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J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
by T.A. Shippey
Houghton Mifflin, 2001

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The dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic. This may appear a surprising claim, which would not have seemed even remotely conceivable at the start of the century and which is bound to encounter fierce resistance even now. However, when the time comes to look back at the century, it seems very likely that future literary historians, detached from the squabbles of our present, will see as its most representative and distinctive works books like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and also George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, William Golding's Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot-49 and Gravity's Rainbow. The list could readily be extended, back to the late nineteenth century with H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau and The War of the Worlds, and up to writers currently active like Stephen R. Donaldson and George R.R. Martin. It could take in authors as different, not to say opposed, as Kingsley and Martin Amis, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Don DeLillo, and Julian Barnes. By the end of the century, even authors deeply committed to the realist novel have often found themselves unable to resist the gravitational pull of the fantastic as a literary mode.

    genre — of the authors listed above, only four besides Tolkien would find their works regularly placed on the ‘fantasy’ shelves of bookshops, and ‘the fantastic’ includes many genres besides fantasy: allegory and parable, fairy-tale, horror and science fiction, modern ghost-story and medieval romance. Nevertheless, the point remains. 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, whether Tolkien's ‘Middle-earth’, Orwell's ‘Ingsoc’, the remote islands of Golding and Wells, or the Martians and Tralfamadorians who burst into peaceful English or American suburbia in Wells and Vonnegut.

    represents a kind of literary disease, whose sufferers — the millions of readers of fantasy — should be scorned, pitied, or rehabilitated back to correct and proper taste. Commonly the disease is said to be ‘escapism': readers and writers of fantasy are fleeing from reality. The problem with this is that so many of the originators of the later twentieth-century fantastic mode, including all four of those first mentioned above (Tolkien, Orwell, Golding, Vonnegut) are combat veterans, present at or at least deeply involved in the most traumatically significant events of the century, such as the Battle of the Somme (Tolkien), the bombing of Dresden (Vonnegut), the rise and early victory of fascism (Orwell). Nor can anyone say that they turned their backs on these events. Rather, they had to find some way of communicating and commenting on them. It is strange that this had, for some reason, in so many cases to involve fantasy as well as realism, but that is what has happened.

    and completely unpredictable though it was, cannot then be seen as a mere freak of popular taste, to be dismissed or ignored by those sufficiently well-educated to know better. It deserves an explanation and a defence, which this book tries to supply. In the process, I argue that his continuing appeal rests not on mere charm or strangeness (though both are there and can again to some extent be explained), but on a deeply serious response to what will be seen in the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil (an eternal issue, but one in Tolkien's lifetime terribly re-focused); human existence in Middle-earth, without the support of divine Revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language. These are themes which no one can afford to despise, or need be ashamed of studying. It is true that Tolkien's answers will not appeal to everyone, and are wildly at odds with those given even by many of his contemporaries as listed above. But the first qualification applies to every author who has ever lived, and the second is one of the things that make him distinctive.

    his professional authority. On some subjects Tolkien simply knew more, and had thought more deeply, than anyone else in the world. Some have felt (and said) that he should have written his results up in academic treatises instead of fantasy fiction. He might then have been taken more seriously by a limited academic audience. On the other hand, all through his lifetime that academic audience was shrinking, and has now all but vanished. There is an Old English proverb that says (in Old English, and with the usual provocative Old English obscurity), Ciggendra gehwelc wile þœt hine man gehere, ‘Everyone who cries out wants to be heard!’ (Here and in a few places later on, I use the old runic letters þ, ð and 3. The first usually represents ‘th’ as in ‘thin’, the second ‘th’ as in ‘then'. Where the third is used in this book, it represents -3 at the end of a word, -gh- in the middle of one.)

    he had to say?

