Essential and noteworthy Tolkien-related books, essays, recordings, etc

Extollager

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IMPORTANT BOOKS AND ARTICLES ON TOLKIEN AND MIDDLE-EARTH

I’m bound to miss something with this first posting, especially in the category of individual essays rather than essay collections, but herewith a sincere response to J. D. Worthington’s request:

Call for Reminiscences: The Earliest Academic Conferences on Tolkien

THE CORE COLLECTION

The seven books listed below are mandatory for anyone looking to explore and write about Tolkien and his work in the fantastic.

Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien and his selection of Tolkien’s letters. The current paperback edition of the Letters has a more thorough index than the original hardcover edition.

Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth in its current paperback edition is, I would say, the one most essential critical work, teeming with insight. His book on Tolkien as “author of the century” is not a rehash at a simplified level of the Road book, but a second major scholarly work.

Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond: Reader’s Companion and their two-volume set J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide are fabulous troves of information on Tolkien and his writings.

OTHER OUTSTANDING BOOKS

Verlyn Flieger’s three major studies Splintered Light, A Question of Time, and Interrupted Music; and the collection Green Suns and Faerie. The first two, at least, of these books perhaps belong in the “Core Collection.” I place them here only because they seem slightly less “essential” than the ones I have listed above.

Tom Shippey’s collection of his Tolkienian essays, Roots and Branches

The twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, and the History of the Hobbit, prepared by John Rateliff. Important if one wants to follow Tolkien’s exceedingly well-documented creative path through various drafts, including the revelation of various false trails (e.g. Strider originally being Trotter, a hobbit who wore wooden shoes). There are similar critical editions of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham; Smith of Wootton Major; and On Fairy-Stories. Also Douglas Anderson's The Annotated Hobbit, second edition.

Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter (eds.). Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth. Essay collection.

John Garth’s book about Tolkien’s service in World War I and the origins of Middle-earth

Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, about the informal group that meant very much indeed to Tolkien, particularly during the composition of The Lord of the Rings; if you are interested in this topic, after reading Carpenter see Diana Glyer Pavlac’s The Company They Keep, perhaps also the Zaleskis’ book The Fellowship.

NOTEWORTHY BOOKS THAT MIGHT NOT BE NECESSARY

Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-earth, Revised Edition, will enhance one’s sense of Tolkien’s meticulous care in visualizing Middle-earth. One could also get Barbara Strachey’s Journeys of Frodo for the same reason. I have both, but would not be prepared to say yet whether one alone would be plenty and if so which.

Robert Foster’s Complete Guide to Middle-earth: Tolkien’s World from A to Z is a useful reference book.

Clyde S. Kilby’s Tolkien and the Silmarillion appeared a year before Christopher Tolkien’s recension of his father’s great tales of the First and Second Ages. The Kilby book contains a chapter on the American professor’s sojourn in Oxford with Tolkien during summer 1966; it is one of the best evocations of the elderly Tolkien that we’ll ever have and helps one to understand why The Silmarillion had to be a posthumous construction. Kilby founded the Inklings collection at the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton College, which is one of the top locations for Tolkien-related research, second only to Oxford and Marquette University in Milwaukee. The book was published in Wheaton, Ill., by Harold Shaw, 1976.

A second book with a superb reminiscence of Tolkien the man is the anthology edited by Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: A Celebration, with George Sayer’s (not Sayers’) piece “Recollections of J. R. R. Tolkien.”

Lobdell, Jared. England and Always OR Tolkien’s World of the Ring (I think that’s the title of the later edition). A good chapter on LOTR as an adventure story in the Edwardian mode, etc. (See also Nelson’s article on 19th- and 20th-century literary influences on Tolkien, below.)

BOOKS OF ESSAYS

There are numerous collections of scholarly essays on Tolkien and his fantasy. Among the best, I believe, are:

Isaacs and Zimbardo (ed.). Tolkien and the Critics.

Lobdell, Jared (ed.). Tolkien Compass. The original edition only was formerly essential because it printed Tolkien’s lengthy “Notes on the Nomenclature” -- but that valuable work is now in one of the Scull-Hammond volumes above. I have the original edition, and I hope the later one retains Richard C. West's "Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings" and Charles A. Huttar's "Hell and the City: Tolkien and the Traditions of Western Literature."

