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Roots and Branches Paperback – 30 Apr 2007
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This is a shame, because a commentator as erudite as Tom Shippey is perfectly placed to talk about what Tolkien is good at in terms which the average literary novel reader can understand. Given that most readers of contemporary 'serious' fiction are not usually very expert in ancient languages, which were Tolkien's and which are Shippey's stocks-in-trade, this is quite an achievement.
Shippey's best book on Tolkien is 'The Road to Middle-Earth', but it's not an easy book (in fact it's one of the densest works of literary criticism I've ever read) and it's hardly likely to appeal to anyone who has not already read a lot of Tolkien. His much later 'JRR Tolkien - Author of the Century' is somewhat polemical, being aimed at people who perhaps need to be convinced that Tolkien is a writer worth reading and worth taking seriously. This book is a selection of his essays, articles and lectures on Tolkien, and as such is intended for people who are familiar with the work. There is much food for thought here, including a fascinating essay on the connections and disconnections between Tolkien's work and Richard Wagner's, which might have been written specially for my father-in-law, a great guy (and a classically trained musician) who nevertheless refuses to read Tolkien on the grounds that he thinks Wagner's stories are silly.
The book is full of wonderful close readings and clear-eyed analysis, and Shippey is familiar enough with the so-called canon of modern English literature to be able to draw enlightening connections between, say, Tolkien's attitude to class and Thomas Hardy's.
As time goes by, and the Tolkien industry kicks in (largely thanks, it would seem from the rather spartan look of this book, to the availability of cheap desktop typesetting), Tolkien comes to seem less and less like an embarrassingly popular writer of escapism and more and more like a serious author, someone who - like W.B. Yeats - had perhaps troubling and unfashionable but nevertheless strong, vivid and persuasive things to say. That this is so is due in no small way to the work of Tom Shippey and people like him - intelligent and erudite people who are unprejudiced enough to think that Tolkien might be a writer worth taking seriously.
I was a teenage Tolkien nut. In my late teens and early twenties I read a lot of 20th century literary and postmodernist theory, and decided that Tolkien was bad because he was popular; everyone knew that the great mass of people were hopelessly swayed by the ideology of late capitalism (or maybe they were just repressed, or maybe they just hadn't deconstructed themselves enough yet, or something, anyway) and in any case they couldn't be trusted to understand who they really were or what they really wanted - it was the job of intellectuals to help them realise what their true needs and interests were.
In my late twenties I read Tolkien again because the movie was coming out, and to my surprise I greatly enjoyed it. I have regained my earlier interest in folktales, storytelling and old languages (although I'm not really interested in re-learning all the Elvish I admit to once knowing) and am no longer convinced that it's worth the effort of trying to understand what Jacques Derrida was talking about in his more deliberately opaque pieces. I no longer believe that Tolkien's immense and enduring popularity entails a lack of integrity and literary quality. I once caught a supposedly left-wing journalist saying that Tolkien was so popular because his work appealed to the most ugly and atavistic impulses in people. It seems to me now that that attitude is not only illogical (because if it were so, then Nazism would command huge public sympathy, instead of almost universal disapproval and hatred) but that it also betrayed what was, in a supposed fan of the people, a remarkable fear and mistrust of the imaginations of most readers. The good thing about this is that the battle to convert the majority of readers to the idea that Tolkien is worth reading is already won. The problem is that the most heavily indoctrinated class, the intelligentsia, still largely refuses to read him, preferring to talk drivel about him instead. Books like Prof. Shippey's may help to change that.
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An essay in the "Roots" section is about the author of Beowulf, who, although Christian, does not refer explicitly to Christianity and whose characters are rather un-pagan pagans - "virtuous pagans". The following piece deals with connections with the Edda and Kalevala. The next paper is on the West Midlands, where Tolkien lived as a boy: these five English counties near Wales conserved at least until the Edwardian period the majority of what was for Tolkien the "true tradition" of English mythology and poetry, elsewhere in the country destroyed by foreign influences. Local places and words provided imaginative inspiration for the Shire, the Woses and Rohan. Tolkien's emotional life during his early years was centred here; he lost first his father and then his mother, and the area became for him a sort of paradise lost. Everything, though, was transformed by his philological imagination.
