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Despite Professor Tolkien’s immense fame, I will adopt the position that you have read neither Tolkien himself nor any sound book about him or his work. But before going on, I want to clear up a minor yet annoyingly common misunderstanding about his best-known piece of work: The Lord of the Rings is one novel divided internally into six “books” but published, purely for financial and logistic reasons, as three physical volumes. It is not a “trilogy.”
Tolkien’s fame is based on a relatively small output if we judge output by a count of books, or even of pages. His two best-known works are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (or LOTR, as the tale is commonly called for brevity); in the same setting is their less-known and, I daresay, less-read successor (but only by date of publication) The Silmarillion. Beyond those three there are a very few very short unconnected tales, a couple of essays originally presented as lectures, some poetry, some critical notes of an academic nature. All in all, it’s but a few inches on the bookshelf. By now, the books about Tolkien and his works vastly outbulk those works themselves.
For a deceased author, Tolkien remains remarkably prolific: we now have The Children of Hurin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin, all published in the current century. What those are is compliations of material that Christopher Tolkien assembled from already published material so as to make, in each case, a complete narrative. I suppose we can nevertheless include them as “Tolkien Middle-earth books” with no harm to the argument.
Tolkien’s works other than his “big three”, though fine—more than fine, superb—being few and thin, consideration of him as an author boils down to consideration of those “big three”. But that is not so much of a simplification as it might seem: despite having much in common in their subject matter, as literature they are three strikingly different beasts.
Now it is not my business here to block out what happens in this or that book: finding out such things is a part of the pleasure to be had from reading a book. Nonetheless, I think I need to say at least a bit about the setting of the tales. All are placed in “Middle-earth”. Middle-earth is not some parallel, fantasy never-never land: it is the past of our own Earth. That point is crucial, for the moral issues that permeate the tale are not issues of amorphous “good” and “evil”: they are issues grounded in a morality derived exactly from a theology, and we must grasp that they are issues for our Earth—for us. That said, we need to take heed of this, with which I heartily agree:
“One of my strongest opinions is that investigation of an author’s biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
Unavoidable, however is the biographical note that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, because his beliefs are integrally woven into the very stuff of Middle-earth. I would not by saying that want to discourage anyone by giving the impression that these are “religious” tales: they are not. Rather, that patterning is at so fundamental a level as to be in a sense invisible, rather like the mat on which an intricate Oriental carpet is woven. (Indeed, a frequent criticism of Tolkien’s world-making is that there is no manifest religion at all in the books—no churches, no priests, no rites—though the careful reader will discover that such criticism is only technically valid.)
Tolkien spent most of a long and busy life creating and ceaselessly refining Middle-earth. The task was exacerbated far beyond that of the most painstaking deviser of an imagined “otherworld”, for Tolkien was immutably constrained by the need to make Middle-earth consonant with our world. I do not so much mean that Middle-earth needed to be “technically” consonant—that geographical or geological or astronomical exactitude was wanted—as that it needed to be morally and, above all, theologically consonant with his vision of our world.
Middle-earth has experienced distinct eras. Those eras are not like our divisions of time past into the Cretaceous or whatever, for they are determined by the acts of those dwelling in Middle-earth—they are, one might say, moral eras, though the transitions can be marked by spectacular geographic transformations as well, for in early Middle-earth, as in the Old Testament, The One would on certain great occasions intervene directly and forcibly. The history of the First Age of Middle-earth is the stuff of The Silmarillion, of which I will say more in a while; but by late in the Third Age, the time of The Hobbit and LOTR (which together occupy so narrow a sliver of time that many characters appear in both), such ancient lore is scarcely remembered save by some few we eventually meet in the tales.
Tolkien’s undertaking, at which he was largely successful, is stupendous in magnitude and scope. (The only thing I know of remotely close to it was Austin Tappan Wright’s lifetime work imagining Islandia.) Tolkien imagined and developed in exquisite detail the physical and moral history of a full, rich, complex world. Tolkien’s son Christopher devoted much of his life to organizing as best one could the material of his father’s estate (the elder Tolkien was maddeningly unmethodical—and that is putting it gently—at keeping his staggeringly complex and overlapping sets of notes and drafts, often writing new material literally over old), the goals being to present such new tales (or, really, fragments thereof) as could be extracted with passable textual integrity and, more valuable because more productive, to develop a textual history through which we can see the developing Middle-earth—the choices Tolkien considered and abandoned or, more often, used as bases to rework or expand other choices previously made. That set came out to twelve volumes (plus a 13th that is simply an index), which gives some idea of the complexities Tolkien dealt with (both Tolkiens, in their different tasks).
