I’m sure others have said this before — I doubt I have many thoughts about Tolkien that others have not had before me — but I am reflecting on this passage from Gandalf’s account of Gollum in the chapter of The Lord of the Rings called “The Shadow of the Past”:
The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Sméagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.
Is this not a Portrait of the Philologist as a Young Man? (Or as a young proto-hobbit.) Isn’t Tolkien here describing the déformation professionnelle of the historian of language, the characteristic danger faced by the scholar who always burrows deeper and deeper into the history of words, thinking — Gabriel Josipovici in his wonderful The Book of God says this is the characteristic illusion of 19th-century scholarship — that truth is always archaeological, always to be found at the Source or Origin. Gollum would eventually learn that “All the ‘great secrets’ under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.”
Perhaps, then, writing a book like The Lord of the Rings is, for the philologist, a spiritual discipline, a healthy re-ordering of priorities; and a reminder that genealogy — the long living history of a language, with unexpected detours and adventures and late flowerings — is more important, more alive, than archaeology?