Symmetry and meaning in Lord of the Rings

Tom Shippey’s overall argument (in JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century)  involves explaining the consistency in Tolkien, against charges by CN Manlove for example (in Modern Fantasy and elsewhere). Manlove argues that Tolkien’s conception of evil is inconsistent, that the Ring does not affect everyone equally nor does it do what it is supposed to do (destroy Frodo’s mind, for example). Shippey notes that Tolkien began Fellowship with little sense of the overall story and that, as a result (he discovers after studying drafts of the text in The History of Middle Earth), often in the first book certain things are less than they come to be. For example, he notes that the Black Riders are not nearly so frightening, and that they do not appear powerful as they move through the Shire. Manlove also notes this inconsistency. (I thought this was partially explained by the fact that Sauron had not yet refound much power and that the Riders therefore were lacking at this point; however, it is strange that they did not use a bit more force as capturing the ring would have solved the problem of a lack of power.) In any case, Shippey notes this inconsistency and, while not exactly excusing it, makes clear that it might be a result of the writing process Tolkien went through.

However, in the overall argument Shippey seems to do too much to make everything in LotR explained and explainable. Whereas Manlove goes too far demanding explanations he thinks are impossible to find, Shippey goes too far I think in finding them. This is not to say that either is wrong. Manlove is operating under assumptions of “literature”, namely the realist novel. Shippey is operating from a position of deep knowledge  (that Manlove would not have had access to in 1976, even if he would have wanted it, which is unclear): that knowledge provided him by the publication of the History of Middle Earth and seemingly having know Tolkien. Shippey also “benefits” from his training in philology, and therefore his attention to the languages of Middle Earth. In both cases, however, the question of explanation is problematic if we want the text to do something other than what literature does.

For, it seems, that Manlove is content to exclude Tolkien from literature (and indeed most if not all fantasy, even if some, such as Peake, is better than others–he says Tolkien is the worst in Modern Fantasy). And, it seems, Shippey desires to place Tolkien in an expanded field of literature, one not guarded by critics such as Manlove, but one dedicated to the complexity of the individual work and the voice of public opinion. But, again, to do more the work of fantasy cannot rest on the commonplace, cannot be for or against literature, but must be other than it, must refute the Generic not directly, as in historical conflict, but by existing either beyond its horizon or by escaping (forever escaping, never escaped) over that horizon even as the world turns and meridians pass under our feet and thereby we include ever more within the known.


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