2001-09-03: J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien

Author of the Century (2000)

by Tom Shippey (1943-)

Shippey has taught the same syllabus as Tolkien at Oxford, and has a sympathetic approach to fantasy literature. He edited The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories and The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

From the title, you might reasonably expect that the book makes a case for Tolkien’s place as the author of the (20th) century, not merely an author of the century. However, this case is made only shallowly, in the foreword, titled (aptly) Author of the Century. The rest of the book examines Tolkien’s purposes and methods in writing The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and his shorter works, with 3 chapters for LOTR and 1 chapter for each of the other topics. An afterword describes some of the work of writers inspired by Tolkien, and addresses some of the criticism of his work.

The first basis for choosing Tolkien as the author of the century is “democratic”. Shippey cites five late-century polls (in the UK) that found The Lord of the Rings as the most popular 20th century work. (Other top-ranked works included Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and (first place in Wales) Ulysses. Five polls are cited because, when the first came out, the literary establishment was horrified and bound to prove the first a fluke by conducting new polls.

The second argument is the establishment of the genre of epic fantasy. Before Tolkien there were fantasy stories, but after him there was a hugely successful genre populated by numerous writers writing several hundred fantasy novels annually. In addition, the genre of fantasy role-playing games was directly inspired by Tolkien’s works.

The third argument is based on quality, and the rest of the book assesses the quality of Tolkien’s works. This is largely a rebuttal to the opinion of (presumably mostly English) critics. However, Shippey points out that most critics don’t give coherent arguments against Tolkien, but merely express their distaste. Accordingly, he tries to express what he imagines they mean, and then attacks that; naturally, he wins.

Shippey starts with a discussion about relevance. He first quotes Robert Graves who, arriving at Oxford in 1919 (nearly the same time as Tolkien), his Anglo-Saxon lecturer disparaged his own subject, saying it had no interest or relevance. Graves disagreed:

Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for a promenade to Holofernes’s staff-tent; and Brunanburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fighting – all this came far closer to most of us than the drawing-room and deer-park atmosphere of the eighteenth century.

Graves deliberately used the words ‘platoon’, ‘billet’, ‘staff-tent’, ‘cosh’, all modern words with WWI meanings; promenade is a soldiers’ euphemism; ‘thanes’ is archaic. Graves uses these words to drive home the point that Anglo-Saxon poetry is not anachronistic to those who lived through WWI, as Tolkien had.

Shippey notes that several distinctly 20th century authors who showed strongly in the end-of-century polls were “traumatized authors”, all tending to write fantasy or fable: Tolkien, Orwell, C. S. Lewis, T. H. White, Joseph Heller. Ursula K. Le Guin was also directly influenced by her parents experience with the total elimination of the Yahi, native to California. All of these authors had close or direct experience of the worst horrors of the 20th century: the Somme, Guernica, Belsen, Dresden, industrialized warfare, genocide. All of these authors were “bone-deep convinced that they had come into contact with something irrevocably evil. They also … felt that the explanations for this which they were given by the official organs of their culture were hopelessly inadequate, out of date, at best irrelevant, at worst part of the evil itself.”

This observation supports the strongest part of Shippey’s thesis in the chapter on the concept of evil in The Lord of the Rings. He begins by describing the changes in concept of the Ring from The Hobbit (before there was any notion of a sequel) to The Lord of the Rings. He describes the three things that Gandalf says of the Ring at the very beginning: The Ring is immensely powerful, in the right or wrong hands; the Ring is deadly dangerous to all its possessors; the Ring cannot simply be left unused – it must be destroyed. Shippey points out that “critics have found fault with almost everything about The Lord of the Rings, on one pretext or another, no one to my knowledge has ever quibbled with what Gandalf says about the Ring. It is far too plausible, and too recognizable. It would not have been so before the many bitter experiences of the twentieth century.”

Shippey repeats the words that must spring to mind when the Ring is described thus: “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He thens corrects the quotation from Lord Acton (1887): “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men… .” Shippey doubts many would have agreed in 1887. People used to believe that power revealed character, but did not change it.

Shippey identifies the nature of the evil associated with the Ring with a modern concept (first citation in the OED from 1939): addiction. Gandalf’s whole argument can be summed up by saying that the use of the Ring (as the use of Power) is addictive.

When Shippey turns to other aspects of The Lord of the Rings, and to Tolkien’s other works, he is interesting but less fascinating. I think there he has come very close to the kernel of truth in this great work. Anyone may quibble with details, or simply not have the taste for this form, but it is a great error to doubt that The Lord of the Rings has a lot to say to 20th (and 21st) century readers.


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