The American tourists were in Rome for the first time and asked the owner of their pensione where to visit. He urged them not to miss the Roman Forum. When they returned for lunch, they were quiet and grim­ mouthed. Finally, he asked them why, and the man burst out,  “We never dreamed that you Italians were such chauvinists. We ask a polite question in good faith and you send us to some place we bombed during the war.”

It is sometimes hard for the reader of the daily newspapers to remember that there are ruins about that were not created by the 20th century. Among those wrecks, no tourist is likely to see the broken ideal of the doctuspoeta, as the Romans called him, the scholar­ poet. That ideal of humanely assimi­lated knowledge and creative force gave birth to Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, and Dante’s Comedy, the life­ works of Milton and Tasso. Today’s university provides refuge to few poets and those hired as token “creative writers.” If the occasional first-rate scholar writes an important or even interesting literary work, his colleagues and his fans undervalue one side of his achievement or the other.

A. E. Housman is a good example. Recent years have seen several well­ received biographies, each of which concentrates on the few months of poetry writing and his pitiable love life. His many volumes of scholarly work which rescued English classical studies from provincialism and mediocrity are viewed as a parergon, some­ thing to fill in the years between poems. The tone was set by Edmund Wilson, who sneered at Housman’s scholarship: you see, Housman edited the Silver Latin poets Juvenal and Lucan, and refused to publish an edition of the Augustan love poet, Propertius. With such taste, no wonder his versefails to satisfy the whole man. For this sort of obscurantism, the cracker­ barrel literary critic who does not understand the centrality of Juvenal the Satirist for modern culture, the impor­tance of Lucan and Roman libertas, wins not scorn but celebrity as America’s foremost man of letters.

Wilson had his innings at J. R. R. Tolkien as well. The literary critic read in the publisher’s press release that the professor of English and former professor of Anglo-Saxon had described The Lord of the Rings as originating in his “secret vice” of inventing languages, languages which then needed a mythology and history to grow and develop as historical languages do. Wilson was aghast. A narrative that grew from a desire to root an invented language in story and folklore, what could it ever be but, well, “a philolo­gical curiosity.”

To give us a taste of what that philology was, Christopher Tolkien has edited seven of his father’s lectures. Significance for understanding the Rings is one criterion for inclusion, and so we see the essay on “A Secret Vice,” “On Fairy-Stories” and even “English and Welsh,” since Welsh was used as a model for some of the names in the Rings. Even the title essay, “Beowulf: The Monstersand the Critics,” may have been included be­cause in it Tolkien explains how a Christian writer could create a powerful picture of a world before the knowl­edge of Christ. The Hobbit-lover notices that the lecture was delivered before the British Academy in 1936 and published the next year, the same that saw the publication of The Hob­bit. He will find it worth his while to read it.

It is scarcely too much to say that this one essay changed forever the study of a major work in the canon of English literature, that it established Beowulf as a major literary work, whereas before it had been treated as little more than “a philological curiosity.” To appreciate the importance of “The Monsters and the Critics” there is no substitute to working slowly through the poem in Friedrich Klaeber’s great edition, still in print after more than 60 years, one of the greatest works of scholarship to emerge from the American university system. With all Klaeber’s indispensable aid for understanding the poem’s roots in etymology and comparative folklore, he discusses its narrative structure only once, in a famous paragraph on its “lack of steady advance.” How much more efficiently Icelandic sagas did in their monsters! Subsequent criticism (like R. W. Chambers’s Beowulf An Introduction) concentrated almost exclusively on historical, rather than literary questions. In 1936 Tolkien found that “Beowulf  has been used as a quar­ry off act and fancy far more assiduous­ly than it has been studied as a work of art.” “The Monsters and the Critics” is far more than the literary Pharisaism than the last sentence suggests. In fact, it touches on most of the poem’s prob­lems, from the putative influence of Latin epic to its vision of the German heroic ideal and the mind, at once Christian and elegiac, that created it. To call Beowulf studies since 1936 a series of footnotes to Tolkien would be unjust, and yet how often even the most original work ends up reflecting or rejecting Tolkien’s apodictic insights. For example, Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition by Berkeley’s John D. Niles is a thorough and thought-provoking study, with chapters on areas that scarcely existed in 1936; but with all his originality and critical insight, Niles’s understanding of the poem is often a confirmation of Tolkien’s (or a slight modification). In his final affirmation that Beowulf is a poem by a Christian poet, but not a Christian poem, Niles returns to Tolkien’s own attitude after a generation that has made St. Augustine more central for understanding the poem than the German heroic ideal.

