Most of my work is either attempting to help scholars understand the fan community, or helping fans who want to dig in to scholarship a bit more.
To further this endeavor, I decided to put together a short list of books that I would recommend to Tolkien fans who wanted to get a glimpse into Tolkien scholarship. Since I wanted it to be a fairly good overview of the available scholarship, I started with some caveats:
- only one book by any author
- written in a way that a non-academic audience could find it engaging
- had to be affordable (around 30 USD or less)
There are of course many areas of research not represented here, and maybe I will compile more lists in the future. Here are my resulting suggestions, such as they are:
J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey
Tom Shippey was a prominent scholar scholar in Tolkien studies for a generation, and his second book demonstrates why. A deep dive into Tolkien’s influences and inspirations, as well as an examination of Tolkien’s context makes this a valuable book for its insights and influence.
Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger
Verlyn Flieger first published this book in the early 1980s, only a few years after the publication of The Silmarillion. It was the first important study of Tolkien’s great story, and this Revised Edition, published twenty years later, has additional value because the longer time period allows deeper perspective.
Many of the essays in this work deal with Flieger’s analysis of the influence on Tolkien of his fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. Barfield had developed a linguistic theory of the fragmentation (or splintering) of meaning, which caused Tolkien to rethink many of his own ideas on philology. Flieger demonstrates that Tolkien used Barfield’s concept throughout his writings, but most especially in the stories and tales which became The Silmarillion. Flieger’s masterly retelling and analyses of many of those tales, especially those dealing with Feanor’s creation of the Silmarils, their theft by Morgoth after his destruction of the Two Trees of Valinor, and the ensuing rebellion of the Noldor breathe fresh life into words that I have dearly loved ever since first reading them in 1977.
Splintered Light, like the rest of Flieger’s work, is a highly scholarly but accessible and fascinating work. All lovers of the worlds created by J.R.R. Tolkien owe it to themselves to read and savor Flieger’s fascinating analyses.
Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth
For fans who are interested in biography, I have a whole post about good options for reading! This is one of my favorites, though. Garth has the skill and depth to develop meaningful and insightful story lines much more than an over-arching biography. I find it a gripp9ing read, and it’s accuracy is top-notch!
Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays edited by Jason Fisher
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a man of decided likes and dislikes, and among his strongest aversions were those who read his works and picked them apart trying to identify every possible source for his literary creations. Since anyone who has read Tolkien’s letters is well aware of this aversion, it seems odd to think that some of the best known and most highly regarded Tolkien scholars would contribute to a book of essays titled “Tolkien and the Study of His Sources.” Yet, as Tom Shippey himself makes clear in one of those essays, studying Tolkien’s sources allows us to better understand his cultural background, the professional background against which he worked, and his immersion in the “Cauldron of Story,” the wide-ranging reading which dominated his life. Jason Fisher, who is the editor of as well as a contributor to this collection, warns that ignoring a writer’s context is to risk stripping his work of connections vital to understanding him and his world. As an appreciative reader of the essays in this collection, I would add that they provide scholarly but quite lively and entertaining insights into Tolkien’s “leaf-mould of the mind,” the rich literary background from which sprang Middle-earth.
There are eleven essays in this collection, including three by Shippey, Fisher, and E.L. Risden explaining source criticism as it applies to Tolkien. As an historian myself I found three essays dealing with Mesopotamian and Biblical history, the Byzantine Empire compared to Gondor and Arnor, and on the Rohirrim as possible Anglo-Saxons to be especially interesting. Similarly, I share with Tolkien an appreciation for the fiction of H.Rider Haggard and John Buchan, and so I enjoyed two essays focused on those authors. And I was intrigued by the insights of other essays on Caxton, the myth of Ceyx and Alcyone, and on some of Tolkien’s lesser known writings.
This collection includes contributions from some of the best known Tolkien scholars. The essays are well written and insightful. Each is accompanied by extensive notes and bibliographies. It belongs in the collection of every dedicated lover of Middle-earth
Tolkien and Alterity edited by Christopher Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor
A much-needed addition to the Tolkien discussion, the scholarship in this edited volume brings together voices discussing how Tolkien’s work intersects with topics of race and queer studies. The book offers essays on ideas of women and the feminine, the queer, language of familiarity and alterity, and identity more generally. I highly recommend it for Tolkien fans who would like to be able to consume more modern scholarship.
So this is my very short list. Do you agree or disagree? What other books would you recommend (keeping in mind the three caveats)?