There follows a piece on the poet who wrote Gawain, and another concerning the 19th century inventions of nationalist mythology by the Dane Grundtvig and the German Grimm: here Shippey describes how these formidable scholars succeeded stimulating the appreciation of medieval literary texts on the part of a European public which until the 18th century knew nothing of them (being familiar only with classical and biblical mythology); their aim was to exalt their own literary tradition and reconcile it with Christianity. In the next essay, on Wagner, Shippey criticizes Tolkien's remark concerning the German composer ("the only resemblance between my Ring and that of Wagner is that both are round"): not only was Tolkien most interested in the central problem of 19th century philology, the relationship between the various texts which contain the Nibelung Sagas, but he also took characters from these (such as Mim the Petty-dwarf) and above all the Wagnerian characteristics of the Ring, central and maleficent throughout the saga. The real great difference between Tolkien and Wagner is in the moral evaluation of the Ring: Wagner sympathizes with the desire for it, though with "ifs" and "buts", whilst Tolkien rejects this without qualification. Between the two there had been two world wars and all that was associated with these.
The following paper discusses how the Goths, Huns and other northern cultures were rediscovered in the 19th century: to philologists at this time (and to Tolkien) it seemed possible at least to get close to reconstructing the "lost worlds" of these peoples. It was hoped that philology itself, with its reconstructive approach, would lead to this romantic conclusion - which today may be judged impossible to reach on the basis of so few surviving texts. If these "dark ages" are to be reconstructed, it can only be done by means of the novelist's imagination, as first William Morris and then Tolkien himself were to attempt.
The first piece in the "Heartwood" section uses a phrase of Galadriel as its title: "Fighting the Long Defeat". Here Shippey blends his own experience with the story of his hero Tolkien in way that is both moving and, I think, of great interest as cultural history: both during their long lives had the opportunity to be competent, involved witnesses of the second part of the historical parabola of a venerable human science, Philology. The first part of this history - although its earliest roots were amongst the erudite scholars in the Hellenistic period (4th - 2nd century BC) and further impetus was given by inquiring 15th-century humanists - dates from its foundation as a systematic discipline and rapid growth during the 19th century, above all in Germany, reaching a maximum in the first decade of the 20th century. The second part - a decline that was rapid in the 1920s and even more precipitous after the Second World War - coincided with the entire careers of Tolkien and then Shippey (who retired from his university post last year). Shippey writes of a long battle that took place during Tolkien's life between the Language (philology) and Literature departments of all the universities in the English-speaking world: the struggle ended with the defeat of the side on which Tolkien and Shippey himself had fought, philology. Shippey outlines this story and attempts a description of the "heart" of Venerable Comparative Philology; he does this by means of a discussion of a "notorious and unresolved philological crux", the translation of several verses of Beowulf regarding the curse associated with the dragon's treasure. Conjunctions and verb classes are examined in an attempt to understand whether the curse was introduced into the treasure from outside by something or someone, or whether the curse resulted directly from the unnatural greed the treasure provoked. Shippey thinks that according to Tolkien the malediction was caused by both factors, but he emphasizes that there is no conclusive grammatical or historical evidence. This example serves, he explains, purely to illustrate how in the minds of the philologists the discussion of the conjunctions became identified with the mythological and moral content of the tale. But this was a fundamental error on the part of the philologists: they did not make this connection clear, explicit; they did not explain that the research into conjunctions had no sense without a strong motivation to understand the mythological and moral truth of the stories. Thus, in the hands of workers more superficial than Tolkien, phonetic shifts and a thousand other linguistic details lost contact with myths and became mere components of erudite, but pedantic, inventories: this was the