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The Scholarly Tale | History today


Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrim (detail), William Blake, c.1810. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Even in the world of academic publishing, where time moves at its own pace, 29 years is a long time to work on a project that has never been completed. In 1922, J.R.R. Tolkien was commissioned by Oxford University Press as a junior collaborator for a student edition of selected passages from Chaucer. He was a young academic at the start of his career and it should have been a pretty easy job: adapting excerpts from an existing edition with notes and glossary for a student readership.

Tolkien worked back and forth on the project in the 1920s, but was hampered by an unreliable co-editor and his own inability to meet the publisher's limits. He asked for 20 pages of notes and produced 160 pages of material, far too detailed for the readership. The project failed, but was finally stopped in 1951 when the incomplete drafts were returned to OUP. There they languish in a cellar, largely unknown until 2013, in which they were rediscovered.

John Bowers Tolkien's lost chaucer reconstructs Tolkien's work on this unfinished project and examines what it reveals about Tolkien's commitment to Chaucer and his methods as a scholar and creative artist. As a medieval man, Tolkien is primarily associated with Anglo-Saxon literature in the public imagination BeowulfHowever, a large part of his published scientific work was written in Middle English language and literature, including texts such as Ancrene Wisse and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, He had a longstanding interest in Chaucer and even played the role of poet at Oxford Festivals in the 1930s, at the invitation of poet Laureate John Masefield: Tolkien played excerpts The Canterbury Tales in a reconstructed Middle English pronunciation with a chauceric fork beard.

From a philological point of view, Tolkien was particularly interested in Chaucer's use of the Yorkshire dialect The Reeves story and analyzed what it can tell about regional differences in 14th century England, Chaucer's sense of language and the Scandinavian linguistic influence in the north. But his commitment to Chaucer was broad, and Bowers suggests a number of places where Chaucer echoes can be found in Tolkien's fiction. Some of these suggestions are more convincing than others, but they all make you think.

The surviving material of the "lost chaucer" is quite small and very technical in places, but Bowers clearly shows that even the most mysterious philological detail could serve as creative inspiration for Tolkien. It is refreshing that he discusses how this canceled edition shows Tolkien's weaknesses as a scholar – his inability to complete projects and disregard the needs of his student readership – as well as his excellent literary skills. The tendency to leave her works incomplete, as Bowers emphasizes, is something that Tolkien and Chaucer had in common.

The book also offers a fascinating, sometimes surprising, insight into medieval research in the first half of the 20th century. Although Tolkien's unpublished work on Chaucer was quickly replaced, it shows not only in itself, but also how scientific priorities have changed in the last century. Nowadays, it would be unthinkable to propose an extract The Canterbury stories without that Wife of BathJust as it would be to offer a splash of gin to students like Tolkien in their morning tutorials. Things have changed.

The appetite for Tolkien's works, however fragmentary they may seem, remains unbroken. This book is a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of his unfinished stories.

Tolkien's lost chaucer
John M. Bowers
Oxford 336pp £ 25

Eleanor Parker is a lecturer in medieval English literature at Brasenose College in Oxford.

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