Middle Earth, middlebrow JRR Tolkien the author of the 20th century?

Andrew Rissik defends the canon against assault from hobbits and Tom Shippey

Andrew Rissik


Saturday September 2, 2000

JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century

Tom Shippey

Buy it here: JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century

JRR Tolkien's chief contribution to the literature of the 20th century was to ignore it almost completely. He wrote, as his Oxford don colleague and fellow Inkling C S Lewis also did, to retrieve something that the discordance of the modern age seemed intrinsically to threaten - the old, secure, prepubertal moral certainties of late-Edwardian England.

Both men were secular mystics who chose to canonise their own tastes. They found in books and mythology less a reflection of life and lived experience than some fulfilment of the mind's sovereign capacity to escape into dream. Lewis might have been happier if English poetry had ended with John Masefield; Tolkien would have preferred it to have finished somewhere between the work of the anonymous Gawain poet, whom he translated, and Chaucer. "Literature stops in 1100," he once said. "After that it's only books."

It was as if, on some primary level, his interests weren't artistic at all. He abandoned Greek and the Classical world after an indolent first year at Oxford, switching to English and linguistics because comparative philology was the only paper in which he'd distinguished himself. One suspects that the undertow of sex and religious doubt and the restless, argumentative probing of human psychology in Euripides, Aeschylus and Homer held little appeal for him. What he liked was the colour and vitality of archaic Northern languages, their hammer-on-anvil gold-and-silver sound, their plainness and lack of introversion.

The danger in writing about him now is to misread this essential simplicity of temperament, taking what's fresh and enjoyable in his work and applying to it wrongheaded standards of traditional literary eminence, so that what he did achieve is falsified by being mistaken for what he didn't. This is the cardinal error made by Professor Tom Shippey in his long and densely packed study, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century, which - as its title may suggest - is a belligerently argued piece of fan-magazine polemic.

Shippey wants to feel that his own enthusiasm, which is for morally serious fantasy of the kind Tolkien pioneered, is worthy of a place up there at the top table alongside the totemic great names of the western canon. Accordingly, he classifies Tolkien as equal with (or ahead of) James Joyce, George Orwell, William Golding and Kurt Vonnegut, and then castigates the "literary snobs" who disagree.

The trouble is, it's not just literary snobs who don't accept Tolkien as one of the greatest writers of the last century. Almost no one does, except the hard-core Tolkien addicts who've elevated his books to the status of a cult. Shippey makes a legitimate case for the enduring commercial popularity of The Lord of the Rings, but if we're talking of "lasting value" I doubt whether popularity has any significance.

People read the tales of Middle Earth the way they've always read cunningly wrought fantasies - the way they read Sherlock Holmes or James Bond or Dracula - drinking in the excitement of the atmosphere, revelling in the hypnotic detail. They don't read them the way the 19th-century public read Nicholas Nickleby or War and Peace, feeling that these books were [Image] somehow inseparable from the life and thought of their age.

It's this absence of common literary horse sense that makes me feel that a critic who tries to raise the creation of Hobbits and Middle Earth above what was achieved by Yeats, Eliot, Conrad, Joyce, D H Lawrence or Auden is either artistically tone deaf or harmlessly dotty. After the annihilating traumas of the last century, it's merely perverse to ascribe greatness to this airy but strangely simplified mock-Teutonic never-never land, where races and species intermingle at will and great battles are fought but there is never any remotely convincing treatment of those fundamental human concerns through which all societies ultimately define themselves - religion, philosophy, politics and the conduct of sexual relationships.

So much of what Shippey says in Tolkien's favour cuts the opposite way. He discourses on the profundity of Tolkien's treatment of evil without appearing to see that Sauron, the Ring Lord, is no more than a compelling melodrama villain. Personified evil, though effective in its intended fantasy-adventure context, can't and doesn't implicate its readers emotionally, as do William Golding's Lord of the Flies or The Inheritors, which use exotic and far-removed settings to throw back at us a prophetically twisted image of our own corruptibility. Nor is it something insidious and institutional, working through structures and organisations in a recognisably sophisticated way, as in Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World.

