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J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

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J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Houghton Mifflin
J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He is recognized for The Lord of the Rings, a three-volume novel cycle, and for The Hobbit, a children's book published in 1937.
Besides these works, he wrote more than 29 books, then translated or contributed to 36 more books, and made contributions to 39 periodicals. The volume of his work appears to be rather large, but we must remember that he was a professor. He was expected to publish a great deal. Tom Shippey explains that he "published less academically than most of his colleagues..."

Philology: Study of Words/Language

His work on Lord of the Rings and other works of Middle Earth never really took him very far away from his work on academic projects. His passion was, after all, philology, which Shippey defines as "the study of historical forms of a language or languages... and also of related language." Tolkien studied Old and Middle English, along with the "ancient languages of Britain." His extensive study of ancient languages and literature comes out in his choice of character names, in the riddles and songs that appear throughout his texts, and also in his choice of settings, as he was "reconstructing" a world from words.
As Shippey explains, "he took fragments of ancient literature, expanded their intensely suggestive hints of further meaning, and made them into a coherent narrative." He was drawing from "scattered evidence" to rethink the existence of so many imaginary creatures, believing that the world in which these beings lived must have existed "at least in the collective imagination."

Of course, Tolkien goes much further than just drawing from ancient narrative and language to create a story. He succeeds in linking the ancient and the modern worlds. Shippey writes of Smaug, the dragon, that he seems "to have a foot, or a claw, in two worlds at once... in this at least he is like Bilbo the hobbit." By intermingling language and artifacts from the ancient and modern worlds, Tolkien pulls the reader into Middle Earth, making the place seem strangely foreign but familiar. What better way to draw an audience in and make them enthusiastic about the place?
Concepts of Evil

In a way, Tolkien is exploring the places that language left behind, of creatures that now only exist in our words and in our imagination. But, he also delves into the nature of evil: what it is, its representations, and whether or not it can be defeated.

Tolkien had experienced war and violence firsthand in World War I. Like many of the writers from his era, his world could never be the same, after seeing his best friends die, and his land in ruin. Shippey writes, "The life experiences of many men and women in the twentieth century have left them with an unshakable conviction of something wrong, something irreducibly evil in the nature of humanity, but without any very satisfactory explanation for it."

Shippey argues that, beyond Tolkien, "Twentieth-century fantasy can be seen as above all a response to this gap, this inadequacy." Perhaps it is a way of explaining what can not be understood or explained.
Along those lines, Shippey argues that "The Lord of the Rings" can be taken as a myth in the sense that it is a "work of mediation." It reconciles what at first appears to be opposites or "incompatibles": between "heathen and Christian, escapism and reality, immediate victory and lasting defeat, lasting defeat and ultimate victory."

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