Sunday, August 24, 2003
Tom Shippey, the go-to man for all things Tolkien, has revised and expanded his 1982 work, and it is now, for the first time, available in paperback in America.
The Road to Middle-earth is the book’s third edition and benefits from new publications made in the last decade. Those who have read The Lord of the Rings or enjoyed the films so far and don’t want to delve deeper than that may have reason to eschew this work.
It is immensely detailed, looking at nearly all of Tolkien’s output, and it examines Tolkien’s considerable learning and passion for philology (the study of earlier languages and their roots), which can at times be alienating, despite Shippey’s readable prose. Those who want to dip their toes in without getting soaked should reach for Shippey’s more accessible J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, which offers many insights into why Tolkien is a 20th-century author in line with a tradition of “traumatized authors” (such as William Golding, George Orwell or Kurt Vonnegut) without teasing as many of the biographical/historical strands.
The most important fact here is that Shippey knows his subject inside and out — his curriculum while teaching at Oxford followed the syllabus Tolkien laid out, and he is scrupulous in respecting not only his work but his authorial wishes as expressed in his letters and prefaces. Most of all, Shippey cites texts and facts (often, as with so much of Tolkien, philological fact, as much as is known) to back up his statements and ideas. He is trying to offer a counterbalance to years of critical pillorying of the author as a lightweight or escapist writer.
Nothing could be further from the truth, Shippey says, showing the complexity of LOTR and The Silmarillion as works of reconstructive philology, inventive linguistics (Elvish, Dwarvish and so forth) and a kind of pure allegory (one needs to be careful about that term with Tolkien) that arguably invented the modern fantasy genre.
Shippey shows how Tolkien started with a name or word (” `I suddenly realized that I am a pure philologist. I like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names!’ “) and then proceeded to build stories that could enclose the names and the languages to which they belong.
An example might be the Rohirrim in LOTR, who speak the Mercian parallel of Old English and yet observe customs that might be considered historically inaccurate: To wit, their culture is centered around horses (they call themselves “Eotheod” “horse” “people”), when, historically, the Anglo-Saxons militarily had little to do with horses (they lost at Hastings due to and imbalance of mounted knights and archers.) Why? The answer, Shippey notes, is that “the Rohirrim are not to be equated with the Anglo-Saxons of history, but with those of poetry, or legend.” Beowulf is the single most important source for a reader of Tolkien’s works, and much of the chapter “The King of the Golden Hall” (in The Two Towers) calques directly from Beowulf, including the etiquette for entering the king’s hall. LOTR is a world that provides a place for that legendary culture.
Obviously this is not for everyone, perhaps not for most of Tolkien’s readers. Many can appreciate the story in LOTR without wanting to learn the differences between Old Icelandic and Old English, something Tolkien might have been dismayed at, but then, this is a problem that Shippey’s book helps to illuminate and even remedy. It’s worth taking the trip on The Road to Middle-earth.