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If you were a besieged adolescent whose spine-creased copies of The Lord of the Rings attracted the fists of your less sensitive classmates and disturbed glances from your parents, then the mainstream success of Harry Potter may offer some delayed vindication. Although fantasy literature has never been the most socially acceptable of genres, times seem to be changing, at least if the number of unashamed Metro riders who no longer hide Harry and his magical friends behind the Economist are any indication. But even in this tolerant, post-Rowling age, almost no one would argue that fantasy novels such as those in J.R.R. Tolkien’s famed Middle-earth trilogy are the century’s most important works in English. Sure, Tolkien was an original and erudite writer who inspired thousands of imitators; he’s hardly unimportant. Fantasy author of the century, maybe—but the most important 20th-century author, period?
Strangely, that’s Tom Shippey’s claim in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, a shaky apologia hiding behind a provocative title. Shippey is uniquely qualified to write about Tolkien; he’s a professor of medieval literature at St. Louis University, and he taught at Oxford using the same syllabus as Tolkien. With this inside knowledge of Tolkien’s academic career and an obvious love for his fiction, Shippey unrolls a laundry list of reasons to justify the “author of the century” label, arriving at the unsurprising conclusion that the volumes of The Lord of the Rings—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King—are still profound, timely, and worthy of popularity. It’s an odd, arbitrary exercise more befitting a Nick Hornby character than a prominent scholar, and it reads like the work of a grumpy, opinionated fan—with all the disorganized good intentions that implies.
Today Tolkien’s name is synonymous with Renaissance festivals and role-playing games, but such associations would have prompted an Edwardian shudder from the man himself. Tolkien was an Oxford professor who specialized in philology, the study of the historical forms of languages, and he belonged to a field of scholars whose productivity around the turn of the last century was mind-boggling. In a mad flurry, they published shelfloads of grammars and dictionaries, leaving generations of grad students beholden to their unglamorous but indispensable work. Tolkien made his mark with an edition of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1925 and a groundbreaking 1936 lecture on Beowulf. Unfortunately for the philologists, their efficient blend of linguistics and literature was a particularly German enterprise, and by the late ’40s academia was suspicious of its dangerous Teutonic whiff. Tolkien’s scholarly output dwindled, and the good professor sought a more receptive outlet for his intellectual passion:
Other writers build fantasy worlds on ideology or anachronism; Tolkien’s Middle-earth was based on words. Place names, character names, dialects, and dialogue—Tolkien took them all from the nagging mysteries of obscure words in medieval manuscripts. From linguistic snippets he constructed entire languages, races of mythic creatures to speak them, and an entire world for them to inhabit. The Lord of the Rings, a massive heroic fantasy about a quest to destroy a magic ring, is a top layer that only hints at the exhaustive literary creation beneath it. To Shippey, this depth and complexity explain its continuing popularity. Just look, he says, at how Tolkien tops the polls nearly every time the British public is asked to name its favorite author. And see, his books are still selling phenomenally 25 years after his death. Who but the author of the century could command such respect from the reading public?
Because any honest fanatic must realize that recent sales figures and a monotonous string of British popularity polls form a creaky basis for crowning an author laureate, Shippey does at least try to explain why he thinks the Tolkien books are so typical of their times. He argues that, like other 20th-century combat veterans who were also authors—Orwell, Vonnegut, Golding, and C.S. Lewis—Tolkien was deeply concerned with the question of evil, using his writing to come to terms with the wartime horrors he had witnessed. (When discussing similarities between authors, Shippey jumps between world wars—and continents—without any apparent discomfort.) In The Lord of the Rings, the forces of good triumph over evil only at great cost, the magic of Middle-earth is doomed to fade, and the war’s many veterans return home disillusioned and lost. Faced with such grim ambiguity, one of Tolkien’s heroic characters, Eomer, asks a question that can easily be applied to our own most recent century: “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
It’s a powerful and intriguing idea, but Shippey does little to develop it. Instead, he diverts readers with an express tour of Tolkien’s source material: the Riders of Rohan are based heavily on the Anglo-Saxons, the term “hobbit” was suggested by a hypothetical Old English word meaning “hole-dweller,” the names of dwarfs are lifted from Old Norse poetry, and so on. Shippey allows this detour to become nearly his entire book.
And his enthusiasm for the many ways Tolkien spun philology into fantasy is lively, informative, and supremely interesting.
Then again, it was just as interesting in 1982, when he said it all the first time. Most of J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century is lifted from Shippey’s previous book, The Road to Middle-earth, and much of it nearly verbatim. The Road to Middle-earth was shorter, denser, and better organized; this new book isn’t so much a sequel as a watered-down revision—but its release this year is hardly accidental. The film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring hits theaters in December, after a long, dark shadow of hype falls over the land. How shall a man judge what to do in such times? By finding a way to cash in, apparently.
But first, Shippey needs to decide who his audience is; his indiscriminate barrage of recycled Tolkien trivia suggests that he’s not entirely sure. If he’s right to say that pompous literary scholars sneer with “seemingly irrational hatred” at fantasy, then they’re hardly going to evaluate a book by this title with sober objectivity. On the other hand, Tolkien’s most ardent fans—whom the man himself once diplomatically described as “involved in the stories in a way that I’m not” but elsewhere more candidly called his “deplorable cultus”—don’t need Tom Shippey to justify their full immersion in Middle-earth. Tolkien knew how to make words and names resonate with the truth of the ancient myths behind them. But Shippey’s ultimate take on Tolkien’s work is simplistic and insistent: Millions of hobbit-lovers can’t be wrong, can they?
As it turns out, though, Shippey bows to the authority of the masses only when they’re gracious enough to go his way. In his foreword, he blames the death of philology on latter-day literary critics who were too lazy to appreciate precise, rigorous scholarship. He calls them by the silly name “misologists,” and he sees the popular consensus in this case as appalling. “The misologists won, in the academic world,” he proclaims, but because of the success of countless Tolkienesque fantasy novels, “they lost outside” it.
Tolkien, who thought his reviewers uneducated if they couldn’t tell Old English from Old Norse, wouldn’t have agreed with that last part. Much to his annoyance, editors who misunderstood his intentions often “corrected” his carefully chosen character names, and the fans who use his work as a portal to serious linguistic inquiry, though earnest, aren’t exactly legion. Shippey denies that the appeal of modern fantasy is good, clean escapism, but even Tolkien saw it in the giddy reactions of his readers. “Art moves them,” he once told a reporter, “and they don’t know what they’ve been moved by and they get quite drunk on it.”
In the ’50s, when The Lord of the Rings became an international sensation, Tolkien and his agent agreed on a policy for selling the film rights: “Art or cash.” Cash trumped art, and Tolkien forever relinquished the right to review scripts and dictate merchandising. If Shippey’s reconstituted book serves an immediate purpose this year, it points out not only the thoughtful, meticulous scholarship that makes Middle-earth believable but also how little of that is likely to be reflected in the upcoming films.
Fortunately, glimmers of Tolkien’s linguistic wizardry do shine through Author of the Century, even as Shippey sighs that “there is probably no one alive with the knowledge to appreciate it.” That’s worth keeping in mind in December, when Burger King slaps hobbits on plastic cups and onion-ring cartons. It will be interesting to see what Tom Shippey concludes about mass appeal then. CP