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.
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