Tuesday, October 10, 2000

The Observer reviews Tom Shippey's new book on Tolkien - Tehanu @ 01:39 PST
We may have mentioned the Tom Shippey book,'Tolkien, Author of the Century, but here is the UK Sunday paper The Observer's review of it. The reviewer is Charles Moseley. Our correspondent HuanCry comments:

"Charles Moseley was ( is still ? ) Director of Studies in English at Wolfson College , University of Cambridge. He has written his own ( short ) book on Tolkien where he doesn't shy away from ( what he perceives as ) serious flaws re. his writing skills as well as highlighting his strengths e.g. LotR great as an epic / romance / folktale."

Here's the Observer review:

A Creature of Hobbit
Tom Shippey issues a challenge that nobody can ignore with JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century
Charles Moseley, Observer
Sunday October 8, 2000
JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century
Tom Shippey
HarperCollins 16.99, pp362

Tom Shippey emerged as one of Tolkien's most acute critics and convincing apologists with The Road to Middle Earth (1983), a nicely Tolkienian title. The subtitle of his enjoyable new book, characteristically, teases as it asserts. Tolkien, 'author of the century'? Hasty, perhaps, as Treebeard might have said. But the sly echo of Germaine Greer's remark that: 'It has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the century' issues a challenge which nobody can quite ignore. For when The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit came out, many saw them as a stupendous irrelevance, a 'flight from reality', ignoring everything worthwhile in the modern novel. But others waited - for years - for (the difficult) The Silmarillion to appear, and all the other texts that emerged from material left when Tolkien died.

For many in the Fifties to Seventies, Tolkien's imaginary world, despite passages of frankly weak writing, provided a diagnostic myth which, as myths do, simplified and intensified, and held contradictions in tension together. He always said he was writing a 'mythology for England'. But this mythology was wider than that, for it confronted what modern orthodoxies were beginning to relativise, the absoluteness of evil, a word one feels still uneasy about using in certain company. Tolkien created a world with a detailed history and chronology stretching over millennia. He gave it languages, some of them beautiful, with credible philological development. And Lord of the Rings had many imitators, who still thrive. Tolkien's influence on fantasy has been profound, as Shippey underlines - he altered the map.

You can hardly approve of Tolkien's fiction on the basis of orthodoxies that, latterly prevailing in the academy, have become the small change of the conversation of the literati. But there is evidence of many Tolkien readers among that same group, and of a massive following among intelligent people of sensibility who simply read and trouble not their heads with theory or orthodoxy. So perhaps the 'Tolkien phenomenon', in fact, turns the tables: if theory cannot accommodate such works, then, perhaps, theories need revising.

Indeed, Tolkien offered that challenge: the two essays on Beowulf and 'On Fairy Stories', to which Shippey gives proper weight, are arguably among the most important theoretical works of the last 60 years. They summarise his thinking about the nature of imaginative literature and its importance, how it transcends the fashion of the moment. While the academy, quite properly, theorises about what ought to be and has been, the imaginative and emotional needs served by ahe art of lying that is fiction must still be met.

Shippey's witty, combative book is illuminating, especially on The Silmarillion. He also claims that Tolkien can be seen in the context of major developments in modernist fiction. Shippey argues the twentieth century's need for new myths, new maps of Hell, the world changed with the First World War, in which Tolkien fought, and ancient images of paradise lost provided by literary tradition were no longer viable for a writer marked by losing most of his friends in those terrible four years of industrialised warfare. You have, after that experience, to make and live your own myth and, if you are lucky, you can write about it.

The central chapters demonstrate the ingenious articulation of the trilogy, the profundity of its thought about suffering, and evil, both personal and institutional, cosmic and frankly devilish: no allegory, as some tried reductively to decode it, for the problems of the Second World War, for the issues of nuclear deterrence, but something applicable to both, and to the then unimagined Vietnam, and to all struggles where Mordor so nearly wins. Tolkien, Shippey argues, was in an interesting dialectic between the Boethian view of evil, where it is, in the end, a privation of good, and the dualist or Manichean, where it is an active principle based on the corrupted will of sentient beings. And if we are not, as we once thought, beyond Good and Evil, if we are, in fact, responsible beings, how do we recognise their unchanging substances beneath the blandishments of accident? Eomer's question - 'How shall a man judge what to do in such times?' - must be our question, indeed. And fictions might help us to an answer.

Thanks to HuanCry

According to Amazon.com it isn't available yet, but you can pre-order it here