Michael Drout Interview
“I tell my students: make your scholarship as technical as you possibly can, but don’t lose your literary insight. Tolkien did this better than anyone.”
Corey Olsen (a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor) interviewed leading Tolkien scholar Michael Drout for Festival in the Shire Journal. Though well-known as editor of The Tolkien Encyclopedia and his work on Beowulf, Professor Drout’s innovative scholarship extends to many areas, some dramatically crossing academic disciplines. He is Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, USA.
CO: Like Tolkien himself, your primary area of scholarly interest is Anglo-Saxon literature and language. Tolkien’s love for Anglo-Saxon is evident in many places in his books, even to those who are not experts in the field. I asked Tom Shippey this same question in last month’s issue, but I’d love to hear your response as well: As an Anglo-Saxon scholar, what do you think are the most profound ways in which Tolkien’s study of Anglo-Saxon impacted his fiction?
MD: Obviously Anglo-Saxon literature and culture were an important source for Tolkien. Tom Shippey has shown very clearly how cruces in Old English texts—words or passages that are opaque or confused or disputed—were often the start of a Tolkienian invention. Ents, barrow-wights, woodwoses, and balrogs are just a few examples. But I think the influence of Anglo-Saxon scholarship goes much deeper. Doing Anglo-Saxon scholarship teaches you a certain way of looking at words and texts that is hard to explain to an outsider. On the one hand, there’s an immense respect for the texts themselves and their antiquity and how fragile their existence is (Beowulf came minutes from being incinerated, and that’s only the close shave we know). On the other hand, you have to be willing to cut a word or a text apart, reduce it to its pieces and apply methods rather ruthlessly, concluding that you know better than the scribe of 1000 years ago who copied the text. It’s a mixture of extreme humility and extreme arrogance, and is very different from other kinds of literary study. I see this approach to culture in Tolkien’s own texts, in his ability to be incredibly imaginative and inventive and then to be utterly hard-core in his revisions. T.S. Eliot is perhaps the perfect example of a Modernist who wanted to create literature through the classics, and you see that best in “The Wasteland.” Tolkien is coming from the medievalist tradition and the difference is striking, not the least because medievalism is so marginalized in contemporary academia.
CO: A few years ago, you uncovered a previously unpublished work by Tolkien: his unfinished annotated translation of the great poem Beowulf. How did that discovery come about? What are the plans for the text?
MD: I didn’t really “discover” anything. Christopher Tolkien donated the manuscripts of Beowulf and the Critics to the Bodleian in 1986. I was (I assume) just the first researcher to paw through the entire box of material and realize that there was really a complete book here and that it was different in interesting ways from “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” but Christopher Tolkien and Judith Priestman, among others, knew exactly what was there. Also, Tolkien’s Beowulf translation has been known for a long time, so I didn’t in any sense “discover it.” I did a lot of work to edit the translation, but for a variety of reasons, the Tolkien Estate decided that that project should go on hold. I’m hopeful that they’ll decide one day that it’s a good time to go forward, but they have a lot going on and, reasonably, keep their attention focused on things like the Sigurd and Gudrun book.
CO: You have done a great deal of work with Tolkien’s own scholarship, most notably in your book Beowulf and the Critics, a look at the development of Tolkien’s landmark essay, “The Monsters and the Critics.” What, do you think, could the average Tolkien reader learn from Tolkien’s Beowulf scholarship?
MD: I think the most important thing to learn from Tolkien is a way to navigate between the twin pitfalls of scholarship: on the one side, you have strictly technical work that really doesn’t engage with the literature. On the other you have literary appreciation and analysis that might just as well be done on a translation (or even a paraphrase) of the poem and is, in the end, mostly opinion. Tolkien showed the philologists how valuable and, more importantly, how productive thinking about literature as literature could be. But he also showed the literary people how focused, hard-core philological scholarship could keep the literary conclusions from getting away from the text. This latter lesson has been ignored, but it doesn’t have to be. I tell my students: make your scholarship as technical as you possibly can, but don’t lose your literary insight. Tolkien did this better than anyone.
CO: In your own work on Anglo-Saxon, you have placed a lot of emphasis on oral performance. You offer several CD collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry read aloud, and you have even podcasted the entire Old English poetic canon. This is a remarkable body of work; what led you to undertake this project?
MD: I ended up doing audio work from a convergence of four factors: Professor John Miles Foley, Recorded Books, my daughter’s sleeping issues, and Benjamin Bagby. Professor Foley taught me Anglo-Saxon. He’s the leading scholar of Oral Tradition, possibly in the entire world, so we were always reading poems aloud, learning how to listen, learning now to understand literature in the Middle Ages as oral and aural as well as literate. Recorded Books heard of me through word of mouth about one of my lectures and invited me to do some college courses on CD (I think I’ve done nine of these now), so I got comfortable in the recording studio and learned how to better control my voice. And my daughter would just refuse to go to sleep if she wasn’t being read to, but would then keep herself awake listing and asking questions. It was exhausting! So I started reading Anglo-Saxon poetry to her as a way of putting her to sleep and eventually worked through the entire Anglo-Saxon poetic records over the course of a couple years. Ben Bagby came to Wheaton and gave an amazing performance, and when we were setting up, he let me use his harp and sing some Beowulf. He thought I wasn’t bad (probably because he was trained in Old English by Professor Foley also). So I then decided to do the Beowulf Aloud CD, with some help from friends at Recorded Books. After that I started the podcasts and worked through the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, this time recording it. That led to the Anglo-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits CD, and now some recordings of the prose.
CO: In your Tolkien scholarship, you have been heavily involved as an editor. Through your work on the great J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia and on the editorial board of Tolkien Studies, the foremost academic journal of Tolkien studies, you have done a great deal to support the rigorous academic study of Tolkien’s works. Do you see Tolkien becoming a canonical figure of literary scholarship in the coming decades, or would you expect the marginalization of Tolkien studies in the academy to continue?
