History of scholarship
Bennett studied at the University of Auckland, where he is described by biographer James McNeish as "poor and deserving" before going on to Merton College, Oxford, where, still indigent, he survived on a diet of Cornish pasties.
In McNeish's book Dance of the Peacocks, he is noted as a member of what was to be described in British academe as the Oxford "New Zealand Mafia" (pp. 356–364), a loose-knit group of extraordinarily gifted young men from New Zealand who studied - many were Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University - before the Second World War. The link between them was to endure for the rest of their lives. It included John Mulgan, Dan Davin, James Munro Bertram, Desmond Patrick Costello, Charles Brasch, Norman Davis and Ian Milner. McNeish describes Bennett as "at an angle, separated by the exuberance of his scholarship, his saintliness, and his forgetfulness ...he considered himself lucky to have received the Scholarship [to Oxford], since he forgot to include any testimonials with his application".
McNeish also mentions Bennett's work with the British Information Service in America during World War II: asked to help out for a few weeks, he remained for the duration, returning to Oxford in 1943 and at the end of the war.
He became best known as a scholar of Middle English literature. He was editor of the journal Medium Aevum from 1956 to 1980, having earlier assisted his predecessor, Charles Talbut Onions, and was a colleague of C. S. Lewis at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1964 he succeeded Lewis as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976. His most substantial work was the volume on Middle English Literature for the Oxford History of English Literature, which was completed after his death by Douglas Gray and published in 1986. Other works include a lecture series of The Parlement of Foules: An Interpretation (1957), Chaucer's Book of Fame: An Exposition of "The House of Fame" (1960), and Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge (1974), editor of The Knight's Tale by Chaucer, Early Middle English Verse and Prose (1966) edited with G. V. Smithers, and a collection of Essays on Malory (1963). He was also the editor of the journal Medium Aevum from 1957 until his death in 1981.
He was one of the Inklings, an informal literary group that included two of the most important writers of the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, the authors of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings respectively.
He is buried at the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge with his wife, Gwyneth (1916-1980).
- Glyer, Diana Pavlac (2007). The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. Kent State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87338-890-0.
- McNeish, James (2003). Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-tung. Random House New Zealand. ISBN 978-1-86941-564-8.
- Glyer, Diana. (2007). The Company They Keep. Kent, OH: Kent State UP. ISBN 978-0-87338-890-0.
- Piero Boitani & Anna Torti, eds. (1983) Literature in Fourteenth-Century England: The J. A. W. Bennett Memorial Lectures, Perugia, 1981-1982. Tübingen: Narr; Cambridge: Brewer
- P. L. Heyworth, ed. (1981) Medieval Studies for J. A. W. Bennett: aetatis suae LXX. Oxford: Clarendon Press
- BENNETT, Prof. Jack Arthur Walter, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2015; online edn, Oxford University Press, 2014
- "Successful Albertians & Albertian Biographies". Mount Albert Grammar School. Retrieved 23 April 2019.
- McNeish 2003.
- Levens, R.G.C., ed. (1964). Merton College Register 1900-1964. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 242.
- McNeish 2003, p. 29.
- McNeish 2003, p. 274.
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 June 2011.
- Glyer 2007.