On this day 127 years ago, J. R. R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The amount of fan literature and criticism that has grown up around Tolkien is dizzying (even a little off-putting), however, The Lord of the Rings remains my favorite book and a case can be made that Tolkien is the author of the 20th century. Here are five books about J. R. R. Tolkien that are very much worth reading. In their complementary ways each one opens up the depth and genius of the man and his mythology. Taken together, I think they make a comprehensive introduction to the man and his world. (Although I am assuming that you have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before approaching this list, for a certain kind of reader, perhaps even an incredulous one, these books may help you appreciate Tolkien’s arcane genius.)
1. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
This was the first full-length, authorized biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and to this day it may be the best. Tolkien is a difficult man to chronicle because, with the exception of his military service (see pick 4 below), he lived, quite honestly, a very boring life. He never left Oxford after he arrived, rode his bicycle to work every day, published relatively little academically speaking, loved trees and landscape and place, vacationed in the same town every year on the seashore in England, hated French cooking, struggle chronically with finances, was a faithful—if slightly distant—husband and father of four, and lived well within his own head. Carpenter, with the assistance of the Tolkien family, has done as good a job as anyone is likely to do turning the bare facts of Tolkien’s life into a story and a picture of the man. He is undeniably a fan, so the biography is laudatory but not entirely uncritical. This is the best place to start to appreciate Tolkien, his context, his mind.
2. The Road to Middle Earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology by Tom Shippey
To dig deeper below the layers of Tolkien’s mind and particularly his influences you need to read the works of Tom Shippey. Shippey is perhaps the most academically credible critic and commentator of Tolkien’s work because he is himself a trained Medievalist who once taught the same curriculum as Tolkien. Shippey’s book focuses on teasing out the influences and origins of Tolkien’s creative process in the literature of “the North,” i.e., the Germanic and Scandinavian languages and literatures of old. The names of the twelve dwarves in The Hobbit can all be found in ancient Finnish epics. The name Gandalf means “staff elf” in Old English, which Tolkien imagined into the figure of a wizard. What Shippey skillfully shows is that the roots of Tolkien’s entire mythology lie deep in the collective memory and fossilized language of the Northern peoples. What Tolkien accomplished was a genius personal renovation of the cultural memory of Northern Europe by imagining a common linguistic and mythological past beyond the shores of history. Shippey proves that nothing else like this has ever been attempted, let alone accomplished to the tune of more than 100 million copies sold.
3. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski
Famously, though he was intensely private, Tolkien did not live and write in a vacuum but in a close-knit literary community at Oxford—the Inklings of lore and legend. Many hopelessly fawning books have been writ about this circle, but Zaleski and Zaleski’s is probably the best and certainly the most sophisticated (Humphrey Carpenter’s is just a pace behind, but it focuses more narrowly on C. S. Lewis and is less ambitious in scope). A massive work of collective biography and literary criticism, this engrossing, critical, yet imminently respectful study is a deep dive into Tolkien’s friendships with the men closest to him during the most creatively productive decades of his life. Although they spend equal time on C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien, the Zaleski’s put Tolkien into context and develop the particularly literary aspects of his thought and his biography in a careful, nuanced, and even poignant way. What emerges is the debt of encouragement that Tolkien owed to this circle of friends, his singular and unflagging personal literary vision, and his lifelong, craftsman-like dedication to his own inner world. “No one ever influenced Tolkien,” Lewis once quipped, “You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.”
4. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth by John Garth
Before the Inklings there was the TCBS—the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. This group of four bosom friends came together in secondary school, stayed thick as thieves through university at Oxbridge, but was shattered, torn apart, and killed on the mud-rutted fields of France at the Somme. “By 1918,” Tolkien wrote, “all but one of my close friends were dead.” Can you imagine? Tolkien finished university under a death-sentence. Oxford was a ghost town turned drill-yard in 1915 when he wrote his graduation exams with just eight other men. Tolkien graduated, married his high-school sweetheart, went on a honeymoon, then reported for duty expecting all the while never to come home (42 classmates from secondary school were killed in twelve months). Under this cloud and in this circle of companions his mythology first began to take shape. He invented languages, wrote his first epic poems, and in a convalescent hospital while the War raged on in France he wrote the first real stories that would become the legendarium of Middle Earth. John Garth has written an incredibly well-researched and intelligent account of Tolkien’s early years from University through the Great War. Blending careful biography, painstakingly reconstructed military history, and insightful literary criticism, Garth crafts the most compelling and compassionate account of how these early friendships and this shared set of traumatic experiences shaped Tolkien and his imagined world.
5. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien by J. R. R. Tolkien, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
My favorite window on Tolkien are his own letters. Especially against the background of the biographical works above, Tollers comes to life through his own pen. His dry wit, intellectual prowess, cantankerous nature, persistent struggles, sentimental tenderness, deep faith, perfectionistic tendencies, and creative flair are nowhere more clearly displayed. Most of these letters are addressed to close friends and family, especially his wife and children. In some of the most fascinating, he writes to the likes of W. H. Auden and his publishers to unpack his own personal vision of Middle-Earth in the fullest detail that he probably ever put down on paper. At least one of these letters amounts to a ten-page philosophical and theological essay on the meaning of Middle-Earth. In some of the most poignant letters he encourages his son stationed on the front lines of WWII with his own traumatic memories from the front lines of WWI. In the end, I found most moving the memories of his wife, Edith, that he sent to his children just after her death. Here we get a rough self-portrait of the husband, father, and friend as those closest to him must have known him.
Postscript pick: The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays by J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien was not a prolific academic, mostly focusing on his own mythology and his teaching responsibilities, but he did write at least one influential essay about the poem Beowulf, which gives its name to this collection. Tolkien’s allegory of the tower from that selfsame essay is just a paragraph but worth the price of the book. It not only explains what is wrong with Beowulf studies in Tolkien’s own day, but with English departments in 2019 and the entire discipline of Biblical Studies for the last 200 years to boot. Another must-read is the essay “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien’s classic exposition of his philosophy of art, creativity, and fantasy literature. Other essays speak to topics like translating Beowulf, making up languages, and the Middle-English epic romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can almost hear Professor Tolkien mumbling his way through a rapturous lecture.