But all that is backdrop. We do not read to appreciate sheer monument. What, then, is there in Tolkien that makes us want to read him? Because we, as a species, do indeed want to read him: several book-reader polls, more or less reputable, had LOTR voted the #1 book of the twentieth century. (The literati were, predictably, scandalized and LOTR did not even make it into some of their end-of-the-century “Best-100” roundups—so there, nyah, nyah, they seemed to be saying.)
It is a commonplace that one should begin reading Tolkien with The Hobbit. Why that is a commonplace I do not know; I (and many others) think it folly. To be sure, The Hobbit was written prior to LOTR and the events portrayed in it precede those portrayed in LOTR. None of that really matters though: The Hobbit is the lesser work, is very different from LOTR, is not a prerequisite for LOTR, and does not properly prepare a reader for LOTR. For that reason, I will begin, as I advise you to, with LOTR itself.
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Thick books have been written wholly about LOTR, many thick books. It would be puerile for me to here “analyze” LOTR, and in any event until you have read it you neither want nor can use any such analysis. Instead, I will here cast a quick eye over the criteria for quality I set out elsewhere on this site and measure LOTR against those criteria. The first such, I have said, is the actual telling of the tale—the use of language.
Tolkien’s narrative prose in LOTR I would call “transparent”, in that it does not call attention to itself by either great merit or great defect (which is in itself a merit). It is good, workmanlike language—clear, literate, unexceptionable.
One thing Tolkien invariably does wondrous well with that language is convey a sense of place. Here are a couple of examples, selected (as I always select) almost at random so as to not be exceptional:
The afternoon was wearing away when they scrambled and stumbled into a fold that was wider and deeper than any they had yet met. It was so steep and overhung that it proved impossible to climb out of it again, either forwards or backwards, without leaving their ponies and baggage behind. All they could do was to follow the fold—downwards. The ground grew soft, and in places boggy; springs appeared in the banks and soon they found themselves following a brook that trickled and babbled through a weedy bed. Then the ground began to fall rapidly, and the brook growing strong and noisy, flowed and leaped swiftly downhill. They were in a deep dim-lit gully over-arched by trees high above them.
There is nothing whatever forced in those sentences, but consider all the words that appeal to our senses and our experience. Anyone who has ever ventured off concrete will effortlessly not only see but hear and feel and, even without any directly relevant keywords as guides, smell the place—the damp soil, the wet grass. Then there is this:
Even from the outside the inn looked a pleasant house to familiar eyes. It had a front on the Road, and two wings running back on land partly cut out of the lower slopes of the hill, so that at the rear the second-floor windows were level with the ground. There was a wide arch leading to a courtyard between the two wings, and on the left under the arch there was a large doorway reached by a few broad steps. The door was open and light streamed out of it. Above the arch there was a lamp, and beneath it swung a large signboard: a fat white pony reared up on its hind legs. Over the door was painted in white letters: THE PRANCING PONY by BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR. Many of the lower windows showed lights behind thick curtains.
As they hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the chorus. They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and then got off their ponies.
You can almost smell the smoke from the fireplace.
Another of Tolkien’s strengths is matching the language of dialogues with the speakers. What we may call the “base level” of dialogue is set by the leading characters in the tale, the hobbits (of whom more anon). At its lowest, the tone is rustic:
“Your Hal’s always saying that he’s seen things; and maybe he sees things that ain’t there.”
“But this one was as big as an elm tree, and walking—walking seven yards to a stride, if it was an inch.”
“Then I bet it wasn’t an inch. What he saw was an elm tree, as like as not.”
“But this one was walking, I tell you; and there ain’t no elm tree on the North Moors.”
“Then Hal couldn’t have seen one,” said Ted. There was some laughing and clapping: the audience seemed to think that Ted had scored a point.
The particular hobbits who figure large in the tale are not rustics, and their “normal” speech—normal to them and normal to us—is what we hear much of throughout the book:
Pippin yawned. “I am sorry,” he said, “but I am dead tired. In spite of all the danger and worry I must go to bed, or sleep where I sit. Where is that silly fellow, Merry? it would be the last straw, if we had to go out in the dark to look for him.”
