Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey’s latest book is Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings.

The young Edward was one of a throng of half-brothers, both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish (while he himself was Anglo-Norman), intent on killing one another. When his Anglo-Saxon half-brother Edmund Ironside died, 11-year-old Edward had to be hurried out of the country before his Anglo-Danish relatives came looking for him. For the next twenty or so years he lived abroad at the court of his cousin, Robert of Normandy. He and Alfred remained, however, the last known representatives of ‘the royal blood’ of England. Edward’s chance came in 1041, by which time Harold Harefoot had died and Harthacnut, half-brother to both Harold and Edward, would die the following year. Facing no immediate contender, he came to the throne in 1042. Edward could be forgiven if by this time he was irrevocably paranoid. Was he accordingly reluctant to do much in this world, hoping for salvation in the next?

Over​ the last forty years, academics have tried, without much success, to superimpose the idea of the Vikings as peaceful traders on the berserkers-and-horned-helmets tradition. There is little disagreement about the events of the Viking Age or its timeline, stretching from 8 June 793 (the unexpected raid on Lindisfarne) to 25 September 1066, when King Haraldr Harðráði,...

The Staffordshire Hoard​, discovered by the metal detectorist Terry Herbert on 5 July 2009, presents far more of a puzzle to archaeologists and historians than the other famous Anglo-Saxon discovery, at Sutton Hoo. The start of the puzzle is working out what is there. The hoard weighs in at about five kilos of gold and almost two kilos of silver, and some claim you could pack it into a...

Throw your testicles: Medieval Bestiaries

Tom Shippey, 19 December 2019

Medieval people​ lived in much closer proximity to animals than most of us do today, but had less sense of their variety. Who in 12th-century England would have seen an elephant or a crocodile? Tales filtered back from Crusaders and distant travellers of a giant herbivore with a nose so long and pliable that it could pick up men and seat them on its back, and of an armour-plated carnivore...

So Much Smoke: King Arthur

Tom Shippey, 20 December 2018

Modern academic historians​ want nothing to do with King Arthur. ‘There is no historical evidence about Arthur; we must reject him from our histories and, above all, from the titles of our books,’ David Dumville wrote in 1977; and he was backed up by, for instance, J.N.L. Myres in 1986: ‘No figure on the borderline of history and mythology has wasted more of the...

The two words​ of Max Adams’s title are in a way antithetical. Alfred is the only English king to be referred to regularly as ‘the Great’, and once upon a time the reason was well known to everyone.* It was because, early in the year 878, hiding out incognito in a peasant’s hut in the Somerset Levels, he ‘burned the cakes’. Some 12 years before,...

Levi Roach​’s book is an attempt to redeem the reputation of Æthelred II, king of England, with one interruption, from 978 to 1016. This is a hard task, as the book’s title concedes: Æthelred has been known as ‘the Unready’ for around a thousand years. Ever since 1066 and All That (originally a parody of Oxford University exam papers) he has also been...

At the start​ of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, Chaucer has the Wife declare that her tale is set long ago, in the days of King Arthur. Back then the land was ‘fulfild of fayerye’, and the elf queen danced with her company in the green meadows. But that’s all over now. The elves and fairies have been driven out by the friars, who have blanketed the country...

Little Brits: Murder on Hadrian’s Wall

Tom Shippey, 19 November 2015

‘What​ have the Romans ever done for us?’ John Cleese asks in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. His audience, not realising his question is rhetorical, replies: aqueducts, sanitation, medicine, public order, etc etc. Guy de la Bédoyère, on the other hand, doesn’t need a list: the Romans’ most important legacy, he suggests in his new book, is literacy,...

Icelandic sagas​ are a strange anomaly in the literature of medieval Europe. There are ‘legendary sagas’ such as The Saga of the Volsungs; biographies of the Norwegian kings, brought into one sweeping cycle in Snorri Sturluson’s mammoth Heimskringla (The Circle of the World); and a gloomy compilation called The Saga of the Sturlungs, which recounts the violent break-up of...

Jigsaw Mummies: Pagan Britain

Tom Shippey, 6 November 2014

The history​ of paganism in Britain spans more than thirty thousand years, almost the whole time that humans have inhabited these islands, bar a few state-enforced Christian centuries in the medieval and early modern periods. It also takes in many different kinds of belief, for some of which we have written records – Roman, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse – while others are known...