Patricia Reynolds and Glen GoodKnight (eds.), J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference (a huge combined issue of Mythlore and Mallorn; should be available from the Mythopoeic Society).

Other essay collections of note include Tolkien and His Literary Resonances, Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, etc.

ARTICLES

“Tolkien on Tolkien,” available online here at Chrons:

https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/561392/

Michael Resnick’s interview with Tolkien, published in the fanzine Niekas, available online here:

http://efanzines.com/Niekas/Niekas-18.pdf

Rateliff, John. "'A Kind of Elvish Craft': Tolkien as Literary Craftsman," Tolkien Studies 6 (2009): 1-21. This was, for me, one of the best essays on Tolkien that I have ever read. That is the essay I mentioned here:

https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/537344/

The annual journal Tolkien Studies, where Rateliff’s article appeared, deserves attention. An online-only journal, The Journal of Tolkien Research, may prove to be excellent. It is associated with Douglas Anderson, one of the very top scholars in the field of Tolkien and high fantasy (also weird fiction).

http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/

Nelson, Dale. “Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Literary Influences on Tolkien,” in Michael Drout (ed.) J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Also “Tolkien’s Further Indebtedness to Haggard.” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society #47 (Spring 2009): 38-40, and “Possible Echoes of Blackwood and Dunsany in Tolkien’s Fantasy.” Tolkien Studies 1 (West Virginia University Press, 2004). If these matters interest you, see also John Rateliff’s "She and Tolkien," Mythlore, 8 no. 2 (whole number 28; Summer 1981): 6-8. This article is on Haggard’s famous romance and its echoes in Tolkien’s fantasy.

Nelson, Dale. “Rings of Love: J. R. R. Tolkien and the Four Loves.” Touchstone vol. 15 #1: 48-50. This article was also printed, as “The Lord of the Rings and the Four Loves,” in Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society #40 (Nov. 2002): 29-31. Available online:

http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=15-01-048-f

Recommended resource: The Mythopoeic Society sells an index to its journal Mythlore, which has published much discussion of Tolkien and other writers in the high fantasy tradition. The Mythopoeic Society keeps in print the complete run of Mythlore, which started as a delightful fanzine and has become perhaps the foremost scholar journal on high fantasy.

The Tolkien Gateway may be useful as a means to trace essays. I confess that I haven’t used it much so far.

http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Main_Page

BLOGS

http://www.tolkiensociety.org/blog/

http://tolkienandfantasy.blogspot.com/

http://sacnoths.blogspot.com/

https://wayneandchristina.wordpress.com/

http://wormtalk.blogspot.com/ Occasional Tolkienian content

https://wadecenterblog.wordpress.com/ Occasional Tolkienian content; devoted to the Inklings

AUDIO RECORDINGS

Lovers of Tolkien’s fantasy must hear him read from his own works. Caedmon sells a set of CDs with most of this material.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0694525707/?tag=brite-21

Tolkien interviewed by the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p021jx7j

NEWSLETTER

The monthly newsletter Beyond Bree is available by mail or online. It's a very good deal.

http://www.cep.unt.edu/bree.html
 
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Extollager

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JD, knowing your fascination with the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, I think Tolkien's Legendarium is an essay collection that you'd find very interesting. Here is its Tolkien's Legendarium TOC.jpeg table of contents. I own most of the books listed in my first message above. I don't own this book, but of the books listed above that I don't own, it's the one from which I've photocopied the most articles, from a library copy (for my own use).

And you might well relish Verlyn Flieger's Interrupted Music. See this review:

http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_flieger_interrupted_music.html


By the way, contents of some of the essay collections that I listed above should be available at the Tolkien Gateway site. For example, here are contents of the Tolkien Centenary Conference combined issue of Mythlore and Mallorn:

http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Proceedings_of_the_J.R.R._Tolkien_Centenary_Conference
 
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Extollager

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An unusual item by Verlyn Flieger that's worth tracking down is "Green Hill Country," in Seekers of Dreams, ed. by Douglas A. Anderson. J. D., I imagine you own this book already.

As far as I know, but I haven't tried very hard to verify this, Tom Shippey's "Long Evolution: The History of Middle-earth and Its Merits," Arda 1987 volume (published 1992, Stockholm, Sweden), pp. 18-39, hasn't been reprinted elsewhere. I believe it discusses the first four volumes of The History of Middle-earth and, thus, would be of particular interest to you, JD.

