Bored of the Rings


J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

by Tom Shippey

(Houghton Mifflin, 348 pp., $26)

Click here to purchase the book.J.R.R. Tolkien's is indeed an extraordinary story, delightful in its
improbability. Here was a quiet scholar, conservative, devout,
nostalgic for a bygone rural way of life, old-fashioned even in his
own generation, learned in the exacting but unglamorous fields of
Anglo-Saxon poetry and medieval philology. He was appointed to a
professorial chair at Oxford in his mid- thirties, and published
one article of huge importance on the Old English epic Beowulf but
otherwise very little of an academic kind. Instead he devoted
immense industry to writing a vast prose epic set in lands of his
own invention, which he called Middle-earth.

The Lord of the Rings should have been unpublishable; but Stanley
and Rayner Unwin, father-and-son publishers in the London firm
George Allan and Unwin, had the perception and courage to put it
into print. As all the world knows, it was to become one of the
best sellers ever, but it is as remarkable for the diversity as
well as the number of the people who have loved it--the tweedy and
the hippy, the lookers-back and the droppers-out. Another
extraordinary fact is that to create The Lord of the Rings Tolkien
felt that he had to create much more besides, most of it glimpsed
only occasionally or indirectly in the actual text of his epic.

He invented nothing less than a whole continent, diverse in
geography and character. He peopled it not only with men--I mean
human beings--but also with dwarves, elves, orcs or goblins,
hobbits, ents, and other powers. He provided Middle-earth with an
entire history across many centuries, a history of which the tale
told in The Lord of the Rings would be only a tiny part. And he
invented languages, credible and consistent in terms of the
technical discipline of philology. So his fiction came to have some
of the characteristics of scholarship; his epic is a work of
fantasy and yet also an exercise in north European medievalism.

In a somewhat disconcerting way, Tolkien seems to have come to live
in the world of his own imagining. The noise and the smell of
Oxford's traffic he described as "Mordor in our midst." When he
went to Venice, he found it "like a dream of Old Gondor, or
Pelargir of the Nmenorean Ships"--a rather limited response, one
might think. Tom Shippey puts it this way: "However fanciful
Tolkien's creation of Middle-earth, he did not think that he was
entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing,' he was harmonizing
contradictions in his source-texts; he was also reaching back to an
imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at
least in a collective imagination."

Shippey is himself a medievalist and a philologist, formerly a
professor in the very department of the University of Leeds where
Tolkien himself taught as a young man, and now in a chair at Saint
Louis University, Missouri. He burns with generous indignation at
the scorn with which many literary critics have treated Tolkien,
and his subtitle, "Author of the Century," is meant to provoke. But
provocation is only one of his purposes. His book has three main
strands. His first aim is to bring his professional expertise as a
medievalist and a philologist to bear on The Lord of the Rings, in
order to track down Tolkien's sources and to analyze the creative
processes that brought Middle-earth into being. His second purpose
is to champion the literary quality of Tolkien's work, arguing for
its moral depth, its psychological richness, and its technical
skill. The third element in the book is the knockabout bit:
Tolkien's detractors are hauled into court and convicted of
snobbery, elitism, professional jealousy, and other kinds of bad
faith. It is all very lively: a clear, forceful, engaging,
ingenious, sometimes wrongheaded book.

The first part of Shippey's book is the coolest. Here he tries to
understand how the scheme of The Lord of the Rings developed, and
much of his argument is that, for Tolkien, philology was
fundamental: words, names, and linguistic registers came first, and
the plot followed later. When Tolkien started writing his epic,
Shippey suggests, he did not at first know where it was going. This
may seem surprising and perhaps a little disconcerting. It is not
how we expect novels to develop, and the control of a complex plot
seems to be one of Tolkien's chief virtues. Yet Shippey's argument,
even though aspects of it are avowedly speculative, seems pretty
convincing, and it is supported by Tolkien's own account. Indeed,
one might compare the conception of The Lord of the Rings to the
genesis of Tolkien's first work of fiction, The Hobbit. A part of
Tolkien's legend is that the earlier book originated when he found
himself doodling the words "In a hole in the ground there lived a
hobbit"; he had no idea what this meant, and to find out he had to
write the book of which it became the opening sentence.