The Way of the Warrior: Vikings

Tom Shippey, 3 April 2014

Vikings are here again, thanks to the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend (until 22 June). The problem for the exhibition’s organisers – and for Philip Parker, whose book The Northmen’s Fury seems designed to tie in with it – is that we know too much about Vikings already. We know what they looked like: big, hairy, threatening, wearing horned helmets as...

Rough Wooing: Queen Matilda

Tom Shippey, 17 November 2011

Queens and female rulers of the early Middle Ages have claimed a good deal of attention in recent years, and deserve to receive more. Of several books about or inspired by Queen Emma, wife successively of Æthelræd ‘the Unready’ and Canute ‘the Great’, the best is Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith (1997), which brackets Emma with her...

Robin Fleming’s history is Volume II in the Penguin History of Britain, for which the general editor, David Cannadine, ‘laid down three inviolable rules’: no footnotes, no historiography (that is, no discussion of the ebb and flow of historical opinion), and make it accessible to everyone, general readers, students and professional historians alike (in other words,...

No Surrender: Vikings

Tom Shippey, 22 July 2010

Robert Ferguson’s title has already been used at least twice for Viking-related works, which makes one wonder about his subtitle: what’s ‘new’ in Viking studies? The history of the Vikings has been well known, in outline, for a long time. By early medieval standards, we have very good documentation for it, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Frankish and Irish annals,...

Bardism: The Druids

Tom Shippey, 9 July 2009

When I first met Ronald Hutton, at a conference in Montana ten years ago, he remarked that if you looked at a modern book on druids, what you were likely to find was a number of chapters about ancient druids – about whom we know very little – followed by a perfunctory coda on modern druids, about whom we know a great deal. Wasn’t this, he asked, obviously the wrong way...

It is not only the most familiar date in English history, it also marks in many minds, even educated ones, the start of it. Before 1066 there were just those tedious Anglo-Saxons, whose public image was all too memorably fixed by the minor characters in Ivanhoe: Athelstane, last survivor of the old Anglo-Saxon royal line (fat, bone-idle), its last partisan Cedric (hopelessly conservative,...

Act like Men, Britons! Celticity

Tom Shippey, 31 July 2008

The legend of King Arthur must be the most enduring legacy of the Middle Ages. Everyone knows it: children, scholars, readers of comic books, movie-makers. The scenes and motifs associated with it – Excalibur, the Round Table, the adultery of Guinevere, the return to Avalon – are more familiar than anything linked to real medieval kings. Many people, furthermore, believe in King...

Gloomy/Cheerful: Norse mythology

Tom Shippey, 3 January 2008

Norse myths are probably more familiar than classical ones in the modern world, perhaps even more familiar than the Old Testament stories Europeans were once brought up on. That is remarkable when one considers the almost vanished literature on which our knowledge of the myths is based. We would know virtually nothing of the tradition of Eddic poetry, with its stories of Thor and Odin and...

I lerne song: medieval schooling

Tom Shippey, 22 February 2007

Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Schools is something of a capstone on a long scholarly career devoted to the history of education, running from his English Schools in the Middle Ages (1973) to Medieval Children (2001), and taking in thirty other studies listed in the bibliography, most of them the product of detailed archival research. It is accordingly rather a cheek for a reviewer to take...

The Anglo-Saxons had no libraries in the sense that we understand the word: rooms, or better still buildings, dedicated to the storage of books. St Aldhelm of Malmesbury wrote a Latin riddle with the title arca libraria, but what that means is, clearly, ‘book-box’. Very few Anglo-Saxons had access to enough books to warrant even a bookshelf. As Michael Lapidge tells us, they kept...

‘Viking Age Iceland’ makes as much sense as ‘Victorian America’. The Viking Age began, as far as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was concerned, in 789, when the port-reeve of Dorchester saw three strange ships in Portland harbour and rode down to collect harbour-dues, as he had presumably done many times before. But on this occasion he discovered, fatally for himself, that...