Documented here:

http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Tom_Shippey#Articles
 
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Extollager

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I'd better stop adding things for a while or people will think this thread is just a one-person show. But I wanted to note a little-known resource:

Pronunciation for The Lord of the Rings. Tape prepared by Christopher Tolkien in October 1980[?]. A typescript was made from this by Jane Morgan (Director of the BBC Radio serialisation of The Lord of the Rings). Re-typed and distributed by Helen Armstrong of The Tolkien Society, and subsequently by Nancy Martsch (Editor of Beyond Bree).

My understanding is that Tolkien's son made a tape recording of how names in LOTR should be pronounced, to guide people preparing a BBC Radio version. Given Christopher's closeness to his father and his profound study of the Middle-earth materials, this document is a highly reliable resource, but one most Tolkien fans do not know about.

I acquired a copy from Nancy Martsch, and recommend that those who are interested should check the Beyond Bree website.
 

j d worthington

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Wheee-ew! I had expected a fairly good-sized list, but nothing this detailed! I am overwhelmed by the effort you put into making such a thoughtful and thorough list of recommendations, and I will certainly look into getting my hands on as many of these as possible. It will, of course, take me time... but patience in such things is something I long ago learned to have, and it whets the enjoyment of them once acquired. Many, many thanks, Dale! I hope others find this as useful as I....
 

Extollager

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J. D., for your anticipated year-of-Tolkien in 2016, you might consider tackling some of the essays in Tolkien's Legendarium, listed above, and a book I have just been glancing at this morning -- Douglas Charles Kane's Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion.

Kane is highly respectful of Christopher Tolkien and his work with his father's manuscripts, but in Arda Reconstructed he's going to argue that, in making a cohesive, readable text, CJRT made some regrettable omissions. His "biggest complaint is that a significant number of edits tend to weaken the roles of many of the strong female characters in the tales, to great negative effect. Tolkien has sometimes been criticized for marginalizing female characters in his writings. Christopher's edits unfortunately only serve to exacerbate those complaints" (p. 27).

Kane is going to try, in particular, to bring out "what material from the latest version of each part of the story was not used in the published text... with my greatest grievance probably being the removal of most of the story of Finwë and Míriel. Not only do those major omissions result in the reduction of the role of an important female character (Míriel), they also remove some of Tolkien's most profound philosophical and spiritual musings" (p. 27) -- even though Tolkien is "one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century" (p. 75).

Kane intends for his book to be a companion to The Silmarillion. His book won favorable reviews from some impressive names in the field. Interestingly, Kane's profession is that of "attorney specializing in employee discrimination and harassment cases." I would expect the book to be meticulous.

Reviews:

http://www.mythsoc.org/reviews/arda-reconstructed/

http://www.mythsoc.org/reviews/arda-reconstructed-ordway/
 

j d worthington

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It sounds fascinating, and right up my alley, but the paperback is listed at a minimum of $20 used, so I don't think I'll be getting my hands on that one any time soon. (I'd like to eventually, though.)
 

Extollager

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The two books in this posting, and the one in the posting immediately following, I would describe as "Outstanding" but not "Essential."

John Garth's new book, The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth (2020) is a worthy addition to the books listed above -- I am confident in saying that although I have only started to read it.

John Bowers's Tolkien's Lost Chaucer (2019) is a worthy work of scholarship, but not something that casual readers will probably finish.
 
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Extollager

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Oronzo Cilli's Tolkien's Library is useful but not as good of a book as it should have been, starting with a misleading title. The following review appeared in Beyond Bree and is copyright (c) 2019 by me, Dale Nelson:

“MY LIBRARY WAS DUKEDOM LARGE ENOUGH”

Tolkien’s Library: An Annotated Checklist by Oronzo Cilli. Edinburgh: Luna Press Publishing, 2019. xxxi + 432 pages. ISBN 978-1-91143-67-3. List price $39 paperback. Reviewed by Dale Nelson.

A better two-word title for Oronzo Cilli’s Tolkien’s Library would be Tolkien’s Reading. The book is an annotated checklist (1) of books that Tolkien is known to have owned -- but also (2) of books with which he was acquainted, without, perhaps, having owned them; and even (3) of books he might have read – or might not have read. The title, then, is certainly misleading. The 2,599 entries of the main list include all three sorts of books.

