JRR Tolkien & What I Think Scholars Ought to Do

These days, if a person really likes a myth or legend and wants to produce a version of it to share with family, friends, and/or the world, then said person is likely to write a graphic novel (as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze [my post here]) or simply a normal novel (as John Gardner’s Grendel).  Filmmakers will produce bad adaptations of the myth.  And scholars will usually write a book almost no one will either read or care about.

The great thing about Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (my post here) is that Tolkien did none of those things.  Tolkien, over the course of his career as a scholar and writer, wrote essays and taught lectures on Old English and Old Norse literature, produced translations of Old English literature, and wrote novels inspired by Old English and Old Norse literature.

When he found himself face-to-face with a mythological cycle that he liked, one that had its remains scattered across various sources of mediaeval Germanic literature, he gathered up the bits and put them together, but not in a novel or graphic novel or film, but, using his unique skills as a scholar and a philologist, composed his own narrative poemsThe New Lay of the Volsungs and The Lay Gudrun.

And the poetry he wrote was written in Old English rhythms and rhymes and alliterations.

This is the sort of creative output more scholars should have.  The modern scholar would more likely take those various bits and pieces from Old Norse, Old English, mediaeval German literature and written a long, dull book about the story they told and whence came the various bits, which were older, which took precedence, which s/he preferred, what the difficulties were and so forth.  Not Tolkien!  He produced his own creative masterpiece.  It has its faults and awkward moments, but is truly a gift to the reading public interested in the Volsungs & Niflungs.

More scholars should do this sort of thing — engage with the source material in an appropriately creative way.  Paint a painting inspired by a painting.  Write a novel because of a novel.  Mould an amphora because of amphorae.  Write a play drawing on plays.  Rather than write about the creative endeavours of others, we should take our research and sources and critical faculties and produce creative endeavours of our own.

The Eddaic poets would be more pleased with Tolkien’s narrative poems based on theirs than with any of his essays and lecture notes, no doubt.  Use their art as a catalyst for your art in the same way.  Enough of dusty books that only scholars read!  Who cares?!  Produce something that will make the world more full of life, more exciting, something worth living for, worth dying for, worth being creative about!


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