Tom Shippey knows J. R. R. Tolkien as well as any critic. He attended the same preparatory school as Tolkien (King Edward’s in Birmingham, England), he was Tolkien’s successor when that writer retired from Oxford University, and in 1979 he succeeded to the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University which Tolkien had held from 1920 to 1925. In 1982, Shippey wrote one of the most probing analyses of Tolkien’s work, The Road to Middle-Earth (revised in 1992), sympathetic in part because Shippey shares not only the older writer’s interest in Old and Middle English, but also Tolkien’s belief that language and literature are inextricably intertwined. Now, two decades after that first study, Shippey has produced a critical work which attempts to establish Tolkien as the most influential author of the last century.
The evidence is not hard to locate. The Hobbit has sold more than forty million copies since it was published in 1937, The Lord of the Rings over fifty million copies since it appeared in three volumes in 1954 and 1955. Since Tolkien’s death in 1973, a number of books have been shaped out of his vast unpublished manuscripts, most important The Silmarillion(edited, as many of these posthumous works, by his son Christopher in 1977). As Shippey’s list of references reveals, a veritable cottage industry of Tolkien studies has sprung up, including a number of Web sites dedicated to Tolkien’s works and the languages he created. Middle-Earth, as Shippey writes in his foreword, has become “a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture.” The three-part, three-year Lord of the Rings film project, the first of which premiered in December, 2001, promised to add to these furnishings.
The support for Shippey’s nomination of Tolkien builds on more than popular foundations, however. If Tolkien did not create the heroic fantasy genre, the fantasy trilogy he produced in The Lord of the Rings has become a standard form, and hundreds of writers have sought to emulate his success. Shippey argues that the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has in fact been fantasy. Writers as diverse as George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, and William Golding have all used elements of the fantastic. “Those authors of the twentieth century who have spoken most powerfully to and for their contemporaries have for some reason found it necessary to use the metaphoric mode of fantasy . . .” Something about twentieth century life has led writers, and even predominantly realist writers, to the genre of fantasy. Put another way, only fantasy can convey some of the catastrophic and horrific history of that century.
If Tolkien was not there first, he created a more comprehensive and coherent fantasy world than any of his predecessors—or followers. His Oxford colleague and friend C. S. Lewis used the genre extensively (both in science fiction such as Out of the Silent Planet, 1938, and in the children’s books which later formed The Chronicles of Narnia, 1950-1956), and Tolkien’s contemporary T. H. White explored it thoroughly inThe Sword and the Stone (1958) and other Arthurian romances. No one, before or since, however, has created a world as detailed as that described in The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other works: Tolkien even created the languages and drew the maps and accompanying illustrations. He uncovered, or reconstructed, the world behind fairy tales. As Shippey puts it, “However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-Earth was, he did not think he was entirely making it up. He was reconstructing,’ he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination . . .” Millions of readers have shared that journey with Tolkien. Few of the consumers of J. K. Rowling’s immensely popular Harry Potter series of books have any idea of the rich tradition of fantasy behind those books, but once they discover it they will have hours of pleasure exploring Tolkien and other earlier writers.
Tolkien should be considered the most influential writer of the twentieth century, Shippey argues, not only because of the breadth and coherence of his vision, but because he was immersed in this medieval fantasy...