This page features a selection of critical works by and about Tolkien currently in print. Books currently in print can be ordered from most bookshops or mail order suppliers, and also by mail order from The Tolkien Society (see the price and carriage link under each title). The Proceedings is normally only available direct from The Tolkien Society or the Mythopoeic Society.
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
- Tolkien/Ed. Tolkien
Defending Middle-earth - Curry
The Proceedings of the 1992 Centenary Conference - Ed. Reynolds/Goodknight
The Road to Middle-earth - T A Shippey
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1997
Tolkien wrote certain lectures for non-specialist audiences on otherwise highly technical subjects: the Old and Middle English poems Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; the importance and significance of fairy stories; the study of languages other than one's own for linguistic insight - and the creation of new languages simply for pleasure.
Read to the British Academy in 1936, The Monsters and the Critics (Tolkien was clear which he preferred) became a landmark in the study of Beowulf. Typically, Tolkien blames the authorities for dismissing the story provided by the poet and treating it merely as a quarry for bits of data on history, archaeology, folklore or what-have-you. Beowulf, he says, is not a second-rate Homeric-type epic with too many monsters and insufficient plot, but a heroic celebration of the lives of mortal men in a dangerous and transient world.
Though a self-confessed Romantic, Tolkien was too wise to believe that old
poems were built purely from primal myth, and understood their literary nature
the author draws upon tradition at will for his own purposes,
as a poet of later times might draw upon history or the classics and expect
his allusions to be understood ... Also here is evidence that Tolkien
did not despise allegory in its rightful place: his beautiful allegory of
the tower built to look out upon the sea. The shorter On Translating
Beowulf, written for a 1940 edition of Beowulf and the Finnesburg
Fragment ( JR Clark Hall, ed. CL
Wrenn) is likely to appeal most to those who are fascinated by historic English.
In this W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture, read to the University of
Glasgow, 1953, the reality of Gawain's confession and absolution, often treated
as an unresolved and insignificant point of order by critics, is defended
fiercely by Tolkien. Much analysis is devoted to the issue that threatening
sin and the rules of a social game are on different moral levels. Whatever
the author's intention (only to be guessed) it is clear that at the denouement
Gawain is cleanly confessed of any sin, and yet is still deeply embarrassed
by Bertilak's rebuke. We can imagine the 14th century audience deep in the
night when soberness had set in, lying wakeful and
working it out to see
if it added up to a compliment - a thought-provoking after-effect of a
gay but serious poem, one of the most beautiful and accessible of all English
medieval long poems.
On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien's best-known non-fictional work, was
given as an Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St.
Andrews in 1939 and later published with "Leaf by Niggle" as Tree
and Leaf in 1964. That version appears here. This is Tolkien's central
work explaining and presenting his beliefs on the nature of fairy tale, its
significance and origins and the extent to which it is misunderstood by modern
critics. He covers much ground on the development of fairy stories (and fairies)
in human understanding; the difference between fairy and folk tales; the
of soup in which tales develop and re-develop; the misconception that
fairy tales are mainly for children; the creation of secondary worlds; Escape,
Recovery and Consolation and the reflection in sub-creation of the
Eucatastrophe, the resurrection of Christ, which for Tolkien as a devoted
Christian was the happy ending that transcended and hallowed all mythic dreams
of happy ending. Yet the bit we humans remember most often is the gift of
The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still,
swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able
to fly, turn grey lead to yellow gold and the still rock into swift water
... in such 'fantasy' as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins.
This paper was read in Oxford on 21 October 1955, the day after the publication
of the long-awaited Return of the King, Tolkien's
... which contains, in the way of presentation that I find most natural, much
of what I personally have received from the study of things Celtic.
Much of the lecture is about the mutual influence of the English/Germanic
language and the British/Welsh languages on place names and personal names,
and on some of the intimate details of verb-formation. And here is the good
tale of how the ancient Keltoi of the Greeks accidentally acquired a special
relationship with the letter C thanks to the scholar William Salesbury, compiler
of A Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe for King Harry VIII. Tolkien
also relates his personal response to languages and the special place among
them of Welsh, his inspiration for Sindarin.
It is the native language,
to which in unexplored desire we would still go home.
In this early essay (1931) Tolkien readers will recognise the combination
of ready self-deprecation and unrepentant enthusiasm, to the degree of including
substantial extracts of his elvish poetry (much earlier than those of The
Lord of the Rings). The author capable of building towering mythologies
on the foundations of his invented languages was clear-sighted and humorous
enough to name one of his early creations Nevbosh -
Anyone who doubts the strength of his obsession with the beauty and mystery
of word-sounds or the extent of its influence on his world-creation should
read this and discover that it was more than a
mere pastime but
a need as profound as the need for music.
