The Road to Middle-Earth (How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology)

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9780261102750: The Road to Middle-Earth (How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology)

This text looks at the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, examining the background to his works in terms of the poetry of language and myth. The works covered include The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The Lord of the Rings.

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About the Author:

Professor Tom Shippey taught at Oxford, overlapping chronologically with Professor Tolkien and teaching the same syllabus, giving him an intimate familiarity with the poems and the languages which formed the main stimulus to Tolkien's imagination. He subsequently held the same Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds University which Tolkien held early in his career, and currently holds the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at Saint Louis University, USA.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PREFACE TO THE REVISED EDITION

My involvement with Tolkien"s fiction
now goes back almost fifty years, to a
first reading of The Hobbit some time in
the mid-1950s. My first attempt to
comment publicly on Tolkien did not
come, however, till late 1969 or early
1970, when I was recruited, as a very
junior lecturer at the University of
Birmingham, to speak on "Tolkien as
philologist" at a Tolkien day organised
by some now-forgotten association. It
was my good fortune that Tolkien"s
secretary, Joy Hill, was in the
audience, and asked me for a copy of my
script to show the Professor. It was my
further good fortune that he read it,
perhaps out of good will to Birmingham
and to King Edward"s School,
Birmingham, which we both attended, he
(with a gap) from 1900 to 1911, and
I from 1954 to 1960. Tolkien furthermore
replied to it, with his habitual
courtesy, in a letter dated 13 April
1970, though it took me a very long time
to understand what he meant, as I
discuss below.
It was not till 1972 that I met Tolkien
in person, by which time I
had been promoted from Birmingham to a
Fellowship at St. John"s College,
Oxford, to teach Old and Middle English
along the lines which Tolkien had
laid down many years before. Just after
I arrived in Oxford, Tolkien"s
successor in the Merton Chair of English
Language, Norman Davis, invited
me to dine at Merton and meet Tolkien,
who was then living in college
lodgings following the death of his
wife. The meeting left me with a strong
sense of obligation and even
professional piety, in the old sense of
that word, i.e. "affectionate loyalty and respect,
esp. to parents", or in this case
predecessors. After Tolkien"s death I
felt increasingly that he would not have
been happy with many of the things
people said about his writings, and that
someone with a similar background to his
own ought to try to provide—as
Tolkien and E. V. Gordon wrote in the
"Preface" to their 1925 edition of Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight—"a
sufficient apparatus for reading [these
remarkable works] with an appreciation
as far as possible of the sort which
its author may be supposed to have desired".
In 1975, accordingly, I contributed an
article on "Creation from
Philology in The Lord of the Rings" to
the volume of Essays in Memoriam
edited by Mary Salu and R. T. Farrell,
essentially an expansion of my 1970
script. In 1979, however, I followed
Tolkien"s track yet again, this time going
to the Chair of English Language and
Medieval English Literature at the
University of Leeds, which Tolkien had
held more than fifty years before. This
only increased the sense of professional
piety mentioned above, and the
result was the first edition of the
present work, which appeared in 1982. I
assumed at the time that that would be
my last word on the subject. But
since then, of course, the whole
"History of Middle-earth" has appeared,
twelve volumes of Tolkien"s unpublished
drafts and stories edited by his son
Christopher, as well as a volume of
academic essays including some new
material, and the "reconstructed"
editions of the Old English Exodus and
Finnsburg poems: each separate
publication a valuable source of
information, but also of some trepidation to the
writer who has committed himself to
explaining "how Tolkien worked" or "what
Tolkien must have been thinking". A
second edition of The Road to
Middleearth, in 1992, accordingly tried
to take some of this material into account.
A further thought, however, had slowly
been growing upon me, first expressed in the
article on "Tolkien as a Post-War Writer",
delivered as a lecture at the "Tolkien Phenomenon"
conference at the University of Turku,
Finland, in 1992, and printed in the
proceedings of that conference,
Scholarship and Fantasy, edited by Keith
J. Battarbee. This thought was that
I had from 1970 always thought of
Tolkien as a philologist, a professional
ancestor, one of a line of historical
linguists descended essentially from
Jacob Grimm, of "Grimm"s Law" and
"Grimms" Fairy Tales". I had in other
