Tolkien 101: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey believes J.R.R. Tolkien is the author of the century and does not care who knows it.  After laying out the case against—the opinions of literati and the intellectual elite, many of whom obviously never read Tolkien—Shippey moves on to the case for—facts regarding The Lord of the Rings sales figures and its dominance of pretty much any reader survey.

Written by one of Tolkien’s academic successors, Author of the Century is not a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Rather, it takes a critical look at each of his major works of fiction (with a particular emphasis on The Lord of the Rings), with more cursory looks at his minor works of fiction.  Shippey’s academic background allows him to do so in the context of Tolkien’s professional life, his academic work, and the Anglo-Saxon mythical tradition.

The Hobbit, each volume of the Lord of the Rings, and the Silmarillion each get their own chapter, with more cursory looks at his minor works of fiction.  Shippey addresses substantive criticism of Tolkien as relevant along the way.

The primary focus in on Tolkien’s literary roots, and the influence his scholarship had on his work.  Unfounded criticisms from the literary and intellectual elite notwithstanding, Tolkien’s stories of Middle Earth present perhaps the greatest level of erudition ever assembled in fiction.  As a philologist (a scholar of language in written historical sources) focusing on England’s Anglo-Saxon tradition, he was able to take advantage of source material a scant few others in the world could read.  He then took those scraps of Anglo-Saxon mythology and created a fully formed world.  As an example of this process, the inspiration for the Ents (ent is a Old English word) came from a poem that described them as little more than giants.  Combining that with the same source material that gave Shakespeare the inspiration for the march of trees in Macbeth, Tolkien created a unique race with their own history and culture.  This is the kind of analysis that really only a scholar like Shippey can provide.

Another theme that gets serious attention in The Lord of the Rings chapters is the nature of evil.  Shippey shows that Tolkien’s thinking on the subject was in no way simplistic.  True evil is, of course, present (which violates a certain prevailing orthodoxy today), but Tolkien appears more interested in the idea of evil as the absence of human action for the good.  In fact, the latter form almost engulfs the former.

Shippey isn’t afraid to disagree with Tolkien’s own statements about his work.  For example, he does not see much support for the assertion by Tolkien that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (I disagree with this much more than I used to).  He argues that Tolkien’s frequent assertions that his works were not allegorical had more to do with Tolkien’s strict definition of allegory than the general applicability of the term to his work.

Shippey is in a position to provide particular insight in regards to Tolkien’s academic career, given his similar background.  Tolkien wrote two of the most important works in his academic field, including perhaps the most important essay on Beowulf every written—a high accomplishment for any academic.  He held an academic chair for 35 years (Shippey is kind enough to explain to his American readers just how impressive an accomplishment this is).  But his academic output declined dramatically in his later career as he devoted an exorbitant amount of time to Middle Earth.  His second major essay on Beowulf was almost completely ignored, almost unbelievable given the importance of his earlier work and the nature of academia.  It is no surprise then that Shippey adopts the view that Leaf by Niggle is a directly autobiographical allegory about the pressures Tolkien faced as an academic more interested in writing fiction.

Eminently readable and endlessly insightful, this volume is more than worthwhile for anyone interested in learning more about The Lord of the Rings or learning why criticisms of Tolkien are so misplaced.

5 of 5 Stars.


You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
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10 Responses to Tolkien 101: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

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  2. pcbushi says:

    Admittedly I am not a great and widely-studied Tolkien scholar. It seems to me, though, that an author’s assertions about the nature of his work should be given the benefit of the doubt, for what they’re worth. In particular, about LOTR being a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” – this could mean that in Tolkien’s mind, either as he was writing it or afterwards, his faith had a large impact on the end result. It doesn’t necessarily follow that its Catholicity will be glaringly apparent to readers.

    If I read this book sometime, perhaps my mind will be changed…but I can’t really see how a critic would be able to effectively argue with a deceased creator about the inherent nature of his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Speaking as a Catholic, the Catholicity of the work is obvious and apparent. The nature of authority in the story, his ruminations on mercy and redemption and, as you yourself pointed out, his superversion of the Pagan hero by giving him Christian ideals all ooze Catholicism. Not to mention the way Tolkien manages to fuse tragic melancholy and hope in a uniquely Christian way.

    That Shippey misses that is a mistake on his part, not Tolkien’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. Beth Gould says:

    Great review! I read this a few years ago, but I didn’t remember the comment that Shippey had disagreed with Tolkien about LotR being a ”fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

    ”I disagree with this much more than I used to” You mean that you disagree with Shippey and agree with Tolkien, right? Just checking. I definitely see at least some aspects of LotR as fundamentally shaped by Tolkiens Catholic worldview.

    I have _The Road to Middle-earth_, also by Shippey, on my to-be-read list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      I phrased that very confusingly, even looking back on it.

      What I think I meant is this: When I read Tolkien as a kid, I didn’t see its Christian nature. The worldbuilding was pagan, after all. Rereading The Lord of the Rings as a man, the Christian worldview behind it is apparent. So I do now think it is a fundamentally religious work and disagree with Shippey’s view.

      I can’t speak to its Catholicity. See, though, malcolmthecynic’s comment above.


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