Customer Reviews: The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology
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on December 20, 2003
Shippey's "J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century" places Tolkien in the context of his time. "The Road to Middle-earth" has the more scholastically challenging job of placing Tolkien in the context of his tradition. As that tradition is primarily philological and philosophical, these are his subjects. He tells us what Tolkien meant the words and names in his stories to mean; he tells us how Tolkien used modern language to convey modern and ancient styles and philosophies in contrast; he tells us how the Ring mediates two mutually exclusive concepts of evil; he explains Tolkien's complex narrative strategies; he dresses down critics who misunderstand Tolkien and blame him for not fitting into their concepts of literature; and he does all this with such a blistering display of erudition and general intelligence that the reader sits back amazed.
The book is discursive, and the opening theoretical chapters may seem heavy going, but have patience: they provide necessary context. Shippey has Tolkien's measure in full throughout. He explains what was important to Tolkien, what Tolkien thought he was doing, and - no less vitally - why it is necessary to understand this if one is not to bash Tolkien in annoyance for not accomplishing something totally different.
If you read Shippey, will you necessarily understand Tolkien? No. But if you don't read Shippey, and if you also don't have his insight and knowledge, you will not fully understand Tolkien.
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on May 29, 2004
This book is quite simply superb in every conceiveable respect. It is written by a scholar who understands and respects Tolkien's own scholarly passion for philology, the science and stories of the evolution of words and language. This is very different from the humanistic field of literary criticism, and Shippey explains at some length what a philologist can and cannot do. The close reader will end Shippey's book with a wistful feeling that some very wrong turns have been made in academia over the past one hundred years, and one of the reasons for Tolkien's greatness in his time was quite simply his refusal to accept or acknowledge that these wrong turns had been made. At bottom, a scholar of literature is, or at least ought to be, someone who loves words. We will always have a few of these people among us, and Tolkien's and Shippey's works remind us that no overgrown pathway is ever truly lost.
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on March 15, 2001
I only have one complaint about The Road to Middle-earth and that is that Shippey doesn't concede an inch to Tolkien's non-Anglo-Saxon influences. The only real flaw in the book is the fact that the reader can easily be led to believe that everything Tolkien put into The Lord of the Rings was drawn from something in Anglo-Saxon history or legend.
As long as people keep an open mind, however, The Road to Middle-earth sheds light on some of the most obscure details and references in Tolkien's work. Shippey admits in the foreword he may be stepping across the line, since Tolkien himself warned the author against reading too much into anything. But the ride is fun and in Shippey's whirlwind fashion the reader is treated to a torrent of near-mystical adulation for one of the 20th century's greatest authors.
The writing is straight-forward and well within the reach of most readers. One of the pitfalls of literary scholarship which Shippey avoids is an overdependence upon jargon. He knows his audience wants to read more about Middle-earth and less about what fancy words critics are most apt to use.
And despite Shippey's own tendency to accuse Tolkien of deception, he pounces with delightful vengeance and righteous anger upon many a critic who has sought to lay low the immensity of Tolkien's creation. One needn't agree with everything Shippey writes in order to appreciate the passion he has for Middle-earth, or the intense loyalty the writer feels toward Tolkien himself.
Of all the Tolkien commentators who have ever dared put pen to paper, T. A. Shippey is most probably the best qualified (after Christopher Tolkien) to say anything at all concerning how Tolkien may have viewed his creation, or what Tolkien might have intended to say between the lines.
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on January 19, 2004
Tom Shippey has an intimate knowledge of the mind and creative processes of the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, perhaps nearly as intimate a knowledge as Christopher Tolkien himself. The degree of the schism between language and literature professors of his day was most startling, and how that affected the early critics' appraisals of his masterpiece was also not what I had expected. Tom Shippey's knowledge of JRR Tolkien's mind is most revealing and is encyclopedic, and his ability to explain how deeply the master philologist would see legends and myths in the most ordinary of names and words left me thunderstruck. I have read all five of the main Middle Earth volumes several times and have read some of the Lost Tales, but I had not gained any insight from previous volumes saying how Pr. Tolkien created his world. The authors of those books seemed to lack legitimacy. Tom Shippey does not have that problem, and his book demonstrates that he is Pr. Tolkien's bona fide pupil and linguistic heir. Fans of Middle Earth should be thankful for Tom Shippey's insight, an insight that could only be bettered by Christopher Tolkien, or Pr. Tolkien himself.
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on April 18, 1999
While most literary criticism about Tolkien focuses on the plots of the stories, this book follows Tolkien's own explanation by looking at the words that inspired Tolkien. Instead of just being told that Tolkien's languages are based on Old English, Old Norse, Gothic, or whatnot, Shippey explains how, based on his own knowledge of these languages. His familiarty with the ancient works that may have inspired Tolkien lend a credibility to his analysis. Those who have read Tolkien's work, but remain ignorant of his "scholarly" interests will learn much from this book, and maybe even find something else to read with the same enthusiasm, ie, the Kalevala. I found that this approach of studying the language employed by Tolkien led to a more thorough and accurate analysis of his work. IT was an accute contrast to those who analyzed the work as a traditional quest, pointing out the similar events. Tolkien's genius lies in his words, his names, and his storytelling. His plots are secondary, though of course important as well. Those who analyze just the plots miss this genius, and tend to make mistakes in their interpretations. The only disappointment I had in this book was perhaps a tendency to ascribe ideas to Tolkien that seemed more likely to be Shippey's, and perhaps an over-confidence in interpreting the allegorical meanings of Leaf by Niggle and such.
Overall, this was a brilliant and different analysis of Tolkien's work, and well worth reading by anyone who wishes to understand why his work has such an appeal to such a wide audience. Also, fans will find greater understanding of the language from a philological perspective.
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on April 17, 2012
Shippey's study of the composition, meaning, and multifaceted background of LOTR (also with attention to The Hobbit and other related texts) is a world class contribution to both literary studies and, more specifically, LOTR scholarship. Without going in to too much detail, let me instead list of some aspects of LOTR and Tolkien himself that Shippey's study enhanced:

