In one of Tolkien’s letters he writes, after The Lord of the Rings has been an unexpected success:
the appearance of the L.R. has landed me in the pincers. Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’. (238)
But of course those philological colleagues are long dead and forgotten; philology itself has been mostly pushed out of most academic language departments, which are now focused on literature and literary criticism. Still, the larger and more important point is that it’s very hard to and maybe impossible to predict what the future will value; all a person and especially an artist can do is try to follow their instincts and interests. Tolkien’s led him in a direction contrary to what his peers thought valuable, and in this case he turned out to be right. Our peers’ judge of value, especially in public settings, is a pernicious guide to action.
What people really want and really are interested often differs from what people say they want and what they want others to think they are interested in.
Even though I basically agree with your take here, I have to put in a kind word on behalf of the philologists. Their work didn’t just make modern scholarship possible; in some cases, their work is still an immediate resource for students of ancient or dead languages. Study Old Norse, Old English, or Latin as a historian, archaeologist, or literary scholar and you’re still heavily relying on dictionaries published in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. Some of the only editions of early medieval historical, religious, or legal sources were published by Germans in the first half of the 19th century. Tolkien definitely enjoys a much broader artistic, cultural, and pop-cultural afterlife, but his fellow philologists would probably be satisfied to know that their efforts still matter in their fields; they didn’t aspire to more.
I like philologists too! I mostly wish they’d get more respect / status / stature in modern language departments, which they seem not to.
Actually, in a larger sense I wish more academic types would do less boundary policing and more thinking about what could be useful, interesting, or beautiful. From reading Tolkien’s letters, it would appear that few of his colleagues got what he was doing in LOTR and other works.