5 Books for Tolkien Fans Wanting to Read Scholarship

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

This is an excellent book of textual analysis, and I include John D. Cofield’s in-depth Amazon review below, with permission.

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

This collection is very helpful in tracing some likely literary influences on Tolkien. I provide John D. Cofield’s insightful Amazon review below, with permission.

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)?

The Best (and Worst) Books for Tolkien Biography

I have seen several news stories along the lines of “books to read before seeing Tolkien” around the internet recently. While I applaud news outlets for encouraging reading tied to movies, several of these posts, though certainly not all, recommend reading Tolkien’s fantasy works instead of reading works about Tolkien. In my experience, biographical material is far more interesting to read before a biopic, so I have compiled a list of recommended (and not recommended) readings that appeal more to that aspect. Enjoy!

(I have provided links to the Amazon.com and .co.uk pages for each book, for those looking for more information.)

Recommended

J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

6620ba6873fcdee5ada499acad108c81Put simply, this book is regarded as the essential Tolkien biography by many scholars and fans.

The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends by
Humphrey Carpenter

51T7tUWTY7L._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_This book focuses more specifically on the group that came together to share readings and community in Oxford that included Tolkien and Lewis.

Winner of the 1982 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings by
Diana Pavlac Glyer

51XLJrQfYcL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_This is another well-respected and informative book looking at the creative group in Oxford!

I believe this is somehow related to her other text The Company They Keep, but as I have not read it I can provide no commentary. (Winner of the 2008 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies.)

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

51NJu5ExghL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_This excellent book looks at Tolkien’s war experience during World War I and how his friendships and experience could have shaped his life and literature.

Winner of the 2004 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez

51T7tUWTY7L._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_This is an even closer portrait of the friendship between Lewis and Tolkien, as the title implies.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter

41TiVVKBDAL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_This is an invaluable resource for readers who want a little insight into Tolkien’s exchanges with friends, family, publishers, and fans.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie Donovan 61egNLjnENL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Even though this is a collection of essays rather than a book-length investigation, it is absolutely worth mentioning because it is perhaps the best resource available discussing the way that Tolkien worked with and supported women in his life.

Tolkien, Race and Cultural History by Dimitra Fimi

61XZyS5NDmL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_While not a biography, per se, this volume contains an insightful cultural history of Tolkien which is helpful when trying to understand how Tolkien’s views and opinions compared to the culture in which he lived.

Winner of the 2010 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Boxed Set

41TgOTKaxIL._SR600,315_PIWhiteStrip,BottomLeft,0,35_PIAmznPrime,BottomLeft,0,-5_SCLZZZZZZZ_

I added this after Jason Fisher and others pointed out that the Chronology is a fantastic insight into Tolkien’s biography.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine 612XGkKCptL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Released in conjunction with the recent (2018) Tolkien exhibition in Oxford, this serves as both the catalogue for that exhibition and a remarkable text full of insight into the life of Tolkien.

Have Not Read

For each of these, I welcome comments from other readers!

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garthtolkien_at_exeter_college_john_garth

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams

518JS4WivPL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Winner of the 2017 Mythopoeic Award for Inklings Studies!

Tolkien by Raymond Edwards41u7ULtDi5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte

41gU5PPU97L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Not Recommended

The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-earth by Daniel Grotta614nyRtDv3L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Grotta has been exposed for, shall we say, taking liberties?

J.R.R. Tolkien (Just the Facts Biographies or Learner Biographies) by David R. Collins

51Y9Zv-0NaL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Not well circulated, this book is intended as an introduction to the author for children. Unfortunately it suffers from two faults: it contextualizes the author using the movies, and at times it seems to take facts from Grotta.

Honorable Mentions

I have not included these in the list because I did not think them either bibliographic enough, or far-ranging enough in their bibliographic content. However, I wanted to mention some other works of great scholarship that touch on bibliography:

The several volumes produced by Hammond and Scull about Tolkien’s artistic output!

Shippey’s first and second books on Tolkien have less biography, but demonstrate overlap between biography and his creative output (credit to commenters for convincing me to add this).

Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver et al.

Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917-1918: An Illustrated Tour by Phil Mathison

Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity by Carl Phelpstead

There are several works by authors like Richard Purtill, Joseph Pearce, or Bradley Birzer which focus specifically on the religious aspects of Tolkien’s life and elevate it above all others. I have not included such works in this list, but a couple are worth hunting down if these are of interest to you.

What other books would you recommend for biographical information? Do you agree or disagree with anything on this list? Let me know!