The selection of John Buchan books is a good example of Cilli’s inclusiveness: nine novels, only one of which (Greenmantle) is actually mentioned anywhere by Tolkien. Cilli’s source for the others is an entry in Michael Drout’s J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia on Buchan, by Tom Shippey. Shippey doesn’t say that Tolkien certainly read these books. We so know from Carpenter’s biography that Tolkien enjoyed Buchan’s fiction.

Likewise, Cilli lists an impressive bunch of books by William Morris. The Victorian fantasist was a great favorite of C. S. Lewis’s, and the list of Morris’s books suggests he was for Tolkien too, but you would need to look in the entry for Clutton-Brock’s 1914 study of Morris to see a key bit of information provided by Christopher Tolkien to Richard Mathews that provides valuable support for that idea. We still cannot say for sure that Tolkien read all four of the long Morris fantasies that Ballantine reprinted in its Adult Fantasy Series of 1969-1974 (The Wood Beyond the World, etc.). It’s likely that he did, sure.

But readers will need to use Cilli’s book warily.

As soon as I received my copy of Cilli’s checklist, I hastened to see what books by H. Rider Haggard might have been in Tolkien’s collection. I exclaimed with delight when I found several listed, including – aha! -- an obscure one called Heu-Heu or The Monster.

For a moment, I was much gratified because, years ago, I had ventured the hunch that Tolkien might have read this little-known tale of Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain and that it had left traces in Tolkien’s writing. So here was enhanced support for that possibility – Tolkien had owned a copy! I wanted to tell all the kids on the block.

However, when I looked at the entry again, I took note of Cilli’s source, which I saw was Drout’s J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, page 369. I turned to that page in the Encyclopedia, pretty sure of what I would find; yes, it was my own very long entry on 19th- and 20th-Century Literary Influences on Tolkien.

I wrote there that a thunderstorm episode in Heu-Heu might have contributed to Tolkien’s account of the mountain-storm in The Hobbit. I still think it might have, but I’m no nearer to knowing if Tolkien ever read that Haggard romance. I should have emphasized more strongly, in my Encyclopedia entry, that this is something we do not know.

The only Haggard romances that, so far as I know, we can be sure Tolkien read are Eric Brighteyes, The Wanderer’s Necklace, and above all She. Almost certainly he also read King Solomon’s Mines. I suspect he read more of these popular novels – perhaps a lot more, and I’m convinced that they might have been very important to him in the writing of The Lord of the Rings; see my article “Tolkien’s Further Indebtedness to Haggard” in Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society #47 (Spring 2009): 38-40.

But there’s a lot we don’t know for sure. We don’t know if Tolkien read Haggard’s Treasure of the Lake, another romance mentioned in my Encyclopedia article, and this time not listed by Cilli – I’m not sure why, since he did list Heu-Heu.

Cilli cites my article “Possible Echoes of Blackwood and Dunsany in Tolkien’s Fantasy” in Tolkien Studies #1 (2004), as well as Jared Lobdell’s England and Always: Tolkien’s World of the Rings, in an entry on Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Wendigo.” Neither Lobdell nor I had any proof that Tolkien had read this famous terror-tale. A user of Cilli’s book who doesn’t look up what we wrote will probably assume that we did have such proof.

Blackwood was well known for weird stories and I’d be surprised if Tolkien had not read this one; certainly he had read something by Blackwood. But unlike Cilli, I doubt very much that “The Wendigo” was the source of Tolkien’s “Crack of Doom.” Tolkien thought that expression might have been derived from Blackwood. Sure – but is it likely it was from a passage in “The Wendigo” describing someone looking through “the crack of the tent door flap”?

In general, Cilli seems to have thought it best to include doubtful items. Notably, if Tolkien cited a given work as a source for an illustrative quotation, when he was working on the New English Dictionary early in his career, Cilli includes it in Tolkien’s Library, although it is highly likely that Tolkien never saw some of those books, but derived his information from what was provided by readers who submitted usage slips for the great lexicon.

