The Road to Middle-Earth: How Tolkien Created a New Mythology, by Tom Shippey

This book has been on my shelf awhile. Part of me rebels against analyzing
Tolkien’s work since I think it should be just read and enjoyed for it’s own
sake. On the other hand, after reading this book some of what I found
puzzling in Lord of the Rings makes more sense than it did before. Shippey
wrote this book as an answer to the critics of Tolkien making an argument
that it is a much more scholarly work than it appears on the surface to be.
And it was the genius of Tolkein that he could write stories with very
scholarly roots that hold lasting appeal to the mass market.

What this book puts across so strongly is that Tolkien created the languages
of Middle Earth before he created the place. And he thought up the places
before he thought up the story lines. It’s a very upside down way of writing
and but it accounts for the consistency throughout the different works. Tom
Bombadil, whom I have always found to be a problematic addition to the plot
of Lord of the Rings, was created much earlier than the story of Frodo and
Sam. And while he rightly isn’t part of the plot line as a whole, he is an
important character to the world of the story since he demonstrates the
agedness of Middle Earth. He is the Oldest, older than Sauron, Gandalf and
the Elves. He “is,” as Goldberry says of him.

Shippey also attempts to explain how Tolkien infused his own Christian
beliefs into Middle Earth without making it an overtly Christian story. I’ve
read other thoughts on that subject but nothing at the depth that this books
looks at. He points out images from the Bible that end up in the story—the
cock crowing is one that comes to mind. Rereading it, I’m surprised I missed
some of them.

He also writes about the later years in Tolkien’s writing and how his
conception of Middle Earth evolved over time, causing problems for him as an
author. He had to maintain consistency with older, published writing and
while continuing to work on the world he created. Middle Earth for Tolkien
was a life long project not captured in one or two published works. It
mostly existed in his mind and we are treated to a glimpse of it in his

I unfortunately haven’t read The Simarillion, which is discussed in the last
few chapters of the book. It’s something I plan on doing in the near future.
Then, of course, I’ll go back and read the relevant chapters in this book
again. I’m glad I kept it on the shelf rather than tossing it into the
“sell at the used bookstore” box.

  • By Lars Walker, July 30, 2004 @ 6:33 am

    I’ve read Shippey’s _J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century_, which is an excellent study, except for the fact that Shippey seems completely incapable of grasping the difference between Manicheanism and Orthodoxy. In his theological shorthand, anybody who believes in a personal devil is a Manichean (he insists on calling C.S. Lewis a Manichean), which is just aggravating. Otherwise the book is great, though.

  • By Deb, August 1, 2004 @ 7:23 am

    I havent read that one mostly because, as I said, I tend to avoid writers who write about Tolkein. After this one, tho, I might seek that one out….

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