Tolkien scholar discusses decades-long study of medieval Lord’s Prayer

Liam Fanning
Staff Writer

J.R.R. Tolkien’s decades-long work on a strange medieval version of the Lord’s Prayer formed the basis of a talk given by a Franciscan University of Steubenville English professor Friday at 3 p.m. in the Gentile Gallery.

The talk, titled “Tolkien and the Paternoster Manuscript: A Detective Story,” was given by John Holmes, who holds a doctorate in British romanticism and is a noted Tolkien scholar. He began by taking his listeners back to 1936 when Tolkien received a letter from a fellow academic who had come across a confusing linguistic anomaly while doing research.

Holmes said the academic, Dom Adrian Morey of Downside Abbey, had found a twelfth-century copy of the Lord’s Prayer which “was in a language he couldn’t read.”

Confused by this document, Holmes said Morey did some investigating and determined that the Pater Noster manuscript was several centuries older than the pages surrounding it in the file.

Having decided the prayer was written in an unusual form of English, Morey then sent the manuscript to Tolkien, “who dabbled in that limbo language too late to be classical old west Saxon and too early to be Chaucerian modern English,” Holmes said.

Holmes said Tolkien must have been fascinated by this manuscript, because he would work on it off and on for at least the next 30 years.

“The latest comments in this file refer to his work on the Jerusalem Bible, which was published in 1966, and he died in 1973,” Holmes said.

“Tolkien begins this work in 1936, and he works on it until the end of his life,” Holmes said.

Tolkien eventually concluded that the Pater Noster was likely a combination of archaic Anglo-Saxon with Norman French.

The languages were copied together by a scribe who failed to notice that he was combining two languages into one.

However, the scribe likely noticed his error before he finished copying the prayer, Holmes said.

Looking at the shapes of the letters, Tolkien determined that the scribe began writing the familiar Carolingian letter forms by habit and then switched to the ancient Anglo-Saxon letter forms after noticing his mistake.

“It was a sign that Old English as a language was becoming increasingly familiar even to native scribes only a century and a half after the Norman Conquest,” Holmes said.

Holmes, who will soon be retiring, said he may use the material from this lecture to write a book on Tolkien.

The talk was sponsored by the school of Humanities and Social Sciences.