Friday, January 15, 2010

Recommended Reading (Tolkien)

So, a few days ago in a comment upon another post I was asked

"What are some recommended works of Tolkien criticism,

outside of the two Shippey books and John Garth's

Tolkien and the Great War (which I already have)?

I'm looking to branch out in my reading and would like

to ask someone knowledgable to point me in the right direction."

Good question, Brian. There are hundreds of books about Tolkien, and I can't say I've read them all (though I have hopes of getting through the backlog someday). But I have read a lot of them, and a lot of good ones at that.

Given that you've already ready Shippey and Garth, I assume you've also picked up the two essentials, Humphrey Carpenter's TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY [1976] and LETTERS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN [1981]. If not, you'll want to put these at the top of your list: the one is the default for understanding Tolkien's life and career, the other cd easily have been subtitled 'Tolkien On Tolkien' since in it he gives answers to the many questions readers sent in year after year.*

While it's not a book most people wd 'read' (though I did once read it, front to back), you'll find Rbt Foster's GUIDE TO MIDDLE EARTH [1971] enormously helpful for finding passages in THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The expanded edition (THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO MIDDLE EARTH [1978]) covers THE SILMARILLION as well. Alas, when it comes to the History of Middle-earth series, you're on yr own.**

It's nearly thirty years old now, but I still think Paul Kocher's MASTER OF MIDDLE-EARTH [1972] is the best and most insightful introduction to Tolkien's work. Kocher's focus is on THE LORD OF THE RINGS but he makes a good-faith effort to cover all of Tolkien's work, even lesser-known pieces like "Imram" and "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun". The main thing dating his book is that it came out before THE SILMARILLION. Highly recommended.

Other books I'd recommend are Verlyn Flieger's INTERRUPTED MUSIC [2005], the best book I've seen explaining just what Tolkien was trying to do with his legendarium; Marjorie Burns PERILOUS REALMS [2005], which both explores Tolkien's complex relationships with his sources and emphasizes his ability to always see the other side of every argument; and Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull's TOLKIEN: ARTIST & ILLUSTRATOR [1995], which shows just how important JRRT's artwork is for revealing more about his stories.

If you're at all interested in THE HOBBIT, you'll want to get ahold of Doug Anderson's THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT -- the second expanded edition [2002], if you can.

There are also individual essays which are excellent, like Richard West's "The Interlace Structure of THE LORD OF THE RINGS", which appears in A TOLKIEN COMPASS, edited by Jared Lobdell [1975].*** The problem with collections, of course, is that they can be a pretty mixed bag; a good essay can appear in a bad collection and vice versa. If you are at all interested in the History of Middle-earth series then I recommend the book TOLKIEN'S LEGENDARIUM, edited by Verlyn Flieger & Carl Hostetter -- though this may sound self-serving, since I'm a contributor.

Once you feel inclined to tackle an 'advanced course', as it were, check out Hammond & Scull's two-volume set THE J. R. R. TOLKIEN COMPANION & GUIDE [2006]. Both volumes are about a thousand pages long and jam-packed with information. The CHRONOLOGY presents Tolkien's life using a format like that in the LotR's Appendix B: The Tale of Years, or one of the Annals of Valinor & Beleriand in the HME. The other volume, the READER'S GUIDE, is even longer and consists of everything from lengthy essays to brief notes on all kinds of Tolkienian topics.

Does this help? There's a lot of good stuff out there, and more being added all the time. The shelves upon shelves of books can be a little foreboding at first, but there's no need to try to read everything at once. If you can pick up and skim an author, you shd be able to tell pretty quickly if he or she writes on the topics you're interested in and in a way you enjoy reading.**** Here's good wishes for good reading.

--John R.

*I suspect the book of Interviews and Memoirs currently in the works by Doug Anderson & Marjorie Burns will also be similarly useful in this respect.

**although if you can find a copy of THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH INDEX [2002], a compilation of the indexes from all twelve volumes of the HME series, you'll find it surprisingly useful.

***another essay in the same collection does the best job laying out the difference between the original and revised editions of THE HOBBIT of any piece I know of.

****for example, since you obviously enjoy Shippey, why not try his essay collection ROOTS & BRANCHES [2007]?


Brian Murphy said...

Hi John, thanks very much for the suggestions, I'll take a look at everything you've mentioned here. I should have mentioned that I do own copies of Carpenter's biography and letters.

One followup question: The other Verlyn Flieger book I've also seen mentioned around the Web is Splintered Light ... any thoughts on this? If I had to choose one Flieger book over the other, would you recommend that or Interrupted Music? Of course I'd like to get both, but keeping an eye on finances...

John D. Rateliff said...
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John D. Rateliff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Brian.
Glad it helps.
Re. the Flieger, SPLINTERED LIGHT is her first and most famous book and was recommended to me by Owen Barfield himself. I think her latest, INTERRUPTED MUSIC, is even better, but between the two you really can't go wrong whichever you choose. And I shd probably add that her middle book, A QUESTION OF TIME, while not my favorite, has won a lot of awards and I know some who rank it the highest. She's also written a number of excellent essays, so we all live in hopes of a collection similar to the Shippey anthology ROOTS & BRANCHES.
Good stuff, all of it.
--John R.

Anders Stenström said...

Happy to see your praise of Kocher's _Master of Middle-earth_. I am with you on that, and think it is a too seldom cited book.