J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by T. A. Shippey, is one of the best, if not the best, piece of academic literary criticism I have ever read on Tolkien, or any other author for that matter. I am fully confident that I will not be dammed for my use of superlatives because there are some (perhaps many) who believe that using words like academic criticism and interesting together in the same sentence is a contradiction in terms, sort of like talking about a liberal pope. Thus, they may go no further with this review because to them I have just given the Shippey book the kiss of death. But please believe me. I am only applying these terms together in this particular case to this particular book. Which in part develops upon and makes more accessible some of themes Shippey presents in his Road to Middle Earth (Houghton Mifflin, 1983), but also includes a great deal of new material.
However, in three senses at least, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century does not fit the profile of academic SF or Fantasy Literary criticism as I have come to review it, write it and discuss it over the last twenty five years: First, the size of its print run, well into five digits, rather than three digits which is the size of standard HC cover print runs of many academic, scholarly, and special interest presses in this area. Second its price: at $26.00 rather $50.00 of $60.00 that has become the standard for most hardcover works of this sort. Lastly: its publisher. It is published by Houghton Mifflin, practically the last major independent trade publisher I can think of. Rather than McFarland or Greenwood, or The University of South Carolina or some of the others where it would be directed the academic library market mostly on the major research university level. This is, of course, no reflection on these publishers, but only a reflection of the economies of scale between a print run of 500 and 15,000.
So what is interesting about this book? Of course the salient thing is the second part of the title that is a great way to start an argument. Is Shippey's apparently (at least at first glance) fantastic claim that J.R.R Tolkien is the author of the 20th Century valid to anybody who has not named the cats (or their Kids for that matter) Frodo, Bilbo, and Merry? Of course, if you are preaching to the converted who already believe that Tolkien was the author of the century then no argument is necessary but I don't think that this book is directed towards that audience, for the most part.
In the introduction Shippey suggests that Tolkien used The Lord Of The Rings as a method to seek a more popular audience for his academic work which Norman Cantor labeled Diachronic Philology in his Chapter on the Oxford Fantasists in his 1991 quite well received Inventing The Middle ages. Shippey says as much about Tolkien in his introduction to J.R.R Tolkien: Author of The Century page ix.
"Some have felt (and said) he should have written up his findings in treatises rather than fantasy fiction. He might have been taken more seriously by a limited academic audience. On the other hand through his lifetime that academic audience was and still is shrinking, and now has all but vanished. There is an Old English proverb that says... Everyone who cries out wishes to be heard...Tolkien wanted to be heard, but what was it he wanted to say?"
I think Shippey is writing about himself as much as Tolkien in the introduction. Further, it appears to that Shippey writes criticism the way that Tolkien wrote fiction so to speak. This why J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century deserves the print run it was given. What I mean by this is that Shippey brings the reader into an intricate and complicated game that is only usually accessible to those few who play it. I must add much more so than he did in The Road to Middle Earth. Why? Because he wants to show how much fun it can be. Perhaps like and international grandmaster that lets you help him annotate a chess game and figure out at least what is behind a few of the moves. Perhaps he even lets us make a couple ourselves.
This is just what J.R.R Tolkien did in a bit in The Hobbit and more extensively in the Lord of the Rings and much of his published work in his lifetime, even if we did not know we were doing it at the time, and thought we were just trading our beer money for a really good story when the Ace paperback edition of Lord of The Rings hit the US in the mid 1960's. Of course the Ace Edition was followed by the authorized Ballantine Edition, which of course created a Market for The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, which brought to the attention scores of author's some of whom had not been in print for generations.
This of course led to the creation of the high Fantasy Market, and a number of prominent late 20th Century writers in the fantasy genre saying "Tolkien is inescapable, you are either with him or against him. One author went so far as to reject Belrog Fantasy Award, rather than have his name associated with anything to do with Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien's name has also made publishers blurb writers job a little easier by always giving them something to put on the covers of forthcoming fantasy novels for example ,"A great Quest in the tradition of ..." As all things must the process has come full course now new fantasy writers are now being called the next Terry Brooks, but that only means the genre has expanded, not that J.R.R Tolkien is less prominent.. Who knows Perhaps Shakespeare was better in the original Klingon.
Part of Shippey's game is to open a number of seemingly closed questions. In doing so he contradicts a generation of Tolkien critics and even some of Tolkien's public statements. For example, you don't have to be a literary critic to know that Tolkien had a cordial dislike for allegory since he states as much in the introduction to the Lord of The Rings, but Shippey's well grounded argument that he used allegory masterfully well and in unanticipated ways deserves more attention than it might get at academic conference panels, even when they are filled to the overflow.
