Read About: J.R.R. Tolkien
DR ANDREW HIGGINS
Who Was J.R.R. Tolkien?
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is considered the father of modern fantasy literature. Tolkien spent a great part of his life constructing a vast fictional world in which he set his two great works The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55).
From an early age, Tolkien was fascinated with language and the way language interacts with story. He started inventing languages as a boy and would later link these inventions to the peoples and world-building of his invented mythology. As an academic, including serving as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, he contributed to academic discourse and discussion on the literature and language of The Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Goths, and the Middle Ages; especially Chaucer.
Tolkien’s fictional works are important because through his combination of story-making and language invention Tolkien created a secondary world that has become the template for works of modern fantasy and world-building. The importance and pervasive influence of Tolkien is best summed up in this observation by English author and fantasy writer Terry Pratchett:
J.R.R. Tolkien has become a sort of mountain, appearing in all subsequent fantasy in the way that Mount Fuji appears so often in Japanese prints. Sometimes it’s big and up close. Sometimes it’s a shape on the horizon. Sometimes it’s not there at all, which means the artist either had made a deliberate decision against the mountain, which is interesting in itself, or is in fact standing on Mount Fuji.
Books by Tolkien
There are many books by Tolkien to read – for a full current list see here https://www.tolkiensociety.org/author/books-by-tolkien/
My top picks for someone starting out on their Tolkien journey would be……
The Hobbit (1937)
‘In a Hole in the Ground there Lived a Hobbit.’ Originally written for his children, this adventure story set in Middle-earth charts the journey of twelve dwarves and one reluctant Hobbit into the land of Faerie and the perilous realm of Smaug the Dragon. Along the way, this Hobbit meets Elves, spiders, a shapeshifter, and a curious creature called Gollum from whom he acquires a magic ring.
The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
After the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien wanted to return to work on his growing mythology, but readers wanted to know more about hobbits. Tolkien responded with The Lord of the Rings – a grand epic story that tells a long tale of a quest to save Middle-earth from a second darkness, which all hinges on the magic ring that Bilbo finds in The Hobbit. Into the narrative of this story, Tolkien wove only glanced vistas of his vast mythology and included a treasure trove of poetry, prose and para-textual appendices, which gave readers more information and lore on the peoples, languages and cultures of Middle-earth.
The Silmarillion (1977)
The mythic vistas that were just glanced at in The Lord of the Rings came to full light thanks to Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien who edited his father’s voluminous papers and presented The Silmarillion – the tale of the great Silmarls from the First Age of Middle-earth which contains the three great legendary tales of “Beren and Luthien”, “Turin Turambar” and “The Fall of Gondolin”. This book is very different in tone from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as the tales are told more like epic sagas and histories. After reading The Silmarillion if you want to dig further – try The History of Middle-earth series
On Fairy Stories edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (2008)
This volume contains Tolkien’s most famous and important essay, which he first gave as a lecture in 1939 as he was working on The Lord of the Rings. This foundational essay sets out Tolkien’s thoughts on fantasy as a literary form. In the essay, Tolkien explores the concepts of world-building and creating a secondary world with a sense of depth and inner consistency of reality. This essay is fundamental to understanding what Tolkien was looking to achieve in his own world-building. This edition also sets this essay in its historical context as also includes Tolkien’s notes and drafts for the essay.
A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Language Invention edited by Drs. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins (2016)
On November 29th, 1931 Tolkien gave a talk to student society at Pembroke College Oxford which he called the ‘Secret Vice,’ in which he revealed the hobby he had been practicing since boyhood of inventing languages. In the essay, Tolkien explores the invention of language and how this act is linked to story and myth-making. During this talk, Tolkien unveiled some of his own acts of language invention; including his language for the Elves of his mythology. As with On Fairy-stories, understanding Tolkien’s thoughts on language and language invention gives great insights into his creative works.
Books About Tolkien
Equally, there are many books about Tolkien to read. For a good list see here: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/author/books-about-tolkien/
If I had to pick my top four they would be:
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (1977)
This is the first authorised biography of Tolkien and Carpenter had full access to all of Tolkien’s papers and documents. It gives a good overview of Tolkien’s life and his works.
The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created A New Mythology by Tom Shippey (revised 2012)
A seminal work which explores the crucial role of philology in Tolkien’s creative thought and world-building and examines the origins of all his major works. Tom Shippey is one of the foundational scholars of Tolkien studies and this work is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring Tolkien’s creative and intellectual landscape.
Tolkien Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits by Dr. Dimitra Fimi (2008).
This groundbreaking work of scholarship explores the evolution of Tolkien’s mythology by examining how it changed as a result of Tolkien’s life story and contemporary, cultural, and intellectual history. Fimi’s analysis takes into account the complete scope of Tolkien’s body of invented mythology and her approach brings to light neglected aspects of Tolkien’s imaginative vision and addresses key features of Tolkien’s creativity: the centrality of the Elves and the role of linguistic invention as well as race and material culture in Tolkien’s world-building.
Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger (2002)
A masterpiece of scholarship by another foundational scholar of Tolkien studies, Dr. Verlyn Flieger. In this work, Dr. Flieger explores several key themes in Tolkien’s work, especially The Silmarillion, exploring how music and light are interwoven as central themes in Tolkien’s work. This work has been hailed as “the most important and influential book on both language and music in Tolkien’s works.” It will also introduce readers to the works of one of Tolkien’s colleagues, Owen Barfield, whose thoughts on mythology and language were an important influence on Tolkien.