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Tolkien was for thirty-five years (1925-59) a professor of English. But that phrase did not mean then what it means now. In the first place the title "Professor" meant the holder of a Chair, a distinction achieved by few faculty members. More important, as Professor of English Language, Tolkien specialized neither in literary criticism nor in modern linguistics, but rather in comparative philology. This was the study of languages, especially ancient languages, and of the literatures written in those languages. Tolkien believed strongly that to study language without literature was ultimately sterile, to study literature without language was just amateurish.

Romancing the words

Tolkien's major professional works demonstrate this belief. He edited the fourteenth-century romance (fictional adventure) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with his Leeds colleague E. V. Gordon in 1925. In its glossary, the editors not only gave the meaning of every word, but also the origin of each one, in Old English, Old French, or (frequently) Old Norse. The mixed nature of the medieval poet's dialect made a point about literary history. It also showed that folk-belief in such fabled creatures as "woses" or "ettins" had coexisted with a high level of culture and a deep Christian piety.

A few years later, in 1929, Tolkien published a detailed study of some features of the grammar of two thirteenth-century works, a rule for female anchorites (solitary monastics) called the Ancrene Wisse and a treatise on Hali Meithhad, or "Holy Virginity." He proved that the grammar of each was regular in such detail that it must have been formally taught. This showed, in turn, that in at least one far-Western shire English had continued to be used as a literary language ...

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