Featured question: I want to learn more about Tolkien. What books about Tolkien should I read? (10.01.13 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

As the author and webmaster of this website I get tons of emails everyday. Questions range from "what is the value of the book I have" to "what book can you advise me to read when I want to learn Quenya". While I'm very busy most of the time I do my very best to answer each and every single e-mail, resulting into a couple hundred emails replied each month. It is however so that some questions get asked over and over again. For example I need to tell many people (at least one time a week) that their Unwin paperback of The Hobbit has a printed Tolkien signature and that this book is a mass production. But there is a lot of fun to be found as well and I have made many Tolkien friends this way.

One of the questions I received this week was from a friend called Dale Spindler, only the name is wonderful (Dale was a city of the Northmen, situated between Erebor and Esgaroth):

"I am increasingly interested in reading a biography of Tolkien and was hoping you could give me a recomendation on 1 or 2 of your favorites so I could know which ones to read. Thank you for your time in answering."

I thought it was nice to pick one such question every now and then and write the answer here online. It makes great articles and so I can direct them here next time (and have more time for writing articles ;) ).

First of all, I wish to say that this list of books about Tolkien is far too short and could be very much longer. It is put together to my own personal taste and I would be glad to add books if I missed any.
I want to learn more about Tolkien. What books about Tolkien should I read?


J.R.R. Tolkien: a biography

The best book to start with in your quest to learn more about J.R.R. Tolkien is the authorized biography by Humphrey Carpenter. In the decades since his death in September 1973, millions have read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion and become fascinated about the very private man, the creator, behind the books.

Humphrey Carpenter was given unrestricted access to all Tolkien's papers, and interviewed his friends and family. From these sources he follows the long and painful process of creation that produced The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and offers a wealth of information about the life and work of the twentieth century's most cherished author.

Humphrey Carpenter brilliantly puts meat to the bones of the Tolkien legend, offering a well-rounded portrayal of this quiet, bookish man who always saw himself first and foremost as a philologist, uncovering rather than creating the peoples, languages, and adventures of Middle-Earth.

Carpenter chronicles Tolkien's early life with a special sensitivity; after losing both parents, Tolkien and his brother Hilary were taken from their idyllic life in the English countryside to a poverty-ridden existence in dark and sooty Birmingham. There were bright points, however. A social and cheerful lad, Tolkien enjoyed rugby and was proud of his gift for languages. It was also at this time that he met Edith Bratt, who would later become his wife. Academic life - both as a student and professor - is where this biography shines.

Friendship with other men played a huge part in Tolkien's life, and Carpenter deftly reveals the importance these relationships - his complex friendship with C.S. Lewis, membership in the Inklings and the T.C.B.S. - had on the development of his writing.

The only criticism one can make about this book is that Carpenter tends to gloss over Tolkien's contributions to comparative philology. True, there is a chapter devoted to Tolkien's academic pursuits, but it tends to skim too lightly over the surface for this reviewer's tastes. Philology is a terribly methodical science, and the author clearly did not want to alienate readers who were primarily interested in Tolkien as a storyteller. Still, it would be nice to understand why Tolkien was held in such high esteem by his fellow academics. As it stands, Tolkien comes off as a slightly eccentric etymologist.

While there are several mistakes in this book and an updated edition would be appreciated, it is still the nicest starting point when wanting to learn about J.R.R. Tolkien.

Title: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography
Author:
Humphrey Carpenter

Publisher:
HarperCollins; New Ed edition
Publication Date:
2 Jan 2002

Type:
paperback, 400 pages
ISBN-10: 0007132840
ISBN-13: 978-0007132843


The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

Fans who want to delve even deeper into Tolkien's life should pick up a copy of Carpenter's The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. This book contains a selection of 354 letters, excerpts from letters, drafts and endnotes, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Tolkien's son Christopher Tolkien. Most of the letters deal with Tolkien discussing his work and books, another large part is a conversation between Tolkien and his future wife Edith Brath (in that period they were not married yet).

Tolkien was a prodigious letter writer all his life; the sheer mass of his correspondence would give pause to even the most stalwart archivist (one shudders to think what he would have done with e-mail). But with the able assistance of Tolkien's son Christopher and a healthy dose of determination, Carpenter manages to find the cream of the crop - the letters that shed light on Tolkien's thoughts about his academic and literary work, as well as those that show his more private side, revealing a loving husband, a playful friend, and a doting father. The most fascinating letters are, of course, those in which he discusses Middle-earth, and Carpenter offers plenty of those to choose from. Tolkien discussed the minutia of his legend - sometimes at great length - with friends, publishers, and even fans who wrote to him with questions. These letters offer significant insights into how he went about creating the peoples and languages of Middle-earth.