It’s a hard life these days for a naval historian. His readers, brought up on Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey, know all about the technicalities and the details of the service already. Stuffed with explanations of loggerheads and bitter ends, capable of laughing at jokes about dog-watches and sailing on a bowline, they will neither turn a hair nor shift a backstay when faced by sentences like, ‘Nevertheless the performance of a large, especially a taunt sail to windward will always be limited by the difficulty of controlling the weather leach.’ They will nod understandingly and wonder why the three-masted rig, with topsails and topgallants, was not introduced earlier.‘

In some respects The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a classic Post-Modern text. For one thing, it does not exist. It is a ‘construct’ of much later historians, obsessed with the discovery/invention/creation of a ‘national Chronicle’ as opposed to ‘merely local annals’, to quote the most influential of them, Charles Plummer, whose 1899 edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has still, significantly or ominously, not been replaced. Since the Chronicle is a Post-Modern work, even this brief account contains slurrings or inaccuracies, but one could press on by saying that even if it didn’t exist before, it certainly does now. No modern historical work on the period is without its long index entry on Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while the libraries of the world contain scores, if not thousands of books with that title on their spines, the product of equally large numbers of scholars. So of course ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ exists. You could argue that it is a product of later English scholars rather than of Anglo-Saxons, but you could not deny that Anglo-Saxons wrote it, or them, or at least the words out of which it has been made. So, to put it Post-Modernly, what is this Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and what do we mean by ‘wrote’? How is the complexity which underlies the familiar three-word title to be presented in a manner true enough to be useful and simple enough to follow?


Tom Shippey, 12 December 1996

What is the secret of Stonehenge? Bonnie Gaunt, the author of Stonehenge, a Closer Look: The Mystery and Marvel of the World’s Greatest Wonder (1980), says that if you align the Heel Stone and the rising of the Passover Moon, and see where the line intersects the Aubrey Circle of post-holes, then the date-points indicated are the spring of 3473 BC and the spring of 33 AD. ‘Jesus hung upon a lonely cross atop Golgotha’s hill on the afternoon of 3 April 33 AD,’ at the age of 33, while 3473 BC was the date when Enoch (also translated in the body) reached the same age. And the symmetries of Stonehenge are also those of ‘the Great Pyramid, the New Jerusalem and the universe’. If one starts from the premise that scientists have discovered almost everything there is to know, the likelihood that there are connections between the little bits that aren’t known begins to seem very high. So flying saucers come from the Bermuda Triangle, the Pyramids must confirm the Resurrection and crop circles arise on ley lines. Stonehenge, alas, is part of this mysterious periphery, which makes it very hard for someone writing about it to be taken seriously.


Tom Shippey, 23 May 1996

Star Trek is a phenomenon, no doubt about it. Since 1966 we’ve had the original series, the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (now in its fourth year) and Voyager (now in its second). There were 263 hours available for viewing in 1994, with more appearing all the time, seven feature films, and over one hundred titles in the novelisation series, of which 35 have made it into the New York Times bestseller list. With judicious channel-switching you can watch Star Trek pretty well all the time on American TV, and there are no doubt people who do. You might feel like saying to such ‘Trekkers’ – as, famously and unforgivably, Bill Shatner, the original Captain Kirk, did – ‘get a life.’ But it’s a good rule not to argue with success, at least until you understand what’s causing it, and anything which sparks such enthusiasm and active devotion among passive TV viewers can’t be all bad.’

The Best

Tom Shippey, 22 February 1996

Pre-Conquest England – England, that is, between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans – notoriously has no presence even in the educated popular mind. Its history is unknown except to specialists, not part of the school curriculum, regarded as part of the Dark Ages. Since everything began in 1066, the Hammer of the Scots can occupy all history books as ‘Edward the First’, his namesakes the Confessor and the Elder literally felt not to count – even though the latter’s mark may still be visible on the shire system of Central England. As for the Egberts and Oswigs and Cerdics, the incompetences of modern spelling have left them all unpronounceable, vaguely ludicrous.’

The ‘Viking’ is one of the strongest images in contemporary popular culture. As Régis Boyer remarks in his essay in Northern Antiquity on the French reception of Old Norse literature, Vikings look out, under their now traditional horned helmets, from every herring tin in the supermarket, while a great part of the population of Normandy marks itself off from the Parisian riff-raff by putting little longship stickers on their cars. The longships are called drakkars – for reasons no one seems to know, any more than they know where the wildly impractical horned helmet idea comes from – a word which has only some resemblance to genuine Old Norse dreki, ‘dragon’ or ‘dragon-ship’. Meanwhile, the aftershave Drakkar Noir trades on an aura of … masculinity? menace? rape-and-pillage? and vague suggestions of a similar kind are exploited by manufacturers of everything from ‘the golden loaf of the Vikings’ to ‘le petit Viking’ baby clothes. Boyer notes the existence of ‘Le Club Scandinave Viking’ for body-builders, but not the (alas) late Jon-Pál Sigmarsson, the virtually albino Icelandic winner of the ‘World’s Strongest Man’ competition, who used to beat his chest, turn engagingly puce, and roar ‘I am a Viking’ before destroying Geoff Capes, Grizzly Brown and all comers at the who-can-turn-over-most-cars-in-sixty-seconds contest. It may be only at the level of Raquel Welch, the leather bikini and One Million Years BC, but Old Norse literature and mythology has made its mark on European and American culture to an extent far greater than any other medieval corpus. Its stories are probably more familiar now than classical myths and images, and catching up with Biblical ones.’…’

