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Elizabeth Goold

English 375R.01

Professor Card

14 February 2006

The Road to Middle-Earth:

How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology

By Tom Shippey

            How is one supposed to fully understand the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien on the first read through of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Tom Shippey, who has written essays on Tolkien and his works and has also met the writer, says that it is all in his words. In Shippey’s book The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology he discusses much of the philology behind Tolkien’s writing and creative processes he went through to give us the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

            It is without a doubt that Shippey did a thorough job on his research of Tolkien’s books and the author. He was even privileged enough to meet and speak with Tolkien in person. With all the understanding was poured into this book, it’s almost difficult to believe that Tolkien didn’t write this book himself. However, cannot be said that everything in this particular book is absolute truth. Yet, with all the evidence and proofs Shippey gives, it is probably as close as any unrelated individual is ever going to get to being inside the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.

            Shippey starts his readers off with helping us understand Tolkien’s point of view on “literature and language”. To put this correctly, Tolkien is a philologist and by using the most correct definition, given by Jacob Grimm, that means “the learned study of (especially classical) languages and literatures.” According to Shippey, Tolkien would be the prime example of one who would “study things only for the sake of words”. In fact, Tolkien was even quoted to say that, when writing his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he established the language first and “the stories were made to provide a world for them.”

            It’s difficult to not go into so much detail about the first three or four chapters. It is in these chapters that Shippey describes many of the sources that went into Tolkien’s different works. Tolkien believed that fantasy isn’t something that is entirely made up. For most of the words that Tolkien used are in some way based on philological fact. His sources came from histories, poems, and places. Beowolf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, “Dvergatal”, Hervarar saga, “Fawler”, “The Man in the Moon”, and “Wayland’s Smithy.” This is just to name a few of the many Old Norse and Old English sources that Tolkien drew from. To list the names and their meanings would take longer than needed to name off one by one, but what really should be understood is that Tolkien wished to draw on these sources to create something new yet still familiar to make his Middle-earth exist in his own idea of England.

            Following the chronology in the book, the world of The Lord of the Rings is now forming yet in The Hobbit’s case it’s complete. When compared with the 600 or more names in The Lord of the Rings with the forty or fifty in The Hobbit, it’s easy to see why.

Most of the Hobbit suggests strongly that Tolkien did not work from ideas, but from words, names, consistencies and contradiction in folk-tales, things as localized as the dissatisfaction with Fafinismal which produced Smaug, the brooding over the riddle-contests of Vaforuonismal or the saga of king Heidrek which led (somehow) to Gollum…in essence the plot of The Hobbit is a tour through darknesses, with no more connection between Gollum and the eagles and Beorn and the spiders than that of one-after-another. (92)

Here we see best of what exactly went into The Hobbit. This was the starting point of what would expound into a vast world of fantasy. Even the “ruling ring” that was only a mere plot device in The Hobbit would earn a greater and far more important role in the books that would soon to be written.

            After reaching this point in Shippey’s book, we are now at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. This is Shippey’s transition from meanings and creations of words to that of the language or the actual use of them. This leads us into an excellent quote from Shippey about the language.

The ‘information content’ of ‘The Council of Elrond’ is very high, much higher than can be recorded by analyses like this; much of that information is carried by the linguistic mode; nevertheless most readers assimilate the greater part of it; in the process they gain an image of the ‘life-styles’ of Middle-earth the solider for its occasional contrast with modernity. Language variation gives Tolkien a thorough and economical way of dramatizing ethical debate. (122)

There seems to be a constant battle between the modern and the ancient where the language is concerned. It is such clashes as these that Shippey believes is how Tolkien created the cultural solidity to make this world all the more real.

            We finally have our world. Here, Shippey makes another transition and that is more towards the explanation of morals and reality of The Lord of the Rings. Seeing as the book was made as written clarification for the critics, it’s understandable that Shippey would try his best to get the critics to understand Tolkien’s terms of reality. Relating back to earlier chapters, there is an understanding of truth in what is written both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. However, there is the lack of comprehension on the critics part that even if the book is rooted in truth, it doesn’t automatically mean that they have the authority to claim they know what everything is and that they understand Tolkien in entirety and are able to judge him as “thoughtless” and an “escapist.” Shippey tells us that this is not possible with such modernities in the story, like the ring and it’s addictive corrupting power which acted much like any drug would on a normal human being.

            From this avenue, Shippey takes us through the morality within The Lord of the Rings. We come to an understanding of the additive nature of the ring, the duality of the philosophy around it, it’s choosing its owner and then abandoning it was an example. He also looks at the possibility of Gandalf being an “angel.” There is, after all a hints of Christianity in the story. Tolkien himself admits it, having both unconsciously and consciously incorporated those religious aspects. However, in a letter he wrote to a friend, he speaks of having taken out all references to religion because it was being absorbed by the story and the symbolism. To Tolkien, this world he created was never meant for heaven or hell.

            In the last few chapters, Shippey goes into more detail about The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. What I feel is the major point for these particular chapters resides in one the last few essays. That being in Tolkien’s use of other stories, poems, and histories, what the critics sometimes fail to notice is what Tolkien created. Every minute thing has a purpose. Each poem contributes to the bigger picture and every happening is woven into the greater story. The whole purpose of this book was to show that The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Book of Lost Tales as a way for England to have its own mythology.




(I apologize for the briefness of this paper. I wanted to revise it which is why it took so long for me to send it in. I never got to that revising, so if you don’t understand anything just come and talk to me and I’ll even lend you my book if you want. Sorry.)

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