47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Robustly polemical and highly entertaining,
This review is from: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Hardcover)
We hear a lot from Tolkien fans about how this book isn't much of a patch on the same author's earlier "The Road to Middle-Earth". (...) this book is an acute, well-argued, loving and intelligent study of one of the century's most maligned authors.
Yes, I said "maligned". Those, like me, who are not great fans of fantasy fiction as such, tend to find it a bit difficult to take Tolkien seriously. My own trajectory as a Tolkien reader has gone from utter worship (aetat 11 or so) via contempt and ridicule (aetat 24) to enjoyment and respect (aetat 31), and Shippey's book is partly to thank for this. One of his sharper insights is that a taste for Tolkien seems to be something that people have to be "educated out of" - i.e., that exposure to a modern literary studies curriculum is almost guaranteed to eradicate those more primitive parts of the imagination that respond to the kind of populist yarn-spinning that Tolkien was, almost despite himself, supremely good at. (This certainly accords with my experience.)
I say "almost despite himself" because one of the things I learned from this book was that Tolkien worked far harder on developing the mythological background to "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" than he spent on actually writing those books; indeed, that long after he'd published "The Hobbit" and was at work on its august sequel, he had to go back and revise it so as to make it fit in with the overall plan. I have a certain polite interest in "The Silmarillion" and the voluminous posthumous books of early drafts, but for me, by far the best of Tolkien is to be found in his two most famous books.
Shippey makes out a pretty good case for why these books deserve to be regarded as classics, especially "The Lord of the Rings", which he clearly regards as being on a par with Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow". These are two books that I hold in the highest esteem, albeit for very different reasons, and for a Lit boy like me it's been a sweet, but sobering process to admit "The Lord of the Rings" into their sombre company. Shippey can make you read the book in a new way - it no longer seems like a daft and slightly overlong romp for eternal teenagers, but like a grim, adult and rather downbeat modern novel in a fantastic mode. Hell, he's even got me reading "Beowulf". That can't be bad, despite Woody Allen's crack about it in "Annie Hall".
I think it's a bit sad for Tolkien that the two books he wrote as more-or-less spinoffs from the great work of his imagination are the ones he is most remembered for, but it's just, nonetheless, as they are by far his best books. I'll keep on reading "Lord of the Rings" for pleasure and profit. "The Silmarillion" and its kindred...well, to be frank, they'll be lucky if I pick 'em up now and again to check a reference. Shippey's skill, sardonic wit, commitment to popular taste and respect for the intelligence of his reader make this a better critical study than many others I can think of, about far more "literary" writers. Author of the Century? I'm not so sure - I'm too much of a Joyce fan. But it's time a lot of readers admitted that there's a lot of empty guff out there masquerading as "serious" literature (Saul Bellow, step to the front of the class) while books as good as Tolkien's (and Philip K. Dick's, and Ursula Le Guin's) are ignominiously written off as "genre" fiction. (...)
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Initial post: Apr 30, 2012 9:46:40 AM PDT
Erik Goodwyn says:
Great review. I'll be picking this one up based on your assessment. And I agree it's a bit ludicrous to label the Lord of the Rings as genre fiction if Tolkien invented the genre!
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