J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

by Tom Shippey


$24.70 $26.00 Save 5% Current price is $24.7, Original price is $26. You Save 5%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618127641
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/28/2001
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt



A moment of inspiration?

The story of how J.R.R. Tolkien came to be launched on his career, not as a writer of fiction – this had begun many years before – but as a writer of published fiction, is a familiar one. According to Tolkien's own account, he was sitting one day, after he had become Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford, in his home in Northmoor Road, laboriously marking School Certificate papers: something, one should note, which was no part of his university duties, but which many academics then undertook as a summer-time extra to supplement their incomes. A boring job, then, engaging Tolkien's intellect at well below its top level, but at the same time one which in decency to the candidates had to be done conscientiously, with full alertness: academic piece-work, but piece-work which, unlike sewing or standing on a production line, gave no opportunity for the mind to wander. In this circumstance (the strain of which only those who have marked, say, five hundred handwritten scripts on the same subject will fully appreciate) Tolkien turned over a page to find that a candidate:

had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I'd better find out what hobbits were like. But that's only the beginning.

(Biography, p. 172; see also Letters, p. 215)

Beginning it was, but it was also for Tolkien, as for Bilbo finding the ring on the tunnel-floor in chapter 5 of The Hobbit, 'a turning-point in his career'. We know now that Middle-earth, in a sense, already existed in Tolkien's mind, for since at least 1914 he had been writing the elvish and human legends which would appear, many years later and after his death, as the published Silmarillion and Book of Lost Tales. But Middle-earth would never have caught the public attention without hobbits.

So, what are hobbits? And how did Tolkien come to write the seminal sentence in that momentary gap when an alert concentration on tedium suddenly slackened, and allowed, one might imagine, something long repressed or long incubating to break free? Where did hobbits come from, as an idea?

To this last question there are several answers, of increasing levels of interest and complexity. Perhaps the simplest and least satisfying one is gained by looking the word 'hobbit' up in the dictionary – specifically, in the Oxford English Dictionary, a gigantic collective project more than a century old, which Tolkien had himself worked for and contributed to in his youth, but which he perhaps as a result continually disagreed with and even went out of his way (in Farmer Giles of Ham) to mock. The second edition of the OED, published in 1989, says only, 'In the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien ... one of an imaginary people, a small variety of the human race, that gave themselves this name' (etc.), which gets us no further. However Robert Burchfield, former chief editor of the OED, reported with some pride in the Times for 31st May 1979 that hobbits had at last been run to earth. The word did exist before Tolkien. It is found, once, in a publication called The Denham Tracts, a series of pamphlets and jottings on folklore collected by Michael Denham, a Yorkshire tradesman, in the 1840s and 1850s, and re-edited by James Hardy for the Folklore Society in the 1890s. 'Hobbits' appear in Volume 2 (1895). There they come, by my count, 154th in a list of 197 kinds of supernatural creature which includes, with a certain amount of repetition, barguests, breaknecks, hobhoulards, melch-dicks, tutgots, swaithes, cauld-lads, lubberkins, mawkins, nick-nevins, and much, much else, along with the relatively routine boggarts, hob-thrusts, hobgoblins, and so on. No further mention is made of hobbits, and Hardy's index says of them, as of almost all the items in the list, only 'A class of spirits'. Tolkien's hobbits, of course, are anything but 'spirits'. They are almost pig-headedly earthbound, with (as Tolkien wrote in his very earliest account of them, on page 2 of The Hobbit):

little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large, stupid folk like you and me come blundering along making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.

It is possible that Tolkien read The Denham Tracts, picked up the word 'hobbit', and then forgot all about it till the moment of the blank exam script, but whatever the Times may say, the single-word appearance can hardly be called his source, still less his 'inspiration'. Philologists love words, true, but they also know what they are: the word is not the thing.

