Sunday, March 25, 2007

J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide joins ‘elite’ Tolkien publications - Xoanon @ 12:38 PST

MrCere writes: It is an exhilarating time to be a J.R.R. Tolkien enthusiast. Yes the good professor has long since gone to his rest and the crazy days of movie adaptations are behind, but for readers, these are heady times.

Grabbing headlines is “The Children Of Hurin,” a significant release of Tolkien’s own writings edited and presented by his son and literary heir Christopher Tolkien. But another significant work may have been missed by some in the excitement of new material and it is a piece of scholarship that needs to be considered.

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull have shown again that the study of Tolkien and his works is far from a closed case as casual observers might assume. In their late 2006 two-volume work “The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide” they have delivered a significant pillar to the house of scholarship that rather than serves as the end to study, will act as a launching point for future researchers and interested readers.

Not to be confused with the authors’ 2005 “The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion” this work focuses on the author, not his most famous work. And while the story of the War of the Ring is part of the volume, it is written about in the context of the author’s life. For example, in the 32-page LOTR entry, a summary of the book’s plot is given in about four pages. These are followed by the writing history complete with quotes from letters about the work-in-progress that comes in with twice as many pages, all in an 1135 page book.

The book is filled with, as written in the preface, the stuff of his life and times, family, friends, colleagues and the places he knew and loved. It reflects too on ideas and themes that permeate his writings and records the results of the professor’s works on culture and society. It summarizes his complete works into easy, digestible summaries including poems and the different parts that make up “The Silmarillion” (for example). It is historical enough to mention that a town was settled at Tolkien’s beloved Oxford by 912 and then is treated in detail since he spent such a major portion of his life there. At the same time the research is contemporary enough to catalog Peter Jackson’s movies along with other adaptations and to address fan organizations on the internet in comparison to more traditional fandom.

Scull and Hammond have compiled a tome of Tolkien that is a splendid success. It becomes an instantly invaluable reference and a gateway to better understanding Tolkien and any of his works, especially in the context of his life. The extensive chronology, which is presented in its own volume, is equally impressive in its research and execution but for more casual readers this book will receive much less use than its partner. As useful as the book will be to a researcher or fan seeking some insight on a time or era or Tolkien’s busy life, for many the digest will create awe. The research process can hardly be imagined and it may well take time before it can be measured how much fruit this storehouse of knowledge yields for those who continue to study Tolkien.

So in the span of two years Scull and Hammond have contributed mightily to ‘must have’ publications regarding Tolkien. The research doubtlessly took many years more but the publication of “The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion” and the two volumes of “The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology” and “The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide” along with the forthcoming “The Children of Hurin” have made it as exciting as ever to have an interest in Middle-earth. Scull and Hammond’s three volumes (published by Houghton-Mifflin for North America) were clearly designed to sit together on a book shelf and are both durable and handsome. (This writer cannot comment on the UK’s edition).

They join a handful of books that while not “canonized Tolkien” are very close relatives. Any reader looking to push beyond “The Silmarillion” must include these books in the consideration while no scholar can be credible without an in-depth understanding of what has been done here.

The drawback to the new ‘Companion and Guide’ is that the alphabetical entries can be difficult to find. Surely the publisher and author considered topping pages with some sort of content guide for quick reference but the decision was made not to include them. The reader is left to look up and down individual pages to find the beginning of one entry and the start of another which can feel clumsy and almost frustrating when looking for a specific entry. The quality of the content makes the search worth the effort but it is a pity some device wasn’t included to help the reader.

Readers of will be pleased to know old TORn made it in the volume. In the “Fandom” entry under the sub-head “Tolkien Fandom and the internet” the book has the following: “Many of the Tolkien fan sites currently on the Internet were formed in response to the 2001-3 films, such as . . .”

Many will also be drawn to the entry on “Adaptations” and its information on the Jackson films among many other incarnations of LOTR. The authors choose to give relatively little space to the movies that are embedded so deeply in popular culture, which, like it or not, spread “The Lord of the Rings” to greater across-the-board name recognition and popularity than ever before.

Scull and Hammond write, “Heavily promoted, Peter Jackson’s motion picture helped temporarily to increase sales of Tolkien’s works to extraordinary levels, though it is arguable whether it inspired many new readers to become enthusiasts of Tolkien’s book rather than devotees of the film.”

While it is hard to have a quibble when the phrase “though it is arguable” is used as a safeguard, personal experience with fans of books and film has presented me sufficient evidence (for myself) that indeed “many” have used the films as a gateway to the literary LOTR and from there to the extended Tolkien library. I even suspect that a number of eventual buyers of the ‘Companion and Guide’ were introduced to Middle-earth by way of Jackson’s films, but such minutiae are mentioned not as a criticism but only as a point of interest to this specific audience (readers of TORn).

Scull and Hammond have ultimately delivered an invaluable work for the Tolkien enthusiast that, like the source material and its author, will remain important and remarkable for many long years.

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