Edward Barlow says goodbye

Tom Shippey, 4 August 1994

This book conspicuously fails to ask one question: what’s the difference? What’s the difference between that ti me and this time, between the experience of ‘adolescence and youth in Early Modern England’ and ‘adolescence and youth’ right now? It could be said that such a book has no need to consider this. It’s history, about that time, not sociology, which would be about this time. One could say that the problems of this time are hard enough to deal with on their own, and should not be brought in to confuse the delicate task of historical reconstruction. Yet the question keeps on being raised, partly by Ilana Ben-Amos’s habit of coming to a conclusion which looks, from its prominence in the argument, as if it is meant to be emphatic, but which by itself seems hardly worth saying. ‘Young people appear then to have been more promiscuous… than married adults.’ Even allowing for all kinds of cultural change, that seems always likely to have been (on average) true. So what is this book trying to tell us? That some things never change?…

Dark Knight

Tom Shippey, 24 February 1994

‘What? seyde Sir Launcelot, is he a theff and a knyght? And a ravyssher of women? He doth shame unto the Order of Knyghthode, and contrary unto his oth. Hit is pyté that he lyvyth!’ This indignant outburst by Sir Lancelot in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur has long been an embarrassment to admirers of the work and of its author. Ever since G.L. Kittredge, a hundred years ago, identified the author of Morte Darthur with Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel in Warwickshire, a gap has grown between the Morte Darthur itself, Caxton’s ‘noble and joyous hystorye’, and its presumptive author, in C.S. Lewis’s phrase, ‘little better than a criminal’.

Nayled to the wow

Tom Shippey, 7 January 1993

Chaucer’s life is a standing temptation to a biographer. On the one hand, we have the 493 documented mentions of him brought together in the Crow and Olson Life Records, a body of paper which makes Chaucer far better evidenced as a person than Shakespeare two centuries later; on the other, there is the persistent refusal of these documents to see him as what we think we know he was (the major poet of his age), presenting him instead as a quite important civil servant with good connections to power, and from a family almost typically English in its concentration not on literary matters but on moving up the social scale. Chaucer’s great-grandfather, Andrew ‘Ie Taverner’, thus seems to have kept a pub in Ipswich, while his great-great-grandson, Richard Duke of Suffolk, nicknamed ‘Blanche Rose’, was accepted as King of England – but, alas, only by the French, and only till he was killed in battle at Pavia. There is an irony, on which Derek Pearsall ends his book, in the extirpation of the Chaucer line around 1539 at virtually the same moment as the first printing of Chaucer’s Collected Works in 1532. But the irony had been there all the time, in the almost unbroken refusal of Chaucer’s contemporaries to take any documented interest in him as a poet, while recording steadily his involvement with rape, robbery, profitable deals of one kind and another, and not least with His Majesty’s Secret Service – or as the records put it, in secretis negociis domini regis. What did they pay Chaucer for? Why was he so useful? Is there any clue to his James Bond activities in his poetry? At any rate it is a pleasure to have a literary subject who appears to have been taken seriously in his own lifetime, to have had a role in the great world.’

To litel Latin

Tom Shippey, 11 October 1990

‘Thow doted daffe, dulle are thi wittes,’ says Holy Church to the Dreamer in Piers Plowman: ‘To litel latin thou lernedest in thi youthe!’ The Dreamer doesn’t argue with her; in fact, he agrees, saying sadly: Heu michi quia sterilem duxi vitam iuvenilem. But her view is one of the great, long-lasting English fallacies, a fine example of post hoc propter hoc. Because for many centuries sharp-witted boys (but not girls) were picked out and taught Latin, it was observed that sharp-wittedness and Latin went together, and concluded that learning Latin made you sharp-witted. Generations of later mixed success at the English public schools made no impact on the thesis. T.H. White’s Sir Grummore, discussing ‘eddication’ with Sir Ector, remains utterly sure that learning Latin is the main part of education, though he himself ‘could never get beyond the Future Simple of Utor. It was a third of the way down the left-hand page, he said. He thought it was page 97.’


