June 8, 2001
Review of J.R.R. Tolkien:
Author of the Century
I remember as a young child I would enjoy working in the garden. You see, even though I live in Los Angeles, California, my family had 1/3 of an acre of property. I would pick the seeds of the flowers that grew around the yard and carefully replant them. One year I focused on a rather large red flower that was growing in the garden. I guess my reason for focusing on it was that we only had one of them and it was quite amazing. Each year only one blood red blossom would bloom. I wanted more of them. After the flower bloomed it left a rather large seedpod. I carefully removed the pod after it had dried and separated each seed, and finally I would plant them into styrofoam cups. Many of these seeds grew into small plants that were transplanted into the garden. Next year an amazing thing happened. In a sea of blood red flowers I had one white flower... Later in my high school biology, I would learn that what had happened was quite amazing and the biological wonder which had transpired was lost on the 10 year old child. You see, the flowers I had grown grew from bulbs and to get them to reproduce via seeds was not unheard of, but was amazing. Another amazing point was that I had isolated a mutation.
Looking back on that incident almost 20 years later I am still left with wonder and amazement of a small patch of garden awash with red flowers and one white stalk sticking out among them. Even though I now understand all the complicated chemical reactions that take place in the plant's reproductive cycles, it is that one white flower which evokes an almost poetic reaction out of me.
Now what does all this have to do with J.R.R. Tolkien; and more specifically, Tom Shippey's book on him?
To consider the crowd that visits this site, I don't think I will need to write an apology for the book. I suspect that many of us would quickly agree that Tolkien was the most influential author of the last century. Even if we don't think he was the most influential, many would consider him in the top 10. Tom is preaching to the choir when he speaks to us.
So what is the value of reading Shippey's book? Why should I go out and pick up yet another book on the greatness of Tolkien? The answer is found in who Tom Shippey is. 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. So of all the people in the world who are qualified to talk about Tolkien, he is one of the most qualified apart from his family.
As Tolkien fans we are a lot like that little 10-year-old version of me. We stare in awe and amazement at the flower that the Lord of the Rings is. Tolkien's Middle-earth is definitely a white flower among the red. We admire its beauty and in our search for more things like it we encounter an unnourishable desire. As we go back and read the literary sources that inspired Middle-earth, many of us are left thirsty. As the years go by we begin to wonder and formulate why we love Middle-earth. These reasons can be simplistic as the answers I had as a 10-year-old. But as I went to high school and college, I learned the real reasons for my white flower. This book by Tom Shippey is a lot like these college texts I read through. That is not to say that this book is boring or dull as most textbooks are in schools. I would recommend this book to all who want to go deeper, broaden their understanding, and get answers to those unanswered questions of Tolkien. To this end, Shippey has many answers.
Ultimately, the reason I like Tolkien is not the fact that he was the most influential author in the 20th Century. It is not because of the inside philological jokes and mythical themes that may keep me focused on his works. It is not because of the many other reasons Shippry presents in his book that keep me admiring Tolkien. For me--and I suspect many of you--it will always be the whiteness of the flower and not the modified genome that makes me enjoy Tolkien.