But in the great places of Middle-earth, even the speech of a common soldier sounds high-toned, almost poetic, because he speaks what is—to most hearers in the world of the tale, and so to us as well—an older, virtually archaic tongue:
“This deed I shall ever rue,” he said; “but a madness of haste was on me, and he would not listen, but drew sword against me.”
We must never forget—another biographical detail—what Professor Tolkien was a professor of, namely philology; he thus could bring to bear on the speech patterns of his characters a subtlety of nice diction derived from immense professional expertise.
(Tolkien worked out in astounding detail several wholly invented languages used by various peoples in Middle-earth; indeed, he sometimes claimed that the languages came first and that he created Middle-earth only so as to have a place in which to imagine speakers for those languages. Very few believe that—Tolkien obviously loved Middle-earth—but the plausibility of the claim underscores the care Tolkien took with his characters’ dialogues and even names, which are all “translations” from those languages; LOTR itself is presented to us in the guise of a modern “translation” from an ancient hobbit book of lore, a conceit that firmly ties Middle-earth to our world.)
That aside brings us to the next measure of quality: setting. I have already spoken of the immense care Tolkien lavished for decades on the creation of a complete world consistent both internally and with our own world. But LOTR is not the work toward which those many decades of hard work on Middle-earth were pointing; it is almost what, in modern parlance, we would call a spin-off, though it ended up dominating Tolkien’s creative energies for a long time. (The Silmarillion was to be Tolkien’s magnum opus, but more about that later.) Because of that status, Tolkien was able to model superlatively the criterion I set out elsewhere on this site, “What a successful world-maker must accomplish is to fully imagine the world of the tale, then simply tell that tale in that world.” Tolkien knew Middle-earth better than most learned folk know our own real world. He could and did move his characters about their world with supreme confidence and no need to explain every new thing they see, hear, and allude to.
“Otherwise he obviously thought the whole thing rather above my head, and he said that if I had the cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond, it was my affair. I suppose he was right.”
We are not told the relation of Eärendil to Elrond because all we need to know—that there is a relation—we instantly deduce from the remark in which the allusion occurs. Many such allusions occur throughout the tale; they are not “teasers” like Dr. Watson’s mention of unpublished Holmes cases—they are simply the references that persons familiar with a place or thing or time will make, and they are “real” because they are references that to Tolkien, the maker of the place, refer to things “actually” part of Middle-earth; they are like islets we know to really be the tips of a vast submerged mountain range. They function, successfully, to extend that “reality” from Tolkien’s mind to our own.
The tale also fulfills my other setting criterion, “Of setting much can be said, but the paramount consideration is that we must have neither too little nor too much.” In Middle-earth, tales, and especially songs and poems, are widely esteemed and almost everyone knows and can produce at least a few; we thus, from time to time, have instances of characters entertaining one another with such recitations, which seem perfectly natural in the context. What we do not ever find is unnatural expository dialogue fleshing out the made world. In a modern novel, we do not expect a character getting a cold beer to pause and expound at length how a refrigerator works. Many SF&F authors nevertheless have their characters do the equivalent, to show off to the reader—who does not want or need to know how a refrigerator or a whatever works—how cleverly their made world has been made; Tolkien never makes that mistake. He is telling a tale, and sticks to that telling. (Even with the weighty Appendices included at the end of LOTR, we have scarcely a tithe of Middle-earth, and readers who enjoy the book find those extensive Appendices rather “too little” than “too much.”)
The next constituent of excellence is plotting. Here, Tolkien excels. Had the tale no more profundity than Treasure Island it would still be a success—a lesser work, but a success—because it is a great adventure story, skillfully paced and told. By tale’s end, we come to realize that the scale is grand and the plot, to put it mildly, intricate. But we are never confused; the tale flows smoothly because Tolkien doles out that complexity in several separate, individually clear and straightforward narrative threads.
Fairly early on, the tale splits into a number of what amount to individual tales, all running in parallel. That parallelism is critical, and Tolkien is obsessively careful about the calendaring of events within the tale—all the tales. Multiple threads in tale-telling are not rare, but such fine balancing as Tolkien brings to the technique is. (The commonest defect, which Tolkien avoids, is over-rapid cutting back and forth, typically a chapter at a time). Tolkien’s care is vital: the events on each thread do and—as we come to see—must match up to the others with absolute precision.
