Growing up in the Middle-earth of American evangelicalism, I received the full Tolkien treatment. My parents read The Hobbit to me before bedtime, and I read it again many times on my own. I ventured through The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, studied it in college, and read it again as an adult. I made a handful of abortive efforts to read the saga's dense prequel, The Silmarillion. A similar tale is told by multitudes of American Christians who grew up in the seventies and eighties, as it is by millions of British readers who are as hooked on Tolkien as they are on The Archers. But Tolkienism cuts an even wider swath. The trilogy has sold over 50 million copies worldwide, putting it well beyond the designation "cult classic," and the first installment of the movie version is introducing Middle-earth to an even wider circle.
Until recently it hadn't dawned on me that Tolkien's books are not considered literature in the academic sense. I shouldn't have been surprised, not only because they're "fantasy" and suspiciously popular fantasy at that, but because none of the Inkling authors are much studied academically. Although they are cornerstones of my personal canon, they merit all of a single mention in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (on page 77, in connection with Dante). A Google web search for "20th Century British Novel," the generic and historical classification in which we'd have to put Tolkien, yields college syllabi full of familiar names: Forster, Joyce, Beckett, Orwell, Woolf, Huxley. Recent additions include Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) and the newly Nobel-christened V.S. Naipaul. Tolkien is never listed.
In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Saint Louis University professor Tom Shippey aims to change that, and he is well qualified to try. His credits include among other things an excellent work of Tolkien criticism, The Road to Middle-Earth (1983), and editorship of The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1994) and Magill's Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature (1996). More important, perhaps, his professional trajectory has closely followed Tolkien's: "I attended the same school as Tolkien, King Edward's, Birmingham, and followed something like the same curriculum. In 1979 I succeeded to the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds which Tolkien had vacated in 1925." Shippey was also a fellow at Oxford from 1972 to 1979, where Tolkien had taught until his retirement in 1959; the two were acquainted from 1970 until Tolkien's death three years later. In short, Shippey knows Tolkien's world firsthand as few critics can.
Above all, Shippey shares with his subject a deep, abiding passion for philology: "the study of historical forms of a language or languages … [and] the texts in which these old forms of the language survive." In his own writing Tolkien declared the importance of a "growing neighborliness of linguistic and literary studies" and designed his curriculum at Oxford to reflect that belief. He taught such texts as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which Shippey also teaches) with a strong emphasis on the dynamic growth of the English language from its Anglo-Saxon roots.
It's a commonplace that Tolkien's philological expertise informed his creation of Middle-earth, but Shippey goes further, suggesting that in no small part it was this knowledge that made Tolkien's imaginative creations not merely believable but eerily resonant with the modern imagination. There is evidence for this, for example, in an appendix entry at the end of The Lord of the Rings in which Tolkien parses "hobbit" as hol ("hole") plus the Old English bytlian, which means "to dwell," arriving at the invented word holbytla or "hole-dweller." In the same vein Shippey convincingly parses names such as Frodo, Ringwraith, Saruman, Bree, and Withywindle, revealing their implications for the overall design of Tolkien's work. Whether or not Tolkien had all of these etymologies consciously in mind as he wrote (and it's clear that in many cases he did), he was so familiar with the ancestral tongues that he couldn't help but make Middle-earth a place of names and languages that really existed, or might have, in an unrecorded past. And all this works its magic on readers who have never conjugated an Anglo-Saxon verb. They feel in their bones the authenticity and coherence of Tolkien's language.
But philological analysis does not dominate this study (as it did Road to Middle Earth). If The Lord of the Rings and its satellites are rooted in antiquity, they also are grounded in the modern world. Indeed, Shippey begins his book with the provocative assertion that "the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic." He cites as examples, in addition to Tolkien, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, among others. Like Tolkien, Shippey observes, all of these writers "are combat veterans present at or at least deeply involved in the most traumatic events of the century." And far from turning to fantasy as an escape from reality, they found in this literary mode a means of communicating what they had experienced, for which the tools of "realism" proved inadequate.
Tolkien's works reflect the distinctive character of his time in other ways as well. When Shippey reveals Bilbo Baggins as a reluctant and desperately bourgeois adventurer, embodying Britain's postwar malaise, most readers will wonder how they could have failed to see that all along. Precisely because he is quintessentially modern, Bilbo enables contemporary readers to connect with a legendary past: he is their stand-in, anti-heroic, bemused by the vast forces unleashed in the quest for the Ring.
Indeed, Shippey notes, anachronism, or "a superficial clash of styles," is a primary tactic in The Hobbit: battle scenes transposed from World War I, dwarves spouting business jargon, and a dragon who can be sarcastic and colloquial one moment, archaically fierce the next. Tolkien's intent, argues Shippey, is not only to bring a fantastic world within reach but also to show a fundamental unity between the present civilization and its heroic ancestry.
Tolkien was also modern in his portrayal of evil. Obvious representations of external evil forces—Sauron, the Ringwraiths, and the Orcs, for example—have led some critics to dismiss Tolkien's moral universe as simplistic. Well, Tolkien did believe in good and evil, the one sharply distinguished from the other, but his depiction of moral conflict is inescapably modern. Many of the characters in Tolkien's works are "eaten up inside"; the work of destroying the Ring nearly undoes Frodo, the ostensible hero. He is not a pure victor, then, but a kinsman of Charlie Marlow (Heart of Darkness), coming to grips not only with a foreign horror but with the evil in himself. As the trilogy's unforgettable image of addictive evil, the Ring is "part psychic amplifier, part malign power."
To acknowledge Tolkien's overlooked "modernity," Shippey insists, is not to deny that in other respects he was resolutely anti-modern. Tolkien was steeped in the English tradition to a degree almost unrecoverable today; he felt a special affinity with the Pearl-poet (whose poems he famously translated) and the Beowulf-poet. The Pearl-poet's extensive descriptions of humans laboring in an enchanted natural landscape suggested a setting for modern inner turmoil: "Tolkien's myth of stars and trees presents life as a confusion in which we all too easily lose our bearings and forget that there is a world outside our immediate surroundings."
Like the Beowulf-poet (and like the novelist John Gardner, another student and translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry), Tolkien excels in the technique of "narrative interlace," a technique in which "adventures are never told for long in strict chronological order, and continually 'leapfrog' each other." Interlace creates a "strong sense of reality, of that being the way things are." And when it serves the author's purposes to do so, this technique also reinforces a sense of confusion, befuddlement; as Gandalf says, "Even the very wise cannot see all ends." This notion is captured in a quotation from Fellowship of the Ring, currently a favorite bumper-sticker on college campuses: "Not all who wander are lost." It was Tolkien's purpose to show characters who don't know where they are going, but who from an omniscient perspective are part of a grand narrative.
Much more is contained in the pages of Tom Shippey's book, which is a thorough and highly readable study of an author whose powers clearly have been underestimated. Consider Tolkien explained and promoted. But does Shippey achieve the goal stated at the outset, to insert Tolkien into the canon as "the author of the century"? Perhaps not. The claim implied in the subtitle and expounded in the introduction rests on three factors: Tolkien's immense popularity, his status as the inventor of an entire genre, and the literary value of his work. Shippey makes a case for the third of these, as well he must since it is the most contested. Still, in the end it is not clear that popularity and generic considerations push Tolkien to the top of the century's impressive roll.
Never mind. Isn't it time for another reading of The Hobbit?
Aaron Belz is a doctoral student in literature at Saint Louis University.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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