For a full account of Tolkien's life, one should turn to Humphrey Carpenter's authorized Biography of 1977 (full references to this and other works briefly cited in the text can be found on pp. 329-36 below). But one could sum it up by noting Carpenter's surprising turn on p. 111: ‘And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.’ The turning-point Carpenter refers to as ‘this’ was Tolkien's election to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford University in 1925, when he was only thirty-three. The exciting events of Tolkien's life — the stuff most biographers draw on — happened before then. He was born in 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, of English parents. He returned to England very soon, but his father died when he was four, his mother (a convert to Roman Catholicism) when he was twelve. He was brought up in and around Birmingham, and saw himself, despite his foreign birth and German-derived name, as deep-rooted in the counties of the English West Midlands. He met his future wife when he was sixteen and she was nineteen, was eventually forbidden by his guardian to see or correspond with her till he was twenty-one, and wrote proposing marriage to her on his twenty-first birthday. They married while he was at Oxford, but immediately on graduation, in 1915, he took up a commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He served as an infantry subaltern on the Somme from July to October 1916, and in that year lost two of his closest friends, killed outright or dead of gangrene. He was then invalided out with trench fever, worked for a short while after the War for the Oxford English Dictionary, received first a Readership and then a Chair at Leeds University, and then in 1925 the Anglo-Saxon Chair at Oxford.

    job, raised his family, wrote his books, pre-eminently The Hobbit, which came out in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings, published in three volumes in 1954-5. His main purely academic publications were an edition of the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which he co-edited with E.V. Gordon in 1925, and his British Academy lecture on Beowulf in 1936, still accepted as the most significant single essay on the poem out of the (literally) thousands written. He retired from his second Oxford Chair in 1959 (having transferred from the Chair of Anglo-Saxon to the Merton Chair of English Language in 1945). He remained all his life a committed Christian and Catholic, and died, two years after his wife, in 1973. No extra-marital affairs, no sexual oddities, no scandals, strange accusations, or political involvements — nothing, in a way, for a poor biographer to get his teeth into. But what that summary misses out (as Carpenter recognizes) is the inner life, the life of the mind, the world of Tolkien's work, which was also — he refused to distinguish the two — his hobby, his private amusement, his ruling passion.

    word, the word he would have chosen, I believe, would be ‘philologist’ (see, for instance, the various remarks made in Carpenter's edition of Tolkien's Letters, especially p. 264). Tolkien's ruling passion was philology. This is a word which needs some explanation. I have to state here strong personal involvement. I attended the same school as Tolkien, King Edward's, Birmingham, and followed something like the same curriculum. In 1979 I succeeded to the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds which Tolkien had vacated in 1925. I confess that I eventually abolished at Leeds the syllabus which Tolkien had set up two generations before, though I think that in the circumstances of the 1980s I got a deal which Tolkien would himself have reluctantly approved. In between Birmingham and Leeds I had spent seven years as a member of the English faculty at Oxford, teaching again almost exactly the same curriculum as Tolkien. We were both enmeshed in the same academic duties, and faced the same struggle to keep language and philology on the English Studies curriculum, against the pressing demands to do nothing but literature, post-medieval literature, the relevant, the realistic, the canonical (etc.). There may accordingly be a certain note of factionalism in what I have to say about philology: but at least Tolkien and I were members of the same faction.

    definitions of the Oxford English Dictionary), the essence of philology is, first, the study of historical forms of a language or languages, including dialectal or non-standard forms, and also of related languages. Tolkien's central field of study was, naturally, Old and Middle English, roughly speaking the forms of English which date from 700 AD to 1100 (Old) and 1100 to 1500 (Middle) — Old English is often called ‘Anglo-Saxon’, as in the title of Tolkien's Chair, but Tolkien avoided the term. Closely linked to these languages, however, was Old Norse: there is more Norse in even modern English than people realize, and even more than that in Northern dialects, in which Tolkien took a keen interest. Less closely linked linguistically, but historically connected, are the other ancient languages of Britain, especially Welsh, which Tolkien also studied and admired.