These letters show Tolkien's genius and give insight into the man behind the books. Also here I'm desperate for a second or even third volume. I have seen and read so many unpublished letters that could (or should be added to this book). But overall this book is an extremely interesting source for learning much more about Tolkien.

Title: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Author:
Humphrey Carpenter

Publisher:
HarperCollins; New Ed edition
Publication Date:
2 May 2006

Type:
paperback, 480 pages
ISBN-10: 0261102656
ISBN-13: 978-0261102651


J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator

This book was written by probably the greatest Tolkien scholars around, Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. It explores Tolkien's art at length, from his childhood paintings and drawings to his final sketches. Inside the book, there are 200 reproductions, many in colour. Most of these are Middle-earth related or are pictures Tolkien made for his children, calligraphy, decorations and nice examples of typography.

Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull's text is a full book's worth even without the artwork. It represents a significant contribution, perhaps the most significant since Tolkien's death, to our understanding of the life and art of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The approach to their task is, naturally, a chronological one; they take us on a journey through the immense amount of material, much of it appearing in published form for the first time, from Tolkien's earliest drawings as a child to the splendid late drawing, "The Hills of the Morning," which they understandably see as a fitting climax and epilogue to his life's work as an artist, and which most appropriately takes its place as the frontispiece to this book.

The book is divided into six main chapters covering over 60 years of Tolkien’s life. The first chapter shows and explains Tolkien’s early artwork, presenting many drawings of landscapes and places in England which Tolkien visited in the 1910s. Most of these are in pen and ink, and a few are in colour. (Worth to mention: the authors literally went to England to find the exact places where these works were created).
The second part is called "Visions, Myths and Legends." This section contains a number of drawings of abstract concepts like "Wickedness", "Afterwards" and "Eeriness". Also some early drawings of landscapes, like for example "Tanaqui" and "Mithrim", and illustrations for the stories Tolkien was writing, like "The Book of lost Tales", are shown.
The third section is called "Art for Children," and it includes illustrations from Roverandom, Mr. Bliss and The Father Christmas Letters.
The fourth and fifth sections will be of considerable interest to Tolkien fans, for they contain, respectively, Tolkien’s illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Again many variants and unpublished works are presented here. Also the design for the binding and the dust jackets of both works are completely shown and documented.
The sixth section of the book covers "Patterns and Devices," including heraldic devices for a number of characters, a Númenórean Carpet, and some various doodles.
A short appendix gives some examples of Tolkien’s calligraphy.

This book is not just another book about Tolkien. It is one of the standard works to be read by anyone trying to find out more about Tolkien and his life. J.R.R. Tolkien was an artist in pictures as well as in words. Though he often remarked that he had no talent for drawing, his art has charmed readers and has been exhibited to large and appreciative audiences. In fact, his talent was far more than he admitted, and his sense of design was natural and keen. I am sure every person who loved the books will enjoy reading this book and exploring Tolkien's own illustrations.

Title: J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator
Author:
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

Publisher:
HarperCollins; New Ed edition
Publication Date:
15 Jun 1998

Type:
paperback, 208 pages
ISBN-10: 0261103601
ISBN-13: 978-0261103603


J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Now that we have learned a lot about Tolkien it is fun to start reading some of the books that dig deeper into Tolkien then just biographies and go beyond facts about his live and try to make us 'understand' him. One of the better books, but actually most of his books are just must-reads when trying to learn more about Tolkien, is J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

Just before the end of the millennium, polls consistently declared that J.R.R. Tolkien was "the most influential author of the century," and The Lord of the Rings was "the book of the century." In support of these claims, the prominent medievalist and scholar of fantasy Professor Tom Shippey presented us with a fascinating companion to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, focusing in particular on The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

His book examines The Lord of the Rings as a linguistic and cultural map and as a response to the meaning of myth. It presents a unique argument to explain the nature of evil and also gives the reader a compelling insight into the unparalleled level of skill necessary to construct such a rich and complex story.

Tom Shippey also examines The Hobbit, explaining the book's anachronistic relationship to the heroic world of Middle-earth, and shows the fundamental importance of The Silmarillion to the canon of Tolkien's work. He offers as well an illuminating look at other lesser-known works in their connection to Tolkien's life.

With a clear and accessible style, Shippey offers a new approach to Tolkien, to fantasy, and to the importance of language in literature. He demonstrates how The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion form part of a live and continuing tradition of storytelling that can trace its roots back through Grimms' Fairey Tales to Beowulf.

This book not only gives readers a deeper understanding of Tolkien and his work, but also serves as a learned and entertaining introduction to some of the finest and most influential works of fantasy ever written.