Tolkien lets each thread run for a good while, developing a coherent narrative of its own which we readily follow; then, when he switches to the next, which runs through the same period of time, we see unexpected relations and connections with what we by then know to have been happening elsewhere in the tale; and as we switch to yet another parallel thread, we find yet more light cast on the events we already know of and, by reflection, the events we are now encountering. Eventually, we appreciate that the synchronicity of apparently coincidental events is actually vital to the totality of the tale.
As the tale gathers to its conclusion, the various threads are of course pulled together again. Tolkien accomplishes that reweaving seamlessly, owing to the care with which each of the threads was managed. The reunited characters then bring the tale to its end. That end is not a “happy ending.” Without spoiling the tale, I can still say that it is a mature tale: it is rich in joys and it is rich in sorrows. Characters are not invulnerable merely because they are the tale’s characters; people get hurt, things of beauty get ravaged. It is, after all, more or less literally a tale of war. And wars do not ever have “happy endings”.
Last of the elements of “pleasing”—last in consideration, not significance—is characterization. There are perhaps two chief points to be made about characterization in LOTR. The first is that the tale is populated by several sentient but nonhuman species: elves, dwarves (that plural is consistently used by Tolkien), hobbits, and more. But while many fantasy authors (and, for that matter, science-fiction authors) have humans interacting with alien races, those races are in most cases only human characters put in strange-looking bodies, perhaps with one or two manufactured quirks to “validate” their alien character. Very few do what Tolkien does, which is conceive for each such race a distinctive, logical (in the light of that race’s history), coherent world-view and then take pains that each exemplar of that race act in accord with that distinctive world view. To be sure, such world-views cannot be radically different from human norms or the aliens become incomprehensible or irrelevant; but there needs to be a perceptible skew.
For example: Elvenkind are immortal. They may be slain, but of nature do not age or die. How would such beings perceive time?
For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the sun all things must wear to an end at last.
Tolkien does these things well because he understands what lies beneath the prevalence of alien races in all speculative fiction: the deeply felt human desire to converse with other living things that are not us. (We know Tolkien understands this because he has written on the subject, in “On Fairy Stories” and other places.) Explain it how one will, there is no denying the universality of that urge nor its power. People talk to their pets, children talk to stuffed animals, chimps and porpoises are importuned, SETI searches the skies. We are, for now anyway, all alone in the incomprehensible vastness of existence, and we are perhaps lonely, perhaps afraid, perhaps both. We crave a sharing of experience with other sentient beings like us, yet unlike us. LOTR grants us that communion (perhaps one of the keys to its popular success).
Tolkien’s several races necessarily fit within his cosmic scheme, which is theological. Each of the races has its origin, its destiny, and its lore which tells of those things. Much is set out for the reader in the book and little needs comment here beyond noting, as I have, the coherent and consistent distinctive world-views. The exception is the hobbits; they are an exception because they are Tolkien’s creation (though not without traceable roots)—we all have ideas, however muddled, of what dwarves and elves and human kings are like, but hobbits are not common lore—and because they are largely an exception to the “distinctive world-view” thesis.
Hobbits Tolkien created and first presented to the world in—of course—The Hobbit, which I discuss a little farther on. The Prologue that begins LOTR introduces hobbits to the reader quite thoroughly, so all one needs to know here is that they are about half human height and, not having facial hair, tend to look much like human children whatever their actual age; otherwise, saving the oddity of having feet tough and hairy enough to make shoes or boots optional, they are human. By that, I mean not only that they appear and are constructed like humans, but that their “world-view” is actually human; they alone, of Tolkien’s alien races, are literary constructs and not truly alien. What they are is simple: they are Englishmen, or at least idealized Englishmen. They are stocky and ruddy cheeked, they love to eat early and often and hugely, they are profoundly insular without even recognizing that insularity, they are simple but not naive, they appear helpless but are hard and doughty when pressed enough, and so on and so forth. They are a necessary construct because the “real” humans Tolkien shows us in LOTR are, almost to a one, too large in scope to possibly represent everyman; that literary role falls to the hobbits, who fulfill it admirably.
