Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

by Tom Shippey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I read Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century a few years ago, but The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology is his earlier book on Tolkien, and now that I have read it, I think I should have started with this one. This a great book and I am sure I’ll read it again someday.

The first two chapters are about philology, the comparative study of languages to understand their evolution. These chapters are informed by Shippey’s tenure at Oxford which overlapped chronologically with Tolkien’s and teaching the same syllabus. The third chapter looks at Tolkien’s portrayal of heroism in The Hobbit, or There and Back Again and how he uses different linguistic registers. One of my favorite quotes comes from this chapter:
“There is one very evident obstacle to recreating the ancient world of heroic legend for modern readers, and that lies in the nature of heroes. These are not acceptable any more, and tend very strongly to be treated with irony: the modern view of Beowulf is John Gardner’s novel Grendel (1971). Tolkien did not want to be ironic about heroes, and yet he could not eliminate modern reactions. His response to the difficulty is Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, the anachronism, a character whose initial role at least is very strongly that of mediator. He represents and often voices modern opinions, modern incapacities: he has no impulses towards revenge or self-conscious heroism, cannot ‘hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl’ as the dwarves suggest, knows almost nothing about Wilderland and cannot even skin a rabbit, being used to having his meat ‘delivered by the butcher ready to cook’. Yet he has a place in the ancient world too, and there is a hint that (just like us) all his efforts cannot keep him entirely separate from the past.

Where Bard and Thorin used archaic words (‘Hail!’, ‘foes’, ‘hoard’, ‘kindred’, ‘slain’), he uses modern ones: ‘profit’, never used in English until 1604, and then only in Aberdeen; ‘deduct’, recorded in 1524 but then indistinguishable from ‘subtract’ and not given its commercial sense till much later; ‘total’, not used as here till 1557; ‘claim’, ‘interest’, ‘affair’, ‘matter’, all French or Latin imports not adopted fully into English till well after the Norman Conquest. It is fair to say that no character from epic or saga could even begin to think or talk like Bilbo.


Chapters Four, Five and Six are about LotR. In chapter four of the highlights is Shippey’s discussion of the Council of Elrond, where he looks at the way Tolkien makes each character’s speech distinct. But he also has interesting things to say about the contrasts between the cultures of Gondor and Rohan; it’s great but I’m not going to try to summarize it. And in Chapter Five; Shippey looks at the tension in Tolkien’s work between Boethian and Manichean views of evil. (This section of the later book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century apparently were a revised or abridged version of what’s in the older book. I don’t remember for sure which other parts are like this.)

“A good way to understand The Lord of the Rings in its full complexity is to see it as an attempt to reconcile two views of evil, both old, both authoritative, both living, each seemingly contradicted by the other. One of these is in essence the orthodox Christian one, expounded by St. Augustine and then by Catholic and Protestant teaching alike, but finding its clearest expression in a book which does not mention Christ at all: Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophe… this says that there is no such thing as evil; ‘evil is nothing,’ is the absence of good, is possibly even an unappreciated good, Omnem bonam prorsus esse fortunam, wrote Boethius, ‘all fortune is certainly good.’ …Views like these are strongly prominent in The Lord of the Rings.

Still, there is an alternative tradition in Western thought, one which has never become ‘official’ but which nevertheless arises spontaneously from experience. This says that while it may be all very well to make philosophical statements about evil, evil nevertheless is real, and not merely an absence; and what’s more it can be resisted, and what’s more still, not resisting it (in the belief that one day Omnipotence will cure all ills) is a dereliction of duty. The danger of this opinion is that it tends toward Manicheanism, the heresy which says that good and evil are equal and opposite…”


Chapter Six has more discussion of Tolkien’s style, including interesting readings of the poems in LotR. He also examines how Tolkien viewed his non-Christian characters and how he was influenced by the Beowulf poet’s view of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons.

In Chapter 7 Shippey describes Tolkien’s writing process and his literary influences for the tales that eventually became The Silmarillion. It is probably fine to read this chapter if you haven’t read the book; in fact one of the objectives of this chapter is to make book:The Silmarillion|7332] more accessible to people who haven’t read it. (As someone who has read it, I think the overview he gives goes a little bit too far in its emphasis on fatalism, but the issue is too complicated to get into here.) An important part of Tolkien’s work on these stories was his attempt to reconcile his stories about Elves with traditional theology, and Shippey suggests that a passage in the Middle English text Early South English Legendary (c. 1250) may have provided a source for Tolkien’s core ideas about Elves, which Shippey summarizes as the following“that elves were like angels; that they had however been involved in a Fall; that their fate at Doomsday is not clear (for men ‘shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur,’ elves perhaps not), that they are associated with the Earthly Paradise, and cannot die till the end of the world.”

Chapter 8 is mostly about one of Tolkien’s short stories, Smith of Wootton Major, which is not set in Middle-earth but does involve fairies. Shippey’s analysis will probably make more sense if you have read it before. I have read it, but not recently, and I will probably want to read this chapter again sometime when I reread that story.

Chapter 9 focuses on the earlier drafts of Tolkien’s writing and how his ideas changed in later versions. (Some of these issues are discussed throughout the book at different points as well). Shippey describes the early drafts of LotR and notes that they lack some of the darker elements of the final version. If Tolkien had stuck to his earlier approach LotR would be “a story of much narrower emotional range, with far less sense of irrevocable loss.” (The earlier drafts have been published in the History of The Lord of the Rings, which I haven’t read, but usually Shippey provides enough context that I could follow the discussion anyway.)

I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this. It can a bit technical and dense sometimes but it was very rewarding.


Published by Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

This blog is for my thoughts on reading. A couple of my friends on GoodReads have blogs, so eventually I decided to start one myself. I hope to get involved in the book blogging community and become a better reader and writer! I am not accepting copies of new books for review, but I would be interested in new editions or new translations of classic authors. Find me on Upwork (as an editor) in the profile link. From September 2018 to October 2020 I blogged at Blogger.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

  1. Shippey has been recommended to me more than once — I fancy possibly by you recently — and your summary reveals lots of stimulating ideas. First though I need to revisit my ancient paperbacks before they give up the ghost!

    Liked by 1 person

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