Taking the plunge

Well. So, I’ve finally bought a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the 50th anniversary edition. I’ve never read it, actually. (No teasing!) I read The Hobbit back in high school, and The Silmarillion recently on the recommendation of a friend, but that’s been the limit of the relationship between me and Professor Tolkien’s “sub-creation” up to now.

And since I’m no longer a teenager with too much time on my hands and thus able to read and re-read many times a single book in order to figure out its details, and don’t relish the idea of therefore being lost in the welter of invented languages, weird but vaguely familiar names, and imagined histories, I’ve also picked up a copy of The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, and have ordered a copy of the same authors’ The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. These, particularly the latter which is a very helpful-sounding commentary, will undoubtedly be very helpful. The former is, as the title connotes, a more wide-ranging reference work on J. R. R. Tolkien’s vast and (to me) bewildering body of work. I’m sure it will make sense of it all. I have not picked up a copy of the companion volume to the Reader’s Guide, which is primarily a detailed chronology of Tokien’s life. That’s a bit out of my interest range, though I’m impressed by its level of detail and the usefulness of such a work for those whose field of study is Tolkieniana.

The 50th anniversary edition of The Lord of the Rings is a very nice piece of bookmaking, though my copy is slightly marred by some stray spots of glue on the cover—an annoyance, but not severe enough to warrant a return. (I approach it this way: my copy came with pre-added character!) It’s a grayish-black leather hardcover, with slipcase, register (the bound-in ribbon marker), gilt page edges, two bound-in maps (these are bound in a little awkwardly, and may thus suffer tearing as I’ll undoubtedly need to consult them; unbound maps in a pocket would have been a better option), a few color illustrations, and two color text (red and black). I figured that if I’m going to read this book, I may as well have a nice copy of it! And it is indeed quite nice. It is also a corrected text, and one of the editions to which the references in the Reader’s Companion is keyed, so that will be very helpful.

I’m thoroughly impressed by the Tolkien scholarship that I’ve seen. I really didn’t know anything about it beyond a few weeks ago, when I read through the blog (Wormtalk and Slugspeak) of the fascinating and funny Professor Michael D. C. Drout of Wheaton College. With his Tolkien hat on, he is editor of The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, co-editor of the journal Tolkien Studies (available online at Project Muse, for those with access), author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf and the Critics. With his Anglo-Saxon hat on, he is author of How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century, and has produced recordings of his readings of Anglo Saxon texts (available at Anglo-Saxon Aloud, Beowulf Aloud, and Ango-Saxon Aloud: Greatest Hits). It’s particularly in the book reviews included in the various issues of Tolkien Studies that I’ve found such help in selecting the useful reference works I mentioned above. The various articles are quite interesting, as well. From the most recent issue: “‘A Kind of Elvish Craft’: Tolkien as Literary Craftsman” by John D. Rateliff, “Talk to the Dragon: Tolkien as Translator” by Ármann Jakobsson, and “The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth” by Verlyn Flieger are just three that are intriguinginly titled, and that I’ll be reading through soon. Very interesting!

I’m also impressed by the dedication and deep knowledge of his father’s work displayed in Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work on his father’s (fortunately vast) corpus of notes, drafts, art, and so on. It’s absolutely amazing what he’s accomplished in that regard. I first became aware of the important role he played in this regard in reading the preface to The Silmarillion (the second, corrected edition). I look forward to enjoying more of his work. The History of The Hobbit is a critical edition including drafts and a detailed investigation into the writing of The Hobbit [my mistake; this one is actually by John Rateliff, incorporating Tolkien’s drafts and such]. I’ll certainly be reading that. His [Christopher Tolkien’s] massive Complete History of Middle Earth, looks like a great read, actually. I’ll probably pick that up, too. I’ve also heard very good things about The Children of Húrin. His latest is a presentation of his father’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, an original English version of the old Norse tale, and not one of the Middle Earth books.

How very intersting!


  1. I cannot count how many times I have read The Lord of the Rings – many and at least three times complete out loud to my children. It is a great read – far better than the Silmarilion but it is good you have read the Hobbit first. May this be a great enjoyment for you.

  2. I’ve not read anything that Tolkien has written, although I remember seeing a cartoon version of The Hobbit when I was a kid. I’m amazed that there’s a journal devoted to this stuff!

  3. Ah, well that’s a very fine recommendation, Bob!

    I have to confess that The Silmarillion was something of an incomprehensible blur, and a real slog at times. That one could really use a commentary. Some of it was quite striking, though.

