Everyone has their obsessions, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s story is one of mine. How did a professor of philology at Oxford spin such fantastic stories as “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”? How did he create Middle Earth — its topography, its creatures, its heroes and its villains — from his perch as a scholar of extinct languages?
Tom Shippey, one of Tolkien’s biographers, pondered the contradiction of Tolkien, a scholar with a soaring imagination: “He remained all his life a committed Christian and Catholic, and died, two years after his wife, in 1973. No extramarital affairs, no sexual oddities, no scandals, strange accusations or political involvements — nothing, in a way, for a poor biographer to get his teeth into,” Shippey wrote.
Tolkien read. He studied. He thought, and then he wrote. That mysterious chain, I suppose, is one shining example of the ephemeral magic of creation.
With the release of the second installment of “The Hobbit” film series, I’ve returned to these books for insights into this influential man:
“The Art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien” by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Tolkien was a gifted artist, and he incorporated his vision of Middle Earth into his own black-and-white drawings (plus two maps), reproduced in the first edition of “The Hobbit.” Later, he painted five exquisite scenes for color plates. This book incorporates sketches, studies and final versions. Scenes in Peter Jackson’s movies bear a striking resemblance to Tolkien’s long-ago drawings: Bag-End (Bilbo’s home), Rivendell, Lake-town, and, of course, Smaug the dragon, curled in festering arrogance atop his great golden hoard.
“The Making of Middle Earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien” by Christopher Snyder (Sterling). This just-released book examines the influences on Tolkien that led to his creation of Middle Earth, including the language, poetry and mythologies of medieval Europe and the battlefields of World War I. Author Snyder, a medieval scholar himself, teaches history at Mississippi State University. Numerous illustrations.
“The Anglo-Saxon World” by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan (Yale University Press). Tolkien gets one mention here, but this handsome volume, with beautiful maps and illustrations, chronicles a place and time — England between the fifth to the late 11th centuries — that provided many of the myths, folklore and languages that Tolkien drew on to create his world.
“The Road to Middle Earth” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and “J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century” by Tom Shippey (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Shippey is a leading Tolkien scholar — he met Tolkien and taught from his syllabus at Oxford. Shippey worked with the dialect coaches (yes, there were dialect coaches!) for the “Lord of the Rings” films.
“Road” is a scholarly study of Tolkien’s sources for the creation of Middle Earth, particularly his study of the languages of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon English.
The second book is an extended argument for the literary merit and relevance of Tolkien’s work. Shippey notes one key to Tolkien’s ongoing appeal: The ancient world Tolkien drew on “existed before fairy tale, a merciless world without a Geneva Convention,” he wrote. Tolkien’s view was informed by his experiences as a World War I veteran. Like writers George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, William Golding and C.S. Lewis, among other veterans of several wars, Tolkien knew first hand the dead-end outcomes of absolute power.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.