beginning of the "long defeat", because external observers of such pedantry could not fail to notice its irrelevance to culture, together with the accompanying strange and haughty collective isolation of the practitioners. In this way was lost the comprehension that a single word can open an enormous field of hypotheses which might explain historical occurrences, and that thousands such words might throw light on connections between various and dissimilar works of poetry and chronicles, not only ancient and medieval, but also modern. The external observers (from the "Literature" side) thought that all right was on their side: that historical and philological research were irrelevant to so-called "poetic inspiration" or even that they were an obstacle to or destructive of it. At the level of academic politics these were the results: when Tolkien began his teaching career at Leeds with a programme of philological studies he had 150 students, whereas during the last year that this programme was taught (1983) there were only 8! Tolkien the academic was defeated, even though outside of academia he triumphed thanks to the huge worldwide success of his fiction (which, of course, was squarely based on Germanic philology). The many novelists who imitate his work have understood (and Shippey gives precise examples) that philology gives depth to a narrative, and this depth helps to sell books! On the other hand, the winners of this academic war - the modern scholars of Literature - although victorious in academia, lost much of their outside readership in the decades that followed the fifties, and were ultimately also defeated within the academic world itself. In fact, Shippey taught his last years in the US, and reports that there the number of students in the departments of English literature has fallen to two-thirds of that in Tolkien's time. Popular interest should not be completely separated from scholarly study, on the pain of failure of the academic field which, for reasons of snobbery or ideological pathology, instigated the divorce in the first place! I asked Tom Shippey if now, as far as he knows (and he is certainly competent in this field), there exist today young researchers able to prepare "critical editions" of ancient or medieval texts (such as those - Loeb Classics - which I read in my youth as a student at the Scuola Normale di Pisa), and Tom replied that no, there are not, at least in the English-speaking world! A reply which at first amazed me. But then again, I recalled that thirty years ago at the Normale I became friends with a school-mate who was a researcher in Romance philology under a professor considered at the time the foremost scholar in the field, Gianfranco Contini. We have remained friends and recently, during a conversation about the current state of Romance philology, he (now a Carmelite monk and theology teacher) told me a similar thing: critical editions are no longer made! I don't want to exaggerate this point since I don't know how much or in what way Romance philology is pursued in France or Spain, and I didn't ask Tom how and to what extent Germanic philology is studied in Germany or Norway. However, these two pieces of evidence made me reflect a little on the cultural history of the 20th century...
Let's return to the review: the next essay is about "History in Words", defined as Tolkien's ruling passion and of which Shippey gives numerous detailed examples. Here too, though, he comments on modern life, observing that although for some years it has been fashionable in universities to "change the canon" with regard to the authors read in literature courses (and for study, précis etc.), in truth nothing of the sort actually happens as a result of such talk; on the contrary, the canon of authors read (etc.) does not change, but rather - at least with respect to the number of writers - is progressively reduced! A further piece deals with Tolkien and Iceland; Shippey compares the Second World War Years, when evil appeared to spring back stronger than ever from its ashes and those who fought it seemed to do so on principle rather than to win: this situation brings to mind the pre-Christian Icelandic sagas of Early Medieval age in which wise and courageous men fight knowing that they will lose, but maintain their courage nonetheless. The next paper is an evaluation of Tolkien's current academic reputation, and concludes that he produced few writings on philology, but at least half of these had great success among specialists in the subject, and that this was not due to the fame he acquired from his fiction, but to the intrinsic merits of his academic work, which was always highly accurate and often innovative.
