Sunday 6 May 2012

Tom Shippey - the indispensable Tolkien scholar


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.


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


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.).


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.


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.


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... 


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 :

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.

Bruce Charlton said...

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

Wurmbrand 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.)