Not on its own, anyway, for we should remember that Tolkien was keenly interested in words, and names, and their origins, and knew more about some kinds of them than anyone alive (see further pp. 57-9 and 826 below). This thought leads to an only slightly more productive theory about hobbits, which is that they sound rather like and therefore might have something to do with rabbits. Shortly after The Hobbit came out, on 16th January 1938, the Observer printed a letter from an unknown correspondent suggesting some evidently unconvincing connections between hobbits and other real or rumoured furry creatures. Tolkien replied to the correspondent (he did not mean the Observer to print his letter, but they did), good-humouredly denying the suggestions, and rejecting both furriness and rabbits:

my hobbit ... was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he like a rabbit ... Calling him 'a nassty little rabbit' was a piece of vulgar trollery, just as 'descendant of rats' was a piece of dwarfish malice.

(Letters, p. 30)

One has to say, however, that it was not just the trolls. The eagle carrying Bilbo in chapter 7 tells him, 'You need not be frightened like a rabbit, even if you look rather like one'. In the previous chapter Bilbo had himself started 'to think of being torn up for supper like a rabbit', and at the end of his stay in Beorn's house Beorn picks him up, pokes his waistcoat disrespectfully, and remarks, 'Little bunny is getting nice and fat again on bread and honey'. Thorin shakes him 'like a rabbit' in chapter 17. The opinion that hobbits are like rabbits is, it seems, pretty widespread among those who meet them. Just the same one can see why Tolkien so firmly rejected the connection. He did not want hobbits, and Bilbo in particular, to be equated with bunnies, or even coneys (another word for 'rabbits' which Bilbo uses): small, fluffy, harmless, irretrievably childish, never rising above the status of pet. The word 'rabbit' was probably professionally interesting to Tolkien, and may have had something to do with the relationship between hobbits and the other races of Middle-earth, for reasons to be explained later on. But whatever else might be said about them, hobbits had to be allowed to be people: not spirits, not animals, but people.

What kind of person? Here one can learn a lot, as might be expected, from the very careful and unexpectedly suggestive presentation of Bilbo right at the start of The Hobbit begins, indeed, with the famous sentence of inspiration, the sentence from the subconscious: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' But we are immediately told that this, on its own, would be totally misleading. Creatures that live in holes in the ground ought to be animals – rabbits, moles, snakes, gophers, badgers – and 'hole' conveys a poor impression as a place to live. 'Don't call my palace a nasty hole!' says Thorin much later, in chapter 13. 'You wait till it has been cleaned and redecorated!' Bilbo's hole, however, needs neither cleaning nor redecorating, for the description goes on, firmly and rhythmically negating all the suggestions of the sentence before it:

Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It is in fact, in everything except being underground (and in there being no servants), the home of a member of the Victorian upper-middle class of Tolkien's nineteenth-century youth, full of studies, parlours, cellars, pantries, wardrobes, and all the rest.

Bilbo himself is furthermore fairly easy to place both socially and even chronologically. If one did not have the rest of the book to go on, one would have to place him, on internal evidence, from a time after the discovery of America, for he smokes a pipe, and indeed the last words of the whole book are 'tobacco-jar' ('tobacco' is not recorded in English by the OED till 1588). But one could be more precise than that, for when Bilbo wishes to discourage Gandalf he takes out 'his morning letters', which are clearly routinely delivered early every day. Bilbo must live, then, after the introduction of a postal service – our familiar system dates, in England, from 1837. In a more indirect way Bilbo might also be thought to date from a time after railway-engines, for though it is the narrator's term not his own, when his nerve finally breaks he shrieks 'like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel' (the first freight-and-passenger steam railway in England opened in 1825, the first railway tunnel dating from five years later).

