Lieutenant John Ronald Reuel Tolkien barely survived the First World War. Most of his closest friends were not so lucky. He was invalided out of France with trench fever in November, 1916. Soon after, his battalion would be almost completely destroyed on the Somme.
After the war, Tolkien worked for the Oxford English Dictionary on words beginning with the letter W. He was then the youngest faculty member at the University of Leeds, where he translated a long-definitive Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon. Most of his academic career was spent at Oxford University, as professor of Anglo-Saxon and English language and literature from 1925-1959. He was a philologist, a specialist in historical texts. The poet W. H. Auden, who had been one of Tolkien’s undergraduates, remembered his teacher reading Beowulf aloud in the original Anglo-Saxon: the “voice was the voice of Gandalf.”
On the eve of the premier of the third part of the movie version of Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit, I have been reading two of his articles from The Review of English Studies. “Some Contributions to Middle-English Lexicography” are, as he himself puts it, “very minor notes,” but they are not without interest today. He includes an etymology of burde, meaning lady or damsel, but having nothing, evidently, to do with either bird or bride.
In “The Devil’s Coach-Horses,” Tolkien investigates the connections between words for draught horse and labor or work. It’s a technical paper, but his voice clearly comes across, especially when he writes “the pettifogging suspicion of the phonologist in this case receives the support of divinity: Scripture nowhere mentions boars in this libelous manner.”
Tolkien liked languages so much he made them up. The lexicography of Middle Earth owes much to the lexicography of Middle and Old English. His great fictional creation began with the invention of separate languages for what became his Men, Elves, Dwarves, and et cetera populating Middle Earth. The rest was sugar to make the language lesson go down.
Editor’s note: This article was amended to italicize The Hobbit in the subheading and delete extra spaces in the first and second paragraphs.