[J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey. Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 384 pp. ISBN 0-61812-764-X.]
[Master of Middle Earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, by Paul H. Kocher. Del Rey, YEAR. 265 pp. ISBN 0-3454-6560-1.]
Before she could see any of the Lord of the Rings movies, my daughter had to read the books first. This is a kid who grew up on Tamora Pierce, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Shakespeare, and, of course, J.K. Rowling. Her sixth grade teacher read The Hobbit aloud to her class. So I figured this would be just another essential text to add to her ever-expanding library. Except to her, it was more like a school assignment. It took her as long to read the three books as for the three movies to appear. In fact, she’d finish each volume only about a couple of days before the corresponding movie premier. The books were too slow, she complained, and what’s the deal with all these silly songs? And why do these people go on and on with all these long, boring speeches?
By some saving grace, she did get more into it by Return of the King (not surprising, considering this is when something actually starts to happen) and even was irritated that the celluloid conclusion wasn’t as good because it left out Saruman and the “Scouring of the Shire.” Still, while she’s likely to peruse the extended DVD versions, it’s unlikely she’ll reread the Lord of the Rings the number of times (at least twice) she’s done with the Alanna and Harry Potter series any time soon.
For that matter, neither have I, though I had promised myself when the movies came out that it was well nigh time to revisit Middle-earth. But, for all the reasons I didn’t get to a lot of other books that I haven’t read through once yet, I didn’t. And, truth be told, as I glanced through LOTR to refresh what I couldn’t quite recall from some 30(!) years ago, the prose struck me as tedious to the point of being off-putting.
So, if it happens you’re looking to catch up on the original source material for the movie versions without actually having to read it again, here are two good reference works that discuss the literary merit of LOTR, as well as the ongoing debate over whether there really is any. And while J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey and The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien by Paul H. Kocher are written by academics, neither contains the convoluted exposition oftentimes typical of scholarly tomes. If they can be faulted for anything, it is that if there is anything negative that can be said of Tolkien’s opus, they don’t attempt to articulate it.
While both concern the same territory — what you’d expect plus the shorter “minor” works such as “Leaf and Niggle” and “Smith of Wootton Major” — Shippey covers a lot more ground. As a philologist, Shippey not only shares Tolkien’s academic interests, he also succeeded to the very professorial positions Tolkien held at Leeds and Oxford universities. Consequently, Shippey provides essential insight into the underpinning of LOTR that not only casual and younger readers are bound to miss, but serious critics overlook.
It’s perhaps easy to see the study of linguistic derivations as “word games” of interest only to a few specialists. Nor is it simply a subset of the “world building” that has come to typify “Tolkienesque” inspired fantasy. According to Shippey, Tolkien was attempting nothing less than a reconstruction of English mythology, akin to the Brothers Grimm compilation of German literary roots. Interestingly, both are generally misinterpreted as mere children’s fairy tales (especially by those who haven’t read them).
Philology theorizes some prime source from which all variant languages descend. Unfortunately, since the first speakers didn’t write anything down, these origins can only be extrapolated. Tolkien applies this same principle to educe a primal English literature that pre-exists the literary works we do know — notably Beowulf and similar such tales of heroes overcoming monsters, tricksters, and evildoers — that serves as the “backstory” of English literature. Tolkien’s conceit of an editor compiling a text isn’t a mere gimmick. It’s Tolkien doing what he does as a professional academic. Only, his source materials aren’t ancient manuscripts, but what he imagines they might be.
Virtually every name in the trilogy — whether of characters or habitats or species — conveys linguistic significance important to a deeper understanding of the novel. (For that matter, Shippey notes that Tolkien in German means “foolhardy,” particularly apt for someone often accused of being foolish for abandoning serious academic work for fantasy novels; it also connotes the Parsifal hero whose foolishness nonetheless results in right action.) Hobbits, for example, are not simply anthropomorphous rabbits as most commentators (including Kocher) surmise. Noting the possible origins of the likely made-up term “hobbit” and specific hobbit names such as “Baggins,” as well as pre-medieval anachronisms as pipe smoking and present-day speech patterns, Shippey persuasively argues that this odd race represents middle-class English society. One purpose of this is that modern readers can more easily identify with hobbits, furred feet notwithstanding, than elves or even heroic kings, a venerable fantasy technique of depicting an “unreal” world through the vantage point of characters with contemporary sensibilities.
Meticulous attention to linguistic forms also explains those long-winded speeches my daughter griped about. It also addresses the criticism leveled, most famously, by Edmund Wilson and, most recently, by China Miéville, that the elves and dwarves represent one-dimensional racial stereotypes. That’s because they’re supposed to. Shippey points out that Tolkien took great pains to depict them according to traditional notions of such creatures and that he is writing in a “pre-literary” mode in which characters are defined by their actions and their origins, not the complexities of individual psychologies and ambiguous motivations.
Such characterization is one reason why some dismiss Tolkien as juvenile. Another argument is that the plot is simplistic good versus evil. Here, again, Shippey provides considerable evidence that such critics haven’t paid much attention to what they’ve read.
Indeed, Shippey compares the complexity of narrative in LOTR as akin to another misunderstood modern work, James Joyce’s Ulysses. “[B]oth . . . are evidently works of the twentieth century, neither of them readily describable as novels, which are engaged in deep negotiation with the ancient genres of epic and romance. . . . More comically, both of them got something of the same treatment from the intelligentsia.”
