Tom Shippey, a medieval lit­er­ature scholar, spoke at this weeek’s Center for Con­structive Alter­na­tives on “How to Think About Science Fiction.” Shippey has taught at the Uni­versity of Oxford, the Uni­versity of Leeds, and St. Louis Uni­versity. 

Shippey is a leading expect on British author J.R.R. Tolkien. He spoke to The Col­legian about the author of “The Lord of The Rings,” the appeal of fantasy and science fiction, and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ pop­u­larity at Oxford Uni­versity.

How does academia gen­erally view J.R.R. Tolkien? 

It’s a very com­bative area. Every time there was a reader’s poll of the most popular book of the century, Tolkien always won. Except once, when actually you were allowed to nom­inate the Bible. So he got beaten by the Bible. Well, fair enough.

The reaction to this by the self-appointed scholars and critics was ter­ribly hostile. I’d have people say to me, “You can’t read Tolkien. The man can’t write. He just can’t write sen­tences.” And I thought, “That’s just stupid. It’s par­tic­u­larly stupid because Tolkien was a pro­fessor of the English lan­guage, so he could have told anybody any­thing they wanted to know about the con­struction of sen­tences, or the proper use of non-finite verbs, or any­thing like that, without thinking twice. And he was being crit­i­cized by people who didn’t know any­thing about that at all. In a way it was kind of insane.

My second book on Tolkien was called “Tolkien: Author of the Century,” and that was just me being provocative. And I thought, you know, if this is a fight, let’s get on with it. So that’s the polemic side of it.

You studied and taught Old English, as well as learning Old Norse, German, and Latin.  What do you value in studying lan­guages, and how do you feel it helped you under­stand Tolkien better?

I think lan­guage opens up whole new areas of human expe­rience, so I think studying lan­guages is just good in itself. As for Tolkien, he himself was some­thing of a lin­guistic freak. You know, you have musical freaks and math­e­matical freaks, and he was really a bit of a lan­guage freak. Tolkien was the only person I know — apart from me, maybe — who could actually really take genuine enjoyment from reading the tele­phone book. He read the tele­phone book because he liked names. And he liked names because he liked to figure out what their ety­mology was, you know, what they derived from, at which he was very good. And I think that sense of the way that lan­guages change and the kind of root­edness of them was a very big part of “The Lord of the Rings” and indeed of “The Hobbit.”

How would you describe Tolkien’s per­son­ality, for those who have dreamed of meeting him?

I’d say he was a nice old guy. He was very gen­tle­manly and cour­teous. But when I knew him, he’d been shot over a bit too much. I mean, he’d been inter­viewed so many times that he got wary and cau­tious, and he’d gotten a bit tired of answering the same ques­tions, I guess. So I was very careful not to ask them and talk to him about some­thing else, which I think he took as a great sort of relief. Everybody else was trying to dig some­thing out of him, and I — well, I would have liked to do it — but I thought it was rude, so I didn’t. We talked about other things.

Were you involved with the “Making of Lord of the Rings” doc­u­men­taries?

Yes, the back-up DVDs for the movies have me all over them like a nasty rash, and of course, I also had quite a lot of video inter­views and things like that for the doc­u­men­taries. Lots of them. More than I can remember.

You also had per­sonal expe­rience with C. S. Lewis, correct?

I suppose I could claim to be one of Lewis’ very last stu­dents. I went to his very last set of lec­tures at Cam­bridge Uni­versity, which would have been early 1963, I think.  He was one of the two best lec­turers I ever heard. He was very infor­mative. He was also extremely clear and well-orga­nized; he talked slowly, and he gave you ref­er­ences, which you could write down so that you could look things up for yourself. The course of the lec­tures I heard was even­tually pub­lished from his notes. Somebody wrote his notes up into a book. You could have written the book from my notes. It was, in a way, the most useful set of lec­tures I ever went to. He lec­tured on Edmund Spenser, the 16th-century poet. Somebody about whom I knew nothing. I’d read him, but I found him baf­fling and bewil­dering. I lis­tened to Lewis, and I thought, “Well, I’m beginning to catch on now.”

Weren’t both Lewis and Tolkien unpopular with the Oxford Uni­versity English department?

The accu­sation against Tolkien was that he was lazy, that he did not do his job. That wasn’t true, but it was true that his mind was often else­where. I should think he was the guy who would turn up at the faculty meeting and forget what they were talking about. I wouldn’t be sur­prised.

Lewis, on the other hand, was the kind of guy who, if he thought of some­thing funny to say, no matter how wounding it was, he would say it. He started trouble just for fun. Many of his little jokes were remem­bered bit­terly by people who had been the objects of them.

Why would you rec­ommend reading science fiction or fantasy to the average person? What do you think can be gleaned from it?

Well, there are kind of two dif­ferent cat­e­gories. I’d rec­ommend fantasy first because it’s fun. Second, because the theme which ani­mates much modern fantasy is the nature of evil. Every major author of fantasy in the last 50 years or so has had a dif­ferent idea about it. Strangely, they really are all dif­ferent because they’re trying to under­stand a phe­nomenon for which there is no accepted expla­nation. So that’s why I’d do that. I think you’ve got to read science fiction actually to have some idea of what has been going on, is going on, and what might — well, we know some­thing is going to happen in the future, we don’t know what it is — but at least you should read science fiction because it makes you psy­cho­log­i­cally pre­pared for inevitable change.