by Sean Dailey
Dead nearly 30 years, author J.R.R. Tolkien has never been more popular.
Not for his scholarship, to be sure. Though the Oxford don was a pioneer in his particular discipline, philology, almost single-handedly forming it into a coherent body of knowledge, it remains as obscure today as when Tolkien began his academic career in the 1920s.
Still, it was Tolkien’s passion for languages (philology is the study of historical forms of languages) that inspired him to invent his own mythology, borrowing heavily from strands of various northern European legends, and write “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Silmarillion,” some of the most popular books of the 20th century.
With “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first installment of the movie version of the “Lord of the Rings,” due out in December, Tolkien mania is at an all-time high. Tolkien fan sites abound on the Internet and sales of his books have never been more brisk.
Just in case anyone wants to know what all the fuss is about, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has published what is probably the most comprehensive book of Tolkien criticism to date, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.
To the unschooled, the audacious subtitle may seem a bit over the top. Tolkien, after all, wrote about elves, dwarves, goblins, talking trees and those peculiar creatures for which he alone can claim credit, hobbits.
There’s nothing serious there, or at least it appears that way, and many who consider themselves members of the English and American literary establishments have, since the publication of “Lord of the Rings” in 1954-55, routinely denounced Tolkien as inconsequential and juvenile, despite (or maybe because of) his continuing popularity.
But Shippey backs up his claim with compelling arguments. For one thing, fantasy literature was the dominant literary mode of the 20th century, he says. Even before bookshelves became crowded with Tolkien imitators, authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and William Golding, as well as Tolkien, resorted to fantasy.
These were authors, serious thinkers all, who “found it necessary to write about worlds and creatures we know do not exist” to get their messages across, Shippey writes.
Not that they had much in common with Tolkien, but he and they shared one important trait – all were combat veterans. Tolkien was at the Battle of the Somme in World War I, and shared with Vonnegut, Orwell and Golding, “an unshakable conviction of something wrong, something irreducibly evil in the nature of humanity, but without any very satisfactory explanation for it.”
For him and the others, fantasy was “a deeply serious response to what will be seen in the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil, human existence without the support of divine revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language.”
This, Shippey argues, is what makes Tolkien “highly contemporary,” a man whose writing, especially “The Lord of the Rings,” cannot be taken as “anything other than a work, a highly characteristic work, of the twentieth century.”
But not characteristic enough for some people. Tolkien parts company with his contemporaries in the conclusions he draws. He rejects despair, and it is this, more than anything else, that draws the ire of the literati:
“Tolkien not only poses questions about evil, he also provides answers and solutions, one of the things which has made him unpopular with the professionally gloomy or fashionably nihilist,” Shippey writes.
To see how Shippey skewers the critics elitists who “are very ready to express their anger, to call Tolkien childish and his readers retarded” but who are nonetheless “less likely to explain or defend their judgements” read the book. They’re dealt with in the foreward and in more detail in the afterward.
Between these, Shippey devotes three chapters to “The Lord of the Rings,” examining its plot, mythic dimension and the question of evil. “The Hobbit,” “The Silmarillion” and Tolkien’s short stories get one chapter each.
The writing is crisp and lively, an unexpected surprise in a scholarly tome. Shippey covers a lot of ground, but he keeps the reader interested by avoiding jargon and sticking always to the scholarship that went into Tolkien’s writing.
Especially when examining “The Lord of the Rings,” Shippey is nothing short of masterful. His dissection of the chapter “The Council of Elrond,” in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” alone ought to dispel misinformed notions of Tolkien’s writing being a sort of “boys’ own adventure” for readers fleeing reality.
Which is not to say that Shippey’s book is completely flawless. I found his discussion of concepts of evil overly simplistic. Shippey says that one notion of evil as an active force to be fought against easily could “swerve toward being a heresy, Manichaeanism, or Dualism,” in other words that good and evil are two equal but opposing forces, with no real difference between them.
Shippey is right as far as this goes the orthodox and heretical beliefs do seem similar at first glance but for the rest of the book he uses the word “Manichaean” with no seeming distinction between either belief.
Nonetheless, Shippey seems the man to take up this difficult and complex subject. A philologist in his own right, he has held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University that Tolkien himself held until 1925 and also was a member of the English faculty at Oxford, teaching nearly the same curriculum Tolkien taught.
He currently holds the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University.
Some might say he’s too well-schooled. Casual readers may not care to know about Tolkien’s endless philological jests and puns, many laboriously chronicled by Shippey, or about the obscure origins of, for instance, the dwarves’ names in “The Hobbit” or the word “Ringwraith.”
Rabid fans, on the other hand, will eat it up. “Author of the Century” brims with such arcane details as the linguistic importance of, for instance, Bilbo Baggins being called a burglar (as opposed to thief) or why Orcs (goblins) cannot escape the moral order no matter how much they flout it.
For that matter, readers who want to know where “Orc” comes from need look no further.
Even 45 years after the publication of the final volume of “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien gets little respect despite his enduring popularity, but I think that will change as time goes on. Shippey is one reason why.