At Merton College, Oxford, in 1959,
I am now about 34 years behind,
wrote Tolkien, of his (yet undelivered) Oxford inaugural lecture.
I still have nothing special to say.
True to form he delivers 16 pages illuminated by those 34 years on the importance
of philology, the much-regretted split between the study of literature and
language, and his long and devoted efforts to close that gap in his academic
There was knifework, axe-work, out there between the barbed wire
of Lang and Lit in days not so far back.) Hands up ex-students who recognise
Some take the chance of using much of their time in reading what
they wish, with little reference to their supposed task ... And loath
to leave without a good quote, he gives us the lines from Anglo-Saxon Wanderer
that lie behind the song of the Rohirrim:
Hwaer cwom mearh, hwaer cwom
mago? ... genap under niht-helm, swa heo no waere!
Here for: Price and carriage information for The Monsters ... (Tolkien Society)
By Patrick Curry
HarperCollins Publishers, London 1997
206 pages including references and index
Starting life as an exploration of the inspiration of The Lord of the
Rings within English culture, the natural world and spiritually-inspired
ethics, this book grew to encompass in its scope many of the questions raised
by The Lord of the Rings, and raised by others about it. Chapters move from
'The Shire: Culture Society and Politics', to considering the true nature
of Tolkien's creation in the light of literary and historical tradition, Nature
and ecology, and comparing the
essence of Mordor with modern political
and ecological destruction. In 'Fantasy, Literature and the Mythopoeic Imagination',
Curry quotes Virginia Luling:
All mythologies are necessarily both universal
and local: universal in their scope, because they deal with the nature of
things; local in point of view and temper, because they arise out of particular
cultures. One of the small handful of serious and intelligent commentaries
on The Lord of the Rings currently in print, covering a lot of ground swiftly
and readably without short-cutting its points.
Here for: Price and carriage information for Defending Middle-earth ... (Tolkien Society)
Ed. Patricia Reynolds and Glen
Paperback £20 Hardback £50 (Discount to members)
The Tolkien Society and The Mythopoeic Press, 1995
460 pages (A4) including references and index
The 'Proceedings' is the largest and most wide-ranging volumes of commentary on The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's other works ever published, drawing as it does on a the most substantial gathering of scholars, colleagues, family friends, students and long-time Tolkien readers assembled to date.
Essays, talks and papers range from George Sayer and Rayner Unwin on their recollections of Tolkien; Verlyn Flieger on Tolkien's Experiment with Time; Charles E Noad on Blakean Resonances on Tolkien, Tom Shippey on Tolkien as a Post-War Writer, Normal Talbot on Where do Elves go to? Tolkien and a Fantasy Tradition (one of the longest essays on elvish ecology in literature I have ever seen); Jane Chance on Power and Knowledge in Tolkien; Christopher Gilson and Patrick Wynne on The Growth of Grammar in the Elven Tongues; Bruce Mitchell on JRR Tolkien and Old English Studies; Edith L. Crowe on Power in Arda; Sources, Uses and Misuses; Anders Stenström on A Mythology? For England? and Lisa Hopkins on Female Authority Figures in the Works of Tolkien, CS Lewis and Charles Williams, and many, many more, including some essays in a lighter vein such as Angela Surtees and Steve Gardner on The Mechanics of Dragons: An Introduction to the Study of their 'Ologies, and Jenny Coombs and Marc Read on A Physics of Middle-earth. The volume is available from The Tolkien Society in Europe and The Mythopoeic Society in the Americas, or whichever one is nearest to you and best suits your currency. You get a lot of commentary for round about £20 sterling or the equivalent (plus postage). The hard-bound version is recommended for libraries and other heavy users.
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By T A Shippey
Paperback £8.99 (2nd edition)
HarperCollins, London, 1992
337 pages including notes and index
Probably the nearest thing to a standard critical work on Tolkien's Middle-earth, Shippey's book traces the development of Tolkien's ideas through his profound involvement with languages and the mythologies that gave rise to them. The second edition includes a small amount of additional commentary based on works published since the original edition came out in 1982, but the main value of the text is in the material published in 1982, and minor errors in that text remain uncorrected. Some commentary on these (and much else) is given in Tom Shippey's address to The Tolkien Society, 1983, in Peter Roe Booklet No. 5, Digging Potatoes, Growing Trees Part 1.
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