I can state this from my own observations seeing him in action at World Science Fiction Convention, the International Conference on The Fantastic and the Kalamazoo International Medieval Studies Conference this year alone, and the Leeds Medieval studies conference on several occasions. I think there are two kinds of Tolkien scholars: those who would like to hide Tolkien under a barrel and talk about him in a closed room, and people like Shippey who want the rest of us to share in the fun, even though we don't have a MA in Medieval Studies, or read Old -English. Oddly enough reading J.R.R. Tolkien has lead many graduate along that twisted path finally wining a doctorate , and then into a promising career in housekeeping or food service..
I won't say you can know nothing about Tolkien and still enjoy Shippey's Book. It helps to know that England was very different after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Norman Conquest than before it, that there were two world wars in the twentieth century, that the 19th century really did not end until 1914 and that the British empire lasted more like a couple of thousand days rather than a thousand years after its finest hour in 1940. Lastly, of course, it would be useful to know that the world was held in the balance of nuclear terror for the last twenty eight years of Tolkien's life, and that there is good evidence in Tolkien's Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 1981, revised 2000), that Tolkien did not believe that the West were necessarily the good guys. Also, perhaps that there was a poem written sometime before the year 1000 called Beowulf and J.R.R Tolkien's 1936 essay "The Monster and The Critics" is still the cited essay on the topic. And I would add a pleasure to read In it, J.R.R Tolkien suggested, for the first time that this epic be looked at as a poem, perhaps even a living thing rather than a kind linguistic artifact. I don't think that is too much to ask of the reader.
Here I would like to borrow from David Hartwell's Ages of Wonder (1981) and apply the question, which he suggests is appropriate to ask of any great work of Science fiction to Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Simply put, in Hartwell's terms "What's The Big Idea", that Shippey is expressing, and I suppose what are its corollaries. His biggest if idea is that the 20th Century will be remembered literarily as the Century of Fantastic. However, its best practitioners are not escapist in any sense of the word. Rather, they have experienced the 20th Centuries horrors as results of their combat experience, or close proximity to it and have used the fantastic to articulate its horrors, perhaps as means of putting the unspeakable into words. Among those he includes is C.S Lewis, William Golding J.R.R Tolkien. George Orwell, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula Le Guin (Because of her proximity to her father's anthropological work on the extermination of the Yahi Indians in California. (And I would add her presence in Israel when she was writing "The Disposed", where she like everyone else there faced the constant threat of bombs or being shot at). Had Shippey wished he might have added Herman Hesse to The List, an added an additional Nobel Prize Winner to it).
What Shippey's really does is move the Fantastic from margins to the center of literary discourse, making some decidedly post-modern moves to do so. I am not saying Shippey said this first. Richard West said something like it 1981 using a few different authors in the introduction to his Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist (Kent Sate Press).
However West's book with a print run of less than 1200 was remaindered into oblivion in 1986, when we bought the remaining 1000 or so extant copies. It is now only available as 57.00 print on demand item. Shippey's work builds on West's of course now there is even more evidence to support the claim. First of course the continued market presence of J.R.R. Tolkien there are an overwhelming 400 discrete items available in a number different formats at this point. But just as interesting is the academic interest in J.R.R Tolkien: as one checks out The Modern Language Association Data base of peer reviewed publications (From 1963-2001) and finds at least twice that many articles, book chapters, dissertations or articles that make at least make reference to J.R.R Tolkien. Searching in the same manner with James Joyce Produced two thousand hits as a comparison, but no one can trivialize academic confluence with popular interest in J.R.R. Tolkien.
Here is where Shippey is best, and where his qualifications are most important, because in a sense he almost followed in Tolkien's academic footsteps a half century later, though now he teaches at the University of St Louis in the United States. Perhaps a little too much of this is made in the mainstream reviews and the publicity of the books publisher. But, a least when he makes an argument on Page 226 that to how view the whole Corpus of Tolkien's work we are at least inclined to listen, and if we found impenetrable at first give it another shot.
The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings are only offshoots, side-branches, of the immense chronicle or Mythology/Legendarium, which is the Silmarillion. And which we have in the first form in which it was published as a connected narrative in 1977 and then in many of the twelve volumes of the "History of Middle Earth".
After reading this I returned to my-I confess-unread copy of the impenetrable Silmarillion after about three hours of very close uncasual reading I found myself agreeing with Shippey. You have to approach it with a different set of protocols. The only thing I can think of is this: Reading it is like watching the 1940 version of "Fantasia" for the first time as an adult. This does not mean that I will read the whole twelve volumes from cover to cover but I am looking for another few hours when I can concentrate. I will report one thing however, the worst way to approach any J.R.R posthumous work is open it to a random page.
I realize that I never really said whether or not Tom Shippey has made his argument that J.R.R Tolkien was the author of the Century. As far as I am concerned, he has made the argument very interesting indeed and in the process opened up a very scintillating can of worms.
The Nonburnholme Cross Circa 9th & 10th Century: An Anglo-Saxon Mystery.
Stones and poems is all we have
Would that we could make the stones
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