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The Lord of the Rings

An Interview with Tom Shippey, author of

(Houghton Mifflin Company, May 2001)

Q) Why do you call Tolkien "author of the century"?

A) Two reasons: First, he has consistently won what you might call the popular vote, in readers' polls for their favorite book or the one they've found most influential. Second, although he seems on the face of it to be an antiquarian author writing about an imaginary far past, I am convinced that the reason he consistently wins the polls is that his work articulates some of the deepest and most specific concerns of the twentieth century — concerns such as industrialized warfare, the temptations of power, the origins of evil, the failure of good intentions and righteous causes.

Q) Why do you think Tolkien has been so popular with readers?

A) He opened up a new imaginative space — he would have said it was an old imaginative space, which had been walled off, that of traditional legend and fairy tale, but I would say that he did something new with it, which was to provide the world of dwarves and trolls and elves and wizards (and so on) with a map, with a consistent history and geography, which feels as if it is infinitely extendable. That’s why there have been so many successors to Tolkien, writing fantasy trilogies or sequences of the same type, maps included.

The other and deeper reason is that he answers questions that have deeply preoccupied ordinary people, but that have not been answered by the official (or self-elected) speakers for our culture — writers, politicians, philosophers. The most obvious one is, Why has the twentieth century been so unremittingly evil? The nineteenth century was looking forward to moral progress and freedom from want. Where (in Tolkien’s lifetime, and mine) did it all go wrong? I think his images of evil, like the Ringwraiths, are at the same time completely original, highly contemporary, and mythically timeless. What they say is that anyone can turn into a wraith, and you can’t be sure when it will start. Nor can you deal with evil just by being a nice guy yourself. It may force itself upon you. Tolkien’s images of the good are similarly mixed, complicated, and satisfying. His work has great emotional depth.

Q) So why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?

A) They sense a challenge to the dominant literary orthodoxy of the past century, which has been ironic and self-doubting. I see this as a legacy of World War I, the Great War, which destroyed traditional certainties and traditional authorities. Tolkien was himself a combat veteran of that war, and I would regard him as one of the rather large group of "traumatized authors" writing fantasy (Orwell, Golding, Vonnegut, etc.), but his experience made him want to restate traditional images rather than throw them away. In particular he wanted to find a new way to represent heroes and heroism. He knew the old ways very well, and he knew they wouldn't work anymore, but he did not want to abandon the effort. This essentially positive and optimistic view of humanity (and nonhumanity) has been dismissed as shallow and unthinking, but that is a bad mistake. Tolkien knew much more about irony than any of his critics, and about war.

Q) How do these affect one’s view of Tolkien the man?

A) They bring out his inner anxieties. One should remember that Tolkien did not get his major work into print until he was sixty-two, and that for most of his working life the chances were that he was going to remain forever unpublished. He sometimes imagines his own work surviving into the future as a single manuscript, never read by anybody, with the name of the author lost — exactly like the poem Beowulf, in fact. Of course his work has now sold hundreds of millions of copies, and is set to do the same again in the next generation, and Beowulf in the end has had more books and articles written about it than Hamlet. That's ironic, but not all ironies have to be negative ones.

Q) What effect has Tolkien had on modern fantasy?

A) He created the genre — not quite single-handedly, but very nearly so. I discuss other fantasy traditions in my Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, but the shelves in modern bookstores would look very different if Tolkien had not written, or if Stanley Unwin had decided not to publish him after all, back in the early 1950s. The eagerness with which he was followed suggests that there was a suppressed desire for the kind of thing he did, but nobody before him quite knew how to do it, or thought it was allowed. C. S. Lewis said Tolkien was as hard to influence as a bandersnatch, and only somebody like that could have broken with literary convention and established wisdom in the way that he did.

Q) What remains unique in Tolkien’s work?

A) Two things I'd pick out are the poetry and the sense of shape. There are a lot of poems in The Lord of the Rings, in many different styles and formats, and not many other fantasy writers have the confidence or the literary background to go inventing whole new poetic traditions (or reinventing old ones). But this gives Tolkien’s work a mythic and imaginative dimension, which has never been duplicated. As for the shape, The Lord of the Rings is very tightly controlled, with multiple plots integrated by a day-to-day chronology, which you really need to follow. What it does is make each of the characters feel lonely and isolated, while in the broader view you can see that everyone’s story is a part of everyone else’s: much more like reality than the plot of a conventional novel. It works laterally as well as linearly.

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 which Tolkien had previously held. He is Walter J. Ong Chairman of Humanities at St. Louis University in Missouri.

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