Sunday, 6 May 2012

Tom Shippey - the indispensable Tolkien scholar

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For anyone not themselves a philologist and who finds themselves turning to JRR Tolkien as to a spiritual father or starets, the scholar Tom Shippey is indispensable - I mean the word literally. We cannot do without him.

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My own understanding of Tolkien divides into two phases - pre- and post-reading Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth.

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Shippey brings two things: first the technical skill (in itself extremely rare) necessary to analyse Tolkien's methods and purposes; and secondly a basic attitude to life which is essentially identical with Tolkien (Shippey writes from the perspective of a reactionary Christian).

(I do not know to what extent Shippey would explicitly accept the label of reactionary Christian; nonetheless this is without doubt the perspective from which he writes.).

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Great literary criticism is extremely rare, but Shippey goes beyond literary criticism. Shippey is a real philologist, in the 19th century German tradition, when philology was (briefly) the Master Discipline of academia: combining traditional knowledge of the humanities, the objectivity and precision of science and the creativity of the poet.

Of course, this is precisely what Tolkien was; and it takes Shippey to show us Tolkien's greatness in this respect - and greatness is the proper word, because Tolkien was a truly great scholar, despite his slender publication list.

And Tolkien's fiction came from his scholarship - as Tolkien always himself claimed; but it takes Shippey to tell us what Tolkien's claim meant, and how the process worked.

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These thoughts have come from (at last) reading Tom Shippey's third book about Tolkien - the collection of essays from 2007 entitled Roots and Branches.

I foolishly delayed buying this book until last week, because I worried that the essays might simply repeat the earlier books, and because the volume seemed over-priced.

I was wrong.  

Roots and branches represents a major extension of Shippey's insights into Tolkien, and it is one of the best books of 'lit crit' I have read - dense with scholarship, insights and wisdom; deft, direct, humorous; sheerly enjoyable.

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First read Tolkien.

Then, if you want to look into the secondary literature read Shippey's Road to Middle Earth.

Then read Roots and Branches. 

And then read the others... 

3 comments:

Brian Murphy said...

A couple years ago I had the singular pleasure of not only meeting Tom Shippey, but speaking with him for a half hour or more. The full story is here if you're interested : http://thesilverkey.blogspot.com/2010/02/recap-of-boskone-47-talking-tolkien.html.

Summing up that experience: Shippey is not only without peer as a Tolkien scholar, but he's a genuinely nice and accommodating individual with a great sense of humor.

Roots and Branches is a must-read, agreed.

bgc said...

@BM - thanks for this - I enjoyed your blog posting.

Dale James Nelson said...

I just read the "Noblesse Oblige" essay in the Roots and Branches collection. It would be a good first stop for anyone interested in the issue of Tolkien"s "middle class morality." (It begins by alluding to the well-known disapproval of same expressed by Michael Moorcock.)