The "Trunk" section discusses themes from the major works, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The essay which interested me most concerns the wicked characters: Orcs, Wraiths and Wights. The Orcs represent age-old human behaviour, cynical and debased in certain circumstances. The Wraiths seem to Shippey to resemble quite specific contemporary figures: powerful men whose choice to serve power has made them inhuman, becoming almost automata in their machine-like reactions and in part invisible to normal men, hidden by their ideological propaganda. These are the great bureaucrats of 20th-century totalitarian states, which started out with the good intentions of bringing order, progress and knowledge, were devoured by the "cause" in which they believed. The Orcs and Wraiths share the idea of Boethius (Augustinian and Neo-Platonic) of Evil as the corruption of Good. Whereas the Wights seem to embody the Manichean vision of Absolute Evil, an Evil with no motivation beyond that of causing evil itself. A Wight is not a ghost of one of the corpses buried in the Barrows (these are the bodies of the good Men of the West who in time gone by had fought Sauron), but an entity which tries to make their old triumph over the Men of the West live on in the Hobbits. Where did they come from? As Tom Bombadil says: "from where the gates stand forever shut, till the World is mended". Not from humans, but rather from an Idea which infests the time of men, returning through the centuries. How can it have happened - Shippey wonders - that in the heart of the "civilized" 20th century things materialized that were considered impossible only shortly before, such as state torture, extermination camps, genocide, ethnic cleansing? Almost as if "Ideas of Destruction", which were present in latent form in the human race, continually sought and at times found the great bureaucrats (Wraiths, and Saruman who was becoming one of them) who directed operations so as to make them real (allowing them to escape from the gates "forever shut") and Orcs ready to put them into practice.
Another piece deals with Tolkienian solutions to the problem of heroism. It begins by noting a difficult dilemma for Tolkien: his work as a scholar of Early Medieval sagas concerned tales replete with courage and honour, but also full of great cruelty. On the other hand, it seemed to him that admitting that heroism could exist without delicacy, forgiveness and a sense of humour was contrary to civilized values. The oscillation between these two poles gives Tolkien's writing a force and vitality which is often missing from that of his imitators. Tolkien knew what our Germanic ancestors were really like - courageous and cruel - and that even if in cruelty we find nothing to admire, the fact remains that it coexisted with the pride and bravery which we do admire. The solution was to construct a myth (if it is true that the purpose of myths is to produce conciliation between irreconcilable cultures), a 20th-century myth in which Tolkien asks himself if in a Christian world there can be a noble non-Christian idea, if a person can have a fully developed moral sense without the support of faith and revelation, if pagan virtues can be separated from pagan vices. These questions of Tolkien appear to Shippey to be increasingly appropriate, as the West enters a post-Christian age. In practice, Tolkien makes different styles of heroism coexist in his myth: Aragorn and Denethor, Frodo and Gimli, and Faramir as well as Boromir.
A following essay on social classes in Tolkien's world analyzes the Shire, Gondor and the Mark in this respect. Another considers the proverbs to be found in the writings of Tolkien, including many Tolkien originals together with others based on traditional forms. A group of Tolkien's own proverbs (spoken by various different characters) address the theme of ignorance, of lack of knowledge about things. Gandalf says to Frodo that even the wisest cannot see ultimate ends and Frodo remembers these words when he has to decide what to do with Gollum; at an intermediate point Gandalf recounts a variant to the Council of Elrond, "despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt", and Legolas, near Fangorn Forest says, "few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till they come to its end". These proverbs tell us first that you may never know your destiny, and second that others (for example enemies) have also their own problems. A further point is that one should not act on the basis of what one thinks others are doing, because this can only result in deviation, the forgetting of duty and falling into desperation. Another group of proverbs regards the idea of Providence - which for Shippey is the "ideological core" of The Lord of the Rings - and shows us how it works through people, who differ in their capacities and intentions. These various intentions, good or evil, are used for a higher-level synthesis by a superior power, and this synthesis is hidden even from the wisest: the pinnacle of wisdom is to understand the limits of wisdom itself.
