I’m a complete glutton for Tolkieniana (particularly by Shippey), as you may have noticed, and the day I finished this was also the day I spotted that Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf is at long last available in the shops, so I think I know where I’m going next. This is, however, not a book for beginners – it’s a text in dialogue with Tolkien (a letter from him to the author is quoted and deconstructed at the very start of the book), with many other critics, with Shippey’s own Author of the Century, and with its own previous editions, which were published before the History of Middle Earth came out – Shippey is frank about where his guesses about Tolkien’s creative processes have been disproved by later revelations (and new material keeps appearing).
This is all solid and fascinating stuff. An early chapter looks into what it meant for Tolkien to be a philologist rather than a “Lit.” scholar, and how he felt that his chosen branch of scholarship had not really succeeded in fighting off the competition. He got his revenge in other ways, of course, but Shippey shows just how unreasonable some of Tolkien’s critics have been often appealing to idealised concepts of what great literature should be and declaring that LotR fails to pass muster. There are lots of other interesting insights too – “bourgeois” and “burglar” both come from the same root, which gives us some further insights into Bilbo and the original concept of hobbits (which of course moved on as the story developed). The one very minor point of disappointment is that the version of the essay on the Peter Jackson films here is different from that in the Zimbardo and Isaacs collection – the latter is more detailed, the one here a bit more fannish. But that is also a little exhilarating.