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 Waterstones, 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
Shippeys 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 Shippeys
analysis of Tolkiens popularity, some new and reworked ideas
concerning the philological and mythological elements of LOTR and
Shippeys comments about Tolkiens critics. Reviews of
Shippeys 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 Tolkiens The History
of Middle Earth (HOME). It would be very difficult to review this
new book without some familiarity with Tolkiens writing method.
The book starts with
an analysis of the surveys and Tolkiens popularity. This section
also takes on some of Tolkiens critics. The six sections following
this are essentially a post-HOME update of Shippeys 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
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 Shippeys 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.
Tolkiens 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 Tolkiens 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 Tolkiens popularity. Among these
is the point that many readers are educated away from Tolkien. Presumably
they are victims of the conventional literature education. Tolkiens
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 Tolkiens
work and people outside the establishment appreciate and study his
...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 Tolkiens
work. To some extent, Shippey has the same problem. It is hard to
take on Tolkiens critics when they dont make serious
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 Tolkiens 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 Tolkiens two major
essays, Beowulf, the Monster and the Critics and On
Fairy Stories. The final influence on criticism is Tolkiens
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 Tolkiens 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 Tolkiens
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 cant imagine even Bloom thinks this is a severe
indictment of Tolkiens 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
Anyone familiar with
the HOME series and Tom Shippeys previous work recognizes
that LOTR was written in a style consistent with the content of
the tale. A simple example is represented in Tolkiens 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 cant apply the full-court press
on Tolkien and blow him off the court because there is something
about Tolkien he does not understand.
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
One intriguing point
he makes about the Hobbit is the link between modern childrens
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 childrens 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 Bilbos 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 Shippeys
speculations and analyses of associations in LOTR and there are
plenty in this book. Shippeys 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. Tolkiens 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 Tolkiens conception of moral character was simple. Shippeys
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. Shippeys 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 Tolkiens 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 childrens 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
Although Shippey presents
many great, thought-provoking ideas, he really does not resolve
the issue of Tolkiens 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?
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.
here to order Tom Shippey's J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century>