    And it’s been so long since I’ve read The Hobbit that I’ll really have to read that again, too. I’ve got a copy of that coming, too, the one slipcased with The History of the Hobbit. That should be an interesting read.

    Nick, I remember seeing that too. I remember it was also not very good! I saw it around the time I read the book. I think, though the memory is faint, that I told a friend (a Dungeons and Dragons player, etc, etc) that I didn’t like the movie, and so he gave me the book to read.

    1. Well, Stefano, at least you won’t berate me for having avoided one of the classics of English literature! (Which I entirely expected, by the way, so that I am shocked—shocked, I say—to hear that you have not read them yourself.)

      It should take you approximately three hours to read The Chronicles of Narnia. They’re a quick read. I read through the whole set in a night. His Space Trilogy is good, too. The first two are really good, the third, kinda sorta meh.

  4. Kevin: Yes, my vague recollection is that the movie wasn’t very good. I also have to confess to being bored by the three LOTR motion pictures, especially the last one!

    Esteban: I’ve been reading the first in the set to my daughter. I seriously considered putting down all the scholarly stuff for the next few weeks to read through the set. Doubt it will happen, but maybe. BTW, turn on your YM some time!

  5. Kevin – so glad to hear you are taking the plunge! I think if you stick with it you’ll enjoy it! In actuality as well, the Silmarillion is meant to be read after LOTR. Read through the story first then go back and read the Silmarillion. I have Foster’s Guide to Middle Earth that is helpful for looking up names and places and situations to get more information. I also have Brd Birzer’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth that you too may want to get after you’ve read the story and want to look into Tolkiens ideas of myth and so on.

    BTW – I have a friend who just read it again for something like the 15th time.

    Well, have fun! Let us know how it goes.

    ps. I know folks read them to their kids and kids read them but really Tolkien meant it to be fantasy for adults. Some of the things going on may not be descipherable to kids or youth.

  6. Bravo, Edgecomb! Sounds like you’re taking a remarkably serious and well thought-out approach to this. I picked up the mass-market paperbacks by chance to read at a friend’s place in Hungary, and read all three books in a week in between sight-seeing a few years ago.

    By the way, I’ve really enjoyed Tom Shippey’s books on Tolkien.

  7. Nick, in all fairness I was reading until 3am, so it wasn’t a normal “one night.” I’d say it was a solid 8 or 9 hours of reading. And I do read pretty quickly. Those books just zoomed by.

    Thanks Brian and Aaron for the recommendations. I’ll look those up, too. Now all I need is more reading time.

  8. I’ve always thought that if people would just read the poems and songs in LOTR, instead of skipping over them, then they wouldn’t need all the guides. Much of the back story is told in those poems and songs.

    But if you are going to read guides, I like Tolkein Beastiary. It is especially helpful in the area of the more obscure yet powerful creatures, such as Tom Bombadil.

    1. That’s very interesting, Matt. I’ll keep that in mind. I’m hoping that I won’t need to do too much more than simply pay attention as I read. I can’t imagine letting this consume too much time that is already at a premium. And another book?! It’s never-ending….

      Esteban, as I am not fond of emoticons, and don’t know the one for “tongue in cheek” anyway, I think you missed my gentle poke of fun. By all rights, I think it’s entirely fair to say that (even though I have not yet read it, mind you) the evidence points towards The Lord of the Rings as a classic of English literature, certainly for modern English literature, at the very least. (Or you didn’t miss it and you’re teasing me. Again. Or rather, “still.”) It’s certainly the case that Tolkien’s is the more literary of the two authors’ fiction. The Narnia stuff is of an altogether different genre, really, and not of the same quality, though it’s a good read too. I never read it as a child, and only read it a couple of years ago. I gave the books to a young girl at church. She and her mom both enjoyed them. I didn’t find them as much fun as The Screwtape Letters, where Lewis really was able to let his wit shine. I wonder if he recorded these? The BBC site has a couple of recordings of Lewis up, including the only surviving recording of the original talks that resulted in Mere Christianity. The British Library apparently has some recordings of Tolkien reading from The Lord of the Rings in its collection, but I only find available for sale a reading from The Hobbit included in the CD The Spoken Word: Children’s Writers. Time to get to reading! I’s gots work to do!

      [UPDATE: Most (?) of the BBC’s wartime recordings, which would have included Lewis’ lectures which eventually became Mere Christianity and those which became The Screwtape Letters were destroyed by German bombing. Grrr. Germans again.]

  9. “One of the classics of English literature”? Really? Well, okay — whatever rocks your groove train. 😉 Frankly, I have no interest in either of the series, which is why I have never read them. But if I ever get around to reading one of them (you know, in my time off not dedicated to reading other things), it would be LOTR: because like Tolkien, I cordially dislike allegory.

