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© 2009/2010 Festival in the Shire Journal. All rights reserved.

The Shippey Interview
Corey Olsen

“Of course there has been a great deal of criticism of my claims for Tolkien, much of it very bitter.”

Corey Olsen (a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor) interviewed Tom Shippey especially for Festival in the Shire Journal. Professor Shippey has written several ground-breaking studies which have led the way in Tolkien studies throughout the world, and will be a keynote speaker at the Festival. Like Tom Shippey, Corey is a specialist in medieval literature, and his research interests include the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Morte Darthur of Sir Thomas Malory, and, of course, Tolkien. He currently lectures in the English Department of Washington College, a delightful little liberal-arts college in Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Here he teaches courses on Chaucer, courtly love, Arthurian literature, the Bible, Greco-Roman mythology, and a full-semester course on the works of Tolkien.

CO: The similarity between your scholarly background and Tolkien’s, and even the overlap in your professional appointments, is well known. Many readers are aware of Tolkien’s scholarly work on Old English, but most lack the background really to appreciate the impact that Anglo-Saxon had on Tolkien’s work. As an Anglo-Saxon scholar, what strikes you as the most important ways in which Old English language and literature influenced Tolkien’s writings?

TS: I think Old English affected Tolkien in two almost contradictory ways. On the one hand, he felt a very strong sense of loss. So much of what survives in OE is of limited modern interest (derivative and low-quality homilies); some of the most interesting texts, like The Finnsburg Fragment, The Battle of Maldon, Waldere, are mere fragments; even the main surviving original poem, Beowulf, is full of unanswered questions and “untold tales”. However, and on the other hand, this situation prompted an overwhelming urge to fill the gap: to imagine the lost tales and the lost mythology, and to search through what does survive for any kind of hint at all, even hints buried in single words, that would help to reconstruct the lost world. Sometimes this goes straight into the fiction, as the ceremonial for approach to Theoden in Meduseld is based on the approach to Hrothgar in Beowulf. Sometimes it is more roundabout: much of the march-discipline of the Riders is based on Tolkien’s deductions about the implications of words in the poem Exodus, describing the march of the Israelites towards the Red Sea.

CO: You’ve participated at Oxford and Leeds in an academic struggle in which Tolkien himself was engaged for much of his career: the conflict between philologists and literary critics. I’ve heard you make a connection (which I loved) between this struggle and the long, bitter, subterranean war between the dwarves and the orcs in the Misty Mountains. What was at stake there, and how do you think it impacted Tolkien’s work?

TS: What was at stake in the War of the Philologists and the Critics was (on an ascending scale of gravity), (1) the place of philology, and of language study, and of historical language study, in the university curriculum of English Studies departments; (2) the definition of literature, and the issue of who was to define it, who was to say what is and is not “literary” and “canonical” (there are many ironies here, not least the way in which the actual “canon” has shrunk, while critics protest their love of diversity); (3) the survival in educated awareness of the achievements of comparative philology, the breakthrough subject of the humanities in the nineteenth century, with effects on history, anthropology, philosophy and all forms of language study; and (4) the attitude of educators and policy-makers (including politicians) to teaching use of language. The debate on this is now conducted on a level which mostly has not got to the stage of being wrong! This has unmeasurable effects on the way language is taught and learned at all levels.

CO: I know you are interested in Jacob Grimm and his mythology. What can Tolkien readers take from Grimm, and how does Grimm’s understanding of mythology compare to Tolkien’s?

TS: The main similarities between Grimm and Tolkien are that neither of them could see how or why one would separate language study from literary study, and that both of them instinctively thought historically. Grimm was wrong in one respect, namely his belief (or wish) that one could reconstruct a single consistent Northern mythology from the bits and pieces left over in the different languages of North West Europe: there probably never was one. Tolkien, I think, would have LIKED to believe that, but knew it was no longer tenable as a theory.

CO: You’ve done a lot of work lately on medievalism, the perception and representation of the Middle Ages in the world. What, do you think, are the biggest ways in which the modern image of the Middle Ages has changed since the beginning of the twentieth century, and what role do you think Tolkien has played in those changes?