Tolkien's fans should find this scholarly side of Shippey's book
very interesting. Shippey's own concern is to establish the
philological complexity and consistency of Tolkien's use of names
and language. He enjoys tracing the origins of Tolkien's words; he
offers "warg," for example, as a "very plain case." In Old Norse,
he tells us, "vargr" means both "wolf" and "outlaw." In Old
English, "wearh" means "outcast" or "outlaw" (but not "wolf"), and
the verb "awyrgan" means "condemn" but also perhaps "worry, bite to
death." Tolkien's "warg" combines Old Norse and Old English
pronunciations and at the same time joins the idea of wolfishness
to a more eerie, less physical sense of intelligent malevolence. In
this area of his book, the general thrust of his argument seems to
me both right and wrong--right to find in Tolkien a solidity and
coherence of imagination lacking in most fantasy fiction, and wrong
to think that the "scholarship" of The Lord of the Rings immunizes
it from criticism; and wrong above all in the assertion that it is
an impertinence for literary critics, less scholarly than Tolkien,
to find fault with his prose style.

Shippey argues for the aesthetic and ethical richness of Tolkien
with energy and verve, but not with complete success. The Lord of
the Rings poses a primary question: is it a book for adults or for
adolescents? That is not--at least not straightforwardly--a
question about quality: there are masterpieces of children's
literature, after all, and there are countless bad literary novels
for the grown-up. The Hobbit is undoubtedly a children's book;
Auden, who was a great admirer of Tolkien, regarded it as one of
the best children's books of the century. It obviously owes a lot
to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows: in both stories the
central figure is a dear little timid furry bachelor (the Mole,
Bilbo Baggins) who is carried away from his domestic routine; the
visit to the gruff solitary Beorn in The Hobbit is rather similar
to the visit to the gruff solitary Badger in Grahame's story; and
both books end with heroic combat before the modest hero's return
to his quiet, rustic home.

The reluctant hero of The Hobbit is a charming and original
creation, a portrait drawn with more life perhaps than anything in
the magnum opus. A more unusual merit of the book is Tolkien's
feeling for the reality of exploring and campaigning: the fatigue,
the boredom and discouragement, the constant need to worry about
how you will feed yourself. (Compare this to all those books and
films in which the heroes have no need to eat or to drink, and stay
clean- shaven without recourse to a razor.) Shippey reminds us that
Tolkien had fought on the western front in World War I.

There is some inconsistency of tone in The Hobbit. The whimsical and
even facetious style of the opening--good fun in a jolly-uncle sort
of way--seems designed for rather younger children than the grand
and rather scary adventures that follow. But it does not matter
much, mainly because the conception of the novel's protagonist is
of the ordinary, stuck-in-a-rut chap who finds in himself an
unexpected stock of resource and courage, has his hour of glory,
and then returns to a willing obscurity, like Cincinnatus returning
to the plough. An alternative title or subtitle that Tolkien
contemplated for the book was "There and Back Again."

The Hobbit, then, is a children's book with some "adult"
characteristics, but it remains puzzling that The Lord of the Rings
should retain so much of the earlier work's tone and structure. It
is odd that the hero of this vast epic should still be a dear
little creature with furry feet and the comic name Frodo Baggins.
The oddity might perhaps be defended by saying that Tolkien is
showing us how even humble common folk may be called to heroism,
though such a defense sits rather awkwardly with the fact that
Frodo is essentially a rentier, while his faithful attendant Sam
Gamgee is all too obviously the gratifyingly loyal, deferential,
and comic servant of Victorian fiction--Sam Weller without the
panache--excluded by his class from more than a secondary role. More
worryingly, the English cowpat arcadia of Hobbiton and the Shire,
tolerable in The Hobbit, is unbearably twee at the start of The
Lord of the Rings. Even Auden conceded that it was "a little

But finally it is what is left out of The Lord of the Rings that
makes one wonder if this is really a book for adults. Tolkien
invented his own mythological world, but it lacks the dignity and
the sinew of a real mythology, for it is without religion and
essentially without sex. Hobbits may have fur at the bottom of
their legs, but they have seem to have no balls at the top; and
that pretty much goes for the rest of Middle-earth, too. The women
in The Lord of the Rings are few and pallid, while The Hobbit has
no female characters at all: even the giant spiders are regarded by
Bilbo as male (the narrative voice uses the unsexed pronoun "it").
The film of The Lord of the Rings seems to have tried to beef up
the female quotient; but it was surely an uphill struggle. If one
is to regard The Lord of the Rings as a book for adults, what
disturbs is not so much the absence of women, perhaps explicable in
an adventure story of this kind, as the absence of desire. In this
work that presents itself as the representation of a whole world,
there is hardly any awareness that we are sexual beings.