All this of course turns out to be completely wrong, and we are told point-blank that the story is set 'long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green'. Tolkien, however, did not forget any of the points raised above, and would later go to some lengths to explain them away, or blur them. But the fact is that hobbits are, and always remain, highly anachronistic in the ancient world of Middle-earth. That indeed is their main function, for one might note that by their anachronism they engage a problem faced and solved in not dissimilar ways by several writers of historical novels. In setting a work in some distant time, an author may well find that the gap between that time and the reader's modern awareness is too wide to be easily bridged; and accordingly a figure essentially modern in attitudes and sentiment is imported into the historical world, to guide the reader's reactions, to help the reader feel 'what it would be like' to be there. An obvious example comes from the Hornblower novels of C.S. Forester, which began to be published at exactly the same time as The Hobbit. In them, as all readers of them will remember, the hard-headed and hard-hearted Bush stands for Nelsonian normality, firmly contrasted with the more intelligent, more squeamish, and much more twentieth-century figure of Hornblower, with his horror of flogging, belief in cold showers and cleanliness, and dangerously democratic notions. Bilbo, even more than his successor-hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, takes up this role as 'reflector'. His failings are those which the child reader, and indeed the adult reader, would have if transported magically to Middle-earth. He is 'used to having [his meat] delivered by the butcher all ready to cook', has no idea how to 'hoot twice like a barn-owl and once like a screech-owl', and has to cover up his inability to understand anything of bird language, whether 'quick and difficult' or not. He is a modern person, or at least a twentieth-century person, who seems again and again to be out of place in the archaic and heroic world into which he is drawn, or thrust, by Gandalf.

On the other hand, Bilbo is solidly placed in hobbit society, which requires no explanation at all (at least for the reader of 1937). Once his 'hole' has been dealt with, and any incorrect suggestions the word may have created have been explained away, the first thing we are told about Bilbo is his social standing: and this is unusually precise. Thus Bilbo is 'well-to-do', but not necessarily 'rich'; most of his paternal relations are rich, but not as rich as his maternal ones. The OED, here an excellent guide, as to most Victorian or Edwardian usage, defines 'well-to-do' as 'Possessed of a competency; in easy circumstances', by which it means above all, not having to work. 'Rich' by contrast has several meanings, being an old word, but the relevant one is 'Having large possessions or abundant means' – abundant as opposed to competent. Bilbo then has enough and a bit over, but not more than that. What he and his family do have without qualification, however, is 'respectability', which in English society had and still has no correlation whatever with wealth. It is perfectly possible, indeed normal, to be a respectable member of the working classes, and just as normal to be a member of the upper classes with no respectability whatsoever. The OED defines 'respectable' carefully as 'Of good or fair social standing, and having the moral qualities naturally appropriate to this': note the words 'or fair', with which Tolkien would have agreed (there is no doubt later on that the Gamgee family is respectable, and capable of major social mobility, but without even a 'competency' to start with); and also the undefined and unconsidered 'naturally appropriate', which Tolkien would probably have regarded as yet another example of the dictionary editors' incurable smugness. Bilbo is in short middle-middle to upper-middle class. Though there is one counter-indication to this, which is that his name is Baggins.

Baggins is incipiently vulgar. One of the trolls, who are very vulgar, as Tolkien said (see above), is called Huggins, indeed Bill Huggins, not so far from Bilbo Baggins. Huggins meanwhile – I repeat that Tolkien knew a great deal about names – is a diminutive form of a personal name (Hugh, Hugo), like the common surnames Watkins, Jenkins, Dickens, and so on. Baggins, however, isn't, though it is a common word in two senses. It is 'common' in not being standard, therefore (in post-medieval England, but not earlier) vulgar, low-class, dialectal; and it was in common (i.e. general) use across the whole of Northern England to mean the food a labourer takes with him when he goes off to work, or anything eaten between meals, but especially, says the OED, afternoon tea 'in a substantial form'. Tolkien certainly knew this, and knew also that the OED had tidied the word up from 'baggins' (which is what people really say) to 'bagging' (which is hyper-correct), for the word is cited and defined in the New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield District to which he had written an appreciative prologue in 1928 – Tolkien was not a Northerner, but he remained all his life grateful and even 'devoted' to the University of Leeds (see Letters, p. 305), and appreciative of Northern dialect. The Hobbit indeed ends with a joke derived from the Glossary just mentioned, for in the Huddersfield dialect the word 'okshen' meant not 'auction' but 'mess'. Walter Haigh, who compiled the Glossary, records the disapproving sentence, used seemingly by one woman of another, 'Shu'z nout but e slut; er ees [her house] ez e feer okshen [a right mess]'. And when Bilbo returns home, what he finds is an 'okshen' in both senses, mess and auction at once.

