As I write this, the smoothly carved Oxfordshire countryside ripples by, the deep green grass ablaze under the gleaming sun after what has been a rather moody winter in Oxford. Over the past week I have been slowly losing my eyesight deciphering J.R.R. Tolkien’s (1892-1973) handwriting at the Bodleian. The last time I consulted his unpublished manuscripts was in 2019 for my Masters by Research on Tolkien and John Keats. This time, I sought to broaden my scope to excavate Tolkien’s inclusion of the Romantics into his essays, lectures, and notes. Prompted by my initial research in 2019, there were already a couple of manuscripts and books that I intended to peruse more thoroughly. Unsurprisingly, I soon had a list of further references, comments, and criticisms of the Romantics across a vast set of texts.
Dominant narratives and impressions surrounding Tolkien have traditionally centred on either his Medievalism or Roman Catholicism. However, twenty-first century scholarship has branched out to include his reading and familiarity with post-Medieval authors and texts. This is where my work comes in; British Romanticism has been of peripheral interest to Tolkien scholarship and Tolkien has been (at a stretch) marginal to Romantic studies. By unearthing Tolkien’s understanding of the British Romantics, both fields can begin to better examine the intersections between Middle-earth and Romanticism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The global consumption of Middle-earth (whether Tolkien’s original texts or their adaptations) allows for Tolkien’s own legacy to become intertwined with Romanticism’s own – but that is for me to investigate over the next few years. See you at future conferences!
My research trip to Oxford has chiefly been concerned with locating Tolkien’s references, (mis)quotations, and criticism of the Romantics throughout his life. I started with his undergraduate notebooks and library loans. Underacknowledged goldmines, these texts (including Sidney Colvin’s Everyman biography Keats, 1886 and A.C. Bradley’s Oxford Lectures on Poetry, 1909) house not only Tolkien’s lecture notes pertaining to the Romantics (partly published in my previous article ‘Tolkien and the Age of Forgery’, 2020), but also his marginalia in library loans from Exeter College – a heinous offence that prompted a gasp from the Tolkien Archivist, Catherine McIlwaine, and a gleeful, demonic smile from myself. Please do not interpret this as me condoning the graffitiing of library books!
Although the argument can be made that undergraduate notes and reading does not equate to interest or investment (a line I have heard on several occasions), it cannot be overstressed that Tolkien’s critical reading of the Romantics and Romantic scholarship coincided with the birth of his mythology’s first iteration: The Book of Lost Tales. As Tolkien rewrote The Book of Lost Tales throughout the 1910s to 1930s, he consistently showed his aptitude for employing cultural and textual references from nineteenth-century and contemporary sources to communicate ideas pertaining to Medievalism and philology in his university and public-facing lectures.
What also became apparent the more I read Tolkien’s quoting from Romantic texts is that he predominantly relies on his memory. Although his quoting does not change the meaning of the original text, Tolkien frequently misquotes Romantic texts and sometimes mistitles them. Although this should not be a surprise given the British education system’s emphasis on the memorisation and recitation of poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I think it underlines Tolkien’s vast reading and assimilation of British literature. He quotes the Romantics in texts meant for private contemplation as much as he does in public-facing lectures or publications. The former are remediations of Romantic literature that are folded into Tolkien’s broader theoretical thinking about the role of the author and fairy tale tropes. For Tolkien, his engagement with the Romantics opens new avenues of thinking about the literature, genres, and forms that he is most familiar with.
I would like to conclude by thanking BARS for awarding me the Stephen Copley Research Award, it has been instrumental in enabling me to visit Oxford and consult Tolkien’s manuscripts.
Will Sherwood is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow researching the intersections of J.R.R Tolkien and British Romanticism. The Education Secretary for The Tolkien Society, Will has presented at conferences on Tolkien, Romanticism, and Object-Oriented Ontology; his articles and reviews feature in various journals and he has edited several books, including Adapting Tolkien, Tolkien and Diversity, and The Romantic Spirit in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien (co-edited with Dr Julian Eilmann).
Twitter (X): @MrWillSherwood