William Jones, philologist

1746 (London) – 1794 (Calcutta, now Kolkata)

Jones, an all-time brilliant scholar, was the first to see the family relationship of all Indo-European languages, and especially of Sanskrit with Greek and Latin. He also almost single-handed started the academic study of Indian culture, his work directly or indirectly inspiring Goethe, Coleridge and the Bengal Renaissance. He had important links with Wilkins and Monboddo (both also pioneers of historical and comparative linguistics, intrigued by Sanskrit). Priestley, Franklin, Price and Smith were all friends, Banks an important correspondent, and Gibbon, Goldsmith and Garrick all fellow-members of Johnson and Reynolds’ Turk’s Head Club.

Christian Gottlob Heyne

1729 (Chemnitz, Germany) – 1812 (Göttingen)

Heyne’s importance — he helped invent the study of myth, as well as the modern research university — is under-appreciated. Winckelmann, as a fellow-librarian, made a deep impression. Herder was particularly close — they were strong mutual influences. Forster, a friend, married his daughter (keen to escape her family). Among Göttingen colleagues, Blumenbach was his brother-in-law, and Haller and Lichtenberg were well-known correspondents. He gave Coleridge the run of the library. Humboldt, the Schlegels and Wolf were all students, Wolf infuriating him by taking out all the books he needed for his own lectures.

Franz Bopp

1791 (Mainz, Germany) – 1867 (Berlin)

Bopp was one of the great comparative linguists, establishing the deep grammatical relationship of Sanskrit with Greek, Latin, and other European languages. Wilkins’ grammar helped him teach himself Sanskrit, though in Paris he also befriended and was taught by Hamilton. Schlegel, another to have profound influence on the field, also studied with Hamilton before being taught by Bopp. In London, he met Wilkins and Colebrooke. Humboldt studied with him there, becoming a great friend and mentor, and got him appointed to the university in Berlin. Müller and Bréal were also among his students.

Franz Bopp knew…

Jean-François Champollion

1790 (Figeac, France) – 1832 (Paris)

The mathematician Fourier (who had beens Napoleon’s Governor in Upper Egypt) set Champollion on the road to the decypherment of hieroglyphs. Champollion met Fourier aged 11, became his protégé, and when shown hieroglyphs by him, decided what his life’s work was to be. Young and he were in correspondence when he started working on the Rosetta Stone; while they feuded over Young’s relative achievement (unsurprisingly, given English/French rivalry of the time), Champollion did later invite Young to research in the Louvre. Humboldt, also a philologist, maintained a lively learned correspondence with Champollion.

Jean-François Champollion knew…

Friedrich Schlegel

Friedrich von Schlegel

1772 (Hannover) – 1829 (Dresden)

Novalis had been a fellow law-student. The Schlegel brothers’ circle of lively-minded friends included (as well as their notable wives) such individuals as Novalis, Tieck, Schelling and Schleiermacher. The Schlegels, Novalis and Schleiermacher published an influential Romanticist journal. Schlegel met Runge in Dresden, and travelled with Brentano in Italy. Goethe invited him on his afternoon walks; Schiller (whose influence the brothers craved) had been alienated by the their criticisms. Fichte was a friend and admired correspondent, Hegel a bitter rival. Even Schlegel’s friends often found him incomprehensible.

J. R. R. Tolkien

1892 (Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, now South Africa) – 1973 (Bournemouth, England)

Lewis was Tolkien’s closest and longest-lasting friend, though for complex reasons the friendship cooled in later years. Auden was an early supporter of Tolkien’s writing, a regular correspondent and good friend. Avedon, who’d never met Tolkien, knocked on his door to give him a birthday cake. When Clarke invited Lewis to meet in an Oxford pub to explore their opposing standpoints on life and technology, Lewis took Tolkien along as his ‘second’ (as Cleaver was for Clarke). It seems hard to imagine people more poles apart; they duly failed to appreciate each other’s view of the world, and decided to get drunk instead.

J. R. R. Tolkien knew…