A couple weeks ago, I read The Hobbit, again. This was the first time I had done so after reading Tom Shippey's masterful work, The Road to Middle Earth. (See my review in this blog -- Aug. 22, 2009.) Shippey's analysis of Biblo Baggins rang true when I read The Road, but upon reading The Hobbit, I found it spot on. Shippey argues that Bilbo Baggins functions to connect the modern reader to the mythical, magical world of Middle Earth. Bilbo is in essence a respectable 19th century bourgeois man swept away on an adventure among a wizard, dwarves, elves, and a dragon, among other strange creatures. Without Bilbo, the modern reader would find the Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, and the Lonely Mountain too alien to appreciate. It would be much like dropping into Wonderland without Alice to serve as the reader's anchor.
My appreciation for Shippey's analysis in The Road prompted me to another of his works, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, at least the section on The Hobbit. Sadly, Tolkien: Author covers very little that is not in The Road, but it was enjoyable enough that I continued beyond the chapter on The Hobbit and ended up reading the whole of the book. In retrospect, I wish I had read Shippey's two works in reverse order. Tolkien: Author provides a clearer and perhaps fuller analysis of the themes in Tolkien's main works, while The Road delves deep into the mythopoeic and philological roots of Middle Earth.
The themes Shippey explores in Tolkien: Author include Tolkien's maps, evil, eucatastrophy, allegory, and of course the way in which hobbits function to connect the reader to Middle Earth. Perhaps the most interesting insight is Shippey's application of Northrop Frye's distinctions among literary modes. Frye distinguishes five literary modes: myth, romance, high mimesis, low mimesis, and irony. Shippey identifies each mode in the Tolkien's work. This goes a long way in explaining the richness of the text and illustrating Tolkien's remarkable skill in integrating them all in a single story.
Tolkien's skill however was not born full-fledged with his first works. There is a stronge, even jarring, contrast between the irony and low mimesis of Bilbo Baggins and the romance and myth of the wood elves, Smaug the dragon, and Beorn the shape shifter in The Hobbit, while the various modes appearing in The Lord of the Rings are smoothly integrated. Notably, the lower literary modes are completely absent in Tolkien's Silmarillian works.
Shippey's chapter on Tolkien's followers and critics is among the most enjoyable chapters. Here we read criticism from the literati that so strikingly misunderstand what is at work in Tolkien's stories that it leaves you wondering if they had read anything written before the 18th century. Regarding Tolkien's followers, Shippey's account makes them all seem like dismal amateurs in comparison Tolkien's masterful understanding of the genre. Both assessments are probably close to the mark.
Forced to choose, I would recommend The Road to Middle Earth over Tolkien: Author of the Century. The former is perhaps the best work on Tolkien written. The latter is merely excellent.