Thursday, December 12, 2019

Tolkien and Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL

So, a few years ago I posted on some online forum* a query about whether Tolkien ever read Edward Gibbon's famous THE HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. On the one hand, it is a standard work on a subject of perennial fascination, widely read and hugely influential. On the other hand, this work was on The Index, the list of books Catholics are forbidden to read without special permission. The list was abandoned but not abolished in the 1960s, but it was in force for most of Tolkien's lifetime.

Oronzo Cilli, in TOLKIEN'S LIBRARY, assumes Tolkien owned or at least consulted a copy of this book on Shippey's authority (Cilli 95-96). Shippey makes a good case for Tolkien's first-hand knowledge of Gibbons largely through inherent probability (Shippey's Road 1992 edition p. 301). Now thanks to John Bowers' new TOLKIEN'S LOST CHAUCER, we have direct proof. Bowers reproduces a manuscript page that is part of the draft for JRRT's commentary on Chaucer's translation of Boethius (Bowers page 144) in which Tolkien cites Gibbon, directing the reader to a specific chapter of DECLINE AND FALL. Based upon this, Bowers concludes "Tolkien knew Gibbon from his own reading" and also believes that JRRT "shared the historian's sense of decline when writing about the 'long defeat' in Middle-earth." (Bowers 147).

So, that seems to settle things. It's nice to have proof of what we already believed.

Of larger significance, this new evidence that Tolkien read at least one work on the Index has interesting implications of its own.

--John R.
--current viewing: House Judiciary Committee Hearings (in part)
--current music: "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do?" by Hank Williams (stuck in my head the last three days)

*I'm no longer sure which. Perhaps the Mythsoc list. At any rate, it seems not to have been on my blog, where I usually post such things, and so may have pre-dated the blog's commencement.--JDR


Paul W said...

I'm not sure Gibbon is a good test of Tolkien's fidelity to the Index. I suspect it was required reading for exams at the time. There may have been a blanket student permission.

Doug Kane said...

Thank you very much for this interesting insight, John. Speaking from a position of limited knowledge, I can't say I am surprised to learn that Tolkien read at least one work on the Index (and probably others). As Verlyn has pointed out so eloquently recently, Tolkien was nothing if not contradictory.

Oronzo Cilli | Tolkieniano said...

Thanks John for the reference to my book. My search is not over or over and every day I find new entries.
By the way, in Tolkien's manuscript published by Bowers (p. 144 Fig. 11), Tolkien quotes Gibbon's text:
"Such topics of consolation, so obvious, so vague, or so abstruse, are ineffectual to subdue the feelings of human nature; and the sage who could artfully combine in the same work the various riches of philosophy, poetry, and eloquence, must already have possessed the intrepid calmness which he affected to seek" (
Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Book VII, ch. xxxix, p. 49).

Hlaford said...

Andrew Lang's "Myth, Ritual and Religion" was also banned in the 1896 edition of the Index. There is a complete list of banned books here:
One can find Maeterlinck's complete works there (The Blue Bird is mentioned in OFS).