A Philology For England

J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century

by Tom Shippey

Reviewed by Mike Williams

The results of recent polls done by Waterstone’s, the BBC Book Choice program and others, finding that The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was the most influential book of the 20th Century, surprised even the most enthusiastic Tolkien fan. The findings had the effect of a stone thrown into the pond of the reading public and the waves are still bouncing back and forth, disturbing the waters. Everyone appears baffled. Tolkien fans are beaming; the results suggest that we are not as odd as we thought. The phenomenal success and popularity of LOTR surprised the author, the publisher, the literary pundits, readers, fans, in short, everyone.

Into the quandary wades Tom Shippey with a new book, J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century. The book is essentially a collection of essays, some of which represent Shippey’s analysis of the survey results and the remainder represent conventional literary analysis similar to his earlier book, The Road to Middle Earth. This review will cover Shippey’s analysis of Tolkien’s popularity, some new and reworked ideas concerning the philological and mythological elements of LOTR and Shippey’s comments about Tolkien’s critics. Reviews of Shippey’s book, both positive and negative, focused directly on Tolkien and LOTR, with barely a mention of Shippey and his ideas. This is likely because general book reviewers are probably unaware of the remarkable Tolkien scholarship that has been published in recent years, most notably, Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth (HOME). It would be very difficult to review this new book without some familiarity with Tolkien’s writing method.

The book starts with an analysis of the surveys and Tolkien’s popularity. This section also takes on some of Tolkien’s critics. The six sections following this are essentially a post-HOME update of Shippey’s earlier book, The Road to Middle-Earth. The Afterword returns to the issues brought up in the Forward. The Forward/Afterword is the consistently good read. The middle sections are hefty and require some reading and re-reading for the points to sink in.

“The Hobbit has stayed in print for more than sixty years, selling over forty million copies, the Lord of the Rings for nearly fifty years, selling over fifty million.”

Of course, any review like this cannot render commentary on every point brought up in a book such as this. My general review at the outset is that the new and interesting aspects of this book far outweigh the weaker sections. After all, it is Tom Shippey’s scholarship that has bolstered our uncanny devotion to The Lord of the Rings. Tom Shippey took on the shallow and disdainful critics and slapped them around. The present volume presents a series of new arguments that expose the false critics of Tolkien and a number of new interpretations of the works in light of the HOME series.

One of the most interesting and provocative ideas in this book is that The Lord of the Rings was essentially a new and inventive work of Philology. Shippey argues that Tolkien believed Philology was more than the study of languages and essentially included literature as a stimulus or inspiration for language study. In the same way that Tolkien expanded the appreciation of Beowulf, from a study of language to an appreciation of the work as literature, he expanded his invented languages to create a significant work of literature. This concept has great appeal for the Tolkien fan because it vindicates Tolkien as a Philologist. If one includes The Lord of the Rings as a work of Philology, then Tolkien must rank high in the pantheon of philologists.

Shippey uses the example of the Kalevala, by Elias Lonnrot, as another work of expanded Philology. Tolkien’s work that is similar in design and motivation is the Silmarillion. Shippey states correctly that it is unlikely the Silmarillion would have been published if the Hobbit and LOTR were not so popular. On the positive side of the point, is the simple fact that the general concept of Philology and historical linguistics are far more popular than they would have been if Tolkien had not emphasized the role of language in his invention of Middle Earth. I find myself pondering word origins and have even purchased a few books on the history of English (a humorous, entertaining book in this area is The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson). In much the same way that Tolkien’s work stimulates an interest in the early English works, such as Beowulf, it has also stimulated an interest in languages, including Old and Middle English, Old Norse and Icelandic.

Shippey makes a number of interesting points about Tolkien’s popularity. Among these is the point that many readers are educated away from Tolkien. Presumably they are victims of the conventional literature education. Tolkien’s popularity results from the attraction of people who are generally educated, rather than those educated by the literature establishment. This rings true and is supported by the contribution of many people to the study of Tolkien and his languages who have degrees and occupations outside the realm of traditional literature studies. Shippey suggests that this indicates the literature establishment has rejected Tolkien’s work and people outside the establishment appreciate and study his works.

“...just as the children's fairy tales of elves and dwarves had some long-lost connection with the time when such creatures were material for adults and poets, so modern playground riddles and rhymes were the last descendents of an old tradition.”

Shippey presents a variety of criticisms of Tolkien to support this denigration by the literature establishment. However, criticism is really not the word to describe the approach of the literature establishment. The criticism is either completely disdainful and dismissive, or it is simple name-calling. I have yet to see a significant and serious negative review of Tolkien’s work. To some extent, Shippey has the same problem. It is hard to take on Tolkien’s critics when they don’t make serious comments.