Thus, Cilli acknowledges that “the present work doesn’t ‘reconstruct’ a physical library that once existed, but rather an imaginary collection (my italics). But it was the former that I was led to expect from the book’s title. One may wince, when thinking of the errors likely to crop up in future writing on Tolkien by users of the checklist who do not read every word of the front matter to understand just what what it is.

As what it is, though, Tolkien’s Library will lend itself to various good uses. Right off, I think it will suggest to undergraduates and others the great world of learning to which Tolkien belonged, and which, I suppose, in our present period of damage to the learned life, must be, for many such people, unimaginable. As Tom Shippey says in his Foreword:

“It is an old adage (too often ignored by literary biographers) that, ‘if you want to understand a man, read his books’, and this is usually taken to mean, ‘read the books he wrote’. The adage is certainly true in that sense, but it is just as true as applied to the books he read – and even more, those he owned and retained. They tell us about an author’s personal interests, literary and cultural horizons, formative assumptions, one might say, his ‘mental furniture’.

“What, then, do Tolkien’s books tell us? A great many of them, indeed the majority, are the tools of his trade. What they tell us is what a trade it was [my italics]! Very few academic disciplines can match both the rigour and the range of philology as it was in Tolkien’s lifetime. …Who nowadays would be fit to have an opinion on such matters? Only someone who had mastered the scholarly literature.”

But so far as I am aware, there are few or no Anglophone universities that do that any more, to a degree that Tolkien would regard as fully satisfactory or, perhaps, even tolerable.

Users of this checklist should question some of the bibliographical details. For example, Cilli identifies Heu-Heu as #4627 in Tauchnitz’s Collection of British and American Authors, published in Leipzig. If Tolkien read the yarn at all, it was probably in the 1923 Hutchinson edition.

Happily, Cilli cites the 1908 edition of C. A. Johns’s Flowers of the Field, Tolkien’s favorite book in adolescence. The source he cites does not specify which edition, but my Beyond Bree article of May 2009 does, and it’s the 1908 one, sure enough, that Tolkien had.

In subsequent editions of Tolkien’s Library, a few usage and proofreading errors might be corrected, e.g. “studio” for Tolkien’s study (a room), a missing word in the title Adversis Major: A Short [History] of the Educational Books Scheme of the Prisoners of War Department of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and so on.

Cilli identifies a number of books on Celtic topics as now belonging to “the Weston library under the auspices of the English Faculty Library” at Oxford. Some other books formerly owned by Tolkien were bought by Stan Revell, who added to them a label, “From the Library of J. R. R. Tolkien” before reselling them.

The Celtic books and the Revell books should be listed in separate appendices, as should books now belonging to Wheaton College – and so on. As it is, readers who wonder, for example, just which books were in that Tolkien Celtic collection will have to proceed, item by item, through the checklist, perhaps making a small mark with a highlighter. Likewise, it would be nice to have, in one place, all the books that Cilli found were registered as checked out from the Exeter College library by the young Tolkien listed. There is, then, a lot of information in Tolkien’s Library that is not very easy to use.

A bonus for keen-eyed users of Cilli’s book will be quotations from, or even reproductions of, unpublished letters by Tolkien, e.g. a 1966 one to the late Gene Wolfe (author of the Book of the New Sun sequence, etc.) about the word warg. This tidbit is tucked away in the annotation for Damon Knight’s 1967 anthology Orbit 2, which contained Wolfe’s story “Trip, Trap”! Why couldn’t Cilli have provided an index identifying all of the pages with quotations from or paraphrases of unpublished Tolkien letters?
 

Extollager

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Here is my review of Tolkien's Lost Chaucer, from Beyond Bree. It is copyright (c) 2020 by me, dale Nelson:

AN OCCASIONALLY WOBBLY PLANET CHAUCER: SCHOLAR FINDS CHAUCERIAN TRACES THROUGHOUT TOLKIEN’S WORK

by Dale Nelson

A review of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer by John M. Bowers. Oxford University Press, 2019. Xiii + 310 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-884267-5. List price $32.95.

In 2008, Oxford published Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, arguing that medieval cosmology permeated Lewis’s creative work, not just the Chronicles of Narnia but certain poems and his science fiction trilogy. Details of Ward’s discussion are debated, but his thesis will affect future interpretation of these works.

