The biopic Tolkien opened this weekend, the 65th anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring’s publication is this summer, and Amazon is developing a Lord of the Rings TV series based on the events preceding the Fellowship trilogy. The early 20th-century writer is clearly having a moment. Who better to ask what the hubbub is all about than local English literature scholar John Bowers, a UNLV professor best known for his work on Chaucer … including Tolkien's Lost Chaucer, a forthcoming book on a long-lost, unpublished manuscript about the medieval author by — you guessed it — Tolkien. Here’s what Bowers had to say.
WHAT WOULD BE INTERESTING ABOUT TOLKIEN’S LIFE TO THE AVERAGE MOVIE-GOER?
The current movie is set in the period before he started his university teaching career. It takes him through World War I and the years immediately afterward, when he was working at the Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien started working on his mythology while he was recuperating from trench fever. He spent three months in the Battle of the Somme, where there was terrible, terrible carnage, tens of thousands of casualties a day. So, the thinking now is that he came back with what we today call PTSD, and that would seem to be a key to his personality and even his writing career. The fantasy (he wrote) was kind of a retreat into an alternate reality, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose.
TOLKIEN HIMSELF IS ALSO KIND OF MYTHICAL, ISN’T HE?
Yes. In his 50s, he would write and publish what has become the most widely read literary work of the 20th century. It’s almost the only thing he finished. He was a great starter and not a very good finisher. But in some ways, he’s as much a member of the lost generation as Hemingway. He’s a World War I veteran who came out of that experience with psychological scars and trauma that dogged him his whole life, and he created a fantasy world he could retreat into. I think that’s what the movie will show, how he responded to the horrors of war that he saw in the trenches.
WHEN IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT HIM COMING OUT?
It will be released in the U.K. in September, and here in the U.S. in November.
I UNDERSTAND IT’S ABOUT A PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN TEXT YOU DISCOVERED. WHAT WAS IT?
When Tolkien was a young academic, he felt the pressure to publish. He was invited to be a co-editor on a student textbook on Chaucer in 1922. He worked on it for six years, and was given space for 20 pages of notes. He drafted 160 pages. Typical Tolkien, he overdid the project, and even at 160 pages, he hadn’t quite finished the annotation. He wasn’t quite psychologically capable of cutting, so it never got published. It was typeset and corrected. His hang-up was overdoing the notes.
HOW AND WHERE DID YOU FIND IT?
Reading through the chronology volume (of Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide), beginning in 1922, I start to see references to the Clarendon Chaucer. Clarendon is an imprint of Oxford. In 1951, Oxford University Press had finally demanded that Tolkien give back everything that he’d worked on, and I was wondering what happened to all that material after it was returned to Oxford. So I e-mailed some colleagues there, and they put me in touch with the archivist. I emailed him, and he went down to the basement, and said, “I found it.” It’s an amazing story, because it was a dropped project, and they usually just discard them. I went in the summer of 2013 to see what was there, and it was a lot — all his editorial material. Everything he’d ever collected on Chaucer was in this box.
WHAT’S MOST INTERESTING ABOUT THIS WORK TO YOU?
In 1951, Tolkien was not yet a literary superstar. But somehow this box of his material got shoved in a dark corner of the basement and saved until 2012, when the archivist found it. It redefines Tolkien as a scholar. We think of him as an expert on Beowulf and old English, but this redefines him also as a Chaucer expert. He published two articles on Chaucer during his life, but they were received like UFOs at the time. Now it makes more sense. Those 120 pages of notes from the 1920s represent an interesting look into his fascination with language and storytelling and give us a glimpse of a brand-new source for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.