  10. Esteban> To be fair, The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe is probably the most allegorical of the Narnia books, and some familiarity with it may give a false impression of the other books. I’m just sayin’!

  11. Ah, one of my favorite novels. Enjoy the read! I, like Matt, suspect you will very much like the poems. They are not Milton, but they are a lot of fun, and work well in the novel.

    I doubt you will profit your enjoyment of the novel much by pouring over the intimidating reference books, although they will be of much help if you decide to re-read the Silmarillion or go on to read the appendices of the LOTR. Many people are lured into reading those appendices because they just don’t want the novel to end. They are very interesting, if you are interested in that sort of thing, but also cryptic and a little frustrating, like the Silmarillion, but more so.

    If you are not all that interested in the appendices, you can indeed just skip them with no loss to your appreciation of the novel. I would however urge you to consider reading part v. of appendix A, the tale of Aragorn and Arwen. It is a short schematic of a moving love story that really should have been included in the novel. The story is a bittersweet distillation of the theme of the whole long novel, which is Hope in the face of certain death. It’s a story-telling gem hidden in the dry academic prose of the appendices.

    1. Thanks, Rob! It’s always a good thing to read the appreciation of other readers.

      I’m definitely enjoying the poetry. Tolkien is quite good, in fact—much better than I expected, truth be told.

      In general, from various related materials I’m finding it quite plain that—as is the case with the Bible—readers will remake Tolkien’s writings in their own image. In order to obtain a fair reading, I’m mentally obliged to divorce him and his writing from various people that I recall from my past (in high school, actually) who were rabid Tolkien fans, so that I’m not reading “fantasy” per se, like all those goofy books about dragons and faeries such as clog one of our few surviving good bookstores in Berkeley (The Other Change of Hobbit). Again, truth be told, I never read him because of such people and their peculiarities. But I see now that this was horribly unfair of me to Tolkien. It was a well-read friend of mine a couple years ago, who has a better head on his shoulders, that convinced me to read The Silmarillion. I think on a re-reading, having read this, it’ll be a more profitable read. The input of the helps has already been extraordinarily useful, particularly Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, and the second volume of their The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, the Reader’s Guide (which I accidentally yet fortuitously picked up at The Other Change of Hobbit, thinking it was the Reader’s Companion).

      I have found a great appreciation for Tolkien’s deep erudition in matters of English, which appear throughout the place names and their usage. I’m already impressed by the reading in general. I perceive a theme of loss running through the work, before even getting to any of the real action. Already in Tolkien’s childhood, the country life of England was disappearing through modernization. The same is seen in Papdiamandis’ writings: the traditional life of the past, organically connected root and branch with the land and life, is giving way to a more modern way of life that is disconnected from and at odds with what came before rather than rooted in it. There is a pride in modern life that rejoices in bulldozing the past, a kind of iconoclasm for the sake of proving modernity—but to what purpose?

      I think too, that Christopher Tolkien is not receiving the appreciation he deserves in the wider public. From the beginning of these works of his father, they have been shaped by his input, father pleasing son with a good tale, and son helping father to tell it better. And he has done extrarordinary work in producing out of the chaos of papers his father left behind several coherent books, and in helping students of his father’s writings come to a better understanding of them.

      Overall, I’m quite surprised to find that Tolkien is an excellent fit for fiction reading for me! I’m sure to post more in elaborating on that.

  12. I certainly agree that Christopher Tolkien deserves kudos for all his hard work, but I also think that all that hard work will be forever doomed to be something of a thankless job. The materials he has to work with are simply bound to disappoint when they stand in the shadow of their author’s masterpiece. The texts that the author left unpublished might someday be turned into great novels, but such novels will of necessity require a co-author, their first author having left so much unfinished.

  13. Well, having discovered your website and blog, I’m amazed you didn’t encounter Tolkein as an adolescent! LOTR, like the Hobbit, is best read fairly rapidly, and with all disbelief set aside. Enter into the world of Tolkein as a youth might with disbelief suspended and full of awe and acceptance. Only after the first read should your analytical self take over.
    As a lover of certain 20th century English writers (as well as certain 20th century American writers), I’m particularly enamoured of the Inklings.
    I hope you enjoy LOTR!

  14. Thank you, Elizabeth! I am very much enjoying it. I think I mentioned above that I read The Hobbit way back then, but that really didn’t work for me. Also, the people I knew who were gung ho about Tolkien at that time were, frankly, quite weird. I think they (and others like them later), more than anything else, put me off reading any more Tolkien. This was a regrettable failure of my own tolerance for the enthusiasm engendered in others by a good writer. I should rather have asked myself why they were so interested. Ah, youth! In any case, I really think that had I read The Lord of the Rings back then, I would really have enjoyed it, and devoured Tolkien’s other writings.

