Thursday, November 03, 2005

Defending the Tolkien Snobs

A couple of days ago I was discussing the semi-permeable membrane between "high" and "pop" culture with someone, and he brought up Tolkien. He restated the conventional wisdom that the reason it took so long for Tolkien to be taken seriously was because of snobbery about fantasy.

Very likely snobbery had something to do with it, but I think there might have been other, more influential reasons. The primary reason, I think, is simply that medieval scholars felt restricted from leaving their field.

Until the era of "medievalism," in which modern representations of the medieval came to be considered fair game for medieval scholars, Tolkien's fiction was not a proper subject for a medieval scholar to study -- not because he was producing fantasy, but because he clearly falls into the modern era. A quick perusal of the MLA areas will reveal that even today the study of literature is balkanized by period to some degree. A medieval scholar who wanted to get tenure or promotion needed to produce serious scholarship, not play dilettante in the modern era.

OK, you might say, fair enough ... but then why didn't the modern scholars do more work on Tolkien? Why didn't specialists in 20th century British literature canonize him?

The problem is that Tolkien's fiction taps into a deep well of philology that almost no modernist can dip into. How many modernists have a working knowledge of Old English? Old Norse? Any of the other medieval Germanic languages? How many know what the futhark is, and how it differs from the futhorc? How many understand what Tolkien means by the wapentake, and how Tolkien's use of the term indicates what he thinks it must have meant?

Of course, some modernists have these skills, but not many ... and why should they? In this regard, Tolkien is unique; I can't think of another single modern author for whom a deep understanding of medieval language or culture is a prerequisite to serious study. Most modernists would have difficulty understanding the rich foundation of learning upon which Tolkien's fiction rests, and those that do understand it aren't enough to make produce the critical mass necessary for canonizing an author.

Don't blame the modernists; blame us medievalists. We took a long time to decide that it was OK for a medievalist to study modern authors. Not everyone can be Tom Shippey.


  1. So what did Tolkien think that wapentake originally meant? And what did he mean by it?

    Folks at my blog might be dying to know . . . not that they're actively clamoring for any answers . . .

    But perhaps they're dead already.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. I knew I shouldn't have used that example, because I can't remember exactly where it is used in LotR, and finding a single word in the text is rather a needle-in-the-haystack proposition. I *think* it was in Two Towers, primarily because I think it was one of the Roharrim who mentioned it.

    As you seem to have intuited from your own research on your site, the exact meaning of wapentake is a little obscure. I remember seeing Tolkien use it in a military context, leading me to say, "Oh! He assumes wapentake is a kind of war counsel." If I hadn't already known that the exact meaning was unclear, though, I probably would have elided over the word without a second thought.

  3. One of my readers (who I assume does not want to be identified since he did not post it as a comment here) sent me an e-mail clarifying my misty memory:

    Try "Return of the King" -- in Book V, Chapter II, "The Passing of the Grey Company" --

    "The king with his guard and Merry at his side passed down from the
    gate of the Burg to where the Riders were assembling on the green. Many were already mounted. It would be a great company; for the king was leaving only a small garrison in the Burg, and all who could be spared were riding to the weapontake at Edoras. A thousand spears had indeed ridden away at night...." (1994 one-volume edition, page 761).

    Tolkien seems to use only the modernized form; at least I haven't found an actual "wapentake" in my copy of LOTR, or in the few reference works I have taken out of storage; nor in "Unfinished Tales" or, or parallel passages "The History of Middle Earth." And "weapontake" does show up in a number of places on-line as a "difficult" word in LOTR."

  4. I think the early "neglect" of Tolkien is simple.

    I think, for most, the love of Tolkien seizes you early in life or not at all.

    When the young people who loved Tolkien grew up, they took him seriously. Those who missed Tolkien at a crucial age, indeed grew up in a period when no one was very interested in fantasy -- a period I remember well -- never took him seriously. Vast numbers of them had a tin ear for his music.

    This generational tin-eared-ness may look like snobbery and may in some cases be snobbery, but I think it goes deeper than that.

    It's the same thing as "the music of your life."