What makes Tolkien “modern,” in Shippey’s view, are the considerable dense literary allusions (though Tolkien’s would seem obvious, keep in mind that the deeper philological allusions are less so). Shippey details the contrasting subtle ironical narratives of the Fellowship as they split into three groups, and how these branched narratives are full of nuances that imbue deeper meaning beyond simple settings for adventure. (One that I never would have picked up is that Frodo begins his quest with the Fellowship on Christmas Day and ends it on March 25th, which is the fixed date for the Annunciation in the Julian calendar, before it became a date set by the phase of the moon. “No one any longer celebrates the twenty-fifth of March, and Tolkien’s point is accordingly missed, as I think he intended. He inserted it only as a kind of signature, a personal mark of piety,” Shippey contends.)
What also makes it modern is the focus on the ambiguities of good action in reality in which evil seems to have taken hold. Not just the good knight versus the Dark Lord, not just bucolic respect for nature contrasted against the unfeeling machines of the technocracy, not just the balance between the horrors of war and the need to fight an oppressor. Though, of course, it encompasses all these. But it is not simply these.
Such allusions are easily misinterpreted; Shippey cautions against seeing LOTR as a simple allegory for Christianity or the two World Wars. Tolkien oft stated his aversion to allegory, which is frequently misunderstood as he didn’t like the form, when it was for the technical reason that the term didn’t apply where people were applying it, i.e., LOTR. In order for a story to be an allegory, it must strictly follow a one-to-one relationship to what it is modeling. If one checkmark is out of place, then it is no longer an allegory. So, while there are references to World War I battle tactics, it would be overly simplistic to suggest the Fellowship represent the Allies and Sauron the Kaiser. Similarly, Gandalf is no more a Christ-figure than Frodo is. Gandalf’s resurrection doesn’t result in an immediate redemption, and Frodo ultimately does not make the final sacrifice, and were it not for the fortuitous (fated?) intervention by Gollum, would have failed.
Here is where Shippey feels the great theme lies, that people have free will to make choices, without any certainties their actions will result in good or evil. Certainly, this is a modern notion. Shippey contrasts the literary intentions of Tolkien — a noted disdainer of Shakespeare — with the action of Macbeth. The famous Scot receives a prophecy and his reaction is to simply let the course of events proceed, even as his ignorance of the true meaning of the prophecy proves tragic. In contrast, the Fellowship has inklings of the future, but does not let it dictate their actions or accept predetermined fates.
While none of this necessarily provides a convincing argument that Tolkien was the author of the last century, it certainly presents the case that he is an important writer who attempts to deal with topical issues through fantasy. Shippey goes so far as to maintain that fantasy is the dominant literary mode of modern times, the only means to grapple with an increasingly incomprehensible reality marked by a propensity for widespread destruction and absurdity. It is an argument made in passing that I would have liked to have seen further developed, though of course this isn’t the focus of the book. Similarly, Shippey’s discussion of Tolkien-inspired bad fantasy is brief, but worth noting. One of Tolkien’s unfortunate legacies is that he is all-too-frequently equated with the commercial imitative work publishers cynically promote to an audience eager for nothing beyond “more of the same.” But it’s hard to argue with success. Shippey points out that the model was perfected by Ballantine/Del Rey and the Shannara series by Terry Brooks. In contrast, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, while employing Tolkien tropes, builds upon them rather than just repeating them. If anything, the latter approach is more in keeping with Tolkien’s invention.
I imagine Del Rey’s marketing considerations had something to do with the reissue of Kuchor’s book, which originally appeared in 1972. Undoubtedly intended to capitalize on the buzz of the magnificent movie conclusion at the time of publication, some marketing genius probably thought a Hildebrandt cover depiction of a hobbit (Bilbo in his dotage perhaps?) might have higher appeal to the geeks, to use the term New York Times film critic Caryn James employs to disdainfully characterize the LOTR audience. Perhaps that’s savvy marketing. But it also runs the risk that readers with more serious interest might glance at the juvenilia cover depiction and not give it a second look.
Kocher provides a useful “walking tour” of Tolkien’s creation, beginning with an overview of Middle-earth. In discussing the cosmic order of Middle-earth, he agrees with Shippey that, despite what Tolkien himself maintained, there is little overt Christian symbolism in a tale of pre-Christian times, though there certainly are beings who exert a “higher order of control” over the fate of Middle-earth. There’s a detailed overview of the origins and distinguishing characteristics of the various races of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits. Also, Kocher points out how Tolkien’s ambitions evolved from The Hobbit, which is clearly aimed at a juvenile audience, to the more mature focus of LOTR. Particularly interesting is how Tolkien shoehorned certain features from The Hobbit, notably the Ring, into a more adult theme. Indeed, Kocher notes that Tolkien took so long to write LOTR because he hadn’t any real idea where it was going.
One example is that Tolkien at first didn’t intend for Strider to turn into Aragorn. In fact, perhaps the most interesting chapter concerns how Aragorn’s central critical importance is slighted in favor of Frodo. Such a defense is, of course, no longer needed with the emergence of Viggo Mortenson.
Shippey and Kocher wrote before the enormous success of the movie version. Quite possibly their meditations have been eclipsed now that, like it or not, for a very large emerging audience, the vision of Lord of the Rings belongs more to Peter Jackson than Tolkien. Case in point is a recent discussion I overheard between my daughter and a friend in which she protested how the Return of the King movie omitted key parts of the book. Her friend, an avowed nonreader, couldn’t understand that. Based on his vast experience as a thirteen-year-old video viewer, the books always follow the movie because they are always written after the movie appears. It never occurred to him, even in this monumental instance, that the book would have come first.
Perhaps this is Sauron’s ultimate revenge come to haunt us all.