Here's my review of the Tom Shippey lecture I attended in Chicago on 9 Nov 2002. My son who is taking a Tolkien class at Purdue University thought this was interesting, so I decided to pass it on.
The material for the lecture, "Trees, Chainsaws, and the Vision of Paradise in J.R.R. Tolkien," was drawn mostly from one of the chapters in Shippey's book "JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century." It was a rapid-fire lecture punctuated by quotes in Quenya and Old English (usually with translations) and anecdotes about the rivalries between the Oxford English language and literature faculty members.
Shippey began by describing Tolkien as a tree-hugger, who probably didn't really hug trees (that would have been too emotional for an Englishman), but who most likely DID "pat, stroke, and talk to" trees. He then spoke of some of the trees found in the Hobbit and LOTR - Old Man Willow, Mirkwood, mallorn-trees, etc. - examples of well-loved trees as well as those "you would not like to meet in a dark alley." In general, single trees are OK, but forests are dangerous. Here we also heard a bit about the "chainsaws" mentioned in the title of the event - see Book I Chap 6 of FOTR "The Old Forest" - and Shippey admitted that he himself is the owner of a chainsaw and an ax.
Next he explained how you cannot have a proper romance without a forest. (LOTR does fit, at least partially, Northrop Frye's definition of a romance where the characters are superior in degree to other men and to their environment.) Woods you get lost in and can't find your way out of. Woods where you can't see very far - where the sky, sun, and stars cannot be seen.
His first reference was to the woods in "The Faerie Queene", which he said no one reads anymore - most people only start it. Next he moved on to Shakespeare ("a writer of some talent" who could have been good, but he went off and became commercial). Shakespeare's fairy play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," has the enchanted forest where the characters keep wandering. Then he mentioned Milton's "Comus" where two brothers in search of their sister go astray in a forest. Details can be found in Shippey's book chapter titled "The Lord of the Rings (3): The Mythic Dimension" with sections on "Timeless poetry and true tradition" and "Three Shire-poets: Shakespeare, Milton, and ‘Anonymous.'
Next Shippey discussed hobbit poetry which is rather like paths in a forest - shifting all the time. He compared Bilbo's ‘Old Walking-Song' "Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet..." (sung when he leaves Gandalf and Bag End) to Frodo's ‘Walking-Song' which speaks of "weary feet" not "eager feet" (just before the hobbits first encounter with a Ringwraith) and then to Bilbo repeating the ‘Old Walking-Song' in Rivendell at the end of Book VI Chap 6 when he is dying and says "But I at last with weary feet Will turn towards the lighted inn, My evening-rest and sleep to meet." Each time the poem is adapted and its symbolic sense becomes clearer. The "Road is life, always followed, eagerly or wearily, but from which everyone in the end must turn aside, leaving it to others to follow." Later when Frodo is passing out of Middle-Earth he sings about taking the ‘hidden path' that leads out of the world.
Finally, Shippey moved on to Tolkien's personal myth which involved reaching earthly paradise. Neither the Elves nor the hobbits wanted to leave the tree-tangled Middle-Earth to go beyond the great Sea. Tolkien knew it was impossible to remain with the natural beauty of the trees AND to leave the woods to see the sun and stars again. So a compromise suggests that maybe trees can be found in "heaven" or in an earthly paradise (e.g. the Garden of Eden/Lothlorien). Then there was a lot of discussion about crossing rivers to get to paradise. In "Pearl" (most certainly by the anonymous poet who wrote "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" - Tolkien spent much of his life editing these two works) a father goes into an ‘arbour' to look for the pearl (his daughter) he has lost - and when he falls asleep, he finds himself in a strange land where his grief disappears, and where he sees his pearl on the other side of a river. In FOTR, the Fellowship crosses rivers to reach Lothlorien where their grief for Gandalf ‘disappears.' Again, lots more detail in "Author of the Century."
Miscellaneous comments during the Q/A period (most are elaborated upon in "Author of the Century"):
Those Elves who did not leave Middle-Earth and go beyond the Sea turned into parts of the landscape. In contrast, Tom Bombadil is an example of the landscape turning into a living being.
The victory at the end of LOTR is a temporary victory midst the long defeat. Humans cannot save themselves - they must be redeemed.
Although Tolkien wrote to a friend that "‘The Lord of the Rings' is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," it is superficially neither Catholic nor religious, nor Christian. Shippey: "There is almost no hint of any religious feeling at all in the characters or in their societies, not even where one would be most likely to expect it" e.g. no mention of churches, marriage ceremonies, etc.