“The Road to Middle-Earth” by T.A. Shippey

Book cover
The book cover of the first edition (1982)


“Philology illuminated the Dark Ages”


From the blurb of the third edition:
The Road to Middle-Earth is a fascinating and accessible exploration of J.R.R.Tolkien’s creativity and the sources of his inspiration. Tom Shippey shows in detail how Tolkien’s professional background led him to write The Hobbit and how he created a work of timeless charm for millions of readers. […]
The core of the book, however, concentrates on The Lord of the Rings as a linguistic and cultural map, as a twisted web of a story, and as a response to the inner meaning of myth and poetry.

May 2018 – The first time I read this book – possibly one of the very first scholarly books I bought about Tolkien – I was too young to fully appreciate it. At that time, having only had read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, what did I expect to understand really? Almost thirty years later I bought the third edition of this book (the Kindle version), which had been revised and updated. Now reading it with renowned pleasure, I much better understand what the author is saying. 

Although I do miss the feeling of holding the book and smell it, what I like about reading with the Kindle is that one can easily highlight paragraphs and even write comments. Here’s a selection of my favourite highlights so far. In brackets, the chapter and paragraph where the quotation is from.

[Chapter 1, par. Lost Romances] –
The change of viewpoint marks an enormous if temporary shift of poetic and literary interest from Classical to native.  It also shows how philology could seem, to some, the ‘noblest of sciences’, the key to ‘spiritual life’, certainly ‘something much greater than a misfit combination of language plus literature’.

[Chapter 2, par. Survivals in the west] –
One sees that the thing which attracted Tolkien most was darkness: the blank spaces, much bigger than most people realise, on the literary and historical map, especially those after the Romans left in AD 419, or after Harold died at Hastings in 1066. The post-Roman era produced ‘King Arthur’, to whose cycle King Lear and King Cole and the rest became eventual tributaries. Tolkien knew this tradition well and used it for Farmer Giles of Ham (published 1949, but written much earlier), the opening paragraphs of which play jokingly with the first few lines of Sir Gawain.

[Chapter 2, par. Allegories, Potatoes, Fantasy and Glamour] –
(…) spell and evangelium. These two words are related, historically, for the Old English translation of Greek evangelion, ‘good news’, was gód spell, ‘the good story’, now ‘Gospel’. Spell continued to mean, however, ‘a story, something said in formal style’, eventually ‘a formula of power’, a magic spell. The word embodies much of what Tolkien meant by ‘fantasy’, i.e. something unnaturally powerful (magic spell), something literary (a story), something in essence true (Gospel).

[Chapter 3, par. Breaking Contact] –
‘It was often said … that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd’*. Sometimes these and similar remarks introduce information. More often they create a sense that more information exists round the edges of the story, and that events are going according to rules only just hinted at, but rules just the same.
* from The Hobbit

[Chapter 5, par. The opposing forces: luck and chance] –
In Middle-earth, one may say, Providence or the Valar sent the dream that took Boromir to Rivendell. But they sent it first and most often to Faramir, who would no doubt have been a better choice. It was human decision, or human perversity, which led to Boromir claiming the journey, with what chain of ill-effects and casualties no one can tell. ‘Luck’, then, is a continuous interplay of providence and free will, a blending of so many factors that the mind cannot disentangle them, a word encapsulating ancient philosophical problems over which wars have been fought and men burnt alive.