TS: I think there are now a number of images of the Middle Ages in circulation, not consistent with each other. There’s the Viking one; and the Arthurian one; and the Crusades one; and the Druids one; and so on. One big difference is that the late nineteenth-century view of history as steady moral progress from barbarism has been checked by two world wars. People feel a lot closer, for example, to the idea of Arthur as an end-of-civilisation war-leader trying to hold off collapse, just because trying to hold things together in the aftermath of imperial collapse was for many European writers part of their own experience. A more recent trend has been to try to deny the whole idea of collapse (specifically the collapse of Rome) in favour of an image of growing European political unity, now of course being brought to fruition in the European Union. There are American versions of this sort of thing as well. Essentially, people tend to read themselves back into the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages are continually re-invented to fit contemporary wishes and anxieties. As for Tolkien, I think his major contribution has not been to medievalism so much as to what lay behind it, his reconstruction of the world of fairy-tale (which I prefer to call the wonder-tale): Grimm with a map and a chronology, you might say.

CO: Even in my own little English department, I’ve gotten some resistance from some of my colleagues as I have tried to add Tolkien to our curriculum. You’ve made some pretty big claims for Tolkien’s work in your writings, especially J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. How much criticism have you received in response? Have you found that championing Tolkien has made things more difficult for you in the academy?

TS: Well, of course there has been a great deal of criticism of my claims for Tolkien, much of it very bitter. And this has certainly had adverse career effects within the academy: I remember being interviewed for a prestigious chair of English Language, which it would have been an honour to go to (if a financial loss), and having bits of my “Afterword” to Road to Middle-earth read out to me by someone who was clearly worried by it – he thought I might restart the war of the Philologists and the Critics, and maybe this time win it. I didn’t get the Chair, and nor did anyone else: they decided the whole subject was just too dangerous or unproductive. I console myself with the old proverb (I believe it comes from the Pashtun), “the insult of the enemy is tribute to the brave”.

CO: Do you think the attitude towards Tolkien studies is changing in academic circles? Are there any changes that you would expect to see develop in the near future?

TS: The attitude to Tolkien is certainly changing, but for rather discreditable reasons. Enrolment in the humanities has dropped badly all over the USA, and will do so in the UK as well once students start figuring out how much a degree will cost them, and what they’re going to get from it, especially in departments of English Studies. So the academics are being dragged along, reluctantly, by the strongly-communicated wishes of their students. You have to fill your courses, or your job is at risk! Tolkien is a course-filler. What I would like to see is a genuine attempt to expand the notion of “literature” to include mass-market genres like fantasy, and science fiction as well, one which would include theoretical approaches, and derive the theory from the practice instead of deriding the practice for not fitting the theory. Aurë entuluva.

CO: What advice would you give to undergraduates who would like to study Tolkien further and are considering graduate school?

TS: It’s very difficult. You just have to look for a school which contains SOMEONE prepared to take this kind of study sympathetically. I would also recommend having two strings to one’s bow: medievalism, for instance (which would include Tolkien, but many other authors as well), plus something more mainstream, like Victorian Studies – or History of the Language, which remains a curriculum requirement in many places without anyone being very interested in teaching it.

CO: You’ve said that you have “felt that it was time to appeal over the heads of the academic community to a much more receptive wider readership”. How has this outlook influenced your academic career?

TS: To be honest, appealing to a wider readership means being sidelined academically. On the other hand, during my career, academics in areas like literary criticism have been pushed further and further to the sidelines of the culture as a whole. Derisory print runs, shrinking enrolments, lack of interest from genuine organs of intellectual culture like New York Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement. See the very funny (if sad) book by Victor Hanson and his friends, Bonfire of the Humanities.

CO: The Festival in the Shire is shaping up to be quite a remarkable event. What are you most excited about as you look forward to it?

TS: Well, this is probably too narrow an answer, but I look forward to hearing the views of new and original scholars like Dimitra Fimi. There is a lot to say about Tolkien that I have never even thought of, and that will be good to hear.

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