words habitually seen him, to use the
linguists" term, "diachronically". But
language can and should also be viewed
"synchronically", and so could
Tolkien. What happened if one considered
him in the literary context of his
time, the early to mid-twentieth
century? My unconsidered assumption had
been that he had no literary context,
that he was a "one-off "—certainly the
impression one would get from reading
any literary histories of the period
which happened to mention him. But if
one reflected on Orwell and William
Golding, Vonnegut and T. H. White, C. S.
Lewis and even Ursula Le Guin,
several of them close to him in age or
experience or date of publication, a
different picture emerged: one of a
group of (as I have called
them) "traumatised authors", writing
fantasy, but voicing in that fantasy the
most pressing and most immediately
relevant issues of the whole monstrous
twentieth century—questions of
industrialised warfare, the origin of
evil, the nature of humanity. This "synchronic"
view of Tolkien took shape in my book
J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
(2000). (Grammarians will note the
absence of an article before the first
word of the sub-title.) I hope that my two
books now complement each other through
their different approaches, though
they present essentially the same
explanations of the central works.
The present, third edition of The Road
to Middle-earth naturally allows and obliges some
reconsiderations, especially as a result
of the new information contained in "The History of
Middle-earth". On the whole I feel my
first edition got off relatively lightly, confirmed as often as
disproved. The rolling years and volumes have allowed
me some clear hits: "angel" as Tolkien-
speech for messenger (see note 11 to
chapter 5 below, and c.p. Treason of
Isengard, p. 422), or the importance of
Old Mercian (see below p. 123 and
c.p. Sauron Defeated, p. 257). Of course
when it comes to philology, a real
discipline, one ought to get things
right. I was pleased when Anders
Stenström, staying with me in Leeds in
1984, found in a Leeds journal for
1922 an anonymous poem in Middle English
which we concluded was by
Tolkien; but almost as pleased when the
emendations I proposed to the text
as (mis)printed were confirmed by
Christopher Tolkien from his father"s
manuscript (see the journal of the
Swedish Tolkien Society, Arda, vols. 4 [for
1984] and 6 [for 1986], for the poem and
Stenström"s account of his search).
Meanwhile, some unmistakable wides have
also been called: in
my allegorisation of "Leaf by Niggle",
on p. 44 below, I should not have
written "his "Tree" = The Lord of the
Rings", but have put down something
much more extensive; despite p. 76,
Sauron was not part of
Tolkien"s "subsequent inspiration" but
there already; while on p. 271,
writing "There is, in a way, no more of
"middle-earth" to consider" was just
tempting Providence. Even more
significantly, my 1982 discussion of
"depth" in Tolkien, pp. 308–17 below, was
extensively answered by Christopher
Tolkien a year later in his "Foreword"
to The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, pp. 1–
5, with a further note in Part 2, p. 57.
It is clear that all my discussions of
Tolkien were affected by reading his
works (as almost everyone does) in
order of publication, not order of
composition. It is a temptation to try to
remedy this retrospectively, but I have
not done so. Studying Tolkien"s fiction
as it developed in his own mind,
possible now as it was not in 1982,
would be a different book. In general, then, I am
happy to stand by what I published in
1982, and again in 1992, remembering the
data I had, and expanding or
updating wherever necessary.
Yet I do turn back to the letter
Professor Tolkien wrote to me on
13 April 1970, charmingly courteous and
even flattering as it was from one at
the top of his profession to one then at
the bottom ("I don"t like to fob people
off with a formal thanks . . . one of
the nearest to my heart, or the nearest, of
the many I have received . . . I am
honoured to have received your attention").
And yet, and yet . . . What I should
have realised—perhaps did half-realise,
for I speak the dialect myself—was that
this letter was written in the
specialised politeness-language of Old
Western Man, in which doubt and
correction are in direct proportion to
the obliquity of expression. The
Professor"s letter had invisible italics
in it, which I now supply. "I amin
agreement with nearly all that you say,
and I only regret that I have not the
time to talk more about your paper:
especially about design as it appears or
may be found in a large finished work,
and the actual events or experiences
as seen or felt by the waking mind in
the course of actual composition". It
has taken me thirty years (and the
perusal of fifteen volumes unpublished in
1970) to see the point of the italics.
Tolkien, however, closed his letter to me
with the proverb: "Need brooks no delay,
yet late is better than never?" I can
only repeat his saying, question-mark
and all.

Copyright © 2003 by Tom Shippey.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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