J. R. R. Tolkien

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The novels that J. R. R. Tolkien (TAHL-keen) produced represent only a small part of the complicated matrix from which they evolved. During Tolkien’s lifetime, he published three volumes of novellas and short stories, Farmer Giles of Ham (1949), Tree and Leaf (1964), and Smith of Wootton Major (1967). Some of these tales had originally been bedtime stories for his own children, such as those in the posthumously published The Father Christmas Letters (1976) and Roverandom (1998). The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth (1980) both contain stories Tolkien composed early in his life, material that sets the stage for the events in his novels. His poetry collections, Songs for the Philologists (1936), The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962), and The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle (1967), link Tolkien’s poetic formulations of Middle-earth’s themes with the historical and linguistic themes of which both his professional work and much of his dreams were made, “the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons.” Tolkien’s academic publications dealt with the history of the English language and Middle English literature: A Middle English Vocabulary (1922) and editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1925; with E. V. Gordon) and the Ancrene Wisse (1962). His seminal essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) and his only play, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son (pb. 1953), offer fresh interpretations of ancient English epic poems.

Tolkien’s novels have been adapted for cinema and television, and many, though not all, of his fragmentary stories, articles, and letters have been published since his death. His histories of Middle-earth, a remarkable invented mythology comprising chronicles, tales, maps, and poems, were edited as a series by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Volumes include The Book of Lost Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-Earth, and The Lost Road, and Other Writings.


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J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction dismayed most of his fellow scholars at the University of Oxford as much as it delighted most of his general readers. Such reactions sprang from their recognition of his vast linguistic talent, which underlay both his professional achievements and his mythical universe. Tolkien led two lives at once, quietly working as an Oxford tutor, examiner, editor, and lecturer while concurrently Middle-earth and its mythology were taking shape within his imagination.

For twenty years after he took first-class honors in English language and literature at Oxford, Tolkien’s teaching and linguistic studies buttressed his scholarly reputation. Editing the fourteenth century text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon helped bring Tolkien the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925. His lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” approached the Anglo-Saxon epic poem from an entirely new perspective and is considered a landmark in criticism of Western Germanic literature. As he was shaping his linguistic career, however, Tolkien was also formulating an imaginary language that, as early as 1917, had led him to explore its antecedents, its mythology, and its history, all of which he molded into the tales of The Silmarillion. Over the years, he shared these stories with friends, but he never finished putting them into a unified structure.

His preoccupation with Middle-earth and the practical demands of his teaching distracted Tolkien from scholarship, and between his celebrated essay On Fairy Stories in 1939 and his edition of the Middle English Ancrene Wisse in 1962, Tolkien published only fiction, a circumstance acknowledged with polite forbearance by most of Oxford’s scholarly community, although his novels eventually met with astonishing popular success. The Hobbit , originally a children’s story, was published in 1937 after...

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a six-year gestation, and by 1949,The Lord of the Rings was complete. Its sales, though steadily increasing after its publication in 1954-1955, did not soar until 1965, when an unauthorized American printing proved a disguised blessing, resulting in a campus cult responsible for the sale of three million copies by 1968.

Most critics of The Lord of the Rings have not achieved moderation. As W. H. Auden observed, “People find it a masterpiece of its genre, or they cannot abide it.” Auden himself and C. S. Lewis, Tolkien’s Oxford friend, headed the “masterpiece” faction, while Edwin Muir in England and Edmund Wilson in the United States deplored Tolkien’s style and aims.

Honorary fellowships, an honorary doctorate of letters from Oxford, and the honor of being made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II all descended on Tolkien with the unexpected wealth of his last years, which were nevertheless darkened by his reluctance to complete The Silmarillion. His reputation rests not on his academic talent or his scholarly production, or even on his brilliant linguistically oriented “mythology for England,” but on the novels that began as tales for his children and blossomed into a splendid imaginative tree of fiction whose roots feed on the archetypes of northern European civilization and whose leaves shelter its finest aspirations.


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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 world—and in the twentieth century as well: “. . . I argue that his continuing appeal rests not on mere charm or strangeness . . . but on 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 in Middle-Earth, without the support of divine Revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language.” Tolkien’s themes, in short, parallel some of the major issues of twentieth century life and literature.

The plan and scope of Shippey’s study are fairly schematic. The foreword sets up the case for Tolkien, and the “six main chapters which follow try . . . not only to discuss Tolkien’s many sources of inspiration for Middle-Earth,’ but also to show why Middle-Earth has been a vital contemporary inspiration for many readers.” Chapter 1 deals with The Hobbit and establishes the clear links between that heroic stage and the modern world. The book that started Tolkien’s career begins so simply with “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” but by the end of The Hobbit “a detailed and consistent picture of the fairy-tale world, and of many of its inhabitants, had been generated.”

