Just finished The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (Houghton Mifflin, rev. ed., 2003) by Tom Shippey, himself a professor of English language. Shippey is a sympathetic critic trying to rescue Tolkien from the obloquy heaped on him by two generations of literary critics who were simply not equipped to understand or evaluate the roots and the context of Tolkien's creation. He created his own genre, a singular achievement that precious few authors manage even with a chorus full of literati cheering them on. Three brief points on what went into the unique mix of Tolkien as an author:
- THE WAR - Tolkien fought in the trenches in World War I. He returned, but the war cost him his closest friends, the young scholars who were his college friends but died in the muddy fields of France. Tolkien came by his battle scenes honestly.
- CATHOLICISM - Tolkien was a lifelong and dedicated Catholic. While it was early remarked that the peoples of Middle-Earth appeared to lack religion, the later (sometimes posthumous) publication of Tolkien's additional writing makes it clear that in subtle ways his Catholicism did influence the world he created. For example, men were fallen in Middle-Earth, but not elves, not even the "wood elves," those who did not visit the West.
- LANGUAGES AND TEXTS - He was a professor of English language, meaning Middle English, Old English, and all that. He could read Beowulf in the original (in fact, he was the one who established Beowulf in the eyes of critics) and, like the Christian poet of Beowulf, was himself a Christian author telling epic tales of a pre-Christian era.
SHIPPEY DISCUSSES HOW TOLKIEN created depth for the stories of the Third Age (LOTR and The Hobbit) by having a preexisting body of tales and languages from earlier ages to draw on. One glimpses the languages, tales, and poems at places in the narrative, but only in bits and pieces. Shippey calls this sense of an entire world behind the story depth, "a sense that the author knew more than he was telling, that behind his immediate story there was a coherent, consistent, deeply fascinating world about which he had no time (then) to speak" (p. 229). It is depth which gives much of the magic to LOTR, as when Gandalf, in a desperate moment, proclaims he is the "servant of the secret fire, wielder of the flame of Arnor."
One must distinguish between real depth (present in the ancient literature texts Tolkien the professor studied) and created depth (present in LOTR because of the languages and prior tales Tolkien the author created). Perhaps the word verisimilitude, the quality of having the appearance of truth (or, here, the appearance of depth), captures the successful effect of created depth.
I FIND THE CONCEPT OF DEPTH useful in considering the Book of Mormon, which displays a good deal more depth than its early critics (or even its early defenders) recognized. Whether it is the real depth of an authentic text or the somehow-created depth of a 19th-century text is a question that has received a good deal of discussion in Mormon Studies in recent years (although not in these terms). It should be noted that since there were 116 pages of the 'Book of Lehi' that were written down then lost, the Book of Mormon text as we have it has some real depth under any scenario. A related notion is that verisimilitude is not enough to make a case for real depth because the appearance of depth in a text (standing alone) can be created.