Saturday 16 March 2013

The best book which, otherwise than my recommending it, you would be unlikely to buy


Is the collection of essays Roots and Branches: selected papers on Tolkien by Tom Shippey (Walking Tree Publishers, 2007).

Assuming you are a Tolkien fan, so that you can appreciate the medium of discussion, this is just one of the best books I have ever read that is not a classic; it is, indeed, virtually unknown.

Replete with gems, such as:


Extracts from Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien's images of evil: becomes clear that though the Ringwraiths do have physical capacities, their real weapon is psychological: they disarm their victims by striking them with fear and despair.

This at least is a suggestive concept. Many people during the course of the twentieth century, and authors as different from Tolkien and from each other as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and William Golding, have been surprised, even baffled, by the strange passivity of the Western world (a phrase Tolkien would have accepted) in the face of deadly dangers coming out of the East. 

Whole communities seem again and again to have gone to their deaths in a sleepwalking state, abandoning thoughts of resistance when it would have been entirely feasible. In contests between the strong and the weak, the weak (wraiths) have often won. 

...The obvious wraith in [That Hideous Strength] is Wither, the Deputy Director of NICE. On one level he is an obvious example of the bureaucrat, that characteristic twentieth century figure. His language is elaborate, polished, utterly evasive. He is master of getting his own way... without committing himself to any statement at all. It is impossible to argue with him since he never says anything which contains any substance; nor does he appear to remember anything he has said before.

All this is familiar enough to those who work in large organizations.

...[Lewis and Tolkien] demonstrate between them that one of the major advantages of fantasy in the modern world is that it effectively addresses the major threats of the modern world, like work, tedium, despair and bureaucracy, so often a closed book to modern mainstream authors without real-life work experience. 


Roots and Branches by Tom Shippey.

If you a) like Tolkien and b) trust my judgment (...?): then buy it!



Wurmbrand said...

I'd say this one deserves to appear on a list for a basic Tolkien-commentary library, other titles including:

Carpenter's biography
Garth's Tolkien & the Great War
Scull & Hammond's Companions and Guides (3 vols)
Flieger's three books
Shippey's own Road to Middle-earth & Author of the Century

There are other excellent books on Tolkien, but these stand out. I think lots of people would agree. Where debate might arise would be in connection with what the next ten or dozen books should be. I'm not counting here books that are basically Tolkien's own work, such as Scull and Hammond's books on Tolkien's pictorial art or Douglas Anderson's Annotated Hobbit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - I would add that among these books, those of Shippey and also Flieger's A Question of Time stand-out as being important books enjoyable in their own right, aside from being about Tolkien

Put it this way; you would not have to be a Tolkien fanatic to benefit from reading these four books, they says things of considerable significance not findable elsewhere, and these transcend the genre of Lit Crit.

Wurmbrand said...

Jared Lobdell's England and Always would be high in the list of my next set of ten or so. (I believe it's been revised as The World of the Rings.)

Samson J. said...

Lads, stop forcing me to buy more Tolkien books! At the rate I'm getting through them, I may as well just wait until I meet the man in heaven and speak to him directly...

Samson J. said...

By the way:

If you a) like Tolkien and b) trust my judgment (...?)

Would we be here otherwise? ;)

That excerpt is brilliant, by the way (an overused word, to be sure, but perfectly applicable in this case!). Is Shippey a Christian, do you know?

Samson J. said...

Hey, while I'm here and you've jogged my memory, let me ask: do you think this Charles Williams omnibus is likely worth the money? I'm keen to read Place of a Lion after your recent recommendation, but can't seem to find it cheaply.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - Is this version cheap enough?

I have bought omnibus editions of novels, but for some reason I almost never read them - I just don't seem to like the format.

Tom Shippey is not a Christian (I have this from the horse's mouth!) - but clearly neither is he anti- (he worked at a Catholic University).

Samson J. said...

@SJ - Is this version cheap enough?

Yuck, Bruce, I can't read something not printed on dead Ents, you know... Anyhow, I've ordered Road to M-E and will probably get R&B for my birthday at this point.

Samson J. said...

Also, I can't really agree about disliking to read an omnibus - after all, that's how I read LOTR (and Lewis' space trilogy)!

Troels said...

Considering the list that Wurmbrand started, I'd add that all of Flieger's books ought to be there (I believe that she has published three book-length critical works and a collection of essays, Green Suns and Faƫrie).

In the 'not counting' category is of course also Flieger's edition of Smith of Wootton Major and the edition of On Fairy-stories that she did with Anderson.

It is of course always a question of where to put a line between the groups, but I'd certainly also put Carl Phelpstead's Tolkien and Wales high up on my list, along with some classic collections such as Tolkien's Legendarium (ed. Flieger & Hostetter) and The Lord of the Rings 1954-2004 (ed. Hammond & Scull).