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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century

Has anyone else read Tom Shippey's study of Tolkien? It's wonderfully unique as books about Tolkien go: most of them are biographies, which are bound to repeat the same familiar facts, or religious looks at Tolkien, like Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth and the great anthology of essays he collected. But Shippey's book examines Tolkien's work in its philological, literary AND philosophical aspects. It's also really, really fun to read. Especially the parts where he slices and dices Tolkien's irrational critics. Bwa ha ha ha ha!!! "Come, my songs,/ Let us take arms against this sea of stupidities and all the Bulmenian literati," or whatever it was Pound was saying.

Uh... anyway, here are some quotes from his book:

"The dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic."

"Tolkien's approach to the ideas or the devices accepted as modernist is radically different because they are on principle not literary. He used 'mythical method' not because it was an interesting method but because he believed that the myths were true. He showed his characters wandering in the wilderness and entirely mistaken in their guesses not because he wanted to shatter the 'realist illusion' of fiction, but because he thought all our views of reality were illusuions, and that everyone is in a way wandering in a 'bewilderment', lost in the star-occluding forest of Middle Earth. He experimented with language not to see what interesting effects could be produced but because he thought all forms of human language were already an experiment. One might say that he took the ideals of modernism seriously instead of playing around with them."

"However Tolkien did not just copy the 'Tally of the Dwarves', or quarry it for names. He must rather have looked at it, refused to see it, as most scholars do, as a meaningless or no longer comprehensible rigmarole, and instead asked himself a string of questions about it. What, for instance, is 'Gandálfr' doing in the list, when the second element is quite clearly álfr, 'elf', a creature in all tradition quite distinct from a dwarf? And why is 'Eikinskjaldi' there, when unlike the others it does not seem to be a possible name, but looks like a nickname, 'Oakenshield'? In Tolkien, of course, it is a nickname(...)"

"Inside The Lord of the Rings, the horn of Rohan stands for a rejection of the despair which is Sauron's chief weapon, and which hangs persistently on the edges of the story, in the barrow, in the Dead Marshes, in Fangorn Forest, in Mordor, and even in the Shire. Outside The Lord of the Rings, it stands maybe for The Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien chose a symbol for his story and his message, it would be, I think, the horn of Eorl. He would have liked to blow it in his own country, and disperse the cloud of post-war and post-faith disillusionment, depression, acquiescence, which so strangely (and twice in his lifetime) followed on victory. And perhaps he did."

These examples are chosen nearly at random. I could give others: his considerations of Bombadil and the English countryside, Tolkien's "stars and trees" motif, the contrast between Faramir and Éomer (and what it says about Gondor and Rohan), the presence in LotR of both Manichean and Boethian conceptions of evil, Tolkien's phenomenal control over the level of his diction, the significance of the birch in Smith of Wootton Major...

Anyway, it's a very insightful and many-sided book, and entirely worth your time.

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