Literature and Language: Connoisseur and Craftsman

One may know enough to judge a thing without being able to make the thing one judges. Such a person is the connoisseur, either lacking in the skill or the interest to master the craft, but with a great and informed interest in the finished product. A connoisseur may understand the process and not be uninformed about the craft, but he has never mastered the crafting himself. It seems to me there is something to be said for the connoisseur; although he lacks something the craftsman has; I am not sure that I would say the craftsman has everything the connoisseur does, and my sympathies are probably with the connoisseur, mostly.

Something had been nagging me as I read The Road to Middle Earth. It had been nagging me for a long while, and I was unable to discern what exactly it was that nagged: the thing was counterintuitive on the surface. One of the tensions running through Tolkien’s career was the oppugnancy of the literary approach to English studies and the language approach, which was his. Tom Shippey, who is almost if not certainly uniquely qualified to comment on Tolkien’s achievement because of the immense learning (knowledge of Gothic, among other things, being important) requisite to appreciate Tolkien’s work (in the sense of critical appraisal, not in the sense of sheer enjoyment), explains the tension. In a way (see the nearly elegiac Afterword), Shippey is concerned with this very tension in his work. The literature approach generally scorns philology and tends to focus on the contemporary state of affairs. The language approach generally ignores the contemporary situation and is fascinated with philology, the history of words, the way languages change and influence each other, the scraps of past literature in which dead languages still speak. Tolkien was a philologist; so is Shippey. And what Shippey is mainly concerned with is showing how Tolkien’s work must be appreciated from a craftsman’s perspective, rather than a connoisseur. The connoisseurs, many of them, were not and still are not giving Tolkien what Shippey feels is his due. What nagged me was that Shippey is not a crafter of stories and poems himself—that I can see. Was he on the connoisseur end of things? He was working from the Lang. end of things, but was it to move Tolkien further into the Lit.? No, he is in the workshop as well, for all that he is writing a work of criticism, and showing us how things are there, giving us a tour so we become better connoisseurs of the craft.

Think of the literature on the Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. What other recent works of fiction have been followed up by 13 volumes of edited variants and fragments with careful commentary showing the development of the main published works? Not many, I ween. And Shippey goes beyond all these volumes into the literature that Tolkien taught and handled and loved; he goes there to explore things. And Shippey goes beyond that to explain the philological origins not only of names and places, but also of ideas, solutions to problems, outcomes in the stories. And Shippey’s thesis is to insist that the love for these things—old words, old languages, old tales, old things suggesting further, dimmer old things—is the key to a properly informed appreciation of what Tolkien wanted to achieve with his writing. Tolkien’s approach was not only that of a craftsman, it was, in a way other crafted works are not, a poem to craftsmanship itself, a song of the workshop of language. Tolkien was fascinated by the words, not simply the paragraphs and sentences that are all the connoisseurs concern. “Words, ancient words,” Shippey says in conclusion,

do not have to be hooked together to make something. They have their own energy and struggle towards their own connections. Observing this impulse and co-operating with it is as good a guide for the artist as turning within oneself to the inarticulate.

Not that Shippey is conceding anything to misguided connoisseurs, or that he opposes those who are less ignorant in their legitimate labors. No, but he does realize how much philology has vanished out of the world, and how brief its time was, and how dear it was to the man he considers the author of the century, and how fundamental to the love of his works.

One thought on “Literature and Language: Connoisseur and Craftsman

  1. Now you have made me curious as to whether the literary tendency has always been opposed to the linguistic one, or if that is just a function of the development of the modern novel. Old English and Old Nordic poetry thrive on word plays… I wonder if Tolkien was influenced by their craft as well as their content.

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