To return to Bilbo Baggins, though, he is fond of all meals, as we soon learn, but most especially his tea. The 'Unexpected Party' of chapter 1 is definitely a tea-party, and undeniably substantial. This makes another anachronistic point about Bilbo, and about hobbits in general, which is that they are very specifically English. Tolkien was to rub this point in very firmly indeed in the 'Prologue' to The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he makes the whole history of the Shire correspond point for point with the history of early England. But it is clear enough from Bilbo's first encounter with Gandalf. Not to make too much of it, Bilbo is something of a snob: not a terrible one, for he is prepared to offer a pipe to passing strangers, but certainly liable to draw a line between 'his sort' and other sorts. At several points he displays the social exclusiveness which has so often annoyed visitors to England. He dismisses the whole idea of 'adventures' with 'I can't think what anybody sees in them', and then tries to get rid of Gandalf, whom he has decided is 'not quite his sort' by ignoring him. He goes on, with entirely insincere politeness, to try to send Gandalf away by repeating 'Good morning!' as a parting not a greeting, to try 'thank you!' in the same spirit, twice (it means, when said in clipped English tones, 'no thank you'), and eventually to invite him to tea – but not now. It is obvious that much of what Bilbo says is socially coded to mean its opposite, as when a few pages later he says to the dwarves, 'in his politest unpressing tones', 'I suppose you will all stay to supper?' (which means, to those who know the code, 'you have overstayed your welcome, go away').


Excerpted from "J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century"
by .
Copyright © 2000 T.A. Shippey.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Jason_A_Greer More than 1 year ago
A great starting point for commentary and literary criticism of Tolkien that is readable for the average reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I've just completed a class on Tolkien, and have picked up the Shippey for myself to read as a capstone. Throughly enjoyable, but not light reading. This is a book for those who are interested especially in etymology and literary criticism.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Last night I saw Tom Shippey speak about this book at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. He is an fascinating man with many great insights into Tolkien and his writings. Shippey and Tolkien's lives, though lived fifty years apart, have followed similar paths. This puts Shippey in a unique position to write about Tolkien.
BobNolin on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Shippey is a philogist much as Tolkien was, and in fact had JRR's job once the old don retired. So he's not exactly unbiased in his appraisal. The title itself is pretty darn argumentative, but kind of silly. Reminds me of childhood arguments over who has the "best" Beatle, and who was better, the Stones or the Beatles. He cites some pretty weak reasons for his claim (a survey of ten thousand people). But then he seems to forget about it and moves on to showing how EVERY plot element was determined by ancient works and words. This is downright weird, when you think about it. You claim Tolkien is the finest author of the 20th century, and then go on to argue that the man never had an original thought? The Ents, that's right, he thought up the Ents. Otherwise, nope, all based on Nordic tales, Beowulf, that sort of thing. Tolkien was simply resurrecting Lost Tales from the ancient past, claims Shippey. Then later, he changes thesis yet again, to claim that Tolkien wrote LOTR as a story for his languages and history to live in. Now, that I can buy, and has been told elsewhere. There are some interesting nuggets here, but he spends far too much time getting into the little niggling bits of the history and heritage of words. Three pages, for instance, on the roots of the Wild Men of the Woods, who only get a brief mention in Tolkien. To be fair, there are some good arguments here for why LOTR is so special, and if you're a fan, you'll enjoy those parts. When the runic words show up, you may want to just to skip ahead. Unless Old Norse is your bailiwick.
DirtPriest on LibraryThing 8 months ago
It's very similar to The Road to Middle-Earth, but a bit more general and written with 20 or so years more of hindsight and posthumous publications. They make a nice pair of books about Tolkien and each has some merits over the other. A nice omnibus edition of them together would be nice, but the similarities would make that seem unlikely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Where is my lady love?