This new book by John Bowers should similarly contribute to Tolkien studies, to some degree at least. For my part, I’m convinced that Bowers shows (1) the overlooked importance of Chaucer in Tolkien’s professional life and (2) that Chaucerian traces were left in Tolkien’s fantasy. As with Ward, Bowers offers individual examples that are less compelling than others, but his two main contentions will remain.

Much of Bowers’s book concerns an unfinished Tolkien project exhumed from Oxford University Press archives, the preparation of a student edition of selections from Chaucer with notes. No one who knows about Tolkien’s habits will be surprised to read how unwilling he was to stick strictly to the needs of undergraduates when writing philological commentary on medieval texts.

Part of the trouble right off was – which texts should be used in Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose for the Clarendon Press? Tolkien’s proposed table of contents showed, Bowers says, too much emphasis on early works and not enough on the Canterbury Tales – and, worse, no passages from what’s often considered the poet’s masterpiece, Troilus and Criseyde (p. 21). From the Canterbury Tales, Tolkien listed just extracts from the Prologue, the Reeve’s Tale, and the Monk’s Tale, and the whole of just one narrative, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. These would have amounted to four portions out of 19.

Tolkien started work on the project in the 1920s, and that was the decade in which he did most on it, hitting a “standstill during the 1930s” (p. 4), and at last unhappily turning over his materials in 1951.

The project was “doomed” because Tolkien would not – perhaps, psychologically, could not – restrict himself to no more than 20 pages of notes; he drafted some 160 pages (p. 6) though he felt oppressed by the “Chaucerian incubus” (p. 32).

“If [Tolkien] found the burden of the ‘Chaucerian incubus’ too crushing, the problem was largely of his own making, again and again digressing to trace etymologies and write two-page entries on single words when [he had been] told repeatedly that he had only a total of twenty pages for his notes” (p. 185). Of course, in those days, before the ascendancy of theory, tracing etymologies was something many an English scholar did. But a book for undergraduates and even youngsters in school wasn’t the place for that degree of depth. Tolkien just couldn’t bring himself to do what he needed to do (p. 105).

Tolkien’s partner on Chaucer was George Gordon, whose slowness, like that of Tolkien, disappointed editor Kenneth Sisam (p. 25). As Bowers says, “Pairing [Gordon] with Tolkien meant OUP relying upon two procrastinators too easily distracted from their assignments” (p. 64). Bowers thinks that Tolkien’s friendship with C. S. Lewis may have come too late for the latter to help Tolkien get the job done (p. 75) – as was, happily, not the case with the completion of The Lord of the Rings

At last, the printer was told to melt the plates down in 1940. Gordon died in 1942 (p. 33). Tolkien’s pages ended up in OUP storage (p. 36).

Times have changed -- Sisam, Tolkien, and Gordon had agreed that the Chaucer selections should be suitable for use in the classroom; they should be free of obscenity. A consideration was that they wouldn’t want schoolmasters to get into trouble (pp. 57-58). Tolkien and Gordon would have omitted the bit in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, for example, about Chanticleer “feathering” his hens (p. 90).

Bowers seems to have provided a thorough survey of what Tolkien accomplished on the Chaucer Selections project.

Of course, that finally-abandoned enterprise wasn’t Tolkien’s only Chaucerian activity. There was the long essay “Chaucer as a Philologist: The Reeve’s Tale,” 70 pages published in 1934. In 1938 he impersonated Chaucer, reciting from memory, on stage at the microphone, the “mock-epic of Chanticleer and Pertelote” (p. 208). Tolkien’s performance was praised in the city newspaper. He prepared a text of the Reeve’s Tale for recitation at the 1939 Oxford Summer Diversions. There was another scholarly article, “Middle English ‘Losenger’: Sketch of an Etymological and Semantic Enquiry,” about a word in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, published in 1951. He lectured on Chaucer at Leeds and Oxford (pp. 2-3).

This book’s account of Tolkien’s scholarly engagement with Chaucer is a valuable supplement to the biographies’ pictures of Tolkien’s academic life.

As for Tolkien’s imaginative work, Bowers finds quite a few likely traces of Chaucer and his times. The two authors have in common the use of malevolent millers – “the violent, vulgar Miller of the General Prologue,” “the devious, dangerous miller of the Reeve’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales and the unpleasant Sandyman father and son in LotR. From the vantage point of an Eagle’s grip, Bilbo looks down at a “little spot of earth” below him, and this looks like being a quotation: Chaucer’s Troilus, from the Eighth Heaven, beholds the “litel spot of erthe” (pp. 116-117).

