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A Critical Companion to Tolkien

December 19, 2012

As Christina mentioned in passing last year, because new books about Tolkien are being published with such frequency, we have become ever more selective about which we add to our shelves. Gone are the days when we acquired every work about Tolkien, feeling that a collection of high calibre should document Tolkien’s popularity as completely as possible – gone are those days, with ample shelf space, but also gone, or at least waning, is our patience with poor scholarship and with authors who use Tolkien simply as a frame on which to hang a personal agenda. Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature has been very helpful in steering us clear of a large number of titles. But other books have found their way to our shelves, because they seemed promising enough for us to take a chance.

One such book* is the Critical Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work by Jay Ruud (New York: Facts on File, 2011). Facts on File has long been a reputable publisher of reference works for schools and libraries, and we reasoned that a tall volume of 674 pages, as Ruud’s book was advertised, must at least represent a great deal of work on its subject. Also, at any rate, we were curious to see how much it drew upon our own biographical-critical book on Tolkien, the Companion and Guide, published five years earlier and updated online.

Ruud’s work is divided into four parts. Part I is a sixteen-page biography based largely on Carpenter’s, despite citations at the end also to John Garth, Leslie Ellen Jones, and Deborah and Ivor Rogers (but not Scull and Hammond, indeed no source later than 2003). Here Ruud commits not a few errors, such as that The Father Christmas Letters was first published in 1975 rather than 1976 (and yet the date is correct at other places in Ruud’s book), and that ‘sometime around 1930’ Tolkien was marking ‘end-of-term examinations’ (pp. 11–12) when he wrote the first sentence of The Hobbit, rather than School Certificate papers (on p. 95, Tolkien is said to have been ‘grading essays’, ‘one day in the late 1920s’). We would also quibble with a number of statements such as that the Tolkiens’ second house in Northmoor Road was (p. 10) ‘just down the block’ from their first – it was next door – and that Christopher Tolkien edited The Silmarillion with (p. 17) ‘the assistance of the Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay’, who in fact would not become a fantasy author until several years later.

On p. 11, Ruud describes Bilbo Baggins as ‘a small fellow with hairy feet, who led a life not much different from that of, say, a middle-class Oxford don’ – which probably would come as a surprise to actual Oxford dons. And yet, on p. 10, Ruud refers to Tolkien ‘living the typical life of an Oxford don, lecturing by day and often working on his mythology well into the night’ – were most Oxford dons, then, spending their time writing mythologies? At the end of this section, Ruud briefly describes posthumous works by Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth, concluding (p. 17) that these (he may mean only The History of Middle-earth) ‘were not best sellers, but they did keep Tolkien’s name and work in front of the public’ until Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings arrived, presumably (Ruud seems to imply) to rescue Tolkien from oblivion, as if his major works were not already phenomenally successful. Ruud’s interest in the films, or at least his judgement that the films needed to be covered almost as thoroughly as Tolkien’s life and works, is evident as well elsewhere in the book.

Part II, the greater part of the volume, is divided into two sections. In the first, ‘Works A to Z’ (416 pages of text), are entries for most of Tolkien’s academic and literary works, including separate poems, each with an introduction, synopsis, commentary, and list of ‘further reading’ as appropriate. The entries for most of Tolkien’s works of fiction also include sub-entries for major characters. Again in this part, one finds a high degree of reliance on Carpenter, and occasional errors such as a statement that Tolkien sold ‘early drafts’ of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Farmer Giles of Ham to Marquette University – early drafts, yes, but also finished manuscripts and typescripts. Ruud’s synopses are often quite long, even for short poems, so lengthy that teachers may fear their use as cribs by students who do not want to read the books. That for Roverandom occupies more than three pages of small, two-column text. And Ruud’s synopsis of The Lord of the Rings runs to sixty-four pages, about forty-six per cent of the text space devoted to that work – omitting, however, a summary or even a listing of the Appendices, apart from an account of ‘The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’ inserted in the synopsis of The Return of the King as back story when Arwen arrives in Minas Tirith to wed Aragorn.

That said, the synopses are accurate enough, and Ruud’s commentaries are often of interest, drawing upon authorities such as Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey but with Ruud’s own interpretations foremost. A useful volume might have been made from the commentaries alone.

We would disagree with Ruud in particular, though – and here of course we have a personal bias – with his treatment of Roverandom. He seems to dislike the work with some intensity, complaining that it is ‘mediocre’, written as if ‘directed mainly at very small children, but its length and vocabulary would make it impossible for those children to read’ (p. 337). He appears to have used the text of the story as published in Tales from the Perilous Realm, without our introduction and notes, else he might have known (as we did initially from Carpenter’s biography) that Tolkien’s story was directed mainly at small children, his own, who, more in keeping with their generation than with the present one, had little or no trouble with story length or vocabulary. Indeed, we’ve commented that Tolkien’s use of words which now may be thought ‘difficult’ was in accord with his view that ‘a good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group. It comes from reading books above one’ (Tolkien, draft letter to Walter Allen, Letters, pp. 298–9). Also, Ruud’s claim that the original edition is not ‘easily accessible’ is not true: many copies were printed, and it is still available in paperback in the U.S.A.