Tom Shippey, 26 July 1990

‘Of all nations’, writes Ian Ousby, ‘we’, the English, have ‘perhaps the most strongly defined sense of national identity – so developed and so stylised, in fact, that we are frequently conscious of it as a burden or restraint’. I wonder what he can possibly mean by that. The most anomalous thing about England in comparison with all other European nations (of course it isn’t a nation, but even in comparison with Scotland and Wales) is that it doesn’t have the formal marks of national identity acquired even by Iceland or Finland, Luxembourg or Albania. It has no national anthem – ‘God save the Queen’ is played at football matches, but that is shared with other parts of the UK, who, however, don’t play it (except for the Northern Irish, who are making a political point). It has no national dress, nor any evident national icons in the tartan/leeks/thistles class. St George’s Day attracts no celebrations. It does have a national flag, but not everyone knows what it is. A football commentator remarked that he was pleased to see ‘nearly as many’ St George’s Crosses being waved as Union Jacks, when England played Cameroon in the World Cup. No Union Jacks were on display at Scotland’s games. At a recent conference in Denmark I asked some forty Danish Anglicists if they knew what the English flag looked like. Yes, they replied, it’s that red, white and blue one with crosses going different ways. At least they were pleased to discover that the English flag is the exact reverse of the Danish one, for, as Saxo Grammaticus wrote long since, history in the North began with two brothers, whose names were Dan and Angul. But that particular national myth is unknown in England.’

Women beware midwives

Tom Shippey, 10 May 1990

Powerful books have been written, and will continue to be written, on feminism and Medieval studies, but Edith Ennen’s The Medieval Woman is not among them. It is full of information, especially on matters towards the end of her period of study, and much of the information cannot help being amusing or thought-provoking, on an anecdotal level: how uniquely contemptuous it was to make the prostitutes of Cologne give sixpence a week each to the town executioner, the man responsible for flogging or hanging them if they defaulted! How strange it is that the famous ius primae noctis, great horror of the Middle Ages to such as Mark Twain, should have been recorded only among the aggressively democratic Swiss cantons round Zürich (perhaps proving that nobody ever meant it seriously). But these accidental virtues are too often spoilt by a strange and generalising vagueness. ‘The German expected absolute moral purity from his wives and daughters,’ we are told. When early Germanic women were captured, ‘as prisoners and slaves they bore their fate with dignity and honour.’ What, all of them? How do we know? Professor Ennen does start catching herself towards the end, as when she qualifies her remark that ‘women clearly live on a more emotional level than men and have a strong religious need’ with ‘At least, this is true of many women.’ But that does not repair the damage. She should have remembered her own dictum that ‘the historian is concerned with the sober reality.’ It may not be true, and there is much to be said for the imaginative speculation, but facts on their own would be better than stereotypes.

Pain and Hunger

Tom Shippey, 7 December 1989

What would you do if you had toothache, in a world of pre-modern dentistry? Those of us who have suffered a weekend of it can probably imagine (in the end) getting a friend to pull the tooth out with pliers. But what if the tooth was absessed? Or impacted? An impacted wisdom tooth growing sideways underneath the other ones? Can one imagine cutting into the gum – no X-rays to tell you where to cut, of course – and levering it out, very probably bit by bit? Anyone who has had this done under modern conditions will not like to think about such treatment under premodern conditions: but then, what was the alternative? Some of the root-rotted teeth found in archaeological excavations make one wonder whether it was possible to die just from pain. The thought casts a new light on the side-remark of Chaucer’s Northern student in the Reeve’s Tale: ‘Oure maunciple, I hope he will be deed, Swa werkes ay the wanges in his heed’ – I expect he’ll die, the teeth in his head hurt so continuously.’

