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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (3) Medieval Language & Literature (The Shadow of Tolkien and Lewis)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (3) Medieval Language & Literature (The Shadow of Tolkien and Lewis)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" ("Elven Smiths Forge Anglachel," art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (“Elven Smiths Forge Anglachel,” art by Alan Lee)

Good Evening, Friends!

Inspiration.  We all need it, but sometimes it’s an elusive quality, a will-o-the-wisp that ducks behind the tree of your writer’s block.  For Fellow Writers, as you put nib to paper or fingertips to keyboard, what’s your source of inspiration for the epic fantasy you want to write?  Or, conversely, Fellow Readers, when you take up a novel set in a mythical past, what are the imaginative keys an author needs to turn to unlock your imagination and join her in the adventure she’s written?

I’m urging all of those in the epic fantasy field to take stock & think about the stories we’re creating & enjoying. Here’s an excerpt of my position from last time (https://ajcarlisle.wordpress.com/2014/04/03):

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Describing the Wonder around us in New Ways

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Describing the Wonder around us in New Ways

Carlisle’s hope for literary epic fantasy:
The goal here is to make an argument for a new kind of epic fantasy that departs from what’s been repeatedly recycled and rehashed since the mid-20th Century innovations of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis.  It’s an argument that’s ultimately going to demand more legwork by authors in the genre than currently the case, because it means that we’ve all got to do better in crafting stories.  If we’re trying to recapture a “lost” or “bygone” age in our fantasy writing, you’d be surprised how enhanced that effort becomes if you actually read some texts and histories from those periods you’re trying to recreate.  Besides going back to the sources of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages for inspiration, I’m advocating that those in the epic fantasy business should imitate our more “literary” counterparts — that is, meaningfully try to create worlds which express something about “times-that-never-were-but-could-have-been” and also serve as commentaries on our own “modern” cultural environments.

Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Creator of Middle-Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and Creator of Middle-Earth: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

For J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis — the creators of the epic fantasy genre as we popularly understand it — the inspirations for their respective mythologies of Middle Earth & Narnia were literally bound by a love of language based in what Lewis called the “bookish culture” of the Middle Ages.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (art by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary," edited by Christopher Tolkien (HarperCollins UK & Houghton Mifflin Harcourt USA, May 2014)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary,” edited by Christopher Tolkien (HarperCollins UK & Houghton Mifflin Harcourt USA, May 2014)

For Tolkien, philology governed much of his academic life and served as the inspiration for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion; as a philologist, or “one who studies language as it appears in written sources,” Tolkien felt particularly drawn to Anglo-Saxon times (5th to 11th centuries). That period only has fragmentary literary evidence (think Beowulf, an Old English poem that is the single-most important remnant of Anglo-Saxon literary & oral culture left to us), and Tolkien deeply studied languages as varied as Anglo Saxon, Finnish, Middle English, German, and even Nordic runes to recapture a sense of life in the Early Middle Ages.  But, those interests weren’t limited to pre-1000 A.D. works.

Yes, for the early medieval period, we’re shortly going to be treated to Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf — long extant only as a research work & lecture in his family’s collection — forthcoming in May (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/20/), but would-be epic fantasy writers should also realize that Tolkien was deeply versed in medieval folklore & mythology that spanned well into what we call the Late Middle Ages (13th-15th centuries).  These interests are apparent in his academic translations and commentaries on the medieval literature of Pearl, Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, & certain sections of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "Sir Gawain & the Green Knight" (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “Sir Gawain & the Green Knight” (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Beowulf Battles Grendel (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Beowulf Battles Grendel (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf & the Dragon" (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf & the Dragon” (art by John Howe)

However, for all of the similarities Tolkien and Lewis shared (Oxford medieval professors, fellow Inklings, & fantasists), when Tolkien and Lewis applied their knowledge and love of medieval literature, they approached their subjects very differently.  For Tolkien, language governed all, as can be seen from his Letter 142:

“…Certainly I have not been nourished by English Literature, in which I do not suppose that I am better read than you; for the simple reason that I have never found much there in which to rest my heart (or heart and head together). I was brought up in the Classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.  Also, being a philologist, getting a large part of any aesthetic pleasure that I am capable of from the form of words (and especially from the fresh association of word-form with word sense), I have always best enjoyed things in a foreign language, or one so remote as to feel like it (such as Anglo-Saxon) … [end quotation; J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, 142: To Robert Murray, SJ]

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

In his work, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century, Norman F. Cantor summed the medieval worldview of Lewis and Tolkien best, devoting an entire chapter to the academic and fantasy accomplishments of both members of the 1930s “Inklings,” as well as describing Tolkien & Lewis’s lasting influence in epic fantasy as contributions deeply indebted to the literature of the Middle Ages [bold-faced emphases are mine]:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis's Appreciation of Dante's "Divine Comedy" (Domenico di Michelino, Fresco; wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, 1465)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: C.S. Lewis’s Appreciation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (Domenico di Michelino, Fresco; wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, 1465)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Celtic Myth" (John Howe, 2002)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Celtic Myth” (John Howe, 2002)