To praise Tolkien for his archaic authenticity with languages is to miss the point. It's not his Old Norse or High German that's the problem, it's his English - the twee doggerel of Tom Bombadil, the high-falutin' Hollywood-epic inversions of the speeches at Rivendell, and that meandering prose style that is half Old Testament pastiche, half 1920s ripping yarn. The mix of high severity and low bluntness we find in a writer such as Sir Thomas Malory is entirely beyond Tolkien's reach; so too is the great poet's awareness of the inadequacy of language itself, that shrinks the thousand-year gap between us and those Anglo-Saxon masterpieces The Wanderer and The Seafarer.

Tolkien lacked the qualities that might have made The Lord Of The Rings a masterpiece: the language of a poet and the perception of a philosopher. When, at the end of the Morte d'Arthur, Sir Ector enters Joyous Guard to find his comrade Sir Lancelot lying dead, we hear, in the spontaneity and simple stoicism of his grief, some of the finest dramatic speech written in English before Shakespeare. When, in the last pages of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves the Shire and departs for the Grey Havens, all we hear in the suavely allegorical and too sweetly cadenced prose are plagiaristic echoes of other books, other voices - Malory, Tennyson, Andrew Lang, William Morris, the King James Bible.

Yet the moment itself, and its high-aspiring style - "And it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise" - lie at the heart of what Tolkien and Lewis were striving to achieve.

Their vision, for all its limits, was not ignoble. Some faith that had been lost amid the slaughter of 1914-18 is respected in their fiction. Both were devoutly religious, and for both life was largely an intensification of what they'd read and talked about and imagined. Both locate their image of God in the same emotional places: in the sensuous, pre-industrial beauty of an invented natural world and the childlike stillness of the accepting human mind. The tone is lyrical, the meaning apocalyptic. Tolkien's Middle Earth and Lewis's Narnia were what these men thought and hoped that heaven might be like.

JRR Tolkien: author of the century by Tom Shippey

By Patrick Curry

8 September 2000

In the recent reappearance of Beowulf on the literary scene, one curiosity has been the praise heaped by Seamus Heaney, and several reviewers, on JRR Tolkien. His brilliant essay of 1936, which put the monsters back at the centre of the tale, is universally admitted to have revolutionised the field.

Contrast that with the reception of the news beginning with the Waterstone's poll in 1996, repeated many times since and confirmed by sales figures that The Lord of the Rings is the most-read and best-loved book of the 20th century. Apoplexy and dismay across the expert spectrum, from Germaine Greer to Auberon Waugh, reached comical proportions.

Such a reaction was hardly new. The work's first TLS reviewer sniffed, in 1954, that it was not one "many adults will read through more than once". Edmund Wilson consigned it to what he saw as a peculiarly British taste for "juvenile trash". In 1961, Philip Toynbee said, "These books have passed into a merciful oblivion." Rarely has a death been so prematurely celebrated.

Considering that catalogue of ignorance, arrogance and sheer animus, Tom Shippey is remarkably restrained. He concentrates on explaining the reasons for the extraordinary popular success of such an unlikely book: no sex, serial murder or courtrooms. Unlike works by Orwell and Golding, its closest competitors in the polls, it is decidedly not a set text.

Shippey succeeds brilliantly. Along the way, the reason for the reaction of the literati becomes apparent. It isn't just Tolkien's popularity, but that The Lord of the Rings is based on deep learning and a set of values that represent a challenge to their authority.

The learning philological, historical and cultural cannot be doubted. And the values Tolkien places centre-stage are precisely those that modernist acolytes of progress have tried to marginalise: community, the natural world, the reality of the sacred. Tolkien's sin is to have spoken to so many readers' persistent attachment to, and fears for, those things. For encouraging the escape of the prisoner, he is blamed as he once put it for the flight of the deserter.