Getting rid of them

Tom Shippey, 31 August 1989

The first of these books has a clear plan, allowing several people to work on it. It pulls in material from all over the world, giving scope for frissons of strangeness and variety. Most of all, it has an ‘issue’ about which everyone can be guaranteed to feel strongly, and similarly. The issue is child exploitation and child neglect. There can be no question that both are rife, both are sad, and both are desperately serious. But they are serious in ways which this book cannot explain. While the authors are boldly prepared to say that they are in favour of motherhood, and definitely against the man-eating shark, on more delicate and less obviously emotive matters they are not prepared to comment.

Je sui uns hom

Tom Shippey, 1 June 1989

Very good, Mr Hardy. Excellent poetry, especially in a time of the breaking of nations (1915). One of time’s universals. ‘War’s annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die.’ But what if you haven’t invented the harrow yet? Or indeed the collar for harnessing horses? The former is not seen till the Bayeux Tapestry; the date of the latter is much debated, but is definitely a Medieval, not an antique invention. So before perhaps the year 1000 you had to go round and break up the clods after ploughing by hand, maybe with a wooden spade. In those circumstances the oldest horse and the rustiest harrow must have seemed positively glamorous.


Tom Shippey, 2 February 1989

Christopher Hill has shown literary critics the way before now. Many must have felt at least mildly chastened by his remarks in Milton and the English Revolution (1977), no less forceful for their studied moderation, on remembering the effects on Paradise Lost of censorship, fear, a social context in which men were hanged for expressing Miltonic opinions and judges expressed regret at not being able to order sentences of death by burning. Now Hill on Bunyan promises to carry out a similar work of rescue from those who would see the tinker-author as representing only ‘a timeless human condition’, as reaching no more than the status of ‘a great literary classic’. It is more truthful, more lively, and more interesting, Hill claims, to put Bunyan back into his ‘revolutionary age’, to see his books at once as products of local history, inhabited by real and substantially-documented men and women, and as reactions to national and social crisis with which even pampered armchair-reader moderns can uneasily identify.

A captious person might mutter that The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe is a little ‘hobbitical’: it reminds one of Professor Tolkien’s hobbits, who ‘liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions’. This would be unfair, in that it is a splendid volume, presenting contemporary scholarship to the general reader with care, grace, much thought and many illustrations; filled with things that most general readers won’t know at all, and that many specialist readers won’t have thought of. Still, it is sometimes possible to imagine the contributors putting down their pens, staring at their charts of ‘The Capetian Kings’ or ‘The Royal House of Jerusalem to 1187’ – ‘BALDWIN I (1100 – 1181) m. (1) Godvere of Tosni (2) daughter of T’oros (3) Adelaide, countess of Sicily’ – and getting up from their desks with a feeling of justified completion and a mutter of ‘well, that’s that!’ Here are the pedigrees; here the accounts of political pressures; here are the maps – possessions of the kings of France, trade routes to Islam, routes of Viking invasions – thus, so, black and white, and not otherwise.


Tom Shippey, 5 May 1988

As its title so obviously shows, the main thesis of Russell Miller’s book is that L. Ron Hubbard, inventor of Dianetics and founder of Scientology, was all his life an incorrigible liar. That being the case, it is a pity that the book starts off with a statement which sounds hypocritical at best. ‘I would like to be able to thank the officials of the Church of Scientology for their help in compiling this biography.’ Miller says in an Author’s Note, ‘but I am unable to do so because the price of their co-operation was effective control of the manuscript and it was a price I was unwilling to pay.’ I can believe that the Church of Scientology wouldn’t co-operate with Miller, and I can certainly believe that Miller had worked out that he didn’t need to co-operate with them. But it is hard to imagine that Miller ever had any rational expectation of official help, or any desire for it. This book is a hatchet job, aimed at one of the nastier aspects of American culture, just like Miller’s last two (on Playboy Hefner and on the ‘House of Getty’); and hatchet jobs aren’t meant to be balanced and judicious. Also, as all the world now knows, they can be marketed much more successfully if there is some official body around foolish enough to take offence. In his first paragraph, Miller is just striking a pose.

Melbourne’s Middle Future

Tom Shippey, 7 January 1988

Science Fiction, it has been said, is always and necessarily a metaphoric reflection of some aspect of contemporary society. This sounds a depressingly goody-goody theory, the kind of thing which harassed critics make up in order to beat off supercilious remarks from colleagues in the common room. It is also all too clearly undisprovable. Even writers like H.P. Lovecraft have to have some contact with fellow humans, and therefore cannot quite keep contemporary society out of their books. The critic pointing at this with cries of justification may still be guilty of spotting the 1 per cent and letting the 99 go by. Is Science Fiction, then, always a metaphoric reflection of (or on) society? And what in this context might ‘metaphoric’ mean?

