Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001)

In J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Thomas Shippey presents an inspired defense of Tolkien's work. This book is an intellectual feast for anyone with an interest in Tolkien. It was a bit of a trial for this poor reviewer, as I found the task of fitting the vast range of subject matter Shippey covers into one review to be Herculean. Also the incredible number of ideas and insights presented caused my brain to overheat.

Prof. Tom Shippey is uniquely qualified to write about J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Tolkien, he is a philologist (in layman's terms, a specialist in historical linguistics). He was a colleague of Tolkien's at Oxford University, and he eventually became Tolkien's successor at Oxford and taught the syllabus that Tolkien developed. Later, he held the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University, a position which Tolkien held early in his career. Shippey also served as Elvish consultant for Peter Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings and wrote an earlier book on Tolkien's work, The Road To Middle-earth.

This book was partly inspired by the response of critics to a readers poll conducted in 1996 by Waterstone's, the British Bookstore chain, and the BBC. The poll asked readers to name the five greatest books of the twentieth century, and The Lord of the Rings won in every part of Great Britain except Wales. This result, he said, "was greeted with horror" among literary critics; the Daily Telegraph and the Folio Society repeated the poll and produced the same result. Germaine Greer referred to the poll results as a "nightmare," and other critics expressed an urge to vomit.

Shippey's intention in his earlier book on Tolkien, The Road to Middle-earth, was to set Tolkien's work in a philological context by showing how Tolkien's relationship with ancient works and the ancient world informed his writing. In this book, Shippey examines Tolkien's ideas within the context of his own time, "as an author of the twentieth century, responding to the issues and anxieties of that century." Shippey investigates Tolkien's sources of inspiration and seeks to explain why Middle-earth has been an inspiration for so many readers. Topics covered include:

• Tolkien's intentions in creating Middle-earth
• His desire to create a unifying national myth on the lines of Finland's Kalavala
• His method of composition
• His literary influences
• The problem of Evil
• The role of myth in the post-modern world
• The influence of Tolkien's Catholic faith on the cosmology of Middle-earth
• A guide to reading The Silmarillion
• An overview of Tolkien's minor works
• Tolkien and the critics
• Tolkien and his literary clones and emulators

It is a huge laundry list of topics, and in tackling it, Shippey displays a formidable knowledge of philology, world mythology, Christian theology, and Old English, Norse and modern English literature and criticism. Shippey acquits himself well, although occasionally this vast, multifaceted, multidisciplinary undertaking leaves him in the position of Leacock's rider, "riding off in all directions." In particular, Shippey feels a need to quote and refute every negative critic, even the clueless dim bulbs. This gets a bit tedious. A summary of the negative criticism plus a point by point refutation would have suited me just fine. I would also have appreciated it if he had limited the discussion to critics who had valid points to make.

Shippey begins with the argument that the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century is fantastic (meaning not just fantasy, but science fiction, fables and allegories). Tolkien's appeal to contemporary audiences arises from his invention of a means of expressing contemporary concerns through the medium of the fantastic. Literature went through a sea change in the twentieth century. The realistic mode that was dominant at the beginning of the century could not adequately explain or even describe the horrors that were engendered by two world wars. This bankruptcy of language led writers to adopt the fantastic as a means of communicating that which was impossible to depict by more realistic modes of writing. Shippey sees Tolkien (who had survived the worst fighting of World War I) as part of a vanguard of "traumatized authors" (George Orwell, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, Joseph Heller, and Ursula K. Le Guin), who had witnessed the twentieth century's greatest horrors, and who tended to write fantasy or fable. These authors were "bone-deep convinced that they had come into contact with something irrevocably evil... and that the explanations given by the official organs of their culture were hopelessly inadequate, out of date, at best irrelevant, at worst, part of the evil itself." The central issue for these authors was the nature and the source of evil.

After putting Tolkien into a twentieth century context, Shippey focuses on Tolkien as a writer. He throws light on Tolkien's baffling method of composition. Most writers find inspiration from a story idea, or a striking image or an evocative bit of dialog. Tolkien wrote that his fiction was "fundamentally linguistic in inspiration... The invention of languages is the foundation. The stories were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows."

I never could fathom how this would work, but Shippey gives several examples that clarify Tolkien's process. The invention of Gandalf is a prime illustration of Tolkien's writing method. In an Old Norse poem, Tolkien found a list of dwarf names which included "Gandálfr." Since álfr means "elf," he began to wonder what an elf was doing in a company of dwarfs. Tolkien interpreted the first element ("Gand") of "Gandálfr" to mean "wand." This gave Tolkien the notion that Gandálfr must be a sorcerer-elf who possessed a magic wand or staff. Gandálfr, he theorized, must have joined the band of dwarfs to obtain some special sort of magical plunder. Thus, a name in an old manuscript set Tolkien on the word association that eventually led to The Hobbit.

Tolkien's invention of the Ringwraiths -- to my mind the scariest beings (or non-beings?) in fiction -- also came about through his fascination with obscure words. The Ringwraiths sprang out of a disagreement Tolkien had with his employers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). OED claimed that the origins of the rare Scottish word "wraith" were undiscoverable. Tolkien held that "wraith" was derived from an Old English word meaning "to writhe," which is closely associated with wreath (in the sense of something twisted), and wroth (angry). It also connotes something like mist or smoke that is caught in a state between the material and the immaterial world. There is a further connection with the Old English word for "ride." Thus, the very word "wraith" conjures up a tangled web of associations, most of them unpleasant and all of them defining the characteristics Tolkien gave to his Black Riders.

Shippey's analysis of the literary function of hobbits was especially enlightening. He identifies them as mediators between modern and ancient world views. Hobbits he writes, are "anachronisms, creatures of the early modern world of Tolkien's youth drawn into a far more archaic and heroic world." Hobbits also embody what Shippey refers to as "Tolkien's theory of courage."