On the one hand, Tolkien the scholar is inseparable from the author. On the other, as Shippey also shows, The Lord of the Rings is actually a characteristic work of the late 20th century. Both aspects are particularly striking in terms of the parallels with Beowulf. Just as the latter uncomfortably mediates between the passing pagan world and a new Christian one, so Tolkien's work reflects a post-Christian world, saturated with gnawing uncertainties. Shippey's exploration of Tolkien's themes, especially the nature of evil, power and what one character calls "the long defeat", is superb.

He also reveals Tolkien's ability to give names and faces to things we have either lost the words for or not yet articulated. The former include Treebeard's sadness without unhappiness, or the hobbits' cheerfulness without hope (what Tolkien called the Northern "theory of courage"); the latter, the way Saruman exemplifies "one of the characteristic vices of modernity a kind of restless ingenuity, skill without purpose, bulldozing for the sake of change". Taking on the critics on their own ground, Shippey reveals Tolkien's use of a complex narrative structure, and the flexibility with which he moved between different literary modes.

If there is a weakness to his book, it is Shippey's reluctance to move far off-page, which sometimes leaves neglected important aspects of Tolkien's appeal, such as his profound feeling for nature. There is also the striking resonance, despite obvious differences, between his work (including its reception) and that of Orwell. These have been discussed elsewhere. The point is that until Tolkien's intervention, it was still possible for critics to insist that the Beowulf poet had written the wrong book. Shippey has now firmly established that the same commonplace about Tolkien is equally fatuous.

The reviewer is author of 'Defending Middle-Earth' (Floris Books)


By Tom Shippey


Buy it here: JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century

Sometime during his lifetime, speaking of his own boyhood and his unusual name, the literary scholar Cleanth Brooks stated that he realized early on that any boy named "Cleanth" had better know how to fight or how to play football. By a like token, any critic who looks back upon the 20th century and dubs English fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien the "author of the century" must marshal some unstoppably formidable arguments in Tolkien's defense or else prepare to face critical derision.

Known worldwide for his three-volume "Lord of the Rings" novel cycle and its prequel, "The Hobbit" (1937), Tolkien has been wildly popular with readers since the publication of these works of fantasy at mid-century, though a small but influential number of critics have sneered at him as a writer of mere escapism. In 1997, Germaine Greer expressed angered bafflement at the claim, bolstered by several polls taken among readers in England, that Tolkien is any sort of "author of the century," while Edmund Wilson --- one of America's preeminent 20th-century critics -- is widely, if resentfully, remembered by Tolkien admirers for a canting, sarcastic review of the "Ring" trilogy titled, "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!"

But Tolkien had his critical admirers also, including his friend C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, W. H. Auden, and numerous others. One such critic is Tom Shippey, an English medievalist of high and long standing, who has held positions at Leeds University and Oxford once held by Tolkien himself. Mr. Shippey acquits himself well in his "J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century." In this work of criticism, he closely examines all of Tolkien's major works and at least partly proves his thesis: That among 20th-century writers, Tolkien was preeminent in terms of (1) book sales, (2) his accomplishment and influence as a fantastic (or mythopoeic) writer, and (3) the quality of his work.

Mr. Shippey addresses the first two criteria in the foreword to his book, then spends the remaining 300-some pages seeking to prove the third. In the main he succeeds, starting out boldly by seeking to demonstrate that the dominant literary mode of the past century was the fantastic.

This surprising claim, which would not have seemed even remotely conceivable at the start of the century, is buttressed by the fact that fantasy literature's most representative and distinctive works during the 100 years included not only Tolkien's novels, "but also George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, William Golding's Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot-49 and Gravity's Rainbow."

The list could also take in such authors as Anthony Burgess, Anne McCaffrey, Stephen King, Don DeLillo, G. K. Chesterton, Mark Helprin, Jacquetta Hawkes, and Thomas Ligotti, not to mention the entire school of magical realism.

