Kirsten's Reviews > J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

J.R.R. Tolkien by Tom Shippey
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Jul 26, 2010

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bookshelves: academic, non-fiction, tolkien, books-about-books
Recommended for: Super-duper Tolkien nerds
Read from July 26 to August 10, 2010

** spoiler alert ** I found Shippey's core argument in this book convincing and successful; that although Tolkien rejected many of the conclusions drawn by his contemporaries in modernist literature, he was very much of the modernist movement. He argues this effectively with clear examples and themes from Tolkien's texts and compares these with other works of the same period which are more readily labeled "modernist". This is not any small feat, considering how easy it is to separate Tolkien from his contemporaries if one only looks at certain superficial aspects of his work.

Shippey sets himself up as struggling against a wall of critics who dismiss Tolkien's legendarium as merely an escapist fable of little consequence and with a tenuous grip on "reality". Of course, as an avid fan and admirer of Tolkien's work, I did not need to be persuaded that these criticisms are nonsense, usually proffered by people who have not read Tolkien carefully or, as Shippey suggests, at all.

In this argument I can't help but sense a chip on Shippey's shoulder, perhaps from a long career fighting to justify studying Tolkien on the same academic level as Joyce, Orwell, T.H. White, and other modernist authors whose works do not seem to cause such blind antipathy in literary critics. While I agree that many people do take a startlingly aggressive stance against Tolkien, I felt that at these points Shippey was not giving me new information or convincing me of anything I didn't already believe. In this way I think this is the least successful part of his argument.

In the end I found the most valuable part of this work to be the close analysis of his work in comparison with other modernist authors, but also looking at his inspiration for names and locations from his academic career and his surroundings in the Oxfordshire countryside. I loved learning the etymological origins of "Bag End", "Wootton Major", the "Withywindle", "Frodo", "Saruman", etc.

It is a very valuable book to Tolkien scholarship, taking a new angle, as far as I'm aware, in its approach to Tolkien as a modernist author, but always coming back to what I love about Tolkien, the firm rooting in language and words.
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