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Old 08-01-2014, 01:01 PM   #1
Son of Númenor
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Tolkien's Beowulf

I just read this article which discourses on Tolkien's Beowulf translation, written in the entre-deux-guerres period but only published posthumously, with his commentaries and two pieces of fiction. I stumbled upon the article while reading an article at the same site about something completely unrelated - tension between ethnic minorities and the Chinese government in Xinjiang . I found Livingstone's ideas about Tolkien's impact on contemporary perceptions of medieval Northern European literature and the Middle Ages in general muddled at best. Does she feel that he did a valuable service in helping to make the artforms of the era more accessible to a broad, non-scholarly audience? Has he in some way corrupted contemporary popular culture's perception of the era? Surely he did not invent, or even contribute to, the (simplistic) perception of that time in Europe's history as one of intellectual stagnancy, rigid moral codes and social hierarchies, and violence. I would be curious to hear others' thoughts, and specifically from someone more knowledgeable than I regarding the assertion that Tolkien allowed his love of the form and ethos of the period to alloy his translations and commentaries.

It has been a long time since I have read any of Tolkien's non-fiction writings, and I have never been anything resembling an expert, but it seems silly to me to suggest that his fiction has somehow contributed to popular culture's continual misrepresentation of the Middle Ages. Is there a legitimate grievance somewhere in there? And what of Tolkien the academic, philologist, translator? Have serious critiques been made of the methods and biases of his scholarship?
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Old 08-06-2014, 09:14 AM   #2
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It does seem rather unfair to accuse Tolkien of having a corrupting influence on popular perceptions of the Mediaeval period, given that Middle-earth does not in any way purport to be Mediaeval. I also don't think that popular perceptions of the middle ages are anywhere near so completely derived from Tolkien as Livingstone claims.

As for Tolkien's scholarship, I think it is a fair point that Tolkien sometimes seems to feel so at home with the language and culture of Anglo-Saxon England that he sometimes takes things for granted that perhaps should not be taken for granted. But the fact is that the reason he felt at home with the subject was that he was, after all, very well studied in it.

It may also be true that some later scholars have accepted some of his opinions uncritically. That's not particularly surprising. But there have also been plenty of cases where later scholarship has disagreed with Tolkien's conclusions.

The complaint that Tolkien doesn't trust the scribes and emends the text as he goes is a strange one. All textual criticism does this. Scribes got things wrong, demonstrably so. One can question particular emendations of the text, but to ascribe the whole practice of such emendation to Tolkien is simply incorrect.
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