• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #20: The Road to Middle-Earth


"I can't believe I made those guys sit down on these rocks all the time."

I love Tolkien. We all do. Well, not all, I suppose. I remember a middle school English teacher once who claimed he was lousy and derivative. She wouldn't listen to my argument that where he was derivative it was intentional, and most of modern fantasy is essentially derivative of his work. I wonder what she thinks of Rowling.

Anyway, this book goes into great - almost achingly great - detail of Tolkien's personal background, his professorial and academic mind, his laborious perfectionism, his capacity for creation. The man was a linguist first, not a storyteller, and his Middle-Earth was basically created as a backdrop against which he could paint with the languages and cultures he invented. And yet he was a master at narrative too, leaving behind the great epic myth cycle of our age; our Beowulf, our Iliad, our Arthur. Shippey's often-dense book probes the methodology and process of a relatively unprepossessing man, more hobbit than wizard (though a war veteran). His meticulous work, his friendship with his Oxford colleague and junior varsity writing colleague CS Lewis, his obsession with language - it's a rewarding read, even if there are lots of Dead Marshes to slog through. I particularly enjoy the parts where Tolkien skewers his critics as elitist prats incapable of loving literature both high and middlebrow, those souls who cannot enjoy something more than three other people like. Mid-nineteenth century British aristocratic culture intelligentsia and modern hipster beer/coffee/music snobs are remarkably similar.

Really, the value in this work is to spend some more time in Middle-Earth without having to read The Silmarillion. Plus, I always enjoy pulling back the curtain to see how the sausage was made, whether that's the inner workings of a political campaign or the creation of a masterful piece of literature.

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