Title: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
Author:
Tom Shippey

Publisher:
HarperCollins; New Ed edition
Publication Date:
7 May 2010

Type:
paperback, 384 pages
ISBN-10: 0261104012
ISBN-13: 978-0261104013


Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth

This dense but informative study addresses the long-standing controversy over how J.R.R. Tolkien's WWI experience influenced his literary creations. A London journalist, Garth is a student of both Tolkien and the Great War. He writes that, when the war broke out, Tolkien was active in an Oxford literary society known as the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), along with three of his closest friends. Finishing his degree before joining up, Tolkien served as a signal officer in the nightmarish Battle of the Somme in 1916, where two of those friends were killed.

The ordeal on the Somme led to trench fever, which sent him home for the rest of the war and probably saved his life. It also influenced a body of Northern European-flavoured mythology he had been inventing and exploring in both prose and verse before the war, toward its evolution into The Book of Lost Tales and in due course Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Instead of being just an account of Tolkien's abbreviated combat service, John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War fleshes out Thomas Shippey's claim that Tolkien was part of a generation of "traumatized authors" who attempted to express the horrors of World War I through the writing of fantasy. Garth believes that Tolkien’s experience in the Great War, and in particular the loss of two of his closest friends at the Battle of Somme, had a profound effect on the mythology he invented. He argues that without the catalyst of World War I, Tolkien might have not written at all, or might have developed into nothing more than a pale imitation of William Morris. Tolkien’s mythology, he writes, was born on the battlefields of World War I, and that is why Middle-earth "looks so engagingly familiar to us and speaks to us so eloquently, because it was born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs."

This book could not pretend to be aimed at other than the serious student of Tolkien, and readers will benefit from a broad knowledge of his work (as well as a more than casual knowledge of WWI). But it also argues persuasively that Tolkien did not create his mythos to escape from or romanticize the war. Rather, the war gave dimensions to a mythos he was already industriously exploring. Garth's fine study should have a major audience among serious students of Tolkien, modern fantasy and the influence of war on literary creation.

Because the focus of the book is on Tolkien rather than the War, Garth tends to underplay the criminal stupidity of the allied commanders. This is unfortunate, since much of Tolkien’s "Luddite" attitude toward modernity and authority was shaped by his experience in the British Army. It’s also unfortunate since many of Garth’s younger readers may not be familiar with how, in the words of Australian songwriter Eric Bogle, "a whole generation was butchered and damned." Still this book is so well written that it could trigger interest in the WWI and even WWII and make us understand just a little bit of how people must have felt and what a big influence it must have been on a person like Tolkien. All in all, Garth presents an extremely sensitive and insightful look at a turning point in a great writer’s life. It deserves a place on the shelf alongside Carpenter’s biography and Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth and Author of the 20th Century.

Title: Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth
Author:
John Garth

Publisher:
HarperCollins; New Ed edition
Publication Date:
20 Oct 2003

Type:
paperback, 384 pages
ISBN-10: 0007119526
ISBN-13: 978-0007119523


The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide

The most impressive book on Tolkien ever published is for sure the two volume book set called the J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond.

Christina Scull is the former librarian of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. She is the author of "The Soane Hogarths" (1991), edits the journal "The Tolkien Collector", and frequently writes and speaks about Tolkien.

Wayne G. Hammond is a librarian at the Chapin Library of Rare Books at Williams College, Massachusetts. He is the author of "The Graphic Artof C.B. Falls" (1892), "J.R.R. Tolkien:A Descriptive Bibliography" (1993), and regular notes on Tolkien in the journal "Mythlore". Next to this we know them from other important books like J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, Roverandom, Farmer Giles of Ham 50th anniversary edition, the new expanded index of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, and the masterpiece Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion.

The Companion and Guide is meant to be a basic reference book for the study and appreciation of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Not a replacement for other books, but perhaps a source that one might look at first of all. The first of its two volumes is an extensive chronology of Tolkien’s life and works, together with family trees, and checklists of Tolkien’s published writings and art, his poems, and translations of his works.

The Chronology at times provides almost a day-by-day account, ‘a picture of an extraordinarily busy man’, as we say in our preface, ‘Tolkien the scholar, Tolkien the teacher and administrator, Tolkien the husband and father, Tolkien the creator of Middle-earth’.

The second volume is a long encyclopaedia with articles on Tolkien’s writings, on people, places, and institutions important in his life, on the academic world of Leeds and Oxford, and on themes and ideas in his works such as allegory, free will and fate, the environment, women, war. Each volume shares a list of works consulted and a comprehensive index.

Title: The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide
Author:
Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

Publisher:
HarperCollins
Publication Date:
2 Nov 2006

Type:
hardcover boxed set, 2300 pages
ISBN-10: 0007169728
ISBN-13: 978-0007169726


I hope you all sort of liked this starting list. This is just the beginning. I'm probably going to have to add some books here real soon (so keep your comments and suggestions coming). I'm already thinking Annotated Hobbit, Splintered Light, ... O so much to read, so much to tell about one author! So Dale, there you go... here is your answer. Hope you liked it and hope to bring more featured questions in the near future.



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