    study. The text in which these old forms of the language survive are often literary works of great power and distinctiveness, and (in the philological view) any literary study which ignores them, which refuses to pay the necessary linguistic toll to be able to read them, is accordingly incomplete and impoverished. Conversely, of course, any study which remains solely linguistic (as was often the case with twentieth century philology) is throwing away its best material and its best argument for existence. In philology, literary and linguistic study are indissoluble. They ought to be the same thing. Tolkien said exactly that in his letter of application for the Oxford Chair in 1925 (see Letters, p. 13), and he pointed to the Leeds curriculum he had set up as proof that he meant it. His aim, he declared, would be:

Tolkien was wrong about the ‘growing neighbourliness’, and about the ‘more fertile field’, but that was not his fault. If he had been right, he might not have needed to write The Lord of the Rings.

    above. He said so himself as forcefully as he could and on every available opportunity, as for instance (Letters, p. 219) in a 1955 letter to his American publishers, trying to correct impressions given by a previous letter excerpted in the New York Times:

The emphasis in the passage quoted is Tolkien's, and he could hardly have put what he said more strongly, but his declaration has been met for the most part by bafflement or denial. And there is a respectable reason for this (along with many less respectable ones), for Tolkien was the holder of several highly personal if not heretical views about language. He thought that people, and perhaps as a result of their confused linguistic history especially English people, could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. They knew that names like Ugthorpe and Stainby were Northern without knowing they were Norse; they knew Winchcombe and Cumrew must be in the West without recognizing that the word cwm is Welsh. They could feel linguistic style in words. Along with this, Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive, or intrinsically repulsive. The Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs is repulsive. When Gandalf uses it in ‘The Council of Elrond’, ‘All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears'; Elrond rebukes Gandalf for using the language, not for what he says in it. By contrast Tolkien thought that Welsh, and Finnish, were intrinsically beautiful; he modelled his invented Elf-languages on their phonetic and grammatical patterns, Sindarin and Quenya respectively. It is a sign of these convictions that again and again in The Lord of the Rings he has the characters speak in these languages without bothering to translate them. The point, or a point, is made by the sound alone — just as allusions to the old legends of previous ages say something without the legends necessarily being told.

    of his invention — that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one's way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist. This process was made much more plausible if it was done comparatively (philology only became a science when it became comparative philology). The word ‘dwarf’ exists in modern English, for instance, but it was originally the same word as modern German Zwerg, and philology can explain exactly how they came to differ, and how they relate to Old Norse dvergr. But if the three different languages have the same word, and if in all of them some fragments survive of belief in a similar race of creatures, is it not legitimate first to ‘reconstruct’ the word from which all the later ones must derive — it would have been something like *dvairgs — and then the concept that had fitted it? [The asterisk before *dvairgs is the conventional way of indicating that a word has never been recorded, but must (surely) have existed, and there is of course enormous room for error in creating *-words, and *-things.] Still, that is the way Tolkien's mind worked, and many more detailed examples are given later on in this book. But the main point is this. However fanciful Tolkien s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was ‘reconstructing’, he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence.

    century. In the 1830s Elias Lönnrot, the Finn, put together what is now the Finnish rational epic, the Kalevala, from scattered songs and lays performed for him by many traditional singers; he ‘reconstructed’, in fact, the connected poem which he believed (probably wrongly) had once existed. At much the same time Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, in Germany, took up their enormous project of compiling at once a German grammar, a German dictionary, a German mythology, a German cycle of heroic legends, and of course a corpus of German fairy-tales — literary and linguistic study pursued without distinction, just as it should be. In Denmark Nikolai Grundtvig had set himself to re-creating Danish national identity, with passionate attention to the saga and epic literature of old, as to the ballad-literature of later periods, eventually brought together by his son Sven. But in England there had been no such nineteenth-century project. When Tolkien then said, as he did (see Letters, p. 144), that he had once hoped ‘to make a body of more or less connected legend’ which he could dedicate simply ‘to England; to my country’, he was not saying something completely unprecedented; though he did admit ruefully, in 1951, that his hopes had shrunk. Ten years later he might have felt much closer to success.

