The Road to Middle-Earth

In the beginning was the word.

Reverence for the word was as fundamental for J. R. R. Tolkien as it was for Saint John, and though other works on Tolkien have made clear the importance of word-lore and word-study for an understanding of the genesis of his fiction, none has done so with the scholarly rigor of this study by T. A. Shippey. Shippey has done Tolkien the great courtesy to take him seriously as an artist, a courtesy not always accorded Tolkien by either his critics or his fans.

The growth of Tolkien’s readership during the past twenty years is surely one of the phenomena of the modern literary scene. It is hard to imagine, on the face of it, a less likely subject for fandom than Tolkien and his works, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes, 1955). Nevertheless, the reclusive Oxford scholar and his long-ago-and-far-away tales went even beyond fandom to become the center of a flourishing cult. There arose the phenomenon of “Tolkien freaks”—not merely people who liked and enjoyed his fiction, but people, often young, who formed Tolkien societies, published smudgily mimeographed Tolkien journals, held Tolkien festivals, dressed up as wizards and elves, sponsored Tolkien calendars, and wrote one another notes in Elvish. Most of these excesses have happily disappeared, and after the first careless raptures of enthusiasm, it is perhaps now beginning to be possible to arrive at more balanced judgments and explanations of Tolkien’s achievement. Shippey’s book, along with the recent works of Humphrey Carpenter (J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, 1977; The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, 1979), the Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981, edited by Carpenter), and the materials edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher (Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien, 1979; The Silmarillion, 1977; and Unfinished Tales, 1980), makes its contribution to these beginnings of a scholarly evaluation of Tolkien’s work.

At the beginning of his third chapter and in an afterword, Shippey provides useful summaries of the principal sins alleged against Tolkien: He created flat characters with little sense of inner conflict; the pattern of his story is incoherent, without a clear message for the modern world; The Lord of the Rings is not “real” or “adult”; there is a culture gap between Tolkien and his admirers—they admire him for the wrong reasons. Shippey’s desire is to provide “material for a more thorough and appreciative reading of Tolkien” and to “broaden the scope of criticism.” It is his contention that a proper understanding of Tolkien’s career as a philologist is necessary to an understanding of Tolkien’s artistic method, and that the presuppositions and concerns of much modern critical thought ignore and are unable to account for the sort of things Tolkien creates. Shippey has certainly accomplished his first purpose, and he at least makes a gallant effort at the second. Shippey’s major qualifications for this study are that he is a philologist himself, trained in the same strict disciplines as Tolkien, and that he taught at Oxford, with Tolkien, the texts which furnished so many of the seeds of Tolkien’s fiction and which are treated in some detail in this work. Professor Shippey presently holds the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University.

Tolkien himself was a rather reserved Oxford philologist, not easily known except by a few close friends who shared his interests and views on such matters as language and faerie. His Roman Catholicism probably also served to keep him from making wider friendships in the several British academic communities to which he belonged. His proper scholarly publications on medieval texts are detailed, scrupulous, and, given the length of his academic career, surprisingly few in number. Shippey provides close readings of several of Tolkien’s minor fictions to argue persuasively, through allegorical interpretation, that Tolkien realized that he had not been the academic scholar he could have been and that he had not produced the quantity of scholarly work expected.

Tolkien was possessed of several beliefs or attitudes which may strike the reader as a trifle eccentric but which were probably aids rather than hindrances to his creative career. For example, he had little interest in or appreciation of “modern” literature—by which he meant, Oxford-fashion, literature after about 1500. Indeed, Tolkien seems not to have had a considerable interest in much after 1250 or 1300. He concentrated on Old English texts, notably Beowulf (c. 1000) as well as Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Finnish. Such Middle English texts as he laid under contribution for his fictions, as documented by Shippey, were those minimally influenced by the linguistic changes brought about by the Norman Conquest. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer, the greatest writer in Middle English, contributes little to Tolkien’s creative work.

Along with his dislike of...

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Choice. XX, July, 1983, p. 1599.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 15, 1983, p. 826.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, February 25, 1983, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement. October 8, 1982, p. 1098.