    I’m quite looking forward to revisiting The Silmarillion after having finished The Lord of the Rings. It will, I think, be much more comprehensible. In my first reading, I encountered elements of great beauty in the midst of an impenetrable welter of Too Much Information.

    Alas! I wish that I could switch off the analytical eye! I’m working on it, but not there yet. To help me along with this reading, I’ve got the above-mentioned Hammond/Scull Reader’s Companion. It is an absolutely fantastic resource, although it is distracting at times with it’s delicious detail on juicy textual items, the history of the development of this or that character, or references to letters and so on of Tolkien which better explain points. I’m grateful to them both for having put so much work into it.

    I would like for someone (Hammond and Scull, if at all possible!) to put together an exhaustive reference for Tolkien’s writings that takes into account all of Tolkien’s published and relevant unpublished work, focusing on the development of the characters, places and so on that are mentioned in the works themselves. Their Companion and Guide doesn’t go to that level of detail, generally, rather focusing on the personalities and places that influenced Tolkien’s writing. Perhaps they are working on such a thing. Perhaps I’ll write and ask….

    In any case, thank you for your comment! I hope you enjoy the blog.

  15. Kevin,

    Wow, I’m impressed. I seem to remember a somewhat Caustic Kevin remarking disparagingly about my favorite twentieth-century fiction writer some time ago, perhaps right here on his blog!

    I’m glad to see that you have an open mind, as well as a sharp tongue!

    Seriously, I think I know the kinds of enthusiasts who put you off originally. In the mid 60s I remember being very intrigued at this JRR Tolkien author, since all the bookshelves were loaded with his stuff. It took me about a year to “go for it” myself. I must be a snob. But, it was providence, since I didn’t have friends who read at all, and nobody to talk with about the ideas.

    I loved the appendices, but I only read them AFTER I read the main material, except for the pronunciation one. Then I wanted the Silmarillion, but it wasn’t available. I always wanted to write the author and ask him about some of the ideas, but I thought he would think me impertinent to ask, so I never did. Then came Sept 2, 1973, and that was that.


  16. Michael, I am totally a snob when it comes to reading. After a search of posts and comments, though, it seems that Caustic Kevin burned his acidic thoughts on the matter onto other electronic pages than these. I apologize, nonetheless.

    But, yes, indeed, I am bitten by the Tolkien bug. I am most decidedly not bitten with the creepy hyperenthusiast bug, of the unbathed stoner tree-hugging D&D variety whose online name is some ethereal-sounding Elvish equivalent of Moonflower. Gah!

    I’m absolutely fascinated by the Tolkien scholarship. The above-mentioned Hammond & Scull stuff is really impressive. Other authors should be so lucky to have such well-focused interest dedicated to their works and lives, and such a widespread audience. All that wealth of archival material is a fantastic asset. I’m looking forward to reading Christopher Tolkien’s presentation in The History of Middle-Earth. That should be fascinating. Now I hope someone is working on a comprehensive dictionary of all this stuff, otherwise I’ll have another pot on another back-burner going soon.

    I realized I was totally hooked on Tolkien up around page 300 when I thought, “I’m 300 pages into this and I’m not bored. Nice!” And I think that, upon re-reading it, I certainly won’t find The Silmarillion as incomprehensible and tedious as I most certainly did when I first read it. It really made no sense at all, and I couldn’t work up the care to invest the interest to make sense out of it, despite some moments of real beauty. It seems that people really need to have read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings prior to attempting The Silmarillion.

    It’s a pity you didn’t write Tolkien. You might have received a letter in return, which would be quite a neat thing.

  17. Kevin,

    No need to apologize, actions speak louder than words!

    Mirabile dictu, those hyperenthusiasts you mention often used “Tolkien” to inspire their decliviity into paganism, a program already underway when I graduated from college in 1972. Sheesh!

    I remember how Chapter 1, the first time I read it, marked an inflection point from the tone of the Hobbit to that of LOTR. Here was Bilbo, a character I really liked, disappearing from the scene, and leaving us with this upstart, Frodo! Hmmmm. I don’t know about this?!! What does Frodo know about adventures? But then, along comes Gandalf, and now I’m back in my comfort zone. Gandalf knows adventures, oooooold adventures! And I think I know what Gandalf is, though he’s called a “wizard”.

