Books : reviews

Tom A. Shippey.
The Road to Middle-Earth.
Allen & Unwin. 1982

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

Tom A. Shippey.
Fictional Space: essays on contemporary science fiction.
Basil Blackwell. 1991

Fictional Space consists of eight essays by British and American critics on science fiction. The contributors have written especially on the most recent science fiction, taking account of the field’s resurgence since what seemed a ‘played-out’ period in the 1970s. Fictional Space analyses the development of a postmodern science fiction in ‘cyberpunk’ and other forms; the treatment of political ‘taboo areas’ such as the Vietnam War and the decline of American hegemony; altered attitudes to ‘text’, seen in different essays and different images as decayed and abandoned, or as transmuted by technology into newly eternal formats. Among the questions asked are, why is science fiction so different to read, and why do so many sophisticated readers refuse to read it? Can science fiction exist without relevance or ‘referentiality’ to the society that produces it? Can it be related in normal literary ways to the real-life experiences or frustrations of its authors?

Besides these urgent questions, Fictional Space also considers some of the influences of the now century-old history of this form of fiction, showing how its authors, in the middle of their stretch for novelty, may be affected by varyingly conscious urges towards patricide/matricide of their predecessors. Some essays look also into the future of fiction, and of the language in which fiction is written.

Non-readers of science fiction will find in this book strong arguments for changing their minds, and guidance for doing so in an extensive bibliography. Those already persuaded of science fiction’s attractions will find support and explanation for their opinions, and a convincing overview of the latest writers and trends.

Tom A. Shippey.
The Road to Middle-Earth: 2nd edn.
Grafton. 1992

Tom A. Shippey.
J. R. R. Tolkien: author of the century.
HarperCollins. 2000

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 28 September 2003

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.

Tom A. Shippey.
Roots and Branches: selected papers on Tolkien.
Walking tree. 2007

Tom A. Shippey.
Heroes and Legends: the most influential characters of Literature.
Great Courses. 2014

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 23 July 2019

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 24 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each lecture, a few pictures, some related reading, and a few questions to think about. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

This is a trip through the history of literature, selecting a few influential protagonists, including Odysseus, Beowulf, Don Quixote, Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and more. I say “protagonists”, even though the series title says “Heroes”, because not all are conventionally “heroic”. There are some interesting facts, both about the books themselves, and the way the concept of the hero, and what is heroic, changes over time. Despite being about literature, it is all refreshingly unpretentious.

Tom A. Shippey.
Hard Reading: learning from science fiction.
Liverpool University Press. 2016

The fifteen essays collected in Hard Reading argue, first, that science fiction has its own internal rhetoric, relying on devices such as neologism, dialogism, semantic shifts and the use of unreliable narrators. It is a ‘high-information’ genre which does not follow the Flaubertian ideal of le mot juste, ‘the right word’, preferring le mot imprévisible, ‘the unpredictable word’. Both ideals shun the facilior lectio, the ‘easier reading’, but for different reasons and with different effects. The essays argue further that science fiction derives much of its energy from engagement with vital intellectual issues in the ‘soft sciences’, especially history, anthropology, the study of different cultures, with a strong bearing on politics. Both the rhetoric and the issues deserve to be taken much more seriously than they have been in academia, and in the wider world. Each essay is further prefaced by an autobiographical introduction. These explain how the essays came to be written and in what ways they (often) proved controversial. They, and the autobiographical introduction to the whole book, create between them a memoir of what it was like to be a committed fan from teenage years, and also an academic struggling to find a place at a time when a declared interest in science fiction and fantasy was the kiss of death for a career in the humanities.