’s claim that The History of Middle Earth was “a record of [Tolkien’s] life, a form of biography”, and then asks, “So why cannot the Oxford Professor’s scholarly writings provide another version of autobiography?”. Though this point seems confused—scholarly texts of Tolkien’s such as his work on Chaucer certainly tell us things about him and were written by him, but they are not autobiography in any conventional sense—it is not unreasonable in principle, and Bowers does use the texts to illuminate many corners of Tolkien’s life in Oxford. Over the next hundred pages or so, however, the reader begins to sense Bowers is really suggesting something else, which he finally makes explicit on p226: that the works show us many similarities between Tolkien and Chaucer themselves, not just their fiction.

In a few of his examples, Bowers makes a persuasive case that Tolkien recognised something of Chaucer in himself, or chose to style himself on his predecessor. His observation about how Tolkien and Chaucer both enjoyed framing their fiction as translations of prior histories is a case in point. But most of Bowers’ comparisons just seem to point out a similarity for its own sake: both authors’ difficulties in finishing works, their knowledge of Oxford, their insomnia and love of books. Some of them are entertaining, though many would be true of almost any two English authors. In general, though, it is not clear exactly what purpose these parallels serve. There is rarely any causal relationship, and the mere fact of similarity tells us little new about either author. Bowers rightly notes that Tolkien had a habit of disclaiming particular influences or interpretations of his work, but occasionally he seems to treat that habit as a blank cheque for suggesting that Tolkien was really comparing himself with Chaucer, even if there is little or no straightforward evidence to indicate this was Tolkien’s intention.

One parallel which is highly pertinent, however, is Bowers’ comparison of the two authors’ respective sons, who he argues were both executors and editors of their fathers’ works. In Chaucer’s case, as Bowers notes, this necessarily relies on some speculation, but I found it broadly persuasive (especially given that Thomas Chaucer kept renting the his father’s house in Westminster Abbey, where the literary papers were almost certainly kept, long after he started living elsewhere). The role of family members in the writing and transmission of a writer’s work is very often neglected, but Bowers’ coda tells the story of Thomas Chaucer’s and Christopher Tolkien’s involvements in detail. As Bowers tells the story, they were both faced with voluminous and disorganised papers, both devoted significant time to publishing their fathers’ tales, and both sought the help of experts to present their fathers’ work as accurately as possible. In this chapter Bowers acknowledges that the parallels are “purely coincidental”, but uses them with purpose: to extract a principle—if someone is to be a great author, they must be followed by a patient executor—and give the pair of sons their just mentions.

As Bowers hints at once or twice, there is a little irony to the very idea behind Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. JRR Tolkien was strongly opposed to mining an author’s biography in order to better understand their literary work—not least his own—because he thought that it was both ineffective and intrusive. But were there not such great curiosity to learn about Tolkien’s life and works and to squeeze every last drop of his literary genius, then these unpublished manuscripts on Chaucer would still be in the basement at Oxford University Press. Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer demonstrates that Tolkien’s work on Chaucer is worth bringing to light, and that careful study of neglected parts of an author’s life can illuminate familiar texts in fresh ways. Bowers’ book is insightful and enjoyable: a fitting testament to the two writers with whom it is concerned.


Daniel Sutton is reading for a DPhil in Ancient History at St John’s College.