Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century

One of my top ten favorite books is Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Shippey followed in Tolkien’s footsteps in academia, teaching not only the same subjects, but also occupying the same positions. If you enjoy Tolkien, are a writer, are interested in storytelling, or love language, I encourage you to order this book, finish what you’re reading while it’s in the mail, and set aside an afternoon or weekend to read this book when it arrives.
Shippey is so thorough and organized that I cannot presume to review his book in anyway other than to follow the outline he himself used to plan it.
Shippey begins with a foreword. For all you impatient barbarians like myself who like to skip the foreword to get to the action, don’t. It’s good. Really. In the foreword, Shippey begins by establishing his claim that Tolkien is in fact, The Author of the Century. He examines the impact that fantasy has had on the twentieth century, particularly from the pens of what he calls “traumatized authors”, that is authors who were impacted by the World Wars and the surrounding violence of the Twentieth Century in a deeply personal way.  Speaking of Tolkien in the company of Orwell, Golding, and Vonnegut, Shippey writes
“Those authors of the twentieth century who have spoken most powerfully to and for their contemporaries have for some reason found it necessary to use the metaphoric mode of fantasy, to write about worlds and creatures which we know do not exist…”
Shippey goes on to defend fantasy as not only a valid literary genre, but as a valuable tool that Twentieth Century writers used to communicate about and come to grips with the world they saw around them.
In the first of the books six chapters, Shippey explores The Hobbit. He looks at the beginnings of Tolkien’s use of words and names as suggestions of stories, for Tolkien did not merely translate or gloss over the materials he read. He studied them, contemplated them, and tried to make sense of them. Why, for instance, is the name ‘Gandalf’ in a list of dwarf names? The second part of the name means ‘elf’, the first could mean ‘staff’. So, what was a ‘staff-elf’, and what was he doing with a bunch of dwarves?
Shippey looks at how questions like this helped to shape many of Tolkien’s inventions as he attempted to harmonize the old stories. However, Shippey points out that Tolkien was not merely intent on harmonizing the old stories with each other, but with today. Bilbo, living in a shire with grocers and butchers and regular mail, moves in a very different world than Thorin and the dwarves who live in the mountains, are never without weapons, and speak of revenge upon an ancient dragon, and Shippey shows how, though both speak different words and at times focus on different things, they are surprisingly similar.
Shippey’s second chapter focuses on the way Tolkien took inspiration from old stories and poems as he mapped out a plot for LOTR. The best section in the chapter, and the one that taught me most about writing, is fourteen pages on The Council of Elrond. Shippey breaks down the turning point of the series, when it completes its transformation from a childhood lark akin to The Hobbit to a heroic epic. “The chapter…breaks…most of the rules which might be given to an apprentice writer” Shippey writes, “…though it is fifteen thousand words long, in it nothing happens: it consists entirely of people talking…it has an unusual number of speakers present (twelve) the majority of them (seven) unknown to the reader and appearing for the first time. Just to make things more difficult, the longest speech, which takes up close on half the total, contains direct quotation from seven more speakers, or writers, all of them apart from Butterbur and Gaffer Gamgee new to the story, and some of them (Saruman, Denethor) to be extremely important to it later on.” The Council of Elrond is a committee meeting, and it could easily have become one of the most boring sections in modern literature. Shippey examines, in detail, how Tolkien uses narrative structure and linguistic trends to keep interest and show story. The jockeying between Boromir and Aragorn for example lays the groundwork for the end of the book and the end of the series, while Gloin speaks in very different ways from Gandalf, who speaks differently from Boromir.
Shippey’s explanation of how these verbal cues work and how Tolkien uses them is fascinating and demonstrates one of Shippey’s great strength: He is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his craft that his writing is enjoyable and instructive. Like the committee meeting it dissects, this chapter could easily devolve into a dry dissection of syntax and word order, but Shippey’s explanations of what is communicated and how that occurs makes this easily one of the most important passage in my writing development.
In chapters 3 & 4, ‘Concepts of Evil’ and ‘The Mythic Dimension’, Shippey examines how Tolkien built the themes of heroism and despair, good and evil, and wisdom and rationalism into his story. The wonderful thing about these chapters is that it is not just an exploration of Tolkien’s writing, but an exploration of what lay behind what Tolkien wrote and how it influenced him. From the pacifism of T.H. White during World War II to the conflicts between Boethian and Manichean explanations of evil and how they shaped Tolkien’s conception of the ring wraiths. The holistic approach is highly instructive and shines a light on just how much detail and study Tolkien had gathered over his life time.
In Chapter 5, Shippey seeks to provide something of a guide to reading The Silmarillion, and if you have ever attempted the Silmarillion and been lost among the names and histories, this is the section for you. Any one of the stories contained within the epic are worthy of great praise, from Turin’s battle with fate, to Gondolin’s desperate search for security, to the valiant love story of Beren and Luthien each one tells tales of the struggles and trials mankind has endured and caused since the first stories were told. The way in which Tolkien brings them together, each enlightening and building on the others, is truly astounding and worthy of greater recognition. Shippey helps clear some of the fog that the vastness creates, and explores how Tolkien used his epic work to provide narrative depth to his works.
The explanation of narrative depth was exceedingly instructive for me as I tried to develop my own writing. A story that shows only those people and places who play a main role can seem shallow, or two dimensional. Tolkien’s constant use of names, asides, and casual references serves to create in the reader the impression that they are passing through a small part of a wide, wide world rather than a narrow path lined with card board cutouts. In Middle Earth, there is always another story beyond that forest, under those mountains, or across that river.
In Chapter 6, Shippey explores Tolkien’s shorter works; Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootan Major. Shippey’s commentary on these works is made all the more valuable by the shared knowledge that he has with Tolkien. Since they taught many of the same works and served in many of the same university departments, Shippey understands not only many of the ancient references but also many of the private jokes that Tolkien included in his shorter works. Farmer Giles of Ham was written shortly after Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings, and is a light-hearted tale. In contrast, Leaf by Niggle and The Smith of Wootan Major were written towards the end of his life. Leaf is in many ways a self-critique, and an expression of Tolkien’s misgivings about how much he had accomplished through his life. The Smith is, to me, one of the saddest stories I have ever read, for given the time of its composition, it seems almost to be Tolkien’s farewell to Faerie Land and the stories in which he had spent so much of his life. Shippey’s explanation and excavation of these stories adds so much to their reading, for Tolkien filled them with asides and references to old stories, tiny translation problems with ancient texts, and private jokes that few of us have found the time or expertise to discover.
From Pinterest
The Afterward, (yes, you should read that too), is a final conclusion to many of Shippey’s arguments about Tolkien’s relevance as an author, his skill as an author, and his wisdom as a professor. In doing so he attempts to answer many of the criticisms of Tolkien from his more eloquent critics, and in the process, demonstrates that the point of contention comes less from their objection to The Lord of The Rings. Rather, much of the distaste stems from a deep disagreement about the fundamental truths that underpin Tolkien’s writings. Professors and critics who have spent their lives preaching pacifism, denying the existence of real evil, and ‘seeing through’ any reasons for hope find Tolkien’s work in violation of everything they have fought against and thus must denounce it. Shippey finishes with a brief look at the impact Professor Tolkien has had on his successors in fantasy, and imagines how the pipe wielding philologist might smile at what he started.

You can find Shippey's book here on Amazon. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 
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