    and a mythologist, at least in intention, before he ever became a writer of fantasy fiction. His beliefs about language and about mythology were sometimes original and sometimes extreme, but never irrational, and he was able to express them perfectly clearly. In the end he decided to express them not through abstract argument, but by demonstration, and the success of the demonstration has gone a long way to showing that he did often have a point: especially in his brief, which I share, that a taste for philology, for the history of language in all its forms, names and place-names included, is much more widespread in the population at large than educators and arbiters of taste like to think. In his 1959 ‘Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford’ (reprinted in Essays, pp. 224-40), Tolkien concluded that the problem lay not with the philologists nor with those they taught but with what he called ‘misologists’ — haters of the word. There would be no harm in them if they simply concluded language study was not for them, out of dullness or ignorance. But what he felt, Tolkien said, was:

Behind this grievance and this anger was, of course, failure and defeat. It is now very hard to pursue a course of philology of the kind Tolkien would have approved in any British or American university. The misologists won, in the academic world; as did the realists, the modernists, the post-modernists, the despisers of fantasy.

    I heard the commissioning editor of a major publishing house say, ‘Only fantasy is mass-market. Everything else is cult-fiction.’ (Reflective pause.) ‘That includes mainstream.’ He was defending his own buying strategy, and doubtless exaggerating, but there is a good deal of hard evidence to support him. Tolkien cried out to be heard, and we have still to find out what he was saying. There should be no doubt, though, that he found listeners, and that they found whatever he was saying worth their while.

After this preamble, one may now consider the claim, or claims, made in this book's title. Can Tolkien be said to be ‘the author of the century'? Any such claim, ambitious as it is, could rest on three different bases. The first of them is simply democratic. That is what opinion polls, and sales figures, appear to show. The details are given immediately below, along with some consideration of how they should be interpreted, and how they have been; but one can say without qualification that a large number of readers, both in Britain and internationally, have agreed with the claim, and that they have done this furthermore without prompting or direction.

    said, fantasy, especially heroic fantasy, is now a major commercial genre. It existed before Tolkien, as is again discussed below, and it is possible to say that it would have existed, and would have developed into the genre it has become, without the lead of The Lord of the Rings. This seems, however, rather doubtful. When it came out in 1954-5 The Lord of the Rings was quite clearly a sport, a mutation, lusus naturae, a one-item category on its own. One can only marvel, looking back, on the boldness and determination of Sir Stanley Unwin in publishing it at all — though significantly enough, he hedged his bet by entering into a profit-sharing agreement with Tolkien by which Tolkien got nothing till there were some profits to share, a matter clearly of some doubt at the time. Unwin had moreover continued to support and encourage his author over a seventeen-year gestation period which in the event delivered quite a different birth from what had been intended. It is true that he never had to pay over the large sums which James Joyce's backers did, for instance, while Joyce was producing Ulysses, but then neither he nor Tolkien ever had the kind of support from a professional literary élite which Joyce and his benefactors could count on. However, while Ulysses has had few direct imitators, though many admirers, after The Lord of the Rings the heroic fantasy ‘trilogy’ became almost a standard literary form. Any bookshop in the English-speaking world will now have a section devoted to fantasy, and very few of the words in the section will be entirely without the mark of Tolkien — sometimes branded deep in style and layout, sometimes showing itself in unconscious assumptions about the nature and personnel of the authors' invented fantasy worlds. The imitations, or emulations, naturally vary very widely in quality, but they all give pleasure to someone. One of the things that Tolkien did was to open up a new continent of imaginative space for many millions of readers, and hundreds of writers — though he himself would have said (see above) that it was an old continent which he was merely rediscovering. An acceptably philological way of putting it might be to say that Tolkien was the Chrétien de Troyes of the twentieth century. Chrétien, in the twelfth century, did not invent the Arthurian romance, which must have existed in some form before his time, but he showed what could be done with it; it is a genre whose potential has never been exhausted in the eight centuries since. In the same way, Tolokien did not invent heroic fantasy, but he showed what could be done with it; he established a genre whose durability we cannot estimate.

Excerpted from J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by T.A. Shippey. Copyright © 2001 by T.A. Shippey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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