Middle Earth, middlebrow
JRR Tolkien the author of the 20th century?
Andrew Rissik defends
the canon against assault from hobbits and Tom Shippey
Saturday September 2,
JRR Tolkien: Author
of the Century
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
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
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
Contrast that with the
reception of the news Ü 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
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
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)
J.R.R. TOLKIEN: AUTHOR
OF THE CENTURY
By Tom Shippey
REVIEWED BY JAMES E.
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
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
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,
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
"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