Philological Inquiries 1: Method and Merovingians
Drout, Michael D.C.,
The Heroic Age, Issue 12 (May 2009)
This is the first of a series of columns on philology. Philology is the foundation of humane letters, and we demonstrate the utility of the approach by discussing Tom Shippey’s examination of the word “Merovingian” in Beowulf. The philological approach is shown to illuminate culture, history and politics and shed new light on an old problem.
“Philology is the foundation of humane letters” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in his “Valedictory Address” of 1959 (Tolkien 1979). And indeed this is obviously, even trivially, true if we consider the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of the word or the history of our disciplines. But, like the foundation of many an edifice, neglected or ignored until something goes wrong and the basement floods, philology is no longer visibly central to literary study. We think this is a mistake for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the power of philology to shed light on very important questions of literary interpretation.