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Reviewed by:
  • The Road to Middle-earth, Revised and Expanded Edition
  • Gergely Nagy
The Road to Middle-earth, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Tom Shippey . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. xviii, 398 pp. $13.00 (trade paperback) ISBN 0618257608.

New editions of important books, often revised or expanded, have recently started to be issued in Tolkien studies as in other academic fields. Such important new editions include Verlyn Flieger's Splintered Light, Jane Chance's two books on Tolkien, and A Tolkien Compass, a significant early collection edited by Jared Lobdell. While it makes texts available again, this practice also offers authors (or editors like Lobdell) opportunity to reconsider, elaborate, and bring up to date their arguments; considering the number of posthumously published Tolkien texts, this is frequently a fruitful rethinking. Tom Shippey also used the occasion of the republication of The Road to Middle-earth to present a book that is essentially the same, and yet different. This is the good old Road (which, as we know, goes ever on and on), but also a new and even more usable one.

Neither Tom Shippey nor The Road to Middle-earth needs to be introduced to any Tolkien scholar on this planet. Since its first publication in 1982, Road has become emblematic of one of the ways serious critical consideration of Tolkien (often called the "source-study" approach, although perhaps "comparative study" would be more appropriate) was imagined to be, and supplied a thorough introduction to numerous Tolkien scholars and readers. It has been called "the single best thing written on Tolkien." Despite the number of works written on Tolkien (including articles and another book by Shippey himself), the status of Road as the seminal monograph is not likely to be shaken.

This review will deal with the book's themes and arguments only very briefly; it aims at pointing out what is new in this "revised and expanded edition." Shippey rewrote sections in the book, and added some others that make the argument fuller and more up-to-date. The structure changed only in minor details; these generally derive from the integration of separately published material into the argument of Road, which considerably enlarges its horizon. As in Shippey's 2001 book, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (to which there are several explicit links inserted), Tolkien is here too considered as a post-war writer, the emphasis on the contemporary relevance complementing the overwhelming stress on the "diachronic" aspect of studying Tolkien, and this "synchronic" addition makes Road a book of wider scope.

It nevertheless remains a deeply historical work, the best explanation of how Tolkien's medievalist occupation determines and comments on his literary achievement. The history and conceptual tools of comparative philology ground this interpretation, and Shippey's cogent and concise analyses, started from linguistic-philological cruces that supplied the [End Page 258] sparks for Tolkien's creativity, pieced together and argued with great logical rigor, are as convincing as twenty years ago. The main themes remain the method of reconstruction, Tolkienian "depth," and the philologist's fascination with words, meanings, and histories, shooting out imaginative side-branches into "asterisk-reality." In the treatment of The Silmarillion (now with a useful and succinct introductory section on how "the Silmarillion" tradition developed) and the "History of Middle-earth" the parallel between Tolkien's many versions and the textual corpora of philological work is shown up as a logical consequence of this creative method. Attention to the variants of the corpus complements the argument at a number of points, expanding discussions of the "cartographic plot" of The Lord of the Rings or of the Beren story. But I believe Shippey's interpretation of some of the "History of Middle-earth" as "ox-bones" (290) does not assign full importance to this corpus; when Tolkien (in "On Fairy-Stories") says that the "soup" is the "story as it is served up by its author or teller," it is not necessarily "stories in their final forms, as 'served up' or published" (290) that he means. The comment can refer to any individual version in which the story appears, and thus the very complex of (even the unfinished) versions becomes...