    And you are right about the Silmarillion, it has to be read after reading LOTR in order for your interest to be sustained. It’s like Augustine reading the Old Testament, and feeling let down and repelled, until years later Ambrose told him to learn from Paul how to understand the OT, after which it all began to make sense!

    I haven’t read all the good reference material, and in particular Hammond & Scull. In fact, since the initial “craze” produced (early 70’s) all sorts of clearly unauthentic material, I actually shunned books “about” LOTR and Tolkien, except Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, which confirmed much of what I had gleaned, and revealed new depths that hadn’t occurred to me. I would highly recommend Prof. Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth, which brings in many factual elements about Old English and the geography around Oxford, which clearly entered into the “creative impulse” of Tolkien’s fiction. My only “beef” with Shippey’s work is his assessment that Tolkien’s cosmology and morality is “Manichean”, since I believe Tolkien is far more inspired in the Bible than in gnosticism.

    And Prof. Michael Drout is a good man to “go to” on all things Tolkien and Old English! I did.

    Oh, I almost forgot. The very best source for authentic interpretation is to be found in Tolkien’s “Letters”. You also get to know what a really fine person he was.

    Anyway, I certainly don’t want to “spoil” it for you, so really enjoy yourself! And let us know when you are finished and would like to share thoughts with us.


    1. Thanks, Michael! I’m very much enjoying it. Now if only every day were twice as long so I could read all these books promptly, and all the other ones I need to read, and I had time to work on the books I need to finish writing, then all would be well. (Better make that four times as long.)

      I do have the Shippey book on order, and I’ll pick up a copy of the letters, too. Hammond & Scull refer to them quite often (including some unpublished ones that they managed to get the text of, things that hit auction houses and such) in both The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion and in the two volumes of The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. I picked up the second volume (the Reader’s Guide) mistakenly, thinking it was the Reader’s Companion that I’d read a good review of, though I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s like a dictionary on Tolkien’s life and writings. The first volume (the Chronology and annotated bibliography of Tolkien) I picked brand new up for the unbelievable price of $4.24 (list price is $50), because the front end papers were omitted, and the first page verso of the book is actually glued to the cover so that the list of the authors’ titles is there inside the front cover rather than the nice dark red enpapers as in the back. It’s amazingly detailed. I don’t know of any other author who has received such treatment. But then most authors aren’t such packrats who keep nearly every scribble they’ve ever written, too. Anyhow, that Reader’s Companion only came out in 2005, I think, and the Companion and Guide in 2007, so they’re quite recent. They’re of a completely different quality level than the majority of Tolkien stuff out there, which seem to be fan-based for role-playing or whatever.

      What I’d like to see at the same quality level is a complete dictionary of the characters in all his writings to date (including the ones pieced together by Christopher Tolkien: The Silmarillion and now The Children of Húrin), providing information about them as they stand in the published works, but also describing the development (changes of names, relationships, stories, etc) that is known from outside those books (from the letters, the stuff in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth, etc). That would have been nice to have already. If someone else isn’t doing it, maybe I will. There’s such a wealth of material, something like that would be extremely useful to someone like me who’s just coming to it all, and who is appreciative of (rather than uninterested in) the literary development of each item of interest.

      Anyhow, thanks for the recommendations!

  18. Happy reading, Kevin. I recommend this book by Drout (and Tolkien) to you — my favorite work by either author:


    I’m a huge fan of Drout, who seems to be the rare English professor who is having an absolute blast most of the time.

    I think Tolkien’s scholarship holds up quite well.

    As to Tolkien’s fiction, well it is genre fiction, but Tolkien did manage to present a “complete world” presentation of his fiction, which added an element of realism quite rare in that genre.

    1. Thanks, Doug. I saw the notice for that new edition and figured I’d wait. I really enjoy Drout’s blog (I learned about it from Theophrastus of What I Learned from Aristotle). I wish he’d post more often (Theophrastus, too!). His encyclopedia editing experience posts were very educational. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself. He’s got an infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter. I’m now enjoying his Old English recordings. You can hear how much he enjoys them.

      For genre fiction, this is awesome. From the other ‘fantasy’ exemplars I’ve read, this stands head and shoulders above the rest. To me, it really doesn’t read as part of the genre. The stereotypes of the genre aren’t there (magic galore, a new-agey cosmetic, sentient animals, inept archaizing), and Tolkien is throwing too many recognizable goodies into the mix for this to be an imitable product. There are even little incidental phrases (from Tolkien’s long life) that I recognize from my childhood, things said by older family members that obviously were passed down from my great-grandfather (his family was from Cornwall). So, I’m enjoying it several times over.

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