The section entitled "Twigs and Branches" covers Tolkien's lesser works. In a piece on the Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Shippey comments that Tolkien thought the theme of pagan heroism had become dangerous during the time of Hitler, and this was why he felt critical of the medieval variety. He also thought that an effective image of Christian heroism was lacking, and that the spirit of the Vikings and Berserkers had again become popular and seductive at this time, just as it had ensnared many minds in centuries past, and had once more to be fought against. He therefore proposed alternative images of heroism such as Aragorn, Theoden and Sam Gamgee. Another paper is about a poem by Tolkien first called The Griphon and then re-entitled The Hoard and included in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which regards the question of "dragon sickness" or greed. A further piece concerns the question of the ways in which Smith of Wooton Major is allegorical, and to what extent. And another is on the idealized anarchy of everyday life in a similarly idealized England which is described in Mr Bliss.
The last essay deals with Peter Jackson's film trilogy. Shippey makes various observations: although 68 years ago the English might well have believed that the forces of good were quantitatively superior to those of evil (the Battle of Britain), at the beginning of the 21st century after a long period of US military supremacy, spectators need to be told that the forces of good are weakened by desperation and disunited. In order to achieve this, Jackson shows (for example) Denethor in a worse state than that described by Tolkien: the beacon that would have called for help from Rohan is not lit. Another modernization is the "democratic" role given by Jackson to Sam when he makes him prophet with a "philosophical message" who talks to Frodo at Osgiliath and even converts Faramir from his previous opinions. Jackson oversimplifies at several points when it is said that Evil could be destroyed forever, whereas in Tolkien the "wise" characters are well aware that this is impossible, since it remains latent and ready to re-emerge.
The main criticism that Shippey makes of the director concerns his handling of the Palantiri: in the book the characters are "lost" not just in the literal sense of being lost on paths in real woods, but above all in the existential sense of not knowing where they will end up or how to arrive at their destination, or even if there is a destination. Tolkien repeatedly demonstrates the disastrous effect of the use of the Palantiri (Seeing Stones) and of attempting to escape from the state of bewilderment by trying to foresee the future by making a "speculation". Too much speculation about the future in general erodes the will to act in the present. Tolkien shows that the destiny of the characters depends instead upon assistance which comes from completely unexpected directions and sources. The Palantiri lead the characters astray by causing unjustified fear, whereas the entire structure of The Lord of the Rings indicates that decisiveness and perseverance in doing what one must do (and not speculation on what is happening or will happen elsewhere) can be rewarded more than could have been hoped for. For Shippey this (and not the themes of Power or Death) is the "philosophical core" of The Lord of the Rings: Providence, a Providence which does not have dominion over free will but resides in the very decisions and actions of the characters. In Tolkien chance does not exist, and neither coincidence. Characters' understanding of events as chance or coincidence is due only to their inability to see how they are interconnected. Now, Shippey observes, Jackson first weakens the sense of " bewilderment" present in the novel (for example by narrating the entire story of the Ring from the beginning), then removes all of Tolkien's warnings against speculation, makes little use of the Palantiri and then makes a decisive error: he creates a scene in which rather than Sauron seeing Pippin and making a mistaken speculation, Pippin sees Sauron and draws a correct conclusion. Furthermore, Jackson removes Tolkien's theme of apparent coincidences (and real connections): for example the tie between Denethor's attempt to kill Faramir and the doom of Theoden becomes invisible - without Denethor's act Theoden's death would not have occurred - but Jackson hides this mechanism. Are these serious errors in Jackson's work?, Shippey asks at the end. And he concludes: in reality the great majority of readers of the book do not notice these messages, and Jackson - on the other hand - has managed to bring to the screen a considerable number of more obvious Tolkenian messages, at times going against the norms of Hollywood: the difference between "primary action" and "subsidiary action", the differences between the styles of heroism, the need for both piety and courage, the vulnerability of good, the real cost of evil; and besides, he did well in remaining faithful to the sad, mute and ambiguous finale of the original, hinting at all that in both novel and film remains unsaid.