Aside from the presence of sapient alien races, there is another aspect of characterization in Tolkien that requires comment. Hostile critics have claimed that most or all of Tolkien’s characters are painted in black and white: they are good guys or they are bad guys, and the good guys are all good and the bad guys all bad.
That is, as set forth, a caricature. But even caricatures portray something of their subjects, however greatly they exaggerate those subjects, and the matter needs comment. In reading LOTR one must keep in mind several things relating to character. One important one is that the folk we encounter are, with only a few exceptions, quite extraordinary personages even by the standards of Middle-earth. There is nothing unreasonable or exceptionable about extraordinary characters having, well—extraordinary characters. The noted literary critic (yeah, one of them) Edmund Wilson, in his now-notorious rant against LOTR, complained that Aragorn (who? be patient) had the personality of a well-trained horse, had no “taste for sin.” Hmmmm….
Aragorn threw back his cloak. The elven-sheath glittered as he grasped it, and the bright blade of Andúril shone like a sudden flame as he swept it out. “Elendil!” he cried. “I am Aragorn son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”
Our credibility is supposedly strained by finding that this is not a guy given to putting slugs in parking meters? Such ineffable tomfoolery says a great deal more about critics and the society that supports them than it does about their nominal subjects. In essence, we are being told by Wilson and his sort that nobility of character is a childish fiction—that characters supposedly possessed of it are perforce ill-drawn nonsenses. Even in our mingey everyday reality, we know that that is not so. Why need it be a requirement of fiction?
Because we live in the times we live in, the concept of thoroughgoing evil seems less implausible than that of thoroughgoing good—indeed, scarcely notable. Altogether too many SF&F tales are inhabited by villains beside whom Snidely Whiplash looks a piker: they gloat, they chortle, they torture and burn and rape and [fill in the blanks], they do everything but actually twirl their mustachios while ordering the heroine out into the driving snow. Why? Because otherwise the writer’s heroes would have to get honest day jobs; there is no other reason. But—and this is extremely important in Tolkien’s scheme of things—his “utterly evil” creatures are in fact no such things. Tolkien’s dark characters are, to a one, beings once capable of great good; indeed, it is virtually a rule: the deeper in evil they are, the higher in good they once were and could yet have been. His characters’ great enemies are not mindlessly evil: they are fallen beings, one and all, beings seduced from the good by temptations. The true tragedy is not the harms they do—it is them, their falls, their lost potential.
The grounding-rod throughout LOTR is the hobbits. Without disclosing plot unduly, let me say that it is clear in the tale that while hobbits as a race are at bottom decent—as Tolkien believes Englishmen, all humans, to be—they are capable of flaws deep and wide enough for any cynical critic, as well as of that curious admixture of good and bad that is the true nature of humanity. The better of them are only foolish—the worse are, well, worse. The hobbits are, as I said, the real “humans” in the tale, and their humanity confounds fools who say the characters are all blacks and whites.
So LOTR assuredly pleases. The language use is worthy, the plotting excellent, the setting superlative, the characterizations satisfactory. We next ask the extent to which it stimulates the mental processes of a sophisticated adult.
Here, I must repeat the essence of what I said above: since many thick books have been written wholly about LOTR, it would be puerile for me to here try to analyze it, and in any event until you have read it you neither want nor can use any such analysis.
Still, that conclusion does not wholly estop comment. Perhaps paramount is the point that LOTR is not an allegory. Tolkien loathed allegory, and said so explicitly many times. In consequence, though LOTR is laden with powerful symbols, it is not an allegory. The difference between symbols and allegory is excellently analyzed in Professor Tolkien’s own work “On Fairy Stories” (which I strenuously recommend); but, in short, a symbol is something whose meaning and significance is felt and determined by the reader, whereas in an allegory it is the writer who painstakingly and thus tediously makes plain what this and that character or plot device is to be taken as. In one sense, everything is a symbol in that any one thing will, for a given person, inevitably evoke to a greater or lesser extent something else. But there are certain things—a sword, a mask—that seem to have especial powers of evocation, to reach deep into the collective unconscious or racial memory or whatever term you fancy for our shared mythic vocabulary. Nothing in LOTR “stands for” something else. Many things, not least the rings of the title, will evoke deep and complex reactions in readers, but those reactions will be your responses to and readings of the symbols, not Tolkien’s intent forced on you.
