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Robert Burchfield

My Hero

Each century has its heroes, people who stand intermediate between gods and men, and are probably immortal. Such a person, for me, is the late Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, scholar and storyteller.

His prodigious public reputation is principally based on his fictional and mythological works–The Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and all the others. A whole generation of young people were nurtured on his invented world of elven-kings, treeish ents and ringwraiths. It was not these realms, however, that drew me to JRRT (as I normally called him). He also sat on an academic throne, and it was from this scholarly realm that his rewrapped myths and legends were drawn.

When I arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar from New Zealand in 1949, books on medieval literature and on philology (my main interests) were scarce. Scholarship was purveyed in the lecture room. A mosaic of relevant information gradually filled up my notebooks as I went to the lectures of Dorothy Whitelock, C.L. Wrenn, G. Turville-Petre, Alistair Campbell, and other famous scholars. As the six terms passed, however, it became apparent that, for me, the guide of guides was not going to be any of these but a plain-looking waistcoated man with a quicksilver mind, Professor Tolkien.

I was entranced by the arguments that he presented to largely bewildered audiences of undergraduates in the Examination Schools. The mobs, many of them doubtless already devoted to hobbitry and all that, were soon driven away by the speed of his delivery and the complexity of his syntax. By the third week of term his small band of true followers remained. And I was always one of them.

JRRT lectured on many medieval works, but the one that impressed me most was a 12th-century text, existing in only one manuscript in the Bodleian Library, called the Ormulum. It was written in a semi-phonetic script and is therefore of unique importance for our knowledge of the state of the English language at that time. JRRT agreed to be my postgraduate supervisor and off I went on one of the greatest adventures of my life.

I saw Tollers (as he was also known) at weekly intervals in the academic years 1951-2 and 1952-3, sometimes in Merton College, sometimes at his home in Holywell. He puffed at his pipe while I told him of my work. He made acute observations. I followed them all up. He beamed when I made some discoveries. Now and then he mentioned the hobbits, but he didn’t press them on me, spotting that my interest lay in the scraped-out o’s and doubled consonants of the Ormulum rather than in dwarves (as he spelt the word), Orcs, and Mr. Bilbo Baggins.

The two years passed all too quickly and then I was swept into full-time teaching at Christ Church and afterwards into lexicography. My work on the Ormulum had to be put aside.

A year or two passed before our paths crossed again. I became editorial secretary of the Early English Text Society. JRRT was some years late with the transcription of one of the manuscripts of a famous medieval work called the Ancrene Wisse. The director of the society, Professor Norman David, and I gently bullied him until he handed over the typescript.

Against all precedents he had set out the text line-for-line with the original manuscript. We loved it. We gazed with amazement at the way he had hand-drawn, in a most elegant manner, the large initial letters of the words at the beginning of sections and paragraphs. He had turned his task into something resembling that of the original scribe. As in so much of his work, he had left the twentieth century behind. . . .

I shall shortly be resuming work on the Ormulum after an interval of more than 30 years. I grieve that it will no longer be possible to make my way to Merton College or to Holywell to pick up where I left off so many years ago. But I shall continue to look back in gratitude and reverence to the puckish fisherman who drew me into his glittering philological net.

Robert Burchfield

Robert Burchfield is a distinguished lexicographer, having been the Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries, and the Editor of the four Supplements to the Oxford English Dictionary. He has also written several books, including The English Language (1985), Unlocking the English Language (1989), and Points of View: An Entertaining Look at Words and Meanings (1992). The above article is excerpted from The Independent Magazine, 4 March 1989.

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