When I first read The Lord of the Rings at the age of 8, I was dismayed by Frodo. Here was an adventure hero who complained about the weight of his backpack, seemed diffident about having adventures and showed a marked disinclination to kick orc ass. I didn't know it then, but I'd hit on one of the central ironies in The Lord of the Rings. All of the characters (even the hobbits) consistantly "misread" the hobbits as being "lesser" editions of men ("halflings"), rather than as a different species with a slightly different psychology from humans. Until nearly the end of the book, no one seems aware that Frodo and his companions show a degree of steadfastness, endurance and quiet courage that is superhuman. Hobbit courage and integrity are shown as slightly different but no less great than that of men. The hobbit characters possess internalized, solitary, "non-aggressive" courage, which is nothing like the proud bravado of Boromir or the hot-headed heroes of the Norse Sagas.

Shippey says that in his portrayal of hobbit courage, Tolkien may have been creating new kind of courage to endure a new kind of horror, "a courage which would have some meaning and some hope of emulation for the modern and un- or anti-heroic world." This courage does bear one element that is identical to the courage of the Norse heroes -- it is fatalistic. In Norse mythology, the world ended in Ragnarök, "the death of the Gods," a day of doom in which evil wins. "If the gods and their human allies are going to lose, though, and this is known to everyone, what in the world would make anyone want to join that side: Why not become a devil worshipper? The truly courageous answer... is to say that victory or defeat have nothing to do with right or wrong, and that even if the universe is controlled beyond redemption by hostile and evil forces, that is not enough to make a hero change sides. In a sense this Northern mythology asks more of people than Christianity does, for it offers no heaven, no salvation, no reward for virtue except the somber satisfaction of having done right." (page 150)

Tolkien once wrote to a Jesuit friend, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work... the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. ("Letters," page 172). Shippey seeks to identify this religious element and sees Frodo as the key.

Frodo has won the Middle-earth's "war to end all wars," but returns to the Shire to find he's lost the peace. War has caused the easy, idyllic life of the Shire to vanish, and Frodo's attempt to stop the punishment of Hobbit collaborators causes his neighbors to reject him. Frodo's virtue, like the beauty and magic of the elves, no longer has a home in Middle-earth. In Orwell's 1984, O'Brien, the interrogator, is haunted by the vision of a gigantic boot stamping on the face of humanity forever. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is so haunted by the after-image of the flaming eye of Sauron that he cannot look at anything without despairing. Frodo's predicament may embody an ancient controversy in Christianity over whether a a just person or society can flourish in the absence of Christian faith. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien may have intended to demonstrate the need for Christianity. Without it, the whole of history may be "the long defeat" that Elrond feared.

Shippey suggests that Frodo's name may provide a clue to Tolkien's intentions. He notes that Frodo's name is the only name that is never discussed or mentioned at all in the explanation of Shire-names in Appendix F. Shippey theorizes that the name comes from The Old Norse "Frothi." He goes on to say that the most prominent Frothi was a Norse King who was an exact contemporary of Christ. "During his reign there were no murders, wars, thefts or robberies, and this Golden Age was known as the 'Fróđa-frio,' 'the peace of Frothi.' It came to an end because the peace really came from the magic mill of Frothi, which he used to grind out peace and prosperity; but in the end he refused to give the giantesses who turned the mill for him any rest, and they rebelled and ground out an army to kill Frothi... Their magic mill is still grinding at the bottom of the Maelstrom... but now it grinds out salt, and that is why the sea is salty."

The lesson that the early Christians took from this story was that all attempts to better the human condition without recourse to Christian faith are ultimately doomed to end in bitterness and salt tears.

Frothi's mill brought the myth of Hamlet's Mill to my mind. Oddly enough, Shippey does not relate the two. I cruised the web to see if I could find a link between the two stories and found it in an article entitled "The Cosmic Mill" by Alby Stone. Stone writes that:

"The prose and verse sections of Grottasongr seem to preserve two different traditions concerning the mill. In one, the mill sinks into the sea, creating a whirlpool and making the sea salty. The other tells of the destruction of the mill, which is also the end of Frothi's reign of peace, a reign celebrated throughout Scandinavia -- indeed, his name means 'peace.' Snorri Sturluson [c. 1230], quoting the poet Snaebjorn, associates the mill with Amlothi, the inspiration for Shakespeare's Hamlet. As he writes in Skaldskaparmal: They say nine skerry-brides turn fast the most hostile eyluthr out beyond the earth's edge, they who long ago ground Amlothi's meal-ship. The ring-damager cuts with ship's prow the dwelling of the ships' slopes. Here the sea is called Amlothi's mill."

The line about "the ring-damager" surely must have caught Tolkien's attention, and the association of Frothi with Hamlet may have been the inspiration for Frodo's Hamlet-like diffidence.

Tolkien: Author of the Century is written for the intelligent lay reader, and Shippey has the gift of presenting complex ideas clearly and simply. A knowledge of philology isn't necessary to appreciate it. A reader with only a slight exposure to Tolkien's works, however, will soon lose his or her way, for Shippey seems to have total recall of Tolkien's work and tends to hop around the corpus extracting telling detail after telling detail. It is pure gold for an enthusiast, but I imagine it could become bewildering for those with only a nodding acquaintance with Tolkien's writings.
 

[Liz Milner]


For more on the myth of Hamlet's Mill, see Hamlet's Mill: An essay on Myth and the Frame of Time by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (David R. Godine, 1993).

For more background on Thomas Shippey, see "Talking Tolkien With Thomas Shippey" by Claire E. White, a Houghton Mifflin publicity interview, the Houghton Mifflin press release, and The SF Site's bibliography summary for Shippey.