Secret Library

The Clerk’s Forgotten Tale: Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews John M. Bowers’ fascinating book about Tolkien’s Chaucerian links

If we think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s associations with medieval poetry, it tends to be the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, or perhaps the Middle English narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that spring to mind. Both, after all, are what we might now call ‘fantasy literature’. Despite his attachment to the Worcestershire dialect (growing up in the West Midlands as he did), Tolkien never undertook scholarly work on William Langland’s Piers Plowman, most likely because of his dislike of straight allegory. But what about Geoffrey Chaucer? At first the trail might be expected to go cold very quickly. Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis, after all, had little time for Chaucer’s ribaldry, preferring his earlier dream visions. But in fact there is a strong link between Chaucer and Tolkien: in the 1920s, the future author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings began working on a Clarendon edition of a selection of Chaucer’s works – a project that was later abandoned and never published. Tolkien’s notes for the edition only came to light a few years ago.

Now, John M. Bowers, renowned scholar of medieval literature and latecomer to Tolkien’s fiction, has written Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, a fascinating study of the many curious intersections between Tolkien and Chaucer, using Tolkien’s unfinished annotations on the great medieval poet’s work as a way of ordering his exploration of something far more wide-ranging than an aborted editorial venture. Bowers is not afraid to draw parallels between Tolkien’s work on the edition and future plotlines that surface in his fantasy fiction, and he exposes some persuasive crossovers between, say, the Reeve’s Tale and events in The Two Towers or between the Pardoner’s Tale and numerous parts of The Lord of the Rings. Although Bowers is quick to spot these parallels, it rarely feels as though he is forcing or inventing them.

The differences between Tolkien and C. S. Lewis go deeper than the former’s dislike of the latter’s Narnia books (because of their allegory, of course), or the fact that Tolkien was Roman Catholic while Lewis was an atheist whom Tolkien converted to Christianity – but with Lewis becoming a Protestant. While Lewis was an engaging public speaker and populariser of medieval literature, Tolkien was by all accounts a terrible lecturer – ‘incoherent and often inaudible’ in Kingsley Amis’s assessment, and ‘one of the world’s worst lecturers’ according to Douglas Gray. The scholarly contrasts extend to Lewis’s lack of interest in textual editing, compared with Tolkien’s forensic and sometimes pedantic obsession with the niceties of scholarly annotation. Tolkien didn’t write much in the way of academic monographs, preferring editions of medieval texts. He also hated allegory because it reduced the meaning of a work to a simple x = y model. By contrast, Lewis gave us The Allegory of Love.

Although this is an Oxford University Press monograph, it’s far from dry and ‘academic’ (the implication within that word being that nobody else would be interested in reading it). It’s also priced at a far more reasonabl £25 in hardback (and even cheaper from some online bookshops), when most scholarly monographs go for three times that much. Another draw is the generous smattering of Inklings-related trivia and anecdote. For instance, I didn’t know until I read Bowers’ book that Tolkien pronounced his surname with the stress on the second syllable. In order to relieve shyness, Tolkien would ask his students at an 11am tutorial, ‘Do you think it’s too early for gin?’ before pouring them a glass. When an Australian student told C. S. Lewis in a tutorial that he didn’t like Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, Lewis declared, ‘The sword must settle it!’ and forced the student to fence with him until he drew blood. Lewis also once chased a student out of a tutorial at Oxford, yelling down the staircase, ‘If you think that way about Keats you needn’t come here again!’ And it was edifying to learn that, while a young professor at Leeds in 1922, Tolkien published (anonymously, in the university magazine The Gryphon) a parody of Chaucer, ‘The Clerkes Compleinte’, about the drudgery of being a lecturer at the northern university: ‘Whanne that Octobre mid his schoures derke / The erthe hath dreint, and wete windes cherke…’ T. S. Eliot wasn’t the only one to publish a poem in 1922 which began with an overturning of Chaucer’s famous opening line, then.

Whatever his shortcomings as a lecturer, Tolkien had a flair for the theatrical: W. H. Auden, an early high-profile champion of The Lord of the Rings, described Tolkien’s recital of lines from Beowulf as like hearing the voice of Gandalf in a mead hall. (Perhaps more surprisingly, we learn that a young Tolkien had taken to cross-dressing on the stage, playing Mrs Malaprop in a student production of Sheridan’s The Rivals.) Later, as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon and at the invitation of the Poet Laureate John Masefield, Tolkien dressed up as Geoffrey Chaucer and recited Chaucer’s poetry from memory: at one event in Oxford in the 1930s, Tolkien recited ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ at a public event, even going so far as producing a programme for the occasion. Bowers suggests that one reason Tolkien was attracted to this particular tale from Chaucer’s work was because, as a young boy of around five, Tolkien had been chased by an angry mill-owner covered head to toe in flour, a man thereafter branded ‘the White Ogre’ by Tolkien and his brother.

If all of these details make Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer sound as much like a biography as a work of literary criticism, it’s because Bowers deftly manages to balance both aspects of this fascinating story. He’s very good on Tolkien’s annotations, but avoids these becoming too dry – too much in the spirit of some of Tolkien’s own scholarly notes – by linking the significance of these back to Tolkien’s broader life and work. I’ll finish this review with one last favourite piece of trivia from Bowers’ book: in the 1940s, Tolkien drafted a time-travel novel, The Notion Club Papers, set in 1987 and featuring ‘the greatest storm in the memory of any living man’. In essence, he predicted the Great Storm of 1987. Such a detail doesn’t necessarily relate to the issue of Tolkien’s ‘lost Chaucer’ in any meaningful sense, but I was gratified to learn it. Bowers’ book is full of such insights for the Tolkien aficionado. And if you’re a Chaucer fan or scholar, you’ll also find much to admire in Tolkien’s detailed and sometimes illuminating work on the great poet.

Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer was published yesterday by Oxford University Press.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

5 Comments

  1. Sounds very interesting indeed! It will be published here in the US in December just in time for Christmas, it seems.

  2. It was also Lewis who had future Laureate John Betjeman sent down from Oxford. B never forgave him for his ‘rough housing’ style of confrontation.

  3. Well, that certainly brought Lewis and Tolkien to life! I think I can do without more Chaucer in my life than I already have so, for once, I won’t be rushing out (metaphorically in today’s online world) to buy the book. Nevertheless, this was a fascinating summary and brightened my day.

    • As a fan of medieval English literature and someone who went through the whole of The Canterbury Tales about 15 years ago, I was fascinated both by the Inklings insight and what Tolkien said about Chaucer’s work. But the book works as a riveting biography of Tolkien’s time at Oxford; Bowers weaves in the Chaucer-editing stuff very deftly and it never takes over entirely. Well-judged, I’d say!