And that is not all that is missing. Tolkien was a devout Roman
Catholic of conservative type, and he was sensitive to the charge
that his Middle-earth was religionless. He replied that The Lord of
the Rings was "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." But
that does not get around the difficulty: even if it can be shown
that The Lord of the Rings is religious as a book--and I doubt
whether even this is true in more than the superficial sense that
it concerns a struggle of good against evil--the objection is that
the people within the story have no religious beliefs or practices,
and are thus unlike any real human society. Tolkien always
insisted, and rightly, that his work was not an allegory, but the
construction of a self-subsistent world with its own history. The
trouble is that it is an emotionally impoverished world, in which
the blood runs very thin.; "After many pages, one starts to find the
style oddly bland and characterless; ultimately it comes to seem,
like other things in The Lord of the Rings, anemic, and lacking in

The plot of The Lord of the Rings is centered upon the need to
destroy a ring of corrupting force and immense power by traveling
to the far land of Mordor and casting it into the Cracks of Doom.
The ring has been in the possession of a strange, cringing creature
called Gollum, but it passes into the hands of Frodo the hobbit.
Frodo must not only resist his enemies and reach the Mount of Doom,
he must also find the strength to overcome the spell of the ring
and cast it from him. Tolkien's critics have complained that the
moral economy of the work is radically flawed--that there is a
confusion between whether the corrupting ring symbolizes sinful
desire (the lust for power, or whatever) or should be seen as a
magical object that acts upon the wearer as an external force. The
complaint, I think, is justified, as can be seen from a comparison
with Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. (Shippey, surprisingly,
does not mention Wagner at all.)

According to Humphrey Carpenter's biography, Tolkien was irritated
when parallels were drawn between the Nibelungenlied or Wagner's
adaptation of it and his own work. To one such comparison he
retorted that both rings were round and that was the sum of it. But
there is a real perplexity here. If Tolkien really believed that
there was no German influence upon his ring, he is likely to have
been self-deceived. If he did examine Wagner during the years in
which he wrote his own epic, how did it affect him? If he did not
examine Wagner, he was oddly incurious. He does seem to have been a
man of intense but very limited interests, sealed off from the
culture of his own time within the imaginary world that he created
for himself.

The ring in Wagner is a magical object, but it also represents moral
choice and its consequences. Alberich renounces love in order to
get hold of the Rhine gold from which he forges the ring; and Wotan
needs the gold for reasons of power and splendor. Tolkien finds no
equivalent to this. Frodo appears to have no intrinsic lust for
power, wealth, or glory, and the supposedly corrupting effect of
the ring upon him seems to be external to his nature, forcibly and
arbitrarily imposed from without. Shippey battles valiantly and
ingeniously to rescue Tolkien from this criticism: his solution is
to propose that the ring's effect should be seen as equivalent to
an addiction. But this does not help much: we say that someone is
acting under the force of an addiction precisely to relieve him of
moral responsibility. Perhaps Frodo's situation is like that of a
person who has been given an injection of heroin and now finds
himself in danger of dependency. But, if so, that is not morally

Shippey is impressed by the fact that Tolkien does not give The Lord
of the Rings a conventionally happy ending: Frodo returns to the
Shire, his mission accomplished, but he is permanently wounded in
spirit. Sadly, it is hard to share Shippey's belief in the moral
and psychological depth of this outcome. It is here that the
relationship to The Hobbit is perhaps most debilitating. "There and
back again" was all right in a book of more modest scope and
ambition, but at the end of so huge an epic it is not enough. But
"there and back again" is basically what we get.

Tolkien, in sum, was unable to develop his hero. Frodo has learned
nothing: he is essentially the same person that he was when the
adventure started, except that now he is depressed. All that
Tolkien can imagine is regress, a return by the hobbits to the
darling little Beatrix Potter world from which they began.
Admittedly, Frodo is no longer at ease in this world, but Tolkien
is unable to convey anything beyond the fact of a psychic wound--no
enlargement or transformation of experience, and no philosophy of
grand disillusionment, either. He is merely a person who has had a
terrible time, and of course you cannot expect him not to be a
little queer after all he has endured. As for Sam, the faithful
retainer, he settles back quietly into tubby rusticity and
picturesque anecdotage as though nothing much had happened. Contrast
Parsifal, to turn to Wagner again: the hero of that opera starts as
a man without experience, but he learns and changes. He discovers
sexuality and self-mastery, compassion and understanding. All such
growth is beyond Tolkien's range.