Interesting is the possibility, opened up on pp. 138-139, of the history of Richard II’s court as relevant to Tolkien’s conception of Gondor at the end of the Third Age. I like the relating (p. 143) of Tolkien’s late dialogue Athrabeth Finord ah Andreth to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which was rendered into English by Chaucer, whose version would have been represented in the abandoned OUP book of selections.

See Chapter 7, and particularly pp. 242-267, for “Chaucer in Middle-earth” and in Farmer Giles and Smith of Wootton Major. Bowers quotes from Tolkien’s lecture notes – from around the time of the completion and publication of LotR – on Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale. Chaucer’s narrative deals with a “’magical’ or demonic” treasure, as Tolkien characterized it, found by friends, who out of avarice become rivals, with murderous results – compare Déagol and Sméagol (p. 260).

Talkative innkeeper Harry Bailey may have been a literary ancestor of Barliman Butterbur. Hmm -- one would have liked some development of this: “Dame Nature in her garden in The Parlement of Foules joined with Queen Alceste in The Legend of Good Women to provide important models for Galadriel in the Golden Wood.” Bowers finds that Éowyn owes something to Emelye (in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale). Faramir, “being,” as Tolkien wrote, “a man whom pity deeply stirred,” recalls Chaucer’s line “For pitee renneth sone in gentil herte” (p. 247). The dancing elf-queen in the Wife of Bath’s Tale reminds Bowers of Tolkien’s fairy queen in Smith of Wootton Major.*

More substantially, Chaucer is often praised for the way the various characters’ tales reflect their personalities and circumstances, while Bowers reminds us that Tolkien ensured that the stories-within-the-story in The Lord of the Rings are, as Tolkien himself put it, “fitted in style and contents to the characters in the story that sing or recite them” (p. 244).

Indications of Chaucer in Tolkien’s fiction aren’t at the heart of Bowers’s book – so if any given examples thereof should prove unconvincing, that won’t matter much for reckoning the main achievement here, which has been really to open up the matter of Tolkien’s Chaucerian scholarship. That there was a connection was known, of course – notably to Scull and Hammond. But the magnitude of that connection will be something new to many readers.

It’s not really germane to the subject of Tolkien and Chaucer, but Bowers makes an enlightening observation: Tolkien often avoids description of actual warfare. We may get the account of a cavalry charge towards the enemy, but Bowers shows that “Tolkien….slighted battle sequences more than readers tend to remember [especially if they have been influenced by the movies]. Bilbo was knocked unconscious and missed much of the Battle of the Five Armies; Frodo was stabbed by the Morgul blade and lost consciousness during the fight on Weathertop; and Pippin missed the heat of battle at the Black Gate as he too blacked out….The opening page of The Two Towers does not show Boromir’s fight with the Orcs, only the aftermath with the warrior pierced by arrows. Faramir’s rearguard action in retreat from the Rammas is seen mostly from a distance by spectators” in Minas Tirith (pp. 234-235).

Bowers shows a good command of Tolkien’s writings and of his life. However, I doubt that Christopher Wiseman, whom Bowers cites, was right in thinking Tolkien was tone-deaf (p. 239): Tolkien was recorded chanting “Namárië” and singing “The Old Troll” to the tune of “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night,” and immediately answered “Sibelius” when Christopher Fettes asked him who his favorite composer was (Amon Hen #210, March 2008); Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla has also recorded her father’s appreciation of the Finnish composer (Amon Hen #29, 1977). But it seems unlikely that a tone-deaf man would have imagined Creation in musical terms. The Wiseman claim is brought in to support the idea that a lack of musical aptitude was one of the parallels between Chaucer the man and Tolkien. Other parallels between them are better-advised.

I was interested to see the support Bowers provides for the pronunciation of the Professor’s last name as “Toll-KEAN” (p. 120). I’ll learn to stop hearing it as “TOLL-kean.”

A few final pages on parallels between Chaucer’s son and Tolkien’s late son Christopher are mildly interesting but might come across to some readers as filler.

