Hopefully this is on topic here, since it is about a famous fantasy writer.

Tolkien was a professor of the English language and Anglo-Saxon literature. He held two named chairs at Oxford: the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon and then the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. He also gave an evidently influential lecture on Beowulf called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.

But it isn't really apparent from any online biographical materials whether or not Tolkien was well-regarded as an academic, independent of his literary contributions. That is to say: Would Tolkien have been considered an important or influential professor of English language if he hadn't also written some very famous works of fiction?

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    The title here does not match the question - he was clearly "good" at his job, otherwise he would have hardly become an Oxford professor. In the body you ask rather whether he would have been of outstanding importance in his day job.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 12, 2018 at 16:11
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    @xLeitix I rejected a change to the title, because I asked it that way on purpose. I wanted to know if Tolkien was a good English professor. I re-asked the question in a different way to add other ways of defining 'good'. I stand by my original title.
    – kingledion
    Apr 13, 2018 at 12:56
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    A nice way to formalize "how good is good?" would be to ask whether Tolkien passes Wikipedia's Average Professor Test, which basically states that having a good academic career isn't by itself enough notability to have your own article. From the answers here, I suppose he wouldn't pass the test without his fiction work.
    – user99150
    Apr 14, 2018 at 1:47
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    Academically or scholastically? One of those is good for the school, the other for the student.
    – Mazura
    Apr 14, 2018 at 15:53
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    @user37208 Soooo ... being "good at your job" is defined at "good enough to warrant a Wikipedia article"? I stand by my claim that OP is not looking for "good", but for "outstanding".
    – xLeitix
    Apr 14, 2018 at 18:47

3 Answers 3


"Influential"? No, probably not. He seems to have been a competent teacher (though apparently he was a terrible mumbler who was frequently hard to understand) and a competent scholar. Note: I'm not saying he was mediocre: You don't get a named professorship at Oxford by being ordinary!

People who should know have said that his essay "The Monsters and the Critics" is a major work of Beowulf scholarship and changed the way people looked at the poem. This may be the most influential thing he wrote as a scholar. The rest of his work tends to be noticed mainly because of who he became later with LotR.

There's a good very short bio by The Tolkien Society which comments "His academic life was otherwise largely unremarkable. In 1945 he changed his chair to the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature, which he retained until his retirement in 1959. Apart from all the above, he taught undergraduates, and played an important but unexceptional part in academic politics and administration."

He does have one handicap: His approach to English (through philology) was on the way out even during his career and being replaced by a focus on modern literature. (Tolkien was involved in academic battles between the two schools). His work is consequently "out of style" and probably more likely to be cited today in language and medieval history departments than in English departments. See the first page of the article by Jill Fitzgerald (which, unfortunately is all that seems to be online) for more discussion.

In the end, I think it's fair to say that had he not written The Hobbit, LotR, etc., he'd be remembered as an ordinary mid-century Oxford professor, one of the many Oxfordians who were part of C. S. Lewis's Inklings club.

(Edited to add some detail developed in the comments.)

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    What's your source for all this? Apr 11, 2018 at 17:12
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    A biography and books on the Inklings. (Also, if you listen to some of the records of him reciting from his work when he was trying to enunciate, he's not especially easy to understand.) If it matters I'm sure I could find specific cites.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 11, 2018 at 17:14
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    I would also mention that he became an Oxford Professor at 26, which is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.
    – sharur
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:07
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    “an ordinary mid-century Oxford professor” is still a “yes”, for whether someone was good at their day job. Apr 12, 2018 at 3:02
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    @HopelessN00b Note that the British system uses the word "professor" in a very different way to American universities. In the UK, it corresponds to what would essentially be a named chair in a US university. Sure, it's very hard to fire such a person but you don't get appointed to that position without demonstrating unusual competence. Apr 13, 2018 at 17:44

I note that Tolkien was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature but I don't know if that was for his fiction or his scholarly work or both.

Tolkien was also a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and I think that I read that honor was given for his scholarly work and not for his fiction.




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    Without some sources to indicate whether these were because of his LOTR fame, this answer is pretty worthless.
    – Valorum
    Apr 11, 2018 at 18:13
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    He got his OBE in 1972, the year before he died. It was for "Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. For services to English Literature." according to Wikipedia. The citation (assuming that's the whole of it) seems to be vague and may be deliberately vague. If they were very sensitive, they would have known that on the "Languages vs. Literature" battles within the UK English faculties during Tolkien's career, he was solidly on the "Languages" side. If so, the OBE is a nod to his fiction, not to his academic work.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 11, 2018 at 18:39
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    "Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. For services to English Literature." is the entire citation.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 11, 2018 at 18:47
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    "For services to English Literature" appears to be a typical citation for literary critics/scholars of English — William Empson was made a Knight Bachelor for services to English Literature, Orwell scholar Peter Davison got an OBE, Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight got a CBE. Which is not to say it wasn't Tolkien's fiction that put him over the top. Apr 11, 2018 at 19:14
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    The timing is suggestive, but not conclusive: Tolkien retired in 1957. LotR, while published in the early 50s, became a phenomenon only in the mid-60s when the Ballantine paperback editions were published. The 1972 date seems late if it was primarily based on his academic work, but seems about what you'd expect if it was primarily a response to the explosion of LotR in the late 60s. Though even if it was primarily for the books, the fact that he was a retired professor at Oxford doubtless made it easier for the "Fantasy is no good!" crowd to swallow.
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 11, 2018 at 20:24

From what I've read, it seems Tolkien was well respected in his field at the time. Admittedly it has been a couple decades or more since I read Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, and it's possible that Carpenter overstated Tolkien's influence in linguistics. However, the impression I came away with from the book is that Tolkien was well respected for his work in the field by his peers.

Also, back in college I took a literature class in which the text was (an earlier edition of) The Norton Anthology of World Literature. One of the works in that anthology was The Song of the Seeress. The translation used was actually dedicated to Tolkien with a note that his translation was the definitive one. (I believe the anthology didn't use Tolkien's version due to copyright issues.)

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