Christian History Home > Issue 78 > Understanding Tolkien: Recommended Resources
Understanding Tolkien: Recommended Resources
From light romps to profound reads, a bumper crop of books tells us more about the maker of Middle-earth.
Books on the man
The standard Tolkien biography is Humphrey Carpenter's authorized Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1977). Both this book and Carpenter's The Inklings (George Allen & Unwin, 1978) provide intimate, detailed portraits of Tolkien and his circle, liberally sprinkled with unexpected insights. A recