- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

By Tom Shippey
Houghton Mifflin, $26, 347 pages

Sometime during his lifetime, speaking of his own boyhood and his unusual name, the literary scholar Cleanth Brooks stated that he realized early on that any boy named "Cleanth" had better know how to fight or how to play football. By a like token, any critic who looks back upon the 20th century and dubs English fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien the "author of the century" must marshal some unstoppably formidable arguments in Tolkien's defense or else prepare to face critical derision.
Known worldwide for his three-volume "Lord of the Rings" novel cycle and its prequel, "The Hobbit" (1937), Tolkien has been wildly popular with readers since the publication of these works of fantasy at mid-century, though a small but influential number of critics have sneered at him as a writer of mere escapism. In 1997, Germaine Greer expressed angered bafflement at the claim, bolstered by several polls taken among readers in England, that Tolkien is any sort of "author of the century," while Edmund Wilson – one of America's preeminent 20th-century critics — is widely, if resentfully, remembered by Tolkien admirers for a canting, sarcastic review of the "Ring" trilogy titled, "Oo, Those Awful Orcs!"
But Tolkien had his critical admirers also, including his friend C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, W. H. Auden, and numerous others. One such critic is Tom Shippey, an English medievalist of high and long standing, who has held positions at Leeds University and Oxford once held by Tolkien himself. Mr. Shippey acquits himself well in his "J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century." In this work of criticism, he closely examines all of Tolkien's major works and at least partly proves his thesis: That among 20th-century writers, Tolkien was preeminent in terms of (1) book sales, (2) his accomplishment and influence as a fantastic (or mythopoeic) writer, and (3) the quality of his work.
Mr. Shippey addresses the first two criteria in the foreword to his book, then spends the remaining 300-some pages seeking to prove the third. In the main he succeeds, starting out boldly by seeking to demonstrate that the dominant literary mode of the past century was the fantastic.
This surprising claim, which would not have seemed even remotely conceivable at the start of the century, is buttressed by the fact that fantasy literature's most representative and distinctive works during the 100 years included not only Tolkien's novels, "but also George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, William Golding's Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle, Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot-49 and Gravity's Rainbow."
The list could also take in such authors as Anthony Burgess, Anne McCaffrey, Stephen King, Don DeLillo, G. K. Chesterton, Mark Helprin, Jacquetta Hawkes, and Thomas Ligotti, not to mention the entire school of magical realism.
But if the breadth of imitators and literary descendants is to be used as a criterion, it must be admitted that the literary realists and naturalists, with their emphasis upon the gritty and depressing aspects of the workaday world, may well be running at least neck-and-neck with the fantasists, if not slightly ahead. In America alone, within the shadow of their ancestor, Mark Twain, the Four Horsemen of Literary Naturalism — Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane and Jack London — generated their own stable of influential imitators, such as Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, the various authors of hard-boiled detective fiction, and others.
For the sake of discussion, call it an even heat. Even so, Tolkien outstrips any one of his competitors in all literary genres in terms of popularity and influence. His invention of Middle-earth and crafting of an entire mythology of hobbits, ents, goblins (orcs), elves, dwarfs, trolls, along with well developed languages for each of them, was a huge undertaking, one which began about the time of World War I and extended through the end of the author's life in 1973, a span of well over 50 years.
This single-handed accomplishment led not only to the development of sword-and-sorcery literature, but largely made possible the publication of fantasy literature in general during the second half of the 20th century. As Mr. Shippey notes, the entire "hobbit" venture was embarked upon with great trepidation by Tolkien's publisher, George Allen & Unwin, who had little faith that a story involving a magic ring, a talking bird, a dragon, and mythical creatures of every description had much chance of generating interest among the reading public in the midst of a world lurching toward the second global war within a generation. (Much to the publisher's surprise, the public leaped at Tolkien's story of "those awful orcs" and clamored for more.)
Mr. Shippey acknowledges that sales alone show only part of the picture; after all, the world of trade publishing during the past 50 years has been a realm in which foul-mouthed radio personalities, semi-literate professional wrestlers, and even U.S. senators have earned substantial sums for their literary accomplishment. What of Tolkien?
This brings Mr. Shippey to the main body of his book, in which he demonstrates in painstaking detail that Tolkien's works told a cracking good story skillfully interwoven with a world view reflecting the "moral imagination" written of by Edmund Burke. Sprung in part from Tolkien's Roman Catholic faith, it is this vision of humanity — and the other "children of the kindly West," in Tolkien's Middle-earth — as something more than dust in the wind, as a flawed tribe being given to sometimes flawed choices but beloved of a Power beyond its understanding and made for eternity, that speaks warmly to the heart of Tolkien's readers, along with the well told tale.
It is this quality which makes the parables (not allegories, Tolkien insisted) of the Middle-earth mythology ring true and affirms that the world of myth — of calamitous peril, vital choices, and heroic action — and the workaday world of today are not altogether dissimilar. It is this quality, also, which causes some otherwise sensible literary critics to respond to Tolkien's accomplishment with comments about their author being a purveyor of "right-wing literature" and, perhaps worse, escapism. (How interesting that on one occasion, Tolkien and Lewis discussed the question of who, in all the world, is the most fearful of "escape." They agreed upon the answer: jailers.)
Having established these facts about Tolkien, Mr. Shippey provides a detailed examination of Tolkien's works, providing a close thematic examination and demonstrating the author's skillful borrowing of words and concepts from Old Norse literature (a field in which Tolkien was, during his lifetime, preeminent). The result is an invaluable study which more than meets the primary criterion of a critical work: It illuminates the text and enables the reader to better appreciate the works under discussion. Readers interested in Tolkien will lay down Mr. Shippey's book with an elevated understanding of Tolkien's accomplishment as a philologist, storyteller, and writer of imaginative parables that affirm what it is to be fully alive.
"I doubt whether any of our action is really anything but an allegory. I doubt whether any truth can be told except in parable," claimed one of Chesterton's fictional characters. If truth can be told only in parable, it is worth considering that the parables of Tolkien have endured and even grown in popularity and critical acceptance since their hopeful publication at mid-century. This, along with their continuing influence and their timeless quality point to the truth of Chesterton's statement, and lend weight to Mr. Shippey's thesis: that J. R. R. Tolkien, late of Oxford University, was indeed the author of the century, finding fruition in the minds of intelligent men and women worldwide who recognize that, in truth, imagination rules the world.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of " Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind" (1999). He lives in Michigan.

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