But if the breadth of imitators and literary descendants is to be used as a criterion, it must be admitted that the literary realists and naturalists, with their emphasis upon the gritty and depressing aspects of the workaday world, may well be running at least neck-and-neck with the fantasists, if not slightly ahead. In America alone, within the shadow of their ancestor, Mark Twain, the Four Horsemen of Literary Naturalism -- Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane and Jack London -- generated their own stable of influential imitators, such as Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, the various authors of hard-boiled detective fiction, and others.

For the sake of discussion, call it an even heat. Even so, Tolkien outstrips any one of his competitors in all literary genres in terms of popularity and influence. His invention of Middle-earth and crafting of an entire mythology of hobbits, ents, goblins (orcs), elves, dwarfs, trolls, along with well developed languages for each of them, was a huge undertaking, one which began about the time of World War I and extended through the end of the author's life in 1973, a span of well over 50 years.

This single-handed accomplishment led not only to the development of sword-and-sorcery literature, but largely made possible the publication of fantasy literature in general during the second half of the 20th century. As Mr. Shippey notes, the entire "hobbit" venture was embarked upon with great trepidation by Tolkien's publisher, George Allen & Unwin, who had little faith that a story involving a magic ring, a talking bird, a dragon, and mythical creatures of every description had much chance of generating interest among the reading public in the midst of a world lurching toward the second global war within a generation. (Much to the publisher's surprise, the public leaped at Tolkien's story of "those awful orcs" and clamored for more.)

Mr. Shippey acknowledges that sales alone show only part of the picture; after all, the world of trade publishing during the past 50 years has been a realm in which foul-mouthed radio personalities, semi-literate professional wrestlers, and even U.S. senators have earned substantial sums for their literary accomplishment. What of Tolkien?

This brings Mr. Shippey to the main body of his book, in which he demonstrates in painstaking detail that Tolkien's works told a cracking good story skillfully interwoven with a world view reflecting the "moral imagination" written of by Edmund Burke. Sprung in part from Tolkien's Roman Catholic faith, it is this vision of humanity -- and the other "children of the kindly West," in Tolkien's Middle-earth -- as something more than dust in the wind, as a flawed tribe being given to sometimes flawed choices but beloved of a Power beyond its understanding and made for eternity, that speaks warmly to the heart of Tolkien's readers, along with the well told tale.

It is this quality which makes the parables (not allegories, Tolkien insisted) of the Middle-earth mythology ring true and affirms that the world of myth -- of calamitous peril, vital choices, and heroic action -- and the workaday world of today are not altogether dissimilar. It is this quality, also, which causes some otherwise sensible literary critics to respond to Tolkien's accomplishment with comments about their author being a purveyor of "right-wing literature" and, perhaps worse, escapism. (How interesting that on one occasion, Tolkien and Lewis discussed the question of who, in all the world, is the most fearful of "escape." They agreed upon the answer: jailers.)

Having established these facts about Tolkien, Mr. Shippey provides a detailed examination of Tolkien's works, providing a close thematic examination and demonstrating the author's skillful borrowing of words and concepts from Old Norse literature (a field in which Tolkien was, during his lifetime, preeminent). The result is an invaluable study which more than meets the primary criterion of a critical work: It illuminates the text and enables the reader to better appreciate the works under discussion. Readers interested in Tolkien will lay down Mr. Shippey's book with an elevated understanding of Tolkien's accomplishment as a philologist, storyteller, and writer of imaginative parables that affirm what it is to be fully alive.

"I doubt whether any of our action is really anything but an allegory. I doubt whether any truth can be told except in parable," claimed one of Chesterton's fictional characters. If truth can be told only in parable, it is worth considering that the parables of Tolkien have endured and even grown in popularity and critical acceptance since their hopeful publication at mid-century. This, along with their continuing influence and their timeless quality point to the truth of Chesterton's statement, and lend weight to Mr. Shippey's thesis: that J. R. R. Tolkien, late of Oxford University, was indeed the author of the century, finding fruition in the minds of intelligent men and women worldwide who recognize that, in truth, imagination rules the world.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of " Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind" (1999). He lives in Michigan.

Buy it here: JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century








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