Monday, February 22, 2010

Still Before the Cottage-II

On a less mundane note than the last, I should note that it was before Berkeley borrowed me to cover a sabbatical in 1965-6, and I had an apartment on Atherton St. there, I learned that Oregon's professor in Old English language and literature, Stanley Greenfield, was both eminent and beloved. As a faculty member I had the privilege of auditing a course, with the professor's permission, free of charge, and I decided to learn Old English. My attraction went back to the publication of the Sutton Hoo treasure and my seeing the objects in the British Museum and having been introduced to the great illuminated manuscripts in art history. It also helped that in doing the St. Gall seminar with Professor Walter Horn as a graduate student, when by virtue of being the only one with enough Latin and paleography for the task I was assigned not the types and structure of the buildings but all the legends on the famous St. Gall plan, the longer ones metrical and the scribe's hand really beautiful Carolingian miniscule. Here Late Antiquity which Erich Auerbach's books had introduced me to met the Middle Ages. Here again I could spend long afternoons in Migne and other august works of reference. To read Anglo-Saxon literature, like Homer, in the original was natural therefore.
Once the time came in a semester when stacks of term papers had to be read and annotated, for a while I could not give the class the attention it deserved, but I kept up as well as I could, and I got books from Blackwell's, editions that I could keep and continue studying, in addition to those ordered for the course. When it is a pleasure to dally in a great subject over a long period of time, it is hard to regard the dallying as a sin. I never have mastered Old English, but neither have I forgotten as much as I learned. I had a great privilege in Prof. Greenfield's class; he did not live to a very old age, and I had no right to expect such a scholar and teacher in Eugene, Oregon, though he was not alone there among the quietly eminent.
I was reminded of the importance of this venture when, the other day, I was explaining to a friend how I'd happened to read J. R. R. Tolkien at a more advanced age than most of his fans in the 1960s. His is not a common name, and I knew it from his edition of Pearl. If this man was writing fanciful fiction, it could not be bad, so I bought the bootleg U.S. paperback of "The Fellowship of the Ring" from UC Corner on Telegraph Avenue while I was there and on leave from Oregon to cover a sabbatical leave, as I said. I think I have the year right; I cannot locate the date of that unauthorized U.S. paperback now, and I shortly replaced it and bought the rest of the trilogy and the Hobbit, too, in the hardbound edition. Needless to say, I couldn't resist the Elven tongues or the somewhat rune-like alphabet, so obviously properly composed by an author who knew what he was doing, and I couldn't resist this restitution of pre-Christian European mythology, either. This was no William Morris or C. S. Lewis stuff, but the imagined world of someone who virtually lived in it. An author who gets the philology right, I felt (and I said felt, because I hadn't authority to vouch for everything), could not lie. Yes, of course, that is laughable. But like the Old and Middle English poems and the Old Norse and even the Old High German so far as preserved, the Tolkien books are pure pleasure. I have no intention of reading all the later literature concerning him, though I did read his son's biography, much later, in the 1980s, and at some date in the 1960s I read W. H. Auden's essay on the work in The New Yorker. Finno-Ugrian? Well, I couldn't master that.
Yes, there are films, and I have shied away from them. But that same friend who jogged my memory to remember how the Beowulf course had led me to read Tolkien also recommends the first two of them. There is also the Silmarillion, which I have looked at but which I felt (that verb again) might not add much to what I had guessed, that Tolkien had built a whole aeon to sustain the trilogy.