Cross-posted with a few changes to the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza boards.
The Road To Middle-Earth
I finally got around to reading Shippey's The Road To Middle-Earth all the way through, after owning my copy for about five years.
First of all, I thought it was a really good look at Tolkien's ideas and the backdrops for his ideas and writing. Tom Shippey has a different perspective on Tolkien from some of the other books I've read, probably due to his background in the same academic fields.
The time Shippey spent throughout the book examining languages and cultures as they are reflected in the LOTR was time well spent in my opinion.
There were some portions of the book that more or less flew over my head, such as the debate on Manichean vs Boethe philosophy as it concerned the Ring and the nature of Evil in Tolkien's writings. I just don't know enough about either concept to really have it all make sense. However, the way Shippey put it, his conclusions make a lot of sense.
I'm not sure I agree with his opinion that "non-human characters of The Lord of the Rings are natural objects", (p. 132 or "A Cartographic Plot) at least not in the example of the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog, which he uses. I'd always viewed that fight somewhat differently. Gandalf was already shown as having abilities with fire and light, as did the balrog. In that, yes, they could be seen as "natural objects", but to the distant observer well, the damage to the mountain was described as pretty extreme. Wouldn't the crumbling stone sound rather like thunder to that distant observer?
That's how I interpreted it anyway every time I read that scene.
There are also a couple of pages in the chapter 'Interlacements and The Ring' which go very well with that thread a while back on proverbs in the LOTR.
Shippey also spends quite a bit of time on the character of Saruman, raising a number of interesting points.
I thought Shippey's assessment of character traits being inherited in the Silmarillion was interesting, and makes sense the way he explains it. Again it comes from the older sources Tolkien knew so well.
One thing Shippey spends a lot of time on throughout the book is an emphasis on the language Tolkien used in his writings, picking up on secondary meanings and language shifts of specific words. A good example of this is in the pages on Doom in the chapter "Visions and Revisions". Also, though and this was something I'd never really thought on, just accepted is the care Tolkien took at the different types of language used, such as the speech modes of Rohan, vs. that of the hobbits.
Another thought provoking section was that looking at Tolkien's writings on The Lost Road. Shippey interprets this as writings on death and paradise. I'm not too sure how I feel about that interpretation, as The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers (the second especially) is one of my favourite of Tolkien's unfinished stories. Still, it's something to think about next time I re-read them.
Shippey weaves throughout this book the criticisms laid against the Lord of the Rings and examines what the critics said, often disproving their claims completely.
Other Tolkien related book reviews I've posted here:
Mr Bliss - J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien And The Great War - John Garth
Sigurd And Gudrun - J.R.R. Tolkien