(The topic of symbols needs much more discussion than I can afford it here. Joseph Campbell’s now-classic work The Hero With a Thousand Faces would be an excellent starting point.)
Serving as a backdrop or connective tissue for the tale’s symbols is a single, simple theme, encountered over and over and over again throughout this tale and indeed all of Tolkien’s work: choice. In Tolkien’s worlds, sentient beings—beings, human or not, capable of understanding and distinguishing good and evil—all have free choice. None are created innately good or evil. All reach their destinies by the exercise of that free will. Such choosings are required of us often, daily, hourly: one does not stand a one-time set of “finals” and by passing get a degree in Goodness to hang on the wall. Testing is continual. Nor do those choosings commonly come with big red warning tags attached, saying “Caution! Profound moral consequences enclosed! Handle with care!” They come in the guise of the innumerable and often seemingly petty decisions that are the fabric of everyday life.
Moreover, the choices are rarely simplistic. The evil choice—the temptation, we might as well say—always comes charmingly gift-wrapped. “Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good,” says a great and wise character in the tale in rejecting, with manifest effort, freely offered possession of that Ring. (Pity is another recurring note in the tale.) It is a cardinal rule of doctrine: no one is ever tempted beyond their ability to refuse. We are never overcome: we surrender.
That message may not be a revelation to a mature adult (or, sad to say, it might). What Tolkien offers us in LOTR is not so much a revelation of truths as a reminder of those truths, or rather a continuing series of reminders—of how insidiously easy wrong choices are, of how painfully hard good choices are, of how readily the one kind can be mistaken for the other if we are not ever alert. And it makes unflinchingly clear the price of standing when others bow. That is of the essence of the book and its meaning: choices have costs—great choices have great costs.
This book is no childish “reward” tale: those who choose rightly can, and often do—in life and in the tale—pay terrible prices; the ills done by evil, even if that evil is eventually turned aside for a time (there can be no “ultimate” defeat for evil), are not undone by the turning aside. What is broken is broken; who is dead is dead. That is in large part what gives the book its power: the dangers, the pains, are very real. We cannot ever think for a moment “ah, but it’ll all come right somehow” or any such puerile nonsense. The Lord of the Rings is a hard and painful look at hard and painful things—at betrayal, sacrifice, loss, at the costs of not giving up or giving in. Not one main character in the book fails to undergo gut-wrenching losses by tale’s end. Not one. It is a great book; it is a classic.
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The Hobbit is very different from Tolkien’s other Middle-earth tales. It is a children’s book, and we must at all times remember that. It is a very good children’s book—if it were the only thing Tolkien had ever written in our fields, we would today remember it, and him, with pleasure—but it is not truly a “prequel” to LOTR except in the narrow technical sense that the events portrayed in it precede and figure in LOTR.
It has been said that LOTR is The Hobbit writ large, and in a sense that is so; but we are better off to think of The Hobbit as LOTR writ small. The underlying narrative pattern is conveyed clearly by the subtitle of The Hobbit: “There and Back Again”. The parallels in structure between the two tales are many, and not accidental; I will not detail them here because you may possibly not yet have read the books. But if you have read LOTR, you must brace yourself for the diminution here.
But for all the silliness and—especially in the first few bits—occasional talking-down to children that Tolkien himself elsewhere rightly condemns, the book has still a power beyond mere amusement. That is doubtless because Tolkien was already deeply embroiled in creating Middle-earth, and even in a children’s book could not be forever frivolous about it. Moreover, Tolkien was clearly driven, as always, to moral issues and, though he clearly tried to keep those in this book at a level consonant with its nominal readership, they are by no means simple or simplistically set forth.
The reader fresh from the breathtaking scope of LOTR can feel cramped by this book. It is perhaps best to come to The Hobbit thinking of it as a written-down version of a more adult tale—of a sort of “lost Tolkien manuscript” as it were. (If someone had the incredible brass to attempt to emulate Tolkien, and the estate’s permission, it would be interesting to see if The Hobbit could be written in an adult form compatible with LOTR.)
There is little else to say about The Hobbit. It is a fine and literally delightful book, and I recommend it heartily, provided you understand what you are getting and what you are not getting.
