Tolkien is massively popular with a wide range of readers, yet derided by the Establishment. Shippey sets out to show where the critics are wrong (when they bother to explain their dislike) and why they are wrong (when, as in most of the time, they merely sneer, at the works, or at the readership). He does this by examining the works, in terms of their literary traditions (those of Old English and Norse literature, not the more familiar Classical literature of the Establishment), in terms of their commentary on current issues (mainly problems of evil), in terms of Tolkien's attempts to reconcile his Catholic faith with his passion for "pagan" literature, and in terms of the internal structure of the plots.
Shippey is eminently qualified to follow Tolkien's interests, having taught his syllabus at Oxford, and held the same Chair at Leeds. And this is a rather more accessible book than The Road To Middle-Earth, Shippey's previous and rather more academic attempt to explain Tolkien. That is not to say it is light reading. Shippey argues his case in depth, with many references to Tolkien's texts and to the original sources, and to Tolkien's attempts to "fill the blanks" in those original sources. I was riveted.
We get a relatively gentle introduction, with an examination of The Hobbit, with the origins of the names of the dwarves and Gandalf, the structure of the plot, Bilbo's kind of courage, and the "dragonsickness". We then get three detailed chapters on The Lord of the Rings, focussing in turn on the plot (a complex interwoven braid, that helps highlight the bewilderment of the various characters do not know all the story), on two models of evil (the absence of good, versus an actual force), and on the myths. There follows a chapter on The Silmarillion, "the work of his heart", explaining what Tolkien was up to here, and how an audience used to the style of Norse sagas would be able to appreciate it better, because they would have had the skills necessary to keep the complex and important kinship details clear in their minds (and so would not dismiss it as "a telephone directory in Elvish"). Finally, we get a description of the various "minor" works, and how they confirm the ideas suggested in the earlier chapters.
One thing that resonates very strongly for me is the section on courage. For those of us brought up in a Christian tradition, whether or not we still subscribe to it, there is a lot of emphasis on "getting one's reward in heaven" and of the importance of maintaining hope and not giving in to the sin of despair, because there will ultimately be victory over evil. This has always struck me as a rather unsatisfactory philosophy -- one does the right thing in order to get the reward, and everything will be happy ever after -- it's a bribe, really. Against this is contrasted the Norse mythology of Ragnarok, of ultimate defeat, and of the courage to do the right thing simply because it is right, even in the sure and certain knowledge of ultimate defeat. (Another author who uses the theme of fighting on even when defeat is inevitable is Poul Anderson -- and he uses Norse myth, too.) In this situation there is no need to keep up hope (because there is no hope!), and consequently no danger of despair. This strikes me as a much more satisfactory philosophy, and so I was glad to see it laid out by Shippey. Of course, Tolkien had a problem here -- wanting to espouse the Norse theory of courage, but also being a committed Catholic. Shippey explores this tension.
Occasionally I did get a kind of "wholesale returns of conjecture" feeling from some of the arguments. But on the whole, this is a fascinating account of a whole host of features of Tolkien's work. Knowing these things enhances one's appreciation of just what Tolkien was up to: he wasn't simply writing a fantasy novel; he was single-handedly attempting to recreate and restore a mythology for England. But clearly, these things don't need to be known explicitly in order to appreciate the works -- clearly, because the vast readership don't have the philological skills necessary. Shippey explains that this is deliberate on Tolkien's part, because he believed that people understand some of this implicitly, especially about how names work. Shippey also conjectures this might be one of the reasons the literary establishment is so hostile to the works: in the modernist tradition it is necessary to understand the allusions in order to understand the work -- one has to be a member of their elite to appreciate their literature.
I greatly enjoyed this, and learned a lot of fascinating things, about Tolkien, about Norse literature and worldview, and lots of other great stuff.