Friday, January 21, 2005

Book Review #1
J R R Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

OK, I'm going to hop onto the 50 Book challenge bandwagon, and this is the first book I read in the year.

In some respects this is an ill-named book. The book is basically trying to establish why Tolkien should be considered the author of the (20th) century in the face of some of the objections of the various literary critics who have been dismissing Lord of the Rings for the past 50 years. I do not think that this book actually does this - it is simply far too short. What it does do is open the world on Tolkien's writings, with some very interesting comments from a man who was in the same profession.

What do I mean by that? Everyone who knows anything about Tolkien probably knows that Tolkien was an authority on Old English and incorporated much of that in his writings. What Tom Shippey does is illustrate examples and shows how. In looking at where Tolkien derived some of his words and names the discussion gets quite detailed. Indeed, in some respects I think a more accurate subtitle to the book might be "A philological view".

However, Tom Shippey goes beyond the words themselves - though they are central to Tolkien's works - and into many of the themes that informed and can be found in Tolkien. Of particular interest are his discussion into concepts of evil in Tolkien, and also of the influence of religion. In my experience most commentators are very uncomfortable, often unwilling, to address the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic his whole life and that, just perhaps, this also influenced him. Indeed, in one of his letters Tolkien described Lord of the Rings as being a "fundementally Catholic" work.

As for layout Tom Shippey works through Tolkien's writings through the books themselves, addressing the major issues each work raises. The Hobbit gets the first chapter, the Lord of the Rings the next three, the Silmarillion the fifth, and finally his other writings form a sixth. This structure is not a straight-jacket however, and he is happy to reference to other works other than the one being centred on to further illustrate his points and provide more examples. Finally the work ends with a very brief round-up of some of the major critics and copycats. This last chapter (actually an Afterword) is really the only part that I feel directly addresses the "Author of the Century" epithet. Also the Introduction is well worth the read.

For myself, apart from the chapter on concepts of evil (one of the LotR chapters) I found the Silmarillion chapter and other works chapters the most interesting. The last because its just interesting to see some serious detail on those lesser known works (of which the only one I've read is Farmer Giles of Ham). The first because the Silmarillion is the work of Tolkien I like the most, by far (though I read LotR more often).

Anyway, a highly readable, informative, and enriching book on Tolkien and his work. I very much recommend.

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