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The Silmarillion is, as recounted above, a history of the First Age of Middle-earth; indeed, it begins, just as does the Bible, with the story of the Creation. Of The Silmarillion, Tolkien once wrote “The Silmarillion is quite different [from LOTR], and if good at all, good in quite another way, and I do not really know what to make of it. It began in hospital and sick-leave (1916-1917) and has been with me ever since, and is now in a confused state, having been altered, enlarged, and worked out, at intervals between then and now.”
(Tolkien planned, if that is not too strong a word for that most unmethodical of men, to write a history of the Second Age of Middle-earth under the title of The Akallabêth; but he did not ever even properly finish The Silmarillion. In the event, the published version of The Silmarillion included a 26-page section, distinct from the main body of the work, so entitled.)
The analogy with the Bible is not merely owing to each opening with a genesis. In the Foreword by Tolkien’s son Christopher, who by then was deeply engaged in editing his father’s literary estate and who made possible the assembling of any sort of book at all from the vast store of overlapping, duplicative, and conflicting manuscripts and fragments left scattered about, we read this: “Moreover, my father came to conceive The Silmarillion as a compilation, a compendious narrative, made long afterwards from sources of great diversity (poems, and annals, and oral tales) that had survived in agelong tradition….
With that conception of the book, we need not be surprised by either the diverse and eclectic natures of its contents, nor by the failure of their recountings to correspond exactly even to one another, much less to mentions or descriptions of the same tales in LOTR or any other Middle-earth writings.
The early portions of the book recall in their style, not surprisingly, the King James Bible, that fount of sonorous English:
Then Manwë said to the Valar: “This is the counsel of Ilúvatar in my heart: that we should take up again the mastery of Arda, at whatsoever cost, and deliver the Quendi from the shadow of Melkor.” Then Tulkas was glad; but Aulë was grieved, foreboding the hurts of the world that must come of that strife.
Later, the style settles into a mode reminiscent of the better class of legends:
Now Beleg was sorely wounded, but he was mighty among the Elves of Middle-earth, and he was moreover a master of healing. Therefore he did not die, and slowly his strength returned; and he sought in vain among the dead for Túrin, to bury him. but he found him not; and then he knew that Húrin’s son was yet alive, and taken to Angband.
The Silmarillion does not appeal as widely and as instantly as LOTR, for several reasons. One is that it is not a connected narrative—we cannot follow the vicissitudes of a given character or set of characters end to end. Second, even the tales in it are often but fragments, so that we cannot even follow their protagonists “end to end”. Third, much of the material is gloomy: LOTR is bittersweet but a great part of The Silmarillion is unrelieved bitter (or, more correctly, it is relieved only by the excellence with which it is portrayed). That is not condemnation: much that is great in literature tells of unrelieved loss and pain. It only explains why the book was never nearly as popular with the general public—or even Tolkien fans—as the other two Middle-earth tales.
All for all, the book is one of great power. Reading it is, as I have suggested, much like reading the Holy Book of a profound religion—which, in a sense, is just what it is. Never forget that Tolkien at all times sought consonance between his Middle-earth and the true world of our experience. He was—though I imagine he would have been scandalized to hear it put this way—in effect augmenting the Bible. Theology each must judge individually; but as literature, the book is vastly worthy.
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Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wootton Major could easily get lost in the glare of Tolkien’s great Middle-earth books; if they did, that would be a terrible shame, for these two little gems—each is quite slim—are, in very different ways, wonderful.
Smith of Wootton Major is perilously close to Tolkien’s despised allegory but remains an effective work, largely because Tolkien is a powerful tale teller. As usual, I will not reveal plot; but the work deals with the creative artist, his materials and his will and ability to work those materials, his inspiration, and the costs of that inspiration and ability. It is, like Tolkien’s longer tales, bittersweet; but it is more a tale of renewal amidst loss than, as the longer works tend to be, of loss amidst renewal.
Farmer Giles of Ham, on the other hand, is farce pure and simple. It was, I would guess, a little bit of fun thrown off during some gap in Tolkien’s larger duties and work. Tolkien assisted in preparing the Oxford English Dictionary, and in this little tale there is much good-natured fun poked at that work (and that preparation), as well as much else of scholarly manner and pretension, especially as related to Tolkien’s field of philology. One need not know anything of such matters to enjoy the tale though. It is just great fun, and I recommend it highly.
