Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Readings 2K9: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
by Tom Shippey

Tolkien’s a writer that you either love (most people) or hate (a vocal minority). I’m in the former camp, but I do think it’s by and large true that many of the people who love Tolkien’s work often don’t make a very good case for why, or have taken from it only surface or partial elements. Shippey’s book is one of the best appreciations of Tolkien I’ve seen, not least because it begins from a point roughly similar to Tolkien’s own interest, teasing out meanings in Tolkien’s texts based on Tolkien’s play with Old English.

This is hugely significant; Tolkien’s linguistic play, to me, easily outstrips Joyce in its verve and its ability to range across more than a millennium’s worth of language. Relatively few Lord of the Rings fans are competent to analyse Tolkien’s involvement with Old English and related languages. I’m certainly not. It’s good to see a book of criticism, aimed at the popular market no less, involved with the fabric of language to such an extent.

This isn’t to say its perfect. When Shippey tries to make a list of fantasy authors to compare to Tolkien, his selections often seem random. And he is at a disadvantage in responding to writers sceptical of Tolkien’s achievement simply because many of those writers never bothered to present any cogent criticism of Tolkien’s work, instead dismissing it without thought investigation. But Shippey does pay attention to Tolkien's construction of his story, recurring motifs of his plot, the development of character — and what language says about character, plot, and story. It may fairly be said of Shippey, then, that unlike many writers on Tolkien, he is worthy of his subject.

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