“The continuing appeal of Tolkien’s fantasy, completely unexpected and completely unpredictable though it was, cannot then be seen as a mere freak of popular taste, to be dismissed or ignored by those sufficiently well-educated to know better. It deserves an explanation and a defence, which this book tries to supply. In the process, I argue that his continuing appeal rests not on mere charm or strangeness (though both are there and can again to some extent be explained), but on a deeply serious response to what will be seen in the end as the major issues of his century: the origin and nature of evil (an eternal issue, but one in Tolkien’s lifetime terribly re-focused); human existence in Middle-earth, without the support of divine Revelation; cultural relativity; and the corruptions and continuities of language.”
– Tom A. Shippey

In Tom A. Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, he examines the appeal and distinction of Tolkien and his work, noting that “Tolkien wanted to be heard, and he was,” while asking, “But what was it that he had to say?” (Shippey loc. 51). Beginning with the well-known anecdote of Tolkien grading essays, coming across a blank page, and writing “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit,” Shippey explores where hobbits may have come from, what Bilbo and the Shire may represent archetypally, and how they echo a historicized view of British culture. Explored also are Tolkien’s contributions to the public understanding of the “fairy-tale” and of his method, called mythopoeia, of combining such stories into a larger shared world. Much attention is given to the origins of names and how they originated in ancient legend and myth.

I will not attempt to transcribe most of Shippey’s ideas, as they generally adhere to a very in-depth discussion of the particular work, mainly offering information pertaining to Tolkien’s sources and inspirations in various areas of his works. I do appreciate his reference and clarification to Tolkien’s dislike of allegory, despite the fact that he used it: “The main point about the above, though, is the repeated = sign. Tolkien did not think that allegories made sense unless you could consistently and without error fill these in. And to him the function of allegory was usually, as in this case, as a reductio ad absurdum. Anyone listening to Tolkien’s allegory of the tower would sympathize with the tower-builder, and not with the short-sighted fools who destroyed it. Therefore, Tolkien implied, they should sympathize with the poem and not with its critics” (Shippey 162).  As Tolkien himself put it, “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author” (qtd. in Shippey 163).

It is interesting to note that Shippey sees Tolkien’s work as one of bridging gaps and bringing together of ideas into a more cohesive work: “However fanciful Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was ‘reconstructing’, he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence” (Shippey loc. 125).

In the end, he characterizes Tolkien’s work as a kind of praxis for his academic ideas: “Tolkien, then, was a philologist before he was a mythologist, and a mythologist, at least in intention, before he ever became a writer of fantasy fiction. His beliefs about language and about mythology were sometimes original and sometimes extreme, but never irrational, and he was able to express them perfectly clearly. In the end he decided to express them not through abstract argument, but by demonstration” (Shippey loc. 145).

He offers some general thoughts on “the fantastic” (used in the more modern sense than in Todorov’s); while perhaps still treating it as more a genre convention than a method, he does move toward the idea of “the fantastic” as a method rather than a genre, particularly in the market sense, such as “fantasy” is generally determined to be:

“By the end of the century, even authors deeply committed to the realist novel have often found themselves unable to resist the gravitational pull of the fantastic as a literary mode. This is not the same, one should note, as fantasy as a literary genre […] ‘the fantastic’ includes many genres besides fantasy: allegory and parable, fairy-tale, horror and science fiction, modern ghost-story and medieval romance. Nevertheless, the point remains. Those authors of the twentieth century who have spoken most powerfully to and for their contemporaries have for some reason found it necessary to use the metaphoric mode of fantasy, to write about worlds and creatures which we know do not exist, whether Tolkien’s ‘Middle-earth’, Orwell’s ‘Ingsoc’, the remote islands of Golding and Wells, or the Martians and Tralfa-madorians who burst into peaceful English or American suburbia in Wells and Vonnegut.” (Shippey loc. 16)


Shippey, Tom A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. London: HarperCollins, 2001. Kindle Edition.

  1. Phantammeron says:

    Thanks. Some sounds like an interesting read. Based on what described however, I remain shocked at how misinterpreted Tolkien’s work still is here over 40 years after his death.
    He was simply into personal mythology, and the advancement and recognition of Mythopoeia and the creation of vast fictional fantasy histories and artificial myth as a means for thousands of authors to explore the vast wealth of psychological and cultural stories expressed concern in ancient philology.

    The fact we live in a shallow post modern age of realism devoid of spirit doesn’t mean Tolkien’s message is forgotten. It simply means we now live in a modern age that’s filled with people incapable of not just understand his best works, like The Silmarillion, but also incapable of creating or writing their own mythopoeia. That’s what is so tragic….not a single author or creative type has taken his baton, explored ancient mythology as he has, then written their own enriched mythological fantasy history. No one has done that or cares to…..simply because they can’t comprehend the value or meaning in writing such a book. Sad…

    • Dave Rick says:

      I think there are still torch-bearers for Mythopoeia out there, though I agree that much of marketed “fantasy fiction” these days suffers a lot from the genred echo-chamber and lacks originality–of course, that seems to be true of many (even most) genres of fiction.