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The Road to Middle-earth: Revised and Expanded Edition

The Road to Middle-earth: Revised and Expanded Edition

by Tom Shippey

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The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey’s classic work, now revised in paperback, explores J.R.R. Tolkien’s creativity and the sources of his inspiration. Shippey shows in detail how Tolkien’s professional background led him to write The Hobbit and how he created a timeless charm for millions of readers. Examining the foundation of Tolkien’s


The Road to Middle-earth, Tom Shippey’s classic work, now revised in paperback, explores J.R.R. Tolkien’s creativity and the sources of his inspiration. Shippey shows in detail how Tolkien’s professional background led him to write The Hobbit and how he created a timeless charm for millions of readers. Examining the foundation of Tolkien’s most popular work, The Lord of the Rings, Shippey also discusses the contribution of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales to Tolkien’s great myth cycle, showing how Tolkien’s more “difficult” books can be fully appreciated. He goes on to examine the remarkable twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, written by Tolkien’s son and literary heir Christopher Tolkien, which traces the creative and technical processes by which Middle-earth evolved.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Professor Shippey's commentary is the best so far in elucidating Tolkien's lovely myth." Harper's Magazine

"Shippey is a rarity, a scholar well schooled in critical analysis whose writing is beautifully clear." Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"[Tolkien] deserves his full do, and Shippey's appreciative assessment of his unique achievement provides it in full and satisfying measure." Philadelphia Inquirer

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Revised and Expanded Edition
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)

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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, CC. 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.

Meet the Author

Tom Shippey taught at Oxford University at the same time as J.R.R. Tolkien and with the same syllabus, which gives him an intimate familiarity with the works that fueled Tolkien's imagination. He subsequently held the chair of English language and medieval literature at Leeds University that Tolkien had previously held. He currently holds the Walter J. Ong Chair of Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri.

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