Tolkien never saw himself as a literary critic. His “Valedictory Address” is quite clear about his scholarly origins in the “language” or philological side of the split Oxford English faculty. To that extent, the essays in The Monsters and the Critics are misleading about Tolkien’s scholarship and teaching. More representative are two recent volumes, his text, commentary, and translation of The Old English Exodus (edited by Joan Turville-Petre for Ox­ford) and Finnand Hengest: The Frag­ment and the Episode (edited by Alan Bliss for Allen and Unwin). In the latter, Tolkien takes a brief and fragmentary tale sung by a bard in Beowulf and a fragment of a separate version of the same story that survives on a single manuscript page and tries to reconstruct the history that lies behind the two sources. For Tolkien, not surprisingly, it is the story of the fall of a great, prehistoric people and the birth of a new age. The Jutes fall with the death of their young prince, but Henges rises from the tragedy to lead the German people into Celtic Britain and found Anglo-Saxon England. We are moved at the scope and sympathy of the reconstruction even while ac­knowledging that too little survives for certainty and that some aspects of the argument are forced or unlikely.

Tolkien’s philology reminds us of what he said about two great epics: “The real resemblance of the Aeneid and Beowulf lies in the constant presence of a sense of many-storied antiquity.” It is a trait both works share with The Lord of the Rings. With Beowulf too much is lost for a secure reconstruction of its mythological or historical backdrop. Much more can be done for the Aeneid and a great deal for the Rings. Behind its hints of ages and great races almost vanished from memory in the fading past lay a detailed history of that past, composed, of course, by Tolkien himself. Christo­pher Tolkien published part of that history as The Silmarillion (1977). Now he is editing the original versions of those stories as The Book of Lost Tales: Part One and Part Two (both 1984 in America). The characters and themes of the Lost Tales are closely related to The Silmari/lion, but there are many differences: “Berenisan Elf, not a Man, and his captor, the ultimate precursor of Sauron in that role, is a monstrous cat inhabited by a fiend; the Dwarves are an evil people; and the historical relations of Quenya and Sindarin [the Elvish tongues] were quite differently conceived.”

We can now do to Tolkien’s own work what he tried to do to the Finn story, and we can check out our results in a way that he could not. So, in The Lord of the Rings, the old Ent, Tree­ beard, says that the evil Ores were “made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery … of Elves” while Frodo tells Sam “the Shadow that bred Ores can only mock … it cannot make … . I don’t think it gave life to the Ores, it only ruined and twisted them.” The Silmarillion con­firmed that the Ores were bred by Morgoth (Melkor) from captured Elves. Tolkien had written this to Peter Hastings, but never sent the letter.

Say not the labour naught availeth. Without the pedantry and sometimes misconceived ingenuity that we find in his lectures on the Old English Exodus and the Finn Fragment, Tolkien could not have given us Beowulf alive and renewed. Similarly The Lost Tales and The Silmari lion gave to The Lord of the Rings its depth of concreteness in language and history. We laymen, on the other hand, may rest satisfied with knowing some half-dozen Old English poems besides Beowulf. We soon tire of the complicated narrative and high­ falut in language used on the stories that lie behind the Rings and long for the company of Frodo and Sam Gam­gee. It is as if we had picked up a book in our motel room, expecting to enjoy the vigorous dialogue of St. John’s Gospel only to find ourselves wandering with the children of Nephi through The  Book of Mormon. We thought that we wanted “a sense of many-storied antiquity, and discover that we were rejoicing in the mystery of fragments of stories to which our own imagination had contributed much of the tragedy and excitement. When the gaps are all filled in, the excitement has disappeared along with the mystery.

In his clever essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien defended the aesthetic-and Christian-rightness of the eucatastrophic closure, the Happy Ending. Herein may lie the true difference between philologist and literary critic. The literary critic is a perpetual optimist. He sees a work attacked or misunderstood, waves his magic pen, and voilil, all is light. Like some doctors, he tends to ignore or even blame the fragmentary and bro­ken that he cannot restore to wholeness. The philologist lives in the tragic world of the partially lost or broken. He knows the 18th-century fire that ate away just that page of Beowulf that explains why the dragon attacks after so many ages of rest; he knows of an entire language, Gothic, which is lost except for one translation of the Gospels. It is no accident that at heart Wilson was a leftist, despite his love of tragedy in art, and Housman and Tolkien were conservatives, despite the latter’s defense of the Happy Ending. Housman was trying to rescue, from scattered medieval  manuscripts, and in the face of his century’s false scientific method and false romantic sensi­bility, what had survived of Latin poetry. His work still inspires that continuing rescue operation, as vital as his few score gloomy lyrics. Tolkien, who had worked in his youth on the Oxford English Dictionary, knew that once upon a time grammar and glamour were the same word and devoted his life as pedant and poet, not to making us know that as a fact, but to feel it as a reality, the lively, moving reality that once existed before our broken and desiccated present. “Man is in love,” said Yeats, “and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?” Both the literary critic and the philologist have much more to say, of course. While the literary critic is using his rational mind to create the best of all possible literary worlds, Beowulf fights the eerie dragon of destruction, the devourer of languages, of manuscripts, of human memory. The philologist fights with him. “You and I,” the professor wrote his son,” belong to the ever-defeated never altogether subdued side.” He stands next to the old Norse gods, of whom Tolkien liked to quote W. P. Ker: “They are on the right side, though it is not the side that wins. The winning side is Chaos and Unreason, but the gods, who are defeated, think that defeat no refutation.”