Some time ago, I started a chapter-by-chapter re-read of The Lord of the Rings, supplemented by reading works of criticism. Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology was highly recommended for this project, and I dutifully bought it . . . and left it sitting on the shelf when my re-read stalled out seven chapters in.
I'm gearing up to resume the re-read, and started with Road. Because I was reading to gain insight into The Lord of the Rings, I found the first couple of chapters somewhat rough going. In brief, Shippey's thesis is that the foundation of Tolkien's fiction is his deep attachment to philology, or the comparitive study of languages to understand their evolution: this instilled twin awarenesses of continuing history and continuing linguistic change and gave him a vehicle to create a mythology for England. Which is fine, though the languages are the aspect of Middle-earth that I'm least interested in (well, after the calendars). But it takes most of the first chapter to even arrive at a definition of philology—after, of course, the apparently-obligatory discussion of LotR's poor critical reception. And then chapter two traces the early roots of Tolkien's interest in philology and English myth, down to a two-page attempt to identify a Roman road referred to in a poem by, not Tolkein, but his friend.
I did a lot of skimming of the first two chapters, in other words. I'm just not the audience for them.
My patience was rewarded when the book began to analyze the fiction set in Middle-earth. The chapter on The Hobbit is both interesting in its own right and has useful observations applicable to LotR, such as how Tolkien's portrayal of elves and dwarves attempted to synthesize their varied mythological characteristics.
For my purposes, the meat of the book is the three chapters on LotR, which I found helpful. Some of the points were the "oh, of course" types that crystalize things that I'd recognized but never articulated, while others stemmed from history or literature that I wasn't familiar with. For instance, I didn't know that the Riders of Rohan were almost identical to the Anglo-Saxons, with the exceptions of having horses and not having religion. And while I'd vaguely recognized that religious observances are oddly absent from LotR, I hadn't understood that was because Tolkien was attempting to preserve the characters' status as virtuous pre-Christian pagans.
The most useful piece of crystalizing analysis was a broad synthesis of theme, structure, and style. Here's my attempt at summarizing: the portrayal of good and evil, and the book's interlaced plot structure, heighten tension and provide an opportunity to dramatize a theory of virtue, particularly courage. For instance, the nature of evil is deliberately ambiguous, between the orthodox Christian view that evil has no independent existence but is simply the absence of good, and the Manichaean heresy that good and evil are equal and the universe is a battlefield between them (e.g., the Ring can be read as either a "psychic amplifier" or a "sentient creature"). This ambiguity heightens tension by making characters' decisions more complicated. Supernatural good, conversely, is portrayed more weakly as luck or chance, which has a similar tension-heightening effect, but also preserves a space for characters to make decisions and exercise free will. And the interlaced structure of The Two Towers and The Return of the King does three things: allows for surprise and cliffhangers; gives readers a bigger picture that suggests an underlying structure or sense to events; but requires characters to make decisions based on incomplete information, to the same effect as the portrayal of good. These efforts are supported by the book's style, which uses the hobbits as a bridge between modern expectations and the book's mythical and romantic aspects (in the terminology of The Anatomy of Criticism).
I doubt this summary does the argument justice, but I did find it a useful illumination of aspects of the book I'd noticed but not fully articulated to myself.
Finally, Road discusses The Silmarillion, Tolkien's non-LotR fiction, and The History of Middle-earth, which are the twelve volumes of drafts and unpublished material edited by Christopher Tolkien. I went back to skimming these, as The Silmarillion makes me cranky and I haven't read the other works discussed.
In its entirety, this book is not for everyone, but as literary criticism of LotR, I was glad to have read it.
[Cross-posted to my booklog.]