[From Norman Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages, “Chapter 6: The Oxford Fantasists: Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and Frederick Maurice Powicke”]

…[for Lewis] this medieval imagination was the product of … three cultural traditions. One was the romantic tradition that attained its highest development in the courtly literature, the love poetry of the aristocracy of northern France, southern England, and the Rhine Valley in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries — the world of “courtly love.”  A second strand in medieval imaginative culture lay in the vast and complex, often university-based, learned conception of a cosmic and world order that came to fruition in the late 13th and 14th centuries, and is expressed both in academic treatises and in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which draws heavily upon this systematic learning.  Underneath these two cultural traditions, courtly love and the learned cosmic order, lies a third force, the pristine instinctive feeling of a warrior society that became hedged about and largely, but not entirely, submerged by the consciously developed other two cultures.” [End Cantor quotation, p. 213]

I’ll assess Lewis next time, but for J.R.R. Tolkien — and important to remind aficionados of Middle Earth who might be unaware of his academic credentials — here’s Cantor’s assessment:

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: "The Riders of Rohan" (art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers: “The Riders of Rohan” (art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" (art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (art by Alan Lee)

[again, from Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages,” Chapter 6…]

“…As a scholarship student in the English faculty at Oxford, [Tolkien] turned out not to be a first-rate literary critic but to have a phenomenal capacity for what was then called philology and what we would now call comparative linguistics, and this became his major undergraduate study….The language structure that Tolkien was devoted to was of a kind that has not been pursued since the 1940s. The historical approach that was inherited from the 19th-c. German scholarship (the diachronic method so called) has now been replaced by an anthropological and psychological analysis of language (the synchronic method). Tolkien could be regarded as the last great representative of the science of historical philology that in the Anglophone world has passed out of the curriculum, to be replaced by Noam Chomsky’s antihistorical transformational grammar.

Within his science of historical philology, Tolkien was mainly interested in the northern world of Old English, Old Norse, and Celtic languages. One of the skills he had was the ability to create a whole grammar and vocabulary of an early but extinct northern language from a few fossilized fragments … what made Tolkien unusual as a philologist was that having created this previously extinct language, he could then imaginatively elaborate for it an epic literature such as may have once existed but had in the mists of time disappeared.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" (Turin & Glaurung, art by Alan Lee)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (Turin & Glaurung, art by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: "Frodo's Quest for Mount Doom" (art by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “Frodo’s Quest for Mount Doom” (art by John Howe)

[Cantor excerpt continued]
“To put it another way, Tolkien regretted the disappearance of these pristine northern languages and their (assumed) literature and compensated by re-creating the literature. Even a language survived, the literary remains were small. Beowulf was the only major work of pre-Christian (in Tolkien’s view) Anglo-Saxon culture. So Tolkien set out to elaborate from nothing an imaginary epic and made the challenge even greater by doing it not in a surviving early northern language but one that had all but disappeared and he had first to reconstitute.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Dark Tower" (art by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Dark Tower” (art by John Howe)

“Tolkien claimed that he imagined first the language, then the story of long journey and quest (epic) in that language. Then he pretended that he was translating from that epic into modern English, retaining proper nouns and a few other key words — a triple-decker work of imagination.  Obviously there were a few other historical philologists of his generation who had the scientific capability of doing this, but Tolkien produced not a few specimen pages of a pseudo translated fantasy work, but a 600,000-word narrative that was published in three volumes as The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Witch King of Angmar" (by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Witch King of Angmar” (by Alan Lee)

“To do this, Tolkien needed not only science and literary imagination but also obsessive living in a personal fantasy world for more than two decades.  Tolkien is a prime example of what the British psychiatrist R.D. Laing called “a successful schizophrenic.” This is what lies behind The Lord of the Rings.  It is the most astonishing monument to the old historical philology ever developed and the most extended and difficult piece of pseudo-medievalism ever imagined.”  [pp. 225-226] [END OF CANTOR EXCERPTS]

If a new generation of epic fantasists intends to incorporate the best of what Tolkien and Lewis created in their fantasies, and then depart into new fields of imagination and adventure that don’t rehash ideas of Middle Earth and Narnia, I believe that much originality can flow from the pens of writers willing to reopen the “literary door” to the Middle Ages.

Try it! Pick up one of those readily available texts and step into the worlds of the Beowulf poet, Dante, Chaucer, Boccaccio, et al to see those bygone times through the eyes of contemporary medieval writers….trust me, once in the rooms of that particular house, you’ll not soon want to leave! (I’ll post a list of medieval “must-reads” after next blog’s attention to C.S. Lewis.)

Next Time:  C.S. Lewis and the Medieval Imagination

 

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