J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
I chose to get this after seeing author Tom Shippey in a '90s documentary about Tolkien, and after re-reading LOTR for the fifth time. I wanted a book that analysed LOTR as a novel from a literary and linguistic perspective, rather than looking for too many biographical links. Shippey's book provided this, much to my satisfaction and enlightenment.
Three chapters are devoted to LOTR, one to The Hobbit, one to The Silmarillion, and the rest to Tolkien's shorter pieces, critical reception and followers in the Fantasy genre. Shippey was contemporary with Tolkien and followed him to the same or similar positions in academia, and he is evidently a great supporter of Tolkien's against a hostile and snobbish literary establishment. He provides brilliant insights into the 'interlace' structuring of LOTR, the many different registers of voice, both in prose and verse, the mythological and heroic texts which influenced Tolkien's creativity, the various stages for LOTR development and the fleshing out of Tolkien's 'mythology', and above all the author's fascination for names and their etymological roots. Apparently Tolkien wasn't the least bit afraid to challenge the explanations for the origins of words as presented by the OED, for example. He was a very independent and influential scholar, who did vital, pioneering work in his researches into such (then) neglected writings as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and of course, Beowulf.
There are fascinating things to be learned. Shippey uncovers Tolkien's penetrating philological detective work, decoding the names, or misnaming, of places, towns, villages, streets, to reveal the deep historical background concealed within those very geographical and urban labels we take for granted. Any student of language and literature will know this joy, the discovery of clues to life and history hidden within names, tracing the changing of words over time and what lies, archaeologically speaking, beneath the top layer we all take for granted. Shippey draws links between Norse, Germanic, and Finnish language, poetry, legends, and Old English, Anglo-Saxon, and that which was here before the English 'immigrants' settled into the green and pleasant spaces of the Midlands. (Yes. The English are immigrants too. Uncomfortable truth for the Little Englanders, no doubt.)
So, why only 4-stars. I think there is a blatant failure to consider what for convenience we can label the 'Celtic' influence on Tolkien's writing. There is passing reference to his enthusiasm for Welsh language, but little attempt to relate story ideas to Welsh medieval literature, much less anything from Ireland. There are a few references to Finland, the Kalevala, the mysterious power of the Sampo, but he doesn't even namecheck Vainamoinen, and anyone who's read Kalevala and LOTR would connect Tom Bombadil to Vainamoinen. Admittedly one can't rightly expect Shippey to be a scholar of everything, and let's not forget that LOTR is not a work of scholarship per se.
Shippey stresses Tolkien's desire to provide England with a mythology to compensate for what was lost after so many invasions (Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans, etc). All the same, one can't help feeling that a failure to consider Tolkien in the context of Celtic literature - and I'm not saying there isn't such a study available elsewhere, maybe there is - must surely smack of exclusivity, the kind which scholars of Welsh, Old Irish, and Scots Gaelic could choose to interpret as further proof of Anglo-Saxon (i.e. English) hegemony and disrespect. The obvious linke between Tolkien's tragic hero Turin and the Finnish Kullervo is acknowledged, although not very forecfully, as if the Kalevala could be, to some extent, dismissed as fringe.
I was surprised also that there was no attempt to link Tolkien's mythopoeic endeavours to those of such ambiguous fellows (heroic charlatans of heroic romance) as Macpherson, author of Fingal and the Ossian 'hoax', or Iolo Morganwg (aka Edward Williams) the Welsh scholar-antiquarian who invented as much of Welsh ancient literature as he rediscovered and promoted from obscurity. I don't think anything Tolkien did could ever be convicted of sharp practice, but in some sense the methods and goals were not so dissimilar: to uncover, rediscover, conjecture and when necessary, fabricate on behalf of a lost narrative tradition of ancient 'English' myth and legend.
But putting all that aside, if you have read and re-read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other heroic texts by Tolkien, and you're ready to learn more about the stages of development, the inspirations, the first thoughts and modifications, and want to know something of how such a mind as Tolkien's came up with all this stuff, and just why, critically speaking, it works so well and is so convincing and enveloping as a reading experience, Tom Shippey is a superb guide and you won't be disappointed.
Prepare to marvel anew. And get ready to want to dive back into Tolkien's Middle Earth with fresh eyes.