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  • Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon
  • Jane Chance
Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, by Brian Rosebury . Basingstoke, England, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. x, 246 pp. $59.95 (hardcover) ISBN 1403915970; $19.95 (trade paperback) ISBN 1403912637.

The refusal of some contemporary critics and scholars to confirm the popular assessment of Tolkien as a major modern writer has consistently annoyed Tolkien readers in America and Great Britain over the past twenty-five years. Subsequently, following Tom Shippey's lead in papers and lectures since 1992 and in his J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century (2000), Brian Rosebury attempts to persuade these nay-sayers of Tolkien's writerly eminence once more in Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, an expanded version of his earlier book Tolkien: A Critical Assessment (1992).

In this revised edition, Rosebury's basic argument is not new: he adds to the four shorter chapters of the original (167-page) version of Tolkien: [End Page 262] A Critical Assessment two new chapters, along with a brief critical contextualization on Shippey's assessment of Tolkien as a writer. The first four chapters center (here as in the 1992 version) on the style (chapter 1) and form (chapter 2) of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's other fiction and poetry (chapter 3), and his biography and his place within the literary pantheon of the twentieth century (chapter 4). Nearly identical to the chapters in the prior edition, these four contain a few added references in the notes to recent publications by Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and a few other critics. The two new chapters center on Tolkien's range as a thinker (chapter 5) and the reception of The Lord of the Rings (chapter 6), including its filmic adaptations. At the end, Rosebury also supplies a brief recommended reading intended for the general or new reader of the epic.

Rosebury's use of Shippey at the beginning of his book is strategic. Although Rosebury praises Shippey's understanding of Tolkien's philological ingenuity, he also acknowledges Shippey's limitation: that such ingenuity "does not in itself demonstrate that the works produced are of high quality" (7). Through this clever deployment of Shippey himself as a red herring, Rosebury then proceeds in the remainder of his book to look at The Lord of the Rings aesthetically, as he previously has looked at modern fiction in Art and Desire: A Study in the Aesthetics of Fiction (1988). However, because The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth are posthumously published works—unfinished and often containing immature work—according to Rosebury they simply do not maintain the high quality of style and form found in the major work, as attested by the paucity of reviews and, of those, unfavorable ones (3).

The difference between Shippey's and Rosebury's comparison of Tolkien and his peers is that, while Shippey leans toward fantasy as the predominant twentieth-century mode of Tolkien and other writers (particularly George Orwell, William Golding, Kurt Vonnegut, T. H. White, and C. S. Lewis), Rosebury turns instead to the modernists to find aesthetic parallels. Even though Rosebury notes that Tolkien is younger than the modernist principals—for example, James Joyce—Tolkien is older than George Orwell and therefore, Rosebury concludes, in the spirit of anti-modernist social realism, Tolkien seems to belong to the dead war poets or the war survivors Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden.

Rosebury's analysis of Tolkien's style, form, and narrative in the best Leavisite fashion—and with comparison to writers such as Proust, Joyce, and Eliot—reaffirms that The Lord of the Rings is a major work. He argues that Tolkien has evolved as an artist from a "derivative archaicism" to a formal narrative design and style accessible to modern readers (147). This archaicism is rooted not so much in medieval literature proper as in a "nineteenth-century romantic antiquarianism" (147). The modernity of Tolkien's epic romance, especially, is witnessed in its parallels with the [End Page 263] novel, its realism, and its non-archaic diction and syntax (147). Rosebury elaborates by example of Tolkien's "derivative archaism" in his earliest poems and fiction (in chapter 3) and through his stylistic and formal...