Posted by: kshayes513 | October 27, 2008

What I’m Reading: Tom Shippey on Tolkien

This is the first in a regular series of posts on my current reading. I aim to keep these reading posts more or less relevant to the blog topic; and they’ll often be books new to me as well. First on the list:

Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth; and JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century

Let me start by saying that I’m of the Christopher Lee school of Tolkien fans: since I first found the books at about age 12, I have reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so often that when discussing them, even in detail, I don’t need the texts in front of me for reference. I’m also pretty well acquainted with The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales and have looked over some of the other massive compilations edited by his son Christopher.

In high school and college, I recall that I tried reading some Tolkien criticism, (pretty scarce in those days) but soon gave up, because everything seemed either the adoring (and sloppy) work of fans, or the work of post-modernist literati who seemed only interested in finding fault with every aspect of Tolkien that didn’t resemble the kind of literary realism they had been trained to appreciate.

This year, a friend gave me Professor Shippey’s 2 volume study of Tolkien’s scholarship and the literary processes that gave rise to Middle Earth; and for the first time in my life, I understand exactly why Middle Earth sank its roots so deep in me. Shippey is the ideal Tolkien critic and scholar, largely because his course of study and academic career have almost precisely followed Tolkien’s, so he has a perspective and insight that seems to me unique in the field of Tolkien scholarship.

Professor Shippey’s fascinating and very readable books reveal precisely what raw material Tolkien was working with, what he was trying to accomplish, and why every post modern critic who attempts to dissect Tolkien’s work is entirely unqualified to do so. The Road to Middle Earth analyzes how and why Tolkien built his world, out of fragments of lost English myth and legend and his own exhaustive language studies and inventions. Author of the Century argues that Tolkien’s books, so far from being anachronistic pseudo-myths (as the post-modernists insist), could only have been written by a 20th century author who had experienced the evils of global war, industrialization and totalitarianism; his very contemporary perspective on the nature of evil puts in him the same category as writers like Orwell and Steinbeck.

Even if you don’t like Tolkien (I forgive you), The Road to Middle Earth is worth a read for any serious world builder, as it shows how a particular writer’s unique genius and passionate interests led to a very specific creation. For me, the chapter analyzing Tolkien’s use of language in the narratives of The Council of Elrond, was by itself worth the price of admission. I’m now rereading the full trilogy; and read by the light of Shippey’s books, Tolkien’s language and imagery seem to me richer and brighter than ever, as fresh and burnished as a newly restored Da Vinci fresco.



  1. OK, now I’m snagged. I’ll have to get the Shippey books and read them. I’ve always been fascinated by Tolkien teaching himself Finnish so that he could read The Kalevala in its native language, and how he fashioned Elvish after Finnish, but I see there are many more such stories and explanations ahead of me in The Road to Middle Earth. Thanks, Karen, for the enlightenment!

  2. Yes, Quenya modeled after Finnish, and Sindarin after Welsh. Don’t get me started! I’m teaching Tolkien this year, and trying desperately to beat the syllabus down to something *I* think is reasonable (I usually get a few students dropping once I send them the syllabus and they see how much work is involved!). Shippey is a good author; he also has some interesting commentary in the Appendices of the extended version of the PJ film version of LOTR. One of the things I look at in the course is how Tolkien’s world-building drew upon linguistics, myth, and the medieval world-view (as well as his own experiences, though he wouldn’t like me doing that!); it’s also interesting to have students look at how the PJ version draws upon a 21rst-c world view. PJ came up with some significant differences in his world-building!

  3. The previous poster is Marilyn R Pukkila, librarian at Colby College in Maine, scholar of Tolkien and of feminist mythology, and a lifelong friend. And speaking of books, when are you going to translate some of these marvelous Tolkien courses you keep teaching, into book form for the rest of us?

  4. Yet another book to add to my reading list, thanks Karen! 😛

    I have one for you: “Tales Before Tolkien” put out by DelRey. Full of the kind of stories that inspired JRRT.

    I agree that most post-modernists would entirely miss the point of Tolkien (and a lot of other things for that matter). I got a whole new appreciation for the meaning behind the work, particularly his view of heroism, the theme of good and evil and that innate sense of magic in the world re-reading the new RPG last month. I’m debating whether I should re-read the books or watch the trilogy again. 🙂

    Your comment about Tolkien being on par with Orwell reminded me of a note I made while reading 1984 a little while back. The whole idea of Newspeak got me wondering if Orwell started with that and built a world around it, much like Tolkien is said to have done with his languages.

    In creating a world, I doubt any of us has the time or academics to do as much work as Tolkien did. He certainly set the gold standard for depth and breadth. I’ve been engaged in some cultural study of middle ages europe and realize you could write entire books just on one set of customs or a religious practice or how people dealt with the cycle of the seasons.

    Made me think just how much subtle detail a world-creator has to know and the talent it takes to impart that detail without resorting to info dumping. And the different ways you do that in a novel vs a film vs a game. I could probably go on for a few pages on this so I’ll stop now.

  5. I haven’t read Tales Before Tolkien yet (its on my Amazon wish list), but I grew up with many of the writers who are represented in it, thanks to the personal libraries of grandparents who were Tolkien’s near contemporaries. Most children of that generation also would have read the romances of Stevenson, Pyle, and Scott, among others. Of course I mean romance in the pre 20th century sense of a heroic adventure, not the “love story” sense that it has now

    In my observation, the post modernists generally don’t get, or actively reject, anything that resembles a flight of imagination; to them, “fantasy” belongs to childhood, and they’re much too grown up for such things. Stephen King’s National Book Award, and the news that LOTR had been named the most popular book in the world, were received by the “mainstream literary establishment” as signs of the Apocalypse!

    For a little more on medieval studies, see the Adventures in Research post, which links to Steve Ince’s medieval research in York. And When you get round to reading Shippey, you’ll see that at times, Tolkien extracted whole races and landscapes just from an ancient local name or a line of obscure Old English poetry!

    I have in mind a post-or a few!-about the amount of detail needed for worldbuilding.

    As for Tolkien, in breadth and depth, he is unique, because very few can spend a lifetime on a single world. However, I can think of a good few authors who approach at least his understanding of the raw material they’re working with. They’ll all end up in the “Reading” series of posts eventually

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