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The intensity of their interest is remarkable and perhaps surprising, for Tolkien, unlike literary and linguistic scholars such as Erich Auerbach and E. Dodds who achieved and deserved fame in this century, was not an intellectual.The reasons why one might take up his scholarship or his fiction are not the same as those that make us read – books that transformed, and continue to influence, our understanding of significant problems in European intellectual and cultural development.
Large tracts of this book are humourless travesties of a type of literary criticism that Shippey himself attacks so often and so vociferously.
As persist, it becomes apparent that this book does not resemble (perhaps was never intended to be) a critical argument or commentary on Tolkien’s imaginative writings.
‘Yes’ is Shippey’s answer, for ‘no compromise is possible between what one might call “the Gandalph mentality” and Tolkien’s.
Tolkien’s mind was one of unmatchable subtlety.’ By adopting this combative position, and by attributing the views of Tolkien’s critics to what the first subheading of Chapter One disdainfully describes as ‘old antipathies’, Shippey commits himself to an unclear and unargued overstatement of his case.
Consider, for example, Shippey’s treatment of the first thing Tolkien ever published: the poem ‘Goblin’s Feet’ which appeared in the collection I am off down the road Where the fairy lanterns glowed And the little pretty flittermice are flying: A slender band of grey It runs creepily away And the hedges and the grasses are a-sighing. Observing that ‘it may seem perverse to seek to identify this road, but on the other hand it isn’t very hard,’ Shippey goes on to inform his reader about two Roman roads near Oxford, speculates as to whether might have been performed in a village near one of them (probably not), asks whether Tolkien might have told G. Smith about the Old English elegy ‘The Ruin’ (probably not), and wonders whether Tolkien’s poem is a ‘translation of the quest for the romantic realities of history’ (certainly not).
The air is full of wings And of blundering beetle-things That warn you with their whirring and their humming. I hear the tiny horns Of enchanted leprechauns And the padding feet of many gnomes a-coming.‘This,’ notes Shippey, ‘is not very good.’ He then offers a gratuitous parody of the objections a literary critic might make to the poem (for, in the course of this book, the crude debate between ‘Lang.’ and ‘Lit.’, conducted by certain members of the Oxford English School during Tolkien’s lifetime and now defunct in the place of its origin, is lent a new and dreary lease of life). Shippey concludes – on the evidence of this text – that Tolkien shared with his school friend a ‘feeling for ancient roads’ which ‘could possess a creepiness for him’ and that he was making up words as early as 1915.Better questions could be asked of this work, Shippey assures us, and he goes on to compare Tolkien’s poem with a piece of similar quality by Tolkien’s school friend G. All this, in Shippey’s view, hints ‘at the early complexity of Tolkien’s inner life’.It hints rather at Shippey’s faith in a freely associative style of biographical criticism, intent on wringing every ounce of significance from each of Tolkien’s writings, no matter how negligible it may be.For many readers, the convenience of having these disparate pieces of Tolkien’s legacy assembled between two covers will be counterbalanced by their price; and libraries, in this age of austerity, may think twice before buying duplicates of material they already possess. Shippey thereby ‘reaches’, the dust-jacket assures us, ‘the core of Tolkien’s creativity and explains the secrets of his appeal in a way unmatched by any other critic’. Twenty years ago he had the idea of publishing a paper on the Anglo-Saxon story of Finn and Hengest.Discovering that nearly all his conclusions had been anticipated in lectures by Tolkien (the diffident words are Bliss’s), he renounced the project, but Tolkien offered him his notes and this material was passed to Bliss in 1979.His attention was fixed on the vernacular languages of the Middle Ages with a single-mindedness Tolkien lacked.These three books, in their different ways, are attempts to make sense of the diverseness of Tolkien’s activities., have previously been published (some of them more than once), and the book provides further evidence, if evidence be needed, of Christopher Tolkien’s enterprising combination of filial piety and commercial flair. Shippey, sets out to explore Tolkien’s imaginative writing in relation to the texts he studied and to the scholarship he published.But it does not ‘show us why the appeal of will be timeless,’ as the dust-jacket promises, nor does it explain much about ‘the problems of reading archaic literary modes’.One does not have to be a personal enemy of Tolkien’s, nor insensible to the element of fantasy in literature, to think it an exaggeration to set .Shippey’s strength as an interpreter of Tolkien’s fiction derives from the very activity of which Tolkien himself disapproved – the study of Tolkien’s sources, which gives rise to a number of interesting aperçus and to the first of two appendices.(The second appendix comprises three ingenious poems by Tolkien in Old English and one in Gothic.) makes a case, discontinuous but not implausible, for the existence of points of cross-reference between Tolkien’s imaginative and scholarly works and it illustrates the spell which Tolkien still casts over those who knew and admire him.