Winners and Wasters

Tom Shippey, 2 April 1987

Professor Ladurie declares, near the beginning of this immensely detailed volume: ‘I hope in this study to bring to life the country people themselves.’ Such a reconstruction, he thinks, is bound to be fraught with difficulty, since so little attention has been focused on this stubborn main stratum of the pre-industrial population, the food producers themselves: ‘we know much more about “the way of life” of the Magdalenian hunters of Pincevent (8800 BC) than about the French peasants of 1450.’ Ladurie seems to be unnecessarily despondent here: this book shows how much there is to know, while his own previous books, especially Montaillou (1975) and Carnival (1979), have excelled in giving down-to-earth detail of an almost journalistic kind about popular risings and establishment repression. However, one can sympathise with his feelings. He is trying to anatomise some seven generations, with an average population of twenty million people, the overwhelming majority from the ‘peasant classes’. And the close, detailed, day-by-day written evidence, strikingly preserved in the Bishop of Pamier’s Inquisition Register, or the anonymous reports of the Archives Départementales de l’Isère, is simply not available. How can a ‘way of life’ be reconstructed?

Out of the Gothic

Tom Shippey, 5 February 1987

Brian Aldiss gives his definition of Science Fiction on page one of Chapter One of a five-hundred-page volume. This is admirably bold of him – more timorous scholars tuck their definitions away inconspicuously, or else develop complex excuses for not giving any – as well as being admirably genial. After all, says Aldiss, the definition may be wrong, but it doesn’t matter: ‘we can modify it as we go along.’ The definition is as follows: ‘Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.’ There is no doubt that this is in the right area. Compare, for instance, Darko Suvin’s now famous definition of Science Fiction as ‘a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment’, and note the buried parallels of ‘science’ and ‘cognition’, of ‘imaginative framework’ and ‘Gothic mode’. Still, almost any definition of Science Fiction would be in the right area – unless written by a Martian. How precisely correct is Aldiss’s? Specifically, does the genre not strain the notion of ‘Gothic’ too far? And as for the notion of a genre centred on ‘a definition of mankind’, does that not look – remembering Star Wars and Mr Spock – by some way too ambitious? Is Aldiss not, as he was in this book’s 1973 precursor, Billion Year Spree, a trifle over-persuaded by Mary Shelley?’


Tom Shippey, 30 December 1982

Agonistic, aleatory, vertiginous, mimetic: those are four classes of game, or more accurately four game-elements which can be combined in different ways to create different genres. Mimetic games, obviously, are games in which the players pretend to be someone or something else. In their developed form we don’t call these ‘games’ any more, but ‘plays’, and furthermore hardly any of us now participate in them. We watch them all the time, and that gives one kind of fun, but the fun of mimesis itself is much rarer – regarded, even, with some suspicion. Charades are no longer popular; and while it’s OK for little boys to run round wearing Liverpool shirts or shouting ‘I’ll be Trevor Francis,’ this is strongly frowned upon for even slightly bigger boys. One remembers the games teacher in Kes who ran the whole football session so he could pretend he was Bobby Charlton. Everybody does this in their heads, just like Walter Mitty, but let it show and it’s classified as perverse, immature, not an acceptable form of fun at all.


Measuring Matilda

17 November 2011

Marc Morris writes about my piece on Queen Matilda: ‘Tom Shippey … alleges (following Borman) that Matilda was 4'2". This is a modern myth’ (Letters, 1 December). I didn’t allege anything of the sort. I reported Borman’s claim, adding ‘forensics, however, can’t be trusted’ and ‘it isn’t unlikely they got Matilda wrong.’ It seems my...
SIR: I am sorry to have miscalled Philip Gosse. G.G. Harper does right to correct me (Letters, 2 April). On dates, however, his letter is misleading. Gosse could and did know in 1857 something of what Darwin would publish in 1859, because he had been told about it. According to Gosse’s son Edmund, Sir Charles Lyell had conceived the ideal of recruiting a ‘body-guard’ of scientists...

Tolkien’s Spell

Peter Godman, 21 July 1983

Among the terms of abuse which J.R.R. Tolkien was accustomed to apply to an Oxford college of which he was (and I am) a member, there is one that makes an odd impression. It is the adjective...

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