MD: I don’t know if Tolkien will be canonical in the way that Joyce or Faulkner or Morrison will be because he is just not part of that tradition (though he has a lot more in common with Joyce than most people realize). But Tolkien is already much less marginal than he was a decade ago, and although the hype of the films is gone (until The Hobbit films, I guess), the number of scholars and students interested in Tolkien hasn’t decreased. So I see him in academia, but not necessarily becoming very central. The problem is that you can’t just drop The Lord of the Rings, a 1,000,000 word novel, into a survey class like you can Dubliners or Beloved. When a work needs its own class, it’s just harder for it to get all those resources devoted to it. But as long as we can save Tolkien from the clutches of the shallow pop-culture people (those who haven’t read the work with care and attention and are just using it to advance a theory), we should be okay, mostly because with English enrollments falling in other classes, they are growing in Tolkien and medieval courses—when the establishment allows this to happens or when young scholars force the issue.
CO: One of the big projects you are currently working on is the Tolkien Bibliography. What is this project, exactly, and what do you hope to accomplish through it?
MD: For the past eight or nine years my students and I have been collecting and reading Tolkien scholarship. This started as a way to keep a summer work study student busy and just kept expanding. We have a database with close to 700 articles summarized and keyworded. That database will be on the web at http://tolkienbibliography.org
The original goal was to help people see that there really is a lot of good Tolkien scholarship out there. Too many people assume that nothing has been done and take the attitude that they are the first real scholars to ever think about Tolkien. This is wrong, and it leads to bad results, so I’m hoping that with somewhere to look for a bibliography and read it summarized, they’ll be able to incorporate previous scholarship into their new work. That’s still a goal, but now I think of it as a big resource for my students and for anyone else who wants to find good scholarship on Tolkien. Though I should note that right now the database is extremely eclectic: that’s what happens when you rely on student workers, who do a great job but sometimes disappear in the middle of the semester with a pile of articles and then return without having input their reading. But we hope to be adding another 100 or so summarized articles this summer and to just keep on plugging away at it. I estimate we’ll have to double the size of the thing to have a good solid handle on the scholarship: it just keeps growing.
CO: You are one of the most celebrated teachers and lecturers on Tolkien’s work in the world; as you mentioned, you have published several recorded lecture series in Recorded Books’ Modern Scholar audio series. What do you find to be the biggest challenges and rewards of bringing your Tolkien scholarship to a general audience?
MD: The biggest challenge is the stupid internet! I get swamped in email sometimes, and I really do want to answer all of it, but it sometimes ends up scrolling past and getting missed. The other thing that’s frustrating is the attempt to harness Tolkien—and my work on him—to various other agendas. The Tolkien-as-environmentalist folks are pretty bad about this (not the scholars so much as the popular conception), but the people who want to approach Tolkien only through the lens of their religion can also be frustrating. Not because that’s an illegitimate approach, but because they tend, in their email to me, to assume that I agree with them and then get upset when I don’t.
The biggest rewards are hearing from people who disliked Tolkien and heard one of my Recorded Books lectures, about another topic, and decided to give him a try and are now hooked. Even better, the people who say something like “I think scholarship about literature is a waste of time and ruins it for everyone, but your work on Tolkien made it even better.” Those are great. What I like most is hearing from high school kids who have read some of my scholarship and are now interested in doing scholarship of their own.
CO: You are a tremendously active scholar, and your work to date has shown an unusual and exciting breadth and richness. What’s on the horizon for you? What kinds of projects do you hope to be working on in the next five years?
MD: I’m really excited about a number of projects that are moving along right now. In particular, I’ve been working very closely with a Professor of Computer Science and a Professor of Statistics to develop a set of “Lexomic” techniques for analyzing texts. We count words and perform sophisticated statistical analyses to try to find place where, for example, an author has used an outside source for a section of a poem. The website, http://lexomics.wheatoncollege.edu gives people some of our tools. We’ve already had some very interesting discoveries and are just scratching the surface of what the methodology can do.
I’m also working with a Professor of Biology at Wheaton, some engineering students at Northwestern, and some computer science students at Wheaton to set up a system for extracting DNA from medieval manuscripts and then using the results of tests of the DNA to reconstruct relationships among the manuscripts. The goal is to develop an integrated system from the mechanical engineering through the biochemistry to the data analysis. It’s a really fun—but really hard—project.
Also in the works are a book on Tolkien in which I try to read both as a philologist and as an individual reader. My essay on The Silmarillion in the volume from Walking Tree Press is kind of the model: I want to approach Tolkien’s work very personally but then use philological rigor to try to explain why it makes a reader feel certain ways. Also in the works is the sequel to How Tradition Works called From Tradition to Culture in which I try to show how meme theory can address problems of authorship, genre, aesthetics, influence and ‘the anxiety of influence.’ Both of those will hopefully be done by the end of the summer.
In the longer term, I will be working to write a philology textbook with Prof. Scott Kleinman. We’re calling it Philology Reborn, and I have a draft of a book called Grammar for Fun and Profit that has come out of my teaching. I’m also working with my friend, Professor of Mathematics Bill Goldbloom Bloch, to write about the intersections of logic, language, and math. Overall I want to develop new methods and steal the best techniques and approach from science and math and use them to answer humanistic questions: how do traditions evolve, change, and stabilize? How do words create meaning in the network of language? How does Tolkien’s work create such remarkable psychological effects in its readers?
For more on Michael Drout see: http://wheatoncollege.edu/faculty/michaeldrout.html
Found this page without going through the magazine front page? Click here: Festival in the Shire Journal. For all things Tolkien inspired.