When Edmund Wilson and Philip Toynbee wrote their reviews soon after the publication of LOTR, they responded in a simple-minded way to this new fantasy romance. Since these reviews, some remarkable things happened to inhibit the dismissive reaction to Tolkien’s work. The first of these was the publication of the Silmarillion. This placed LOTR within a world and history of great depth. No one can reasonably analyze LOTR without reference to the Silmarillion. The second was the publication of the HOME series, one of the most remarkable events in the history of literature studies. A third influence has been the continued publication and interest in Tolkien’s two major essays, “Beowulf, the Monster and the Critics” and “On Fairy Stories”. The final influence on criticism is Tolkien’s incredible and sustained popularity. Anyone who maintains a dismissive attitude about Tolkien in light of these influences is obviously uninformed; their disdainful comments appear foolish.

“There is a kind of presumption, however, in literary critics, usually utterly ignorant of the history of their own language, telling Tolkien what to think about English. Tolkien could at any time, and without trying, have rewritten any of his supposedly archaic passages either in really archaic language, in Middle English, or Old English, or in completely normal demotic contemprary slang.”

As a result, I wonder how many of the literati are now dismissive of Tolkien. Shippey and the rest of the fans tend to view the world from the point of view of the early criticisms. As a consequence, we probably believe Tolkien is not appreciated. That may have changed with the advent of the factors described above and we may not be aware that many readers from the conventional literature domain have actually signed on and developed an appreciation for Tolkien’s work. As far as I know, there have been no critical reviews written after the publication of the Silmarillion and the HOME series. The only negative review I have seen recently is the very short set of comments made by Harold Bloom in the Introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations of LOTR, in which he makes tentative, cursory comments about Tolkien’s writing style. He even includes a sample that is one of the most moving passages in LOTR, the small section in which Aragorn works through the night healing the wounded following the battle of the Pelennor Fields. He specifically cites the phrase, “men came and prayed that he would heal their kinsmen or their friends, whose lives were in peril through hurt or wound, or who lay under the Black Shadow.” Bloom states, “I am not able to understand how a skilled and mature reader can absorb about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff. Why “hurt or wound”; are they not the same?” His criticism appears weak and empty, since he uses a similar construction in the phrase, “skilled and mature”. I can’t imagine even Bloom thinks this is a severe indictment of Tolkien’s writing style. The only point in making this comment is to pull the Edmund Wilson name-calling ploy: people who enjoy “the quaint stuff”, are obviously not mature and skilled readers. This is poor going for someone who recently won a gold medal for criticism from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Anyone familiar with the HOME series and Tom Shippey’s previous work recognizes that LOTR was written in a style consistent with the content of the tale. A simple example is represented in Tolkien’s change of the word “tobacco” in the early edition of the Hobbit to “pipeweed” in later editions of the Hobbit and LOTR. If Tolkien had written in a concise, modern prose, the story would not work as literature. Although this example may be extreme, imagine the same event quoted by Bloom told in the style of Ernest Hemingway, and you get the picture.

All of this is a long-winded way to get to the point that even a cynical old snob like Harold Bloom was tentative in his derision of Tolkien. He was tentative because Tolkien is so mysteriously popular. He says as much in another part of the Introduction. He can’t apply the full-court press on Tolkien and blow him off the court because there is something about Tolkien he does not understand.

Harold Bloom’s reaction is on the negative end of the reaction of the current establishment to Tolkien. I believe there are a large number of Tolkien fans among this same group who cannot express their support and enjoyment of LOTR. They run the risk of being called immature by characters like Bloom and so avoid the study of LOTR. The most unfortunate result is that the most creative writers among the group are not sufficiently influenced by Tolkien.

Since all criticism before the HOME series is necessarily incomplete, Shippey, in the middle sections of this book, embarks on a revision of The Road To Middle Earth, a book he authored in the pre-HOME era. Although he has been criticized in some reviews for ̉re-hashing’ is earlier book, this is unfair. He makes a number of new observations and points that makes the book well worth reading. These are also substantially rewritten.

One intriguing point he makes about the Hobbit is the link between modern children’s rhymes and stories and ancient myths from which they may be derived. I distinctly recall observing the children at one of the family gatherings and discussing their rhymes with my brother. It was clear that the children did not learn these from their parents; they were communicated to them by other children. This suggests that we participate in a children’s culture early in life in which these rhymes and stories are shared. As we age, these rhymes are lost to us. However, they are maintained by the ever-renewed community of children. Shippey suggests that Tolkien detected the relationship of these oral traditions to the preliterate and pre-Norman culture of England. Of course, the study of languages and word origins also reveals these connections. It would be an interesting anthropological study to examine the culture of children in relationship to language.

On a very minor note in relationship to the Hobbit, Shippey infers the time setting for the story as after England started regular mail service. He infers this based on the fact that Bilbo tries to dismiss Gandalf by taking out his “morning letters”. Of course, the same inference can be made from Bilbo’s address: “Bag End”, refers to the end of the mail bag carried by the postman. Many people have this address. Shippey also relates the name Baggins to an older English word for the food taken to work by common people (Bagging). I think the name Baggins is just word play off the name Bag End.

