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Lord of the Ratings–and with very good reason
Book Review of JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey
Review by Patrick Curry
The Independent – September 8, 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 the field.
Contrast that with the reception of the news – 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 prematurely celebrated.
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 literary modes.
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)