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Wednesday, July 25th, 2001


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

by Tom Shippey

A review by Adrienne Miller

GIST: A scholarly book of impressive erudition and range about the sources that inspired Tolkien's work. It's tremendous fun if you've ever read Tolkien. Shippey mentions one particular poll in which The Lord of the Rings comes in second, after the Bible, as the all-time favorite book. (Which is to say that you've probably read Tolkien).

DETAILS: I, for one, came late to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings doubtless it was the association with geeky guys in middle school who sat alone in the cafeteria trying to write their own geeky Gollum-inspired riddles. You know the type: those tubercular Dungeons and Dragons boys. But what with this Lord of the Rings movie coming out soon, I thought, isn't it high time for a woman who once feared him to brush up on her Tolkien?

Tolkien was radically underrated for most of the second part of the twentieth century (even Nick Hornby makes fun of him in his novel How to Be Good), but there's something so wonderfully...contemporary about his books. He created his own never-before-seen world, something very few novels seem to be interested in these days. Shippey makes the convincing and obvious, now that I think about it case that The Lord of the Rings has much in common with Ulysses, in that it will take scholars years to parse out its sources and themes. Tolkien is compared here to Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. LeGuin, Orwell, and Golding, all of whom Shippey calls "traumatized authors," meaning they all experienced intimate violence (war, mostly) during their lives. The most fascinating part of the book is the chapter about Tolkien's conception of evil, in which Shippey writes, "at the time Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, surrender to his country's enemies would have meant handing over not only himself but many others to the whole apparatus of concentration camps, gas-chambers and mass-murder." Tolkien was deeply Christian, a moralist, and when you read his books, you can't help but marvel at the man's hugeness of heart.

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