I never tire of Shippey’s speculations and analyses of associations in LOTR and there are plenty in this book. Shippey’s unique contributions are derived from his knowledge of older languages and their histories. This is knowledge most literary critics do not have. The most interesting of these involves the elaboration of two concepts of evil that Shippey believes are both incorporated into LOTR.

“If evil was just the absence of good, then the Ring could never be more than a psychic amplifier, and all the characters would need to do is put it aside. Conversely, if evil were only an external force, without echo in the hearts of the good, then someone might have to take it to Orodruin, but it would not need to be Frodo: Gandalf could take it, or Galadriel, and whoever did so would have to fight only their enemies, not their friends or themselves.”

The first of these is named for Boethius, a Roman Senator, who asserted that evil does not have an active existence. What we identify as evil is only the absence of good. Withdrawal from God results in thoughts and behavior that we describe as evil. The other point of view is labeled Dualism or Manichaeanism, Here, good and evil are active and placed in opposition. The former model of evil is represented in LOTR by reference to shadows and wraiths. As men, hobbits and others descend from goodness, they become wraiths. The contrary depiction of evil as an active force is manifested in the influence and power of Sauron. The ring embodies both styles of influence and each is manifested in a number of points in the story.

Shippey presents his model as a response to the critics who suggest that Tolkien simplified good and evil. Tolkien’s work appears this way simply because he presents some characters who are clearly good and those who are clearly evil. Characters presented in such contrast foster a belief that Tolkien’s conception of moral character was simple. Shippey’s analysis is strongest when he applies his two evils theory to a multitude of passages in LOTR. The most compelling is the scene when Frodo sits on Amon Hen and senses Sauron searching for him. This evil is active and forceful. The ring and Gandalf respond to it. In numerous places of the story, the other aspect of evil is apparent. For example, simply using the ring brings the user closer to the shadow, eventually to become a wraith. Shippey’s arguments stand on end any criticism that Tolkien simplified good and evil. Any reasonable review of LOTR reveals the complex and mysterious role of evil in the story.

There are parts of the book where I think Shippey has really stretched an association between an element of LOTR and the old literature that appears completely loose and speculative. Reading this book, we are left with the impression that all of Tolkien’s influences were ancient and profound. Tolkien was not above the most mundane incorporation into his work. After all, Bilbo and Bingo (the original name of the Frodo character) were just names of his children’s stuffed bear toys. According to Christopher Tolkien, his father might incorporate anything he found interesting into his writing. These influences might be anything from gardening to his study of Beowulf. Shippey focused on the most elevated of these associations and makes every aspect of LOTR appear profound.

Although Shippey presents many great, thought-provoking ideas, he really does not resolve the issue of Tolkien’s popularity. His analysis just touches the edges of this problem. The Tolkien Phenomenon is still a grand mystery and all the big questions remain: Why are there so many people who read The Lord of the Rings again and again; Why does the story completely captivate some people and others who read it appear completely indifferent to it, or have negative feelings; Why was there an explosion of interest among the youth in America in the 1960s?

Shippey’s response is that the story is really great literature, regardless of the uninformed criticism. Since it is great literature, it is extremely popular. Since there is a large amount of great literature that is not popular, this argument seems empty. Even the popular great literature, such as Shakespeare, is likely not as popular as the Lord of the Rings. LOTR is so popular that it generated an entire fantasy literature genre.

Tom Shippey has made some other comments in interviews that might render some better leads in solving the mystery. In the interviews, he commented on the romantic mode of LOTR. He contrasted this with the ironic mode represented among authors writing since the World Wars. The devastation of these wars and the reaction of philosophers and authors effectively erased romanticism from the cultural landscape. Nausea and depression are the prevailing emotional states of ironic mode. There may be something about a happy ending that has deep psychological appeal. Only humans blush; only humans weep when they witness or imagine eucatastrophe. These psychological phenomena may explain the extreme attraction of romantic mode.

Shippey touches on these because he feels them in his own reaction to LOTR. Since his background is literature, he focuses on literature conventions embodied in LOTR. If he turned his attention to his initial ideas of romantic vs. ironic mode, he might discover new factors that explain the popularity of LOTR and fantasy in general.

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  A very high quality, beautiful sword. This would make a great decorative gift for the shield maiden in your life, or someone who just loves equestrian design.


  Now that the movies have largely run their merchandising course, this may be the best time to purchase high quality jewelry at discounted prices. Use these as gifts for years to come.


  It appears that any game that could possibly have a Lord of the Rings theme has been produced. These include Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Backgammon and Dominoes.



  Figures from the movies include a large action figure series. There are separate figure sets and color schemes for each movie. The highest quality figures were made by Sideshow WETA. Although these are expensive, they sell out quickly and will likely keep their values.

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