Friday, January 31

The Making of Middle-earth: A New Look Inside the World of J. R. R. Tolkien (2013)

By Christopher Snyder

This is another book I finished reading a while back – actually several weeks at this point – but am just now getting around to blogging. It's much more than just a book about Tolkien himself – that's just the first section. Subsequent chapters look at each of his three major works – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, in that, i.e. publication, order – laying great emphasis on the sources and influences in history, legend, and literature that he drew on in constructing “a mythology for England.” I found it thoroughly enthralling. But there is another dimension to this book as well, examining the enormous influence of Tolkien in many other areas, including the various media into which his stories have been adapted and the impact they have had on the whole genre of heroic fantasy. It truly is a near-comprehensive survey of the entirety of “The Tolkien Phenomenon.”

A sample interior page, which does
not do it justice
All of this is graced with an absolutely gorgeous presentation: a parchment-like tinting and decorative embellishment of the pages that almost give them the appearance of a medieval manuscript, an illusion fostered by frequent quotations (from the books, the movies, Tolkien's letters and other writings, and more) in a near-calligraphic faux-Celtic font evoking the spirit of Tolkien's own Elvish script; a treasure-trove of photographs and ephemera invoking the early-mid 20th-century bucolic England that Tolkien loved and drew inspiration from; and frequent inset illustrations and narrative-boxes expanding on some point discussed in the text itself. “A Tolkien Timeline” provides a convenient overview of the author's life and the multimedia phenomenon to which he gave birth; extensive endnotes point the way to further exploration of much that Snyder discusses; and what appears to be (but I suspect is not, given the explosion of Tolkien scholarship in the last decade and a half or so) a comprehensive bibliography and list of “Tolkien Resources” of all kinds make me consider this book to be absolutely invaluable as an overview of all things Tolkien.

Perhaps this book speaks to me so directly because it is by a fellow historian of the Middle Ages, Christopher Snyder of Mississippi State. Despite our geographic proximity, I've never met or communicated with Prof. Snyder, however, so there's no bias on that count – before you ask! It looks like, given the areas in which he has published besides this book (early British history), he and I have a lot of the same interests. There is one way in which we differ, though – he begins his acknowledgments by admitting that, “Unlike most medievalists I have met, I did not have an appreciation for Tolkien as a young reader. I fell in love with the Arthurian legends as a teenager, became a professional historian, and only discovered the genius of Tolkien later in life. I owe a debt . . . to Peter Jackson for kindling the flames . . . .” I, on the other hand, did encounter Tolkien early in life, as a teenager, basically in the furor of interest surrounding the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion in 1977 (which included the Rankin-Bass animated Hobbit, which for all its shortcomings does have a certain charm), and was at least in part inspired toward ultimately becoming a medievalist by Tolkien. Unlike the very first reviewer on, I do not hold Snyder's belated discovery of Tolkien (through the lens of Jackson) against him, and wrote a very early “proto-review” defending Snyder based only on reading to about a third of the way in [link]. Completing the book over the course of the next few weeks – slowly, savoring it – did not change my mind in the least, and I stand by that rebuttal. The Making of Middle-earth is deservedly placed on the main bookshelf in my living room right alongside Tolkien's own canon.

Cheers! – and Thanks for reading!

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