Thursday, January 23, 2014

Contention at Oxford in 1925

My otherwise gentle Ridgeback enjoys “fence-fighting with dogs in my neighbors’ yards, and the gentle people of Lit-Ideas, so it has been averred recently, enjoy (presumably) a fight from time to time.  It was not so very different in Oxford in 1925 (quotes are from Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien):

“. . . It should be understood that an Oxford Professor, unlike those in many other universities, is not by virtue of his office necessarily in a position of power in his faculty.  He has no authority over the college tutors who in all probability make up the majority of the faculty staff, for they are appointed by their colleges and are not answerable to him.  So if he wishes to initiate some major change of policy he must adopt persuasive rather than authoritarian tactics.  And, on his return to Oxford in 1925, Tolkien did wish to make a major change: he wanted to reform certain aspects of the Final Honour School of English Language and Literature. 

“The years since the First World War had widened the old rift between Language and Literature, and each faction in the English School – and they really were factions, with personal as well as academic animosities – delighted to interfere with the syllabus of the other.  The ‘Lang.’ side made sure that the ‘Lit.’ students had to spend a good deal of their time studying the obscurer braches of English philology, while the ‘Lit.’ camp insisted that the ‘Lang.’ undergraduates must set aside many hours from their specialization (Anglo-Saxon and Middle English) to study the works of Milton and Shakespeare.  Tolkien believed that this could be remedied.  What was even more regrettable to him was that the linguistic courses laid considerable emphasis on the study of theoretical philology without suggesting that undergraduates should read widely in early and medieval literature.  His own love of philology had always been based on a knowledge of literature, and he determined that this state of affairs should be changed.  He also proposed that Icelandic should be given more prominence in the syllabus; this latter hope was one reason for the formation of the Coalbiters. 

“His proposals required the consent of the whole faculty, and at first he met with a good deal of opposition.  Even C. S. Lewis, not yet a personal friend, was among those who originally voted against him.  But as the terms passed, Lewis and many others came over to Tolkien’s side and gave him their active support.  By 1931 he had managed (‘beyond my wildest hopes’, he wrote in his diary) to obtain general approval for the majority of his proposals.  The revised syllabus was put into operation, and for the first time in the history of the Oxford English School something like real rapprochement was achieved between ‘Lang.’ and ‘Lit.’.

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