Subsequent editions could correct some slips and amend some odd asides. Bowers should say that John Rateliff prepared The History – not “The Story” – of the Hobbit. He should have noticed that “Nazgûls” is a non-Tolkienian plural. Tolkien’s early poem is titled “Goblin Feet,” as it is correctly given on p. 121, not “Goblin’s Feet” as it is called in a note appearing on the next page. There’s no such place as “Minis Tirith.”

Furthermore, Bowers seems to lose his focus a bit when mentioning Tolkien’s comment, in a lecture, about the “disgusting habits” of Chaucer’s Pardoner. The poet gives clues to suggest that the Pardoner is an effeminate homosexual. But Bowers isn’t sure this is precisely what Tolkien was thinking of. Nevertheless, he takes occasion to mention Alan Turing’s suicide (p. 266). I guess Bowers felt a need to express disapproval of Tolkien’s apparent disapproval of the Pardoner’s sexuality.

I don’t understand why Bowers says that the Nun’s Priest’s Tale was “praised even by C. S. Lewis” (p. 275, my underline).

Bowers contends that Tolkien was shy of writing about medieval allegory because doing so might bring his Roman Catholicism into the open (p. 118). That’s why, Bowers thinks, Tolkien didn’t write on Langland’s Piers Plowman. Bowers thinks Tolkien resorted to an “habitual dodge” when dealing with Chaucer’s Compleinte unto Pité, namely focusing on language and not religious content (p. 119).

The index could be more full – there’s no entry for “Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair,” etc. Reviewers who are less hospitable than I to speculation about “influences” might seize on such blemishes as ammunition for a review more negative than mine.

*By the way, Bowers also points to a likely influence, on Tolkien’s account of the Ents vs. the Orcs, of the myth of the battle of the cranes vs. the pygmies, a matter recounted in Homer, Pliny, Mandeville, and Milton (pp. 128-129).
 

Extollager

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Clyde Kilby’s very fine account of Tolkien in the mid-1960s is now available, with other good material, in A Well of Wonder. Kilby’s reminiscence should not be missed.
 

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It looks like the links I provided almost five years ago are still good except for the review of Verlyn Flieger's book Interrupted Music.
 

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Here is a little information on A Well of Wonder.

 

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By the way, I listed Barbara Strachey's Journeys of Frodo above in the first posting. Since then, reading The Return of the Shadow, I've seen Christopher Tolkien himself refer appreciatively to this book. Now that's impressive.
 

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Tolkien fanzines continue to appear, some of them with very good content. There was an explosion of Tolkien fanzines in the second half of the 1960s. Gary Hunnewell "Hildifons Took" is the expert on this topic, and you can find his chronicles through 1968 here:

 

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From the "Core Collection" section of the first posting (with a correction):

Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond's The Lord of the Rings: Reader’s Companion and their two-volume set J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide are fabulous troves of information on Tolkien and his writings.

The Companion and Guide is now three volumes, and that's what I have -- I gave away the earlier set to a local high school.

That makes eight books now, rather than seven, for the "Essential" category, in my opinion. Of course, for more casual readers these books are not essential.
 

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I didn't think of this one sooner -- I haven't read it yet: but Catherine McIlwaine's Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Bodleian Library, 2018) probably belongs as a ninth Core Collection volume. If not, it's bound, at least, to deserve recognition among "Other Outstanding Books."
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My expectation is that it will displace the two "Art of" books by Hammond and Scull.


There is a less costly book by McIlwaine, Tolkien: Treasures, which I have not seen. Probably anyone using the bibliography provided by this thread will want the longer book.
 
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Extollager

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By now the inquirer may feel bewildered, like some wanderer in a bibliographic Faërie.

I think, though, that most explorers of Tolkien's subcreation would find the nine books I have listed for a "Core Collection" to be uncontroversial -- these being, again,

1 & 2.The biography by Humphrey Carpenter and his selection of the Letters.
3 & 4.Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth and the Author of the Century volume. If you can get only one of these two, the Road is the one to get.
5-8.Scull and Hammond's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion and the three-volume J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.
9.Catherine McIlwaine's Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.

These are rich in detail about Tolkien's life and works. They provide trustworthy illumination regarding "sources and influences," his friendships, his composition process, his art and calligraphy, etc.

The first four books have been before the world for quite a few years now and have been cited appreciatively again and again, and reading them in that order would make good sense.
 
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