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Tim McFarland: Noted authority on the literature of medieval Germany


In February 1994 in the Bloomsbury Theatre in London there was a performance in German of Goethe's Faust given by staff and students of the UCL German department. During the rarely performed second part, where we are shown the Holy Roman Emperor solving his financial problems by issuing paper money, the Emperor was played by a member of staff who relished to the full the comedy and the density of historical and cultural allusion in the text. He was the department's senior medievalist, Timothy McFarland, who had, so it was said, long harboured a secret ambition to be Holy Roman Emperor. His death is a grievous loss.

McFarland was a New Zealander, born in Hamilton in 1936. His mother died when he was only one, but a relative on the mother's side moved in to run the household. She adored the little boy, whose childhood was happy and sheltered until two bitter blows fell. At the age of eight he was sent to Dilworth, an Anglican boarding school which, with its ethos of sporty heartiness, was profoundly uncongenial to him. He was nine when his father committed suicide; he never forgot that the headmaster sent for him, gave him the news, and suggested that he should get a glass of hot milk from matron and then return to his class.

None the less he progressed academically, gaining a scholarship in the national exams. His school had no history teacher but undeterred, McFarland taught himself and emerged with the highest marks in the country. He then went to Auckland University, where he studied German and English initially, and then, with the support of a senior scholarship, proceeded to take an MA in German with First Class Honours.

A Humboldt Scholarship took him, at the age of 20, to Munich where he spent nine happy years as a research student and then as Lektor at the University. He was fond of recalling that he could measure the unfolding of the German economic miracle by the upward trajectory of the drinks that his friends were able to serve – from beer to wine to Sekt to champagne. It was in Munich that he came into the orbit of the great medievalist Hugo Kuhn; and medieval German literature became the centre of his scholarly life.

In October 1965 he moved to University College London as Lecturer, subsequently Senior Lecturer, in German. He stayed at the College until his retirement in 2000. He was a stunning teacher who persuaded his students to share in his love of precise textual study, through his sheer enthusiasm for ideas. With the drive of someone who thought across disciplinary boundaries McFarland masterminded the introduction of the European Studies degree, but as a scholar he remained true to medieval German literature. His various essays and papers combined meticulous precision and detailed philological detective work with an ability to suggest broader perspectives.

An early paper of 1972 on a relatively minor writer explored the issue of themed, self-reflexive authorship in the text – an insight taken up by later scholars. He wrote on and edited volumes on such authors as Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide. He did not, it has to be said, publish as much as he and his colleagues would have wished; but that was in part because of the breadth of his intellectual interests and because of a particular understanding he had of what scholarship entailed. One of his particular fortes was organising and taking part in colloquia. And that sense of delight in dialogue was central to his understanding of scholarship which, he believed, at its best to be a gregarious, and sociable activity.

His range was astonishing, and it embraced art, music, history, architecture. He worked, for example, on Gunter Grass's novel The Flounder, teasing out the implications of an important medieval intertext; on the importance, in the 1920s, of the American journal The Dial; on music composed in Theresienstadt concentration camp; on an historical guide to Bavaria. His last publication was on the issue of antisemitism in Wagner's music dramas (refuting the contention that the figure of Beckmesser in The Mastersingers is an anti-Semitic caricature).

He also had wide civic commitments – to liberal politics, and to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School for Girls in Islington (in which Michelle Obama has taken a great interest). He was a governor of the school, and he was hugely generous with both time and money, contributing handsomely to an important building project.

He had a genius for friendship and his gift for conversation was miraculous. Yet for all his wonderful fluency he was never overbearing. His lively sense of irony was always ready to screen out any pomposity, and his gurgling laughter was constantly in evidence, and was inseparable from the deep humanity that informed everything that he did.

Mention has been made of the theatre, which was a major love of his life. In the opening scene of Brecht's Life of Galileo two aspects of the great scientist's being emerge with particular force. One is his belief in the sheer sensuousness of ideas, in the almost physical need of the human mind to think, reflect, and debate – a need as urgent as that for food and drink (both of which McFarland enjoyed to the full). The other is his genius as a teacher; he instructs the boy Andrea in the new cosmology, and he does so by putting him on a chair and moving him bodily. At the heart of that pedagogy is not simply information, but rather an understanding that speaks to and moves the whole person.

Those two strands of abundant living were present in McFarland. Everything he did was shared most generously with those around him. For something over 40 years, his life was shared by Jenny Davies. They married in 2011, and they were inseparable.

Timothy Duffus McFarland, scholar: born Hamilton, New Zealand 28 May 1936; married 2011 Jenny Davies; died London 16 February 2013.