Five Seriously Excellent Books about J.R.R. Tolkien: A Birthday Appreciation

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.)

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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.


Don’t Follow Your Dreams

During my initial years as a graduate student, I certainly didn’t enjoy an unshakable sense that I had found my true calling. The beginning of doctoral training can be rough. You’re not yet skilled enough to make contributions to the research literature, which can be frustrating. And at a place like M.I.T., you’re surrounded by brilliance, which can make you question whether you belong.

Had I subscribed to the “follow our passion” orthodoxy, I probably would have left during those first years, worried that I didn’t feel love for my work every day. But I knew that my sense of fulfillment would grow over time, as I became better at my job. So I worked hard, and, as my competence grew, so did my engagement.

From “Follow a Career Passion? Let it Follow You” by Cal Newport.

This advice has been trending for a bit now, but it is still so hard to get into our little heads. Cal Newport wrote an early book on it and I think he is dead-on. Don’t worry about “passions”—that’s chasing the wind. Instead, look at your opportunities and think about how you can most effectively master a valuable set of skills. Not only is this pragmatic (as Newport argues), I believe it is also Christian, elevating giftedness, faithfulness, and servanthood above the idol of personal fulfillment.

Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (New York: Grand Central Publishing).


Concepts of Time

“Perhaps what we need is a radical reconceptualization of time: not as an adversary to be vanquished (a race against time) or a criminal to be tracked down (fugitive time) or an employee to be disciplined (time management) or a commodity to be squandered (wasted time) but as an expansive, fluid entity that will always resist our efforts to contain it. Time can enrich our lives (quality time), transport us to new places and paces (island time), and help us out in moments of need.”

Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Cambridge, MS: Harvard, 2017) 26.

They say that westerners think about time in a linear way as a finite resource (teach us to number our days) while non-westerners think of time in a circular way as a renewable resource (the deep river runs on). But how to live the difference?

Do Theology in the First and Second Person

“Second, the best way to stay focused on the subject matter of theology is to stay focused on Scripture. John Calvin viewed his Institutesas help for aspiring disciples “to find the sum of what God meant to teach us in his Word.” It’s no coincidence that the most important figures in the history of theology—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth—also wrote biblical commentaries. Roman Catholics enthusiastically agree. When Benedict XVI called Scripture the “soul of theology,” he echoed Vatican II’s claim that “the study of the sacred page” is the very soul of theology (in Dei Verbum).
Given the fragmentation of theological studies in the modern university, I fear that you may find it challenging to establish your biblical bona fides. Some biblical scholars insist on reading the Bible like any other text, and some theologians think that doing theology is a matter of compiling “proof texts” that establish doctrines. There are better ways of reading the Bible theologically.
C. S. Lewis’s distinction between looking at a beam of light and looking along it clarifies what’s at stake. Those who look atthe biblical text analyze it from a critical distance. They see the text, but not necessarily what it’s talking about. In contrast, those who look alongthe text enter into its strange new world. Looking along the text is the best way to resist what Hans Frei calls the “great reversal” in hermeneutics that took place in the eighteenth century, namely, the exchange of the biblical narrative as our framework for understanding the world for some other story (e.g., neo-Darwinism, existentialism, process philosophy—their name is Legion).
The Bible is not an object to examine under this or that hermeneutical microscope. God addresses us in Scripture and requires our response, and that means we do theology in the first and second person (cf. Martin Buber’s I and Thou). Scripture is not a textbook but the Church’s holy script, and understanding it involves reading all the books in the Old and New Testaments as parts of an overarching story. It’s more than narrative, it’s drama: story made flesh, in which readers today have speaking parts. Karl Barth spoke of exploring the “strange new world of the Bible,” and that’s an apt image. The theologian is a kind of cartographer of this new world, this new life, this “theodrama”: the story made flesh of God’s two-handed outreach to the world.”
This excellent letter lays out Vanhoozer’s understanding of the theological task in a clear, wise, and humble way. Much ground is covered here in an unassuming manner.

A Philological Lament

In my research I read the old guard: D. H. Thomas, “Notes on some passages in Proverbs;” Crawford Howell Toy in the International Critical Commentary; Franz Delitzsch on the possible Arabic background of ‘aluqah; Mitchell Dahood’s Proverbs and Northwest Semitic Philology. Just how were these mustaches able to a man to master the whole horde of Semitic languages: Akkadian and Aramaic, Elabite and Ugaritic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Old South Arabian, Moabite, Edomite, Ammonite, and Phoenician, and last of all, as one untimely born, Hebrew? Scraping out hour after hour at my desk, I have barely been able to learn one of these tongues and gain the most rudimentary understanding of the relationships between them. (For example, from Aramaic to Hebrew /d/ turns to /z/, but don’t ask me what happens in Akkadian.) In reflecting on philological travails, I console myself with the thought that they lived in a simpler time. I’m not romanticizing the past am I? When these scholars learned to parse, Derrida wasn’t yet a twinkle in his parents’ eyes. Gesinius’s lonely Hebrew grammar circulated widely. Theology had been freshly demythologized and no one yet dreamed of re-mythologizing it. No admissions committee ever asked these budding scholars, “So what theoretical approaches do you bring to the text?” The internet—a blessing and a curse—means I research from my basement on a different continent from the school in which I enrolled, but it also means I shoulder responsibility for everything under the sun written about my subject in any language, time, or place. I imagine a world where writing my thesis might mean responsibility for every written thing about my subject within my own university library—everything that I can see with my eyes and touch with my hands. What an eminently reasonable task that might have been. Then I remember Tom Shippy reflecting that education has changed, and so there is probably no one alive today who commands as many languages as J. R. R. Tolkien. In this fact I both lament and find consolation.

Death and the Gift

“Death reorients us to our limitations as creatures and helps us to see God’s good gifts right in front of us all the time, each and every day of our lives. Instead of using these gifts as means to a greater end of securing ultimate gain in the world, we take the time to live inside the gifts themselves and see the hand of God in them. Ordinarily, we eat and drink simply as fuel to enable us to keep going with our work. Ordinarily, we work not just to earn a living but to find satisfaction and purpose and very likely to make a reputation for ourselves and to achieve success. What if the pleasure of food is a daily joy that we ungratefully overlook? What if our work was never intended to make us successful but simply to make us faithful and generous? What if it is death that shows us that this is how we are meant to live?”

David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017) 45.


Real Life

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s imagination.

C. S. Lewis, quoted in Tim Challies, Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity (Minneapolis: Cruciform, 2015) 94.

I’ve read several biographies of Lewis over the years and all of them discuss his relationship with Mrs. Moore, the mother of a university friend whom Lewis may or may not have been romantically involved with. She lived with him until she died and was more-or-less a terror of a woman whom he waited on hand and foot. During her last years she couldn’t really get out of bed or care for herself and yet she insisted on keeping a small yappy dog that wasn’t even house broken. As Lewis wrote some of his most profound books he often had to stop every fifteen minutes to clean up dog poo off his carpet, make Mrs. Moore a tea, or do some other infuriating and menial thing.

During hectic times when I cannot seem to find hours in the day or am deluged by the vagaries of life, I often take solace in Lewis’s example. If he can write Mere Christianity and clean up dog poo every fifteen minutes off the bedroom rug then I can keep at whatever I am trying to do and possibly even succeed.