---Tolkien as Philologist: I had a casual understanding of Tolkien's love of language(s), but I had no idea that he was so capable in this field and incorporated so heavily insights from the entire history of Anglo-Saxon speech and writing (as well as other language-groups/families). Little words here and there will have entirely new depths and meaning for me :)

---Tolkien's relationship with modernity: I did not understand the magnitude with which Tolkien was interacting with (and bucking against!) the guild as a whole. I now appreciate Tolkien's accomplishment even more after learning how the guild (and foolish critics!) pigeon-holed him as "escapist" and unrealistic.

---Tolkien in light of the World Wars: Shippey highlights a bit of Tolkien's participation in WWI, the war that was supposed to "end all wars," as well as the ironic fact that his own sons would participate in the next great, global conflict, WWII. I had never considered Tolkien in relation to Vonnegut, Orwell, and other writers affected by the great wars, but that is certainly an integral part of his historical context.

---Anticipation of Christianity: Shippey convincingly demonstrates that LOTR is not exactly "Christian," but examines heroism and triumph in a pre-Christian world that shows some anticipation (perhaps expectation?) of the Christ event.

---Intertextuality: I was previously aware of Tolkien's use of older themes and material, but I had no idea that LOTR is so full of textual and thematic recapitulations and reincarnations. If you want to understand the literary roots of Tolkien's program in LOTR and related material, Shippey's book really shines in this area from cover to cover.

I could go on all day, but that doesn't seem the best course of action. Let me simply say that Shippey's masterpiece has both enhanced my reading of LOTR and informed me about the author of that great work. After reading Shippey's book, I love Tolkien and LOTR more than ever. I am so impressed with this volume that I now intend to read all Shippey's books on Tolkien. I'd like to thank him for such a vital contribution. This "fanboy" appreciates it dearly.
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on January 5, 2003
Tom Shippey's book focuses on the creative process leading to LOTR and the Silmarillion and draws from all of Tolkien's other works as well as a variety of other appropriate works that were familiar to Tolkien. It is dense with interesting information and analysis, and was quite engaging for a work with a rather academic focus. The book is wide-ranging covering topics from the philological origins of Tolkien's names and languages to the various types of literature from romantic to epic to lower modern forms represented by the various characters and passages, to the possibly religious aspects of Tolkien's story and the various compromises he made in the process of finishing his never-finished work (And many other aspects, as noted in previous reviewers' comments). "Much food for thought" is an understatement. Shippey's book is a must-read for any true Tolkien fan.
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on December 28, 1997
Although it has been almost a year since I read this book, I can't stop thinking about what I found within its pages. Expecting a dry tome of literary criticism, instead I found an exciting account of the path Tolkien walked as he discovered Middle Earth. T. A. Shippey takes us on a quest to follow the gradual creation of Tolkien's fantasy world. With Shippey as our guide, we retrace the literary steps of this century's Bard as he delved into ancient languages and unearthed the meanings of forgotten words.
Shippey uses a friendly, common-sense order that avoids scaring off newcomers to literary criticism, and simultaneously draws in the most discriminating philologists and literary critics. This book would be an invaluable treasure to anyone who loves Tolkien's work, or who wants to better understand the art of creative writing for their own endeavors.
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on April 18, 2014
If you are looking for a Tolkien biography or the behind-the-scenes, dramatic story of how ‘Lord of the Rings’ got written, you won’t find it here. If, however, an academic study of the influences, motivations, and themes that contributed to and permeated Tolkien’s books appeals to you, you’ve come to the right place

The Road to Middle Earth and Prof. Shippey’s other book, JRR Tolkien, Author of the Century, both cover the same material, but in slightly different ways. Each makes unique points, but overall, there is a lot of repetition. If you are only going to buy one of these books, I’d recommend “Road to Middle Earth” for its fuller exploration of philology, underlying themes and concepts in Tolkien’s works, defense against selected criticisms, and Tolkien’s early drafts and later revisions.

Both books start off with detailed explanation of philology. Dictionary definitions of the word fail to capture the scope and depth of the field that was Tolkien’s passion and which influenced his books so enormously. Through Prof. Shippey’s analysis, one glimpses a complexity to the novels that would otherwise go unnoticed. Tolkien was keenly intrigued by the origins and meanings of words. He saw in ancient texts, whether Old English, Old Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, hints of stories now forgotten, words that teased him with their obscure meanings. What were these lost legends? What did the unusual words mean and what did they imply about the world that gave rise to them? Tolkien wanted to create a mythology that could account for the concepts behind the words, a mythology that explained dwarves and elves, dragons and ents. Tolkien’s stories were often patterned after existing texts and records of actual cultures, but also reflected modern experiences.

A combat veteran of the first World War, Tolkien also witnessed the horrors brought by the second—extermination camps, genocide, bombing of civilian populations, weapons of mass destruction—things Prof. Shippey tells us were unthinkable to the Victorian culture Tolkien had grown up in. A sense that “something had gone horribly wrong” with the world could not fail to seep into the writings of those who lived through those times. Thus, one theme of “Lord of the Rings” was the nature of evil, and another that of sorrow. Even if the quest is achieved and Sauron defeated, the world cannot go back to what it was. Beautiful things of old will fade, some wounds will never heal.

Prof. Shippey focuses mostly on the Lord of the Rings, but also discusses Tolkien’s other works. The Hobbit is presented as primarily the clash between two cultures, the modern world represented by Bilbo and the hobbits, undeniably English of Victorian or Edwardian times, and the archaic world of the dwarves, colored by heroic sagas like Beowulf. The Silmarillien, the work of Tolkien’s heart and his lifelong project, is patterned after Genesis and the Fall; in this case, the Fall is that of the elves, whose sin is the desire to make things that reflect themselves. Tolkien’s short stories are not forgotten, but examined for the insights they give to Tolkien’s moods and perspectives.

Prof. Shippey’s ideas make for engaging reading. His responses to assorted Tolkien critics are icing on the cake. He makes a convincing case that many critical remarks are hypocritical, imperceptive, and elitist. He also suggests that Tolkien’s “elementary sensibilities—over patriotism, over euphemism, and especially over sex and marriage” were held against him and prevented a fair reading of his books. That Tolkien has appealed to a broad demographic range for decades shows clearly that people find his stories relevant even if they are fantasy and don’t conform to critics’ ideas of what constitutes “good literature.”

I came away from both “Author of the Century” and “Road to Middle Earth” with a greater appreciation for Tolkien’s books and a better understanding of how they came to be written. Do give one or both a try.
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on January 30, 2011
As others have pointed out in their reviews, this is probably the definitive analysis thus far of Tolkien as an author. This book reads like a living history of Tolkien's work and synthesizes much that is found in his essays and the History of Middle Earth by son Christopher. Shippey gives a perfect balance to the factors that influenced Tolkien intellectually and the factors of his personal life that influenced the writing of, in particular, The Lord of the Rings. He explores Tolkien's dire need for internal consistency in the text and his almost pathological need to revise a certain passage until every word was exactly as he would want it. You really get the feeling after reading this book that Tolkien really did see his writing as a craft in the same way the elves do in his works. The result is indistinguishable from magic.
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