The next three chapters deal with The Lord of the Rings, the first showing its structure (and how Tolkien had absolutely no clear plan for it well into its writing), and the next two taking up the twin central and contemporary themes in the trilogy: evil and myth. Shippey’s main argument is that for all its antiquarian learning and lore, no one could mistake The Lord of the Rings for anything but a work of the twentieth century. Tolkien’s accomplishment, Shippey argues, works on several levels: “The flexibility of his many styles and languages; the resonance of the highest levels of these; the ability to reach out towards universal and mythic meaning, while remaining embedded in story: these are three powerful and largely unsuspected reasons for the continuing appeal ofThe Lord of the Rings.” Shippey’s study concludes with a chapter on the difficult and posthumous chronicle of The Silmarillion (now seen as a kind of appendix to The Lord of the Rings) and a chapter on Tolkien’s shorter works. Finally, in the afterword, Shippey takes up once again the criticisms of Tolkien which kept him out of the canon for so long and the arguments for ending that exile.

The six chapters form the bulk of J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, but they are not the most interesting part of the book. The analyses in each chapter are detailed and linguistic—there are numerous references to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as Shippey tracks the complex history of Tolkien’s language and demonstrates the philological logic of much of what Tolkien wrote. Again and again he shows how Tolkien’s names (Bilbo and Frodo, for example, or orcs and Ents), and place-names (such as Lothlorien and Gondor) make such linguistic sense, often going back (through Tolkien’s own Sindarin and Quenya languages) to actual ancient languages, not only Anglo-Saxon but Old Norse and Finnish as well. Much of this material, however, appeared two decades earlier in Shippey’s The Road to Middle-Earth. What is more interesting is the frame of foreword and afterword which holds this analysis together. Tolkien fans will follow Shippey’s detailed analyses in his central chapters with pleasure, but the general reader will be more interested in the arguments of the frame chapters, where Shippey backs away a little distance from the specific texts to establish the case for Tolkien and explain why he has been resisted for as long as he has.

The primary causes are probably modernism and the literary standards it had established by the middle of the twentieth century. The dominant literary criticism when Tolkien was writing favored literature which was dense, difficult, and dealt with themes of alienation and isolation. Writers such as James Joyce and William Faulkner became the models which, by the 1950’s, had established the acceptable forms of modernist fiction. Other literatures, and especially popular literatures—not only children’s books and fairy tales, but science fiction and the kind of fantasy fiction Tolkien was attempting—came to be seen as lower subgenres and were not to be taken as serious adult literature. Tolkien was labelled a fantasy writer by many critics, and the literary establishment closed ranks in denying him admission. The American critic Edmund Wilson consideredThe Lord of the Rings to be “balderdash” and “juvenile trash,” for example; the British novelist Anthony Burgess dismissed “allegories with animals or fairies” like Tolkien’s in favour of the “higher literary aspirations.” As Shippey shows, this hostility to Tolkien in the literary press revealed something deeper going on. “He threatened the authority of the arbiters of taste, the critics, the educationists, the literati.” For here was a writer who was creating his own world, his own languages, and, as Shippey demonstrates again and again, grappling with serious human issues (such as the nature of evil) which the twentieth century still had not solved—and who was an incredibly popular writer on top of it all.

Proof of Tolkien’s seriousness emerges in any comparison with the greatest modernist of the twentieth century, James Joyce. Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses (1922) has a number of parallels to The Lord of the Rings. Both writers were fascinated with language, and both of them merged the genres of epic and romance and in the process created their own mythological schemes. Yet one work became the most important (modernist) novel of the twentieth century, while the other, Tolkien’s trilogy, was relegated to a “specialist” or “novelty” literature.

All of that has begun to change, however, and Shippey is helping to marshal support for the recent Tolkien campaign. In the last two or three decades, the literary canon has been opening up for a number of alternative Anglo-American literatures, as writers of diverse ethnic backgrounds working in previously minor subgenres have begun to be considered seriously. Consider writers of crime or detective fiction, for example, as well as science fiction and fantasy writers. Critics, following readers, have begun to recognize that serious literature can take place in any number of different forms. Shippey establishes that Tolkien should be “looked at and interpreted within his own time, as an author of the century,’ the twentieth century, responding to the issues and the anxieties of that century.” In a critical study whose writing is easy and accessible, Shippey makes this case for Tolkien with clarity and force.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (May 15, 2001): 1724.

Library Journal 126 (June 1, 2001): 163.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (April 22, 2001): 35.

Publishers Weekly 248 (May 7, 2001): 234.

Discussion Topics

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Why is Beowulf a good point of reference in a discussion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction?

What word other than “escape” might more accurately signify the need to evade threats to life and human values?

Compare Tolkien’s subcreated world with C. S. Lewis’s Narnia.

What does Tolkien’s characterization of Bilbo suggest about the author’s estimation of the capacities of ordinary people?

What is the significance of Tolkien’s wordplay in calling the resolution of The Return of the King “eucatastrophe”?


Critical Essays