(The easiest way to get both those tales is to get the compendium Poems and Stories; it also includes the notable story “Leaf by Niggle”, the essay I quote from so often on this site, “On Fairy Stories”, a collection of Middle-earth poems denominated “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” (a minor character in LOTR), and a poem—in small part derived from a thousand-year-old fragment of English poetry and in much larger part original with Tolkien—called “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” which is, not unexpectedly, a moral thesis.)
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The Tolkien family had a tradition that the children would annually receive individual, personal letters as from Father Christmas (Santa Claus to Americans), direct from the North Pole. These letters were not mere bland notes: Tolkien invested a deal of effort, both literary and artistic, in the composition of those letters, which, when assembled (as they have been—see the books list below) into one volume make a delightful set of little tales (with copious illustrations).
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One of Tolkien’s earliest efforts was a little delight entitled Mr. Bliss, which is really a picturebook that tells the simple tale of poor Mr. Bliss’s many, but fortunately minor, fantastic mishaps; it’s a charmer with pleasures for both children and adults.
Also of value to both the Tolkien aficionado and to anyone who likes good illustrative art are two collections of Tolkien’s thoroughly pleasing work, Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien and J. R. R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. The man really was a polymath.
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There are many.
There are, of course, seemingly innumerable Tolkien web sites (many rather jejeune). One of the best is The Tolkien Society; and there is also an especially good bibliography from Åke Bertenstam (but with an extremely annoying “Captcha” procedure to access it).
A new and potentially valuable resource (as of early 2010, I have yet to have the time to explore in detail) is The Tolkien Professor, who is Dr. Corey Olsen, a tenured English professor at Washington College with a PhD in medieval literature and an abiding interest in Tolkien and his work. His avowed purpose is to bridge the gap between academics and general readers—a gap that is too often substantial. There are numerous audios of lectures and much other material.
The “Author’s Calendar” is also its usual reliable self in providing a Tolkien page with biographic information plus some discussion of the works. The ambitious Encyclopedia of Arda also looks quite promising.
The New York Times has an online feature called The Tolkien Archives, which they claim is updated weekly, with links to various articles and essays related to Tolkien that have appeared in the Times (and perhaps elsewhere).
And there is also a useful site from, and titled, The J. R. R. Tolkien Estate.
As I said, there are seemingly countless other Tolkien-related sites and pages: Google is Your Friend.
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Following Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work on—and consequent publication of—The Silmarillion, he collected and put in some sort of reasonable order various fragments of Middle-earth tales that his father had left unfinished, and published as Unfinished Tales; it is a valuable addition to the library of anyone who appreciates Tolkien.
There was also a mountain of material representing Tolkien’s constantly changing visions of the “legendarium”, and Christopher largely dedicated his life to meticulously sorting, annotating, and intelligently presenting those earlier visions—often much more detailed than what was finally printed—in what eventually became a mammoth 13-volume set The History of Middle-Earth (the 13th volume is a set-wide index). They are not strictly “works” by Tolkien, but I much recommend them to those seriously interested in the structure of Middle Earth and of the tales set in it. (These are included in the Tolkien-books list farther below.) They are:
The definitive and highly informative biography of Tolkien is Humphrey Carpenter’s, titled J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography; Carpenter also wrote the useful and informative book The Inklings (they were a discussion group whose most notable members were Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams), a book well worth having.
One other valuable insight into the workings of Tolkien’s mind is the collected and edited set of his usually meticulous and often lengthy letters, assembled by Christopher Tolkien and Humphrey Carpenter and published as The Letters of J. R. R.Tolkien.
Of the books of criticism or background known to me (their numbers seemingly increase almost daily, especially with the big-budget LOTR movies), three that I personally have found notably valuable are:
Other books well recommended by apparently qualified judges (named farther below) include:
(My, critics like colons and subtitles!)
Those choices come from an online essay (PDF document) by Michael D. C. Drout and Hilary Wynne entitled Tom Shippey’s J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and a Look Back at Tolkien Criticism since 1982, a scholarly evaluation of Tolkien criticism.
A relatively recent item is A Reader’s Companion to The Lord of the Rings by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, being a collection of annotations, historical notes, and other useful miscellany.
(Finally, one cannot leave the subject without mentioning a book that Tolkien enthusiasts either love or hate—a coarse parody entitled Bored of the Rings, by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, both formerly of the famous/notorious—you pick—Harvard Lampoon. The book has been in print for decades, which must say something.)
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