More than with most books, I suspect that one's response to The Lord
of the Rings is affected by the age at which one reads it. I read
it in my early twenties, which is to say, I read it late: friends
who loved the work had usually devoured it greedily in their teens.
I was surprised to find it harder going than I expected: it was
partly, I think, a lack of sparkle in the prose, and partly the
excess of pointlessly explicit description, dragged down by what
Jane Austen called "too many particulars of right hand and of

It looks as though Middle-earth came to be too real to Tolkien: he
writes about it like a historian, filling in all the details, and
not like a novelist, selecting, implying, and picking out le petit
fait signicatif. It would be easy to quote a flabby passage, but it
might be kinder to take one cited by Shippey himself an example of
"one of many brilliant passages of natural description in The Lord
of the Rings":

A golden afternoon of late sunshine lay warm and drowsy upon the
hidden land between. In the midst of it there wound lazily a dark
river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, arched over
with willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with
thousands of willow-leaves. The air was thick with them, fluttering
yellow from the branches; for there was a warm and gentle breeze
blowing softly in the valley, and the reeds were rustling, and the
willow-boughs were creaking.

Well, that may not be bad writing, but it is not distinguished
either. It is merely pleasant in a conventional, sub-Tennysonian

At the back of one's mind lurks the suspicion that Tolkien's eye is
not truly alert, that he is interested not in exploration but
escape. Despite the orcs and the powers of evil, Middle-earth is
somehow a nicer world than ours, in a conservative, cozy sort of
way. The Lord of the Rings is not in the end so much the creation
of an alternative world as of an alternative Europe. In the
northwest corner is the Shire, replete with English names, but an
England from which cities, industry, and social conflict have been
purged. (Shippey's notion that Bilbo Baggins and the Shire stand as
an equivalent to our modern world is weirdly awry.) And like a
northern traveler to southern Europe, Frodo and his companions
cross a great range of mountains, and descend into Ithilien, an
alternative Italy (Italien in German), a landscape dotted with
tamarisk and asphodel, olive and bay, and suffused with a pleasing
decay: "Ithilien the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a
dishevelled dryad loveliness." The touch of classical allusion is
very rare in Tolkien, but alas, the wan pre- Raphaelitish language
is common.

Tolkien's style has been both loved and loathed. I find it hard to
make up my mind. In small quantities, his prose can seem to have a
kind of timeless dignity and simplicity, sometimes eloquent,
sometimes even moving. But in large quantities it palls: one begins
to feel that this writer is writing, very competently, in a dead
language. After many pages, one starts to find the style oddly
bland and characterless; ultimately it comes to seem, like other
things in The Lord of the Rings, anemic, and lacking in fiber. Such
is the standard prose of the book; when he wants greater elevation,
Tolkien tends to resort to archaisms and inversions, and the result
is mere tushery.

And the dialogue is pretty poor. Shippey skillfully analyzes the
different registers of language used by different speakers in the
story--some speak more or less in modern English, others more
archaically--but he seems to admire the very things that other
readers deplore. Proving that Tolkien's recreations of past speech
are philologically pure will do nothing to save him from the charge
that he uses variation of language register as a substitute for
living speech and natural characterization; and weakness of
characterization is one of the work's most conspicuous flaws. I
warm to Shippey's spirited defense of philology as a discipline,
but the more's the pity that he gives ammunition to its enemies by
allowing his philological enthusiasm to swamp his aesthetic sense.
Here is an example of dialogue quoted by Shippey himself with
apparent approval:

Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the tide--if the
hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the
sinews of the Kings of Men.

Here is another example:

Loth was my father to give me leave.

Does that transport you to a world of romance? It makes me think of
Tony Curtis in The Black Shield of Falworth: "Yonda is the castle
of my fadda."; "Author of the century? ... No, the only genre of
which Tolkien stands as representative is the sword-and-sorcery
novel. Shippey is no doubt right to claim that Tolkien is far
superior to other sword-and-sorcery writers; but this is not, to
put it mildly, a genre that has been central to the literature of
the last century."

Here, lastly, is a more extended piece of dialogue, also cited
admiringly by Shippey:

"It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in
Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise."

"Yet seldom do they fail of their seed," said Legolas. "And that
will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places
unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli."

"And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens," said the

"To that the Elves know not the answer," said Legolas.

This is writing that aspires to be noble and philosophical, but its
nobility seems to me gimcrack.

Author of the century? One of Shippey's declared reasons for making
so grandiose a claim for Tolkien is that "the dominant literary
mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic," and Tolkien
is the dominant figure in fantasy fiction. But there is a
sleight-of-hand here. It is true that the "great tradition" of the
naturalistic literary novel is not very old: it originated
essentially in the eighteenth century, and it reached its apogee in
the nineteenth. (Apuleius, Rabelais, and Swift were quite
different.) And it may be that the naturalist tradition of the
novel is nearing its end--though my own guess is that the
naturalist novel will flourish for a good while yet, and that
fictional modes such as magical realism will prove to have the
shorter life, rather in the way that the modernism that produced
Ulysses and The Waves now seems characteristic of a short and
specific period.

Shippey cites, as books that come to seem most representative and
distinctive of the twentieth century, The Lord of the Rings, 1984
and Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse-Five, Gravity's
Rainbow, and several more. It would be easy enough to draw up an
alternative list--Proust, Faulkner, Mann, Solzhenitsyn, Greene,
whatever; but the greater sleight-of-hand is in the double use of
the term "fantasy." For in an important sense The Lord of the Rings
is not fantastical at all. Tolkien made Middle-earth consistent
with itself even to the point of pedantry. (The Shire was not
really called the Shire, Pippin was not really called Pippin,
because English had not yet been invented; tobacco and postmen,
present in The Hobbit, are written out of the later work as

No, the only genre of which Tolkien stands as representative is the
sword- and-sorcery novel. Shippey is no doubt right to claim that
Tolkien is far superior to other sword-and-sorcery writers; but
this is not, to put it mildly, a genre that has been central to the
literature of the last century. And hasn't Shippey chosen exactly
the wrong tack? Surely Tolkien's remarkable achievement was not to
have ridden the zeitgeist but to have bucked it: to have been so
unrepresentative and yet so popular.

Author of the century? Another part of Shippey's claim is simply the
assertion that Tolkien has been the most popular or most admired
author of the age, and he produces an impressive list of surveys in
which Tolkien has topped the poll as the favorite writer of more
people than anyone else. But he knows, of course, that popularity
is a dodgy criterion. By this standard Danielle Steel is one of the
giants of our time. There are plenty of non-literary qualities and
even anti-literary qualities that make books popular: prurience,
snobbery, fantasies of wealth and power. Books can even have merits
that are owed to their lack of literary quality: Agatha Christie's
whodunits display an extraordinary ingenuity in their plotting, but
the beauty of the puzzle requires cardboard characters and total
implausibility in motives and reasons. It is the literary
ineptitude of her books that makes the murderer so hard to detect.
In Tolkien's case, there are some extra-literary qualities that form
at least a part of his appeal to some readers: maps, imaginary
languages, the invention of a full alternative world about which
one can learn more outside the book itself. It is interesting to
find some of these features in other best- sellers: Richard Adams's
Watership Down comes with a map, and we are given items of rabbit
language (pretty nonsensically, since these are supposed to be
"real" rabbits, unlike in other animal stories); and there is a
made-up language to be learned at Hogwarts Academy, too.

Shippey's assault on Tolkien's detractors is the most swashbuckling
part of his book: he makes merry mischief and scores some hits. He
may well be right to think that there has been a good deal of
intellectual snobbery behind the disparagement of his hero. Still,
I doubt that the literati have sneered at Tolkien simply for being
popular, as Shippey supposes. Intellectuals have a liking for parts
of popular culture: think of the cartloads of highbrow praise
justly heaped upon jazz or Elvis or The Simpsons. Besides, Shippey
appears in part to have misunderstood what he is attacking. Some of
his adversaries may have been strongly hostile to Tolkien, but what
many of them appear to have disliked is not so much Tolkien's work
itself as the exaggerated claims made for it.

There is also a suspicion, fair or not, that Tolkien's most ardent
fans do not care for any literature other than Tolkien. Shippey
adduces a journalist's reaction to the news that The Lord of the
Rings had yet again topped a poll as most popular book ever: "Oh
hell! Has it? Oh my God. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear." This
is not a brilliant response, but the sentiment behind it is surely
sound. One can admire Tolkien a great deal and still regret that so
many people believe there to be nothing better. Shippey's "take no
prisoners" policy- -you are either with Middle-earth or you are
with the poncey eggheads-- polarizes the debate too much. That is
why I have been so hard on Tolkien here: in resisting the claim
that he is a literary titan, it is necessary to point to his large

And yet Tolkien's conception does have a genuine grandeur,
particularly the counterpoint in the later part of the story
between the vast sweep of battle across Middle-earth and what
actually matters more, the tiny group crawling across desolation to
the fateful summit of the Mount of Doom. He is good at conveying
the sense of dark, sinister, shapeless threat (much less good at
representing evil itself). And there are some wonderful passages,
such as the visit to the talking trees, the ents, perhaps the most
magical and evocative thing that he wrote. In his way he was
unique, and that cannot be claimed for many writers. But as for the
notion that The Lord of the Rings is just about the twentieth
century's supreme achievement: dear oh dear oh dear.

By Richard Jenkyns

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