July 29, 2004

The Road to Middle-Earth: How Tolkien Created a New Mythology, by Tom Shippey

This book has been on my shelf awhile. Part of me rebels against analyzing Tolkien's work since I think it should be just read and enjoyed for it's own sake. On the other hand, after reading this book some of what I found puzzling in Lord of the Rings makes more sense than it did before. Shippey wrote this book as an answer to the critics of Tolkien making an argument that it is a much more scholarly work than it appears on the surface to be. And it was the genius of Tolkein that he could write stories with very scholarly roots that hold lasting appeal to the mass market.

What this book puts across so strongly is that Tolkien created the languages of Middle Earth before he created the place. And he thought up the places before he thought up the story lines. It's a very upside down way of writing and but it accounts for the consistency throughout the different works. Tom Bombadil, whom I have always found to be a problematic addition to the plot of Lord of the Rings, was created much earlier than the story of Frodo and Sam. And while he rightly isn't part of the plot line as a whole, he is an important character to the world of the story since he demonstrates the agedness of Middle Earth. He is the Oldest, older than Sauron, Gandalf and the Elves. He "is," as Goldberry says of him.

Shippey also attempts to explain how Tolkien infused his own Christian beliefs into Middle Earth without making it an overtly Christian story. I've read other thoughts on that subject but nothing at the depth that this books looks at. He points out images from the Bible that end up in the story—the cock crowing is one that comes to mind. Rereading it, I'm surprised I missed some of them.

He also writes about the later years in Tolkien's writing and how his conception of Middle Earth evolved over time, causing problems for him as an author. He had to maintain consistency with older, published writing and while continuing to work on the world he created. Middle Earth for Tolkien was a life long project not captured in one or two published works. It mostly existed in his mind and we are treated to a glimpse of it in his writings.

I unfortunately haven't read The Simarillion, which is discussed in the last few chapters of the book. It's something I plan on doing in the near future. Then, of course, I'll go back and read the relevant chapters in this book again. I'm glad I kept it on the shelf rather than tossing it into the "sell at the used bookstore" box.

Posted by Deb English at July 29, 2004 08:59 PM

Lars Walker said:

I've read Shippey's _J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century_, which is an excellent study, except for the fact that Shippey seems completely incapable of grasping the difference between Manicheanism and Orthodoxy. In his theological shorthand, anybody who believes in a personal devil is a Manichean (he insists on calling C.S. Lewis a Manichean), which is just aggravating. Otherwise the book is great, though.

Deb said:

I havent read that one mostly because, as I said, I tend to avoid writers who write about Tolkein. After this one, tho, I might seek that one out....