The second section of Part II of Ruud’s book covers Unfinished Tales and the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth in only fourteen and a half pages, providing little more than lists of contents and dates. As he states in his introduction, Ruud ‘does not attempt to be comprehensive . . . the sheer number of [Tolkien’s] publications is somewhat daunting’ (p. xiv). Granted that dealing with these posthumous volumes of drafts and commentary can be challenging, and Ruud does refer to them here and there; but one has to question whether it is adequate, in what presents itself as a serious critical companion, to give such brief and occasional consideration to materials that are central to an understanding of Tolkien’s life and fiction. Ruud rightly comments, p. 345, that ‘the depth of Tolkien’s other works is clarified by an understanding of [“The Silmarillion”]’, but concentrates instead on the published Silmarillion of 1977 (about sixty-eight pages of text). Ruud does not shrink from writing about Christopher Tolkien’s editions: he includes full entries for the 2007 Children of Húrin (a ‘novel’) and for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. But his approach to the books described in Part II, second section, gives insufficient coverage to discrete and not unimportant works such as The Notion Club Papers and The Lost Road.

Part III has a mixture of entries in one alphabetical sequence. Many of these relate to the real world: to ‘people, places and events important in Tolkien’s private and professional life, as well as writers who influenced him’ (p. xv). Here also are entries for Tolkien’s translations of medieval texts, his editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Ancrene Wisse, and A Middle English Vocabulary, as well as ‘minor texts’, excluded from Part II ‘since these . . . are not “original” in the same sense that his fiction or scholarly articles are’ or are ‘curiosities’ which do not ‘provide any new insights into Tolkien’s work’ (p. xv). (In the Companion and Guide we take the view that there are no ‘minor texts’ by Tolkien, if one is making a thorough study.) Tolkien’s fictional works provide other entries: characters not given separate entries in Part II, places, objects, races, concepts (e.g. ‘First Age’), languages, writing systems, and so forth.

A third category, ‘entries related to the popular film and radio versions of Tolkien’s works’, seems rather out of place. Here Ruud (or perhaps it was his publisher) again shows a strong interest is the Jackson films, with all of the major actors receiving lengthy Who’s Who-style biographies. Thus an entry for Orlando Bloom, for instance, is given equal weight to one for Edith Bratt. All of the radio adaptations from 1955 to date take up little more than a page of coverage, and the only actor from them given a separate entry is Ian Holm, because he also appeared in the films.

Part IV contains a very brief (three-page) chronology of Tolkien’s life and works, a list of Internet resources on Tolkien, and bibliographies of Tolkien’s works (in chronological order) and of secondary sources. The index fills eighteen pages in four columns.

The book also contains black and white photographs. Many of these are of covers of books, and in several instances the captions contain errors. For example, volumes are described as published by ‘Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’ even though the copy illustrated dates from before the merger between Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt Brace in 2007. Also, several covers are described as being from ‘coloring-book’ editions, a term which makes no sense in this context: the books in question are not even all illustrated editions. A clear preference – possibly that of a photo editor rather than the author – is shown for book covers tied to the Jackson films, and the entry in Part II for The Hobbit is illustrated with a photograph of the Hobbiton film set. The photograph of King Edward’s School on p. 522 is not, in fact, of the building in use when Tolkien attended the school, but a new one built on a different site many years later. And the photograph on p. 333 of the Radcliffe Camera is identified as ‘the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford’ in which ‘the manuscript of Roverandom was discovered among Tolkien’s papers’, whereas the Radcliffe is not the main building among those comprising the Bodleian, and not the one where Tolkien’s manuscripts are kept; nor was Roverandom ‘discovered’, its existence long having been known before it was published in 1998.

The blurb on the lower cover of the volume claims that it is ‘a reliable, up-to-date, and comprehensive new resource for anyone interested in [Tolkien’s] life and works’ – here we make allowance for publishers’ hype. There are many issues of reliability, though, of which we have mentioned only a few. Again, Ruud himself says that he did not aim to be comprehensive: besides paying so little attention to The History of Middle-earth and Unfinished Tales, he makes no special comment on Tolkien as a visual artist, or on Tolkien’s published Letters, another important and central work, though he quotes frequently from the 1981 volume. As for ‘up-to-date’, Ruud seems to have written much of his book some time ago. We note, for example, his comment at the end of his entry for Beowulf that ‘Michael Drout . . . has taken on the task of publishing’ Tolkien’s translations of Beowulf, ‘due for completion in the next few years’ (p. 466); but this project was halted in 2003, in circumstances explained widely by Drout himself. Nor does Ruud’s Beowulf entry include a reference to Drout’s edition of Beowulf and the Critics, published in 2002. Of course, as we know from personal experience, a work as extensive and as complex as Ruud’s needs a long period of time to research and write, during which new resources may appear, and it is difficult to keep up with the literature in a field as active as Tolkien studies. And yet we find him referring to relatively recent works such as Verlyn Flieger’s 2005 edition of Smith of Wootton Major, and the proceedings of the 2004 Marquette Tolkien conference, while omitting (as far as we could see) any mention of John Rateliff’s History of The Hobbit (2007) or of our J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (1995) and The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion (2006). And although Ruud was aware of our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (2006), included in his general bibliography, he does not seem to have made much use of it.

* (This review of the Critical Companion began as brief comments by Christina for Tolkien Collector no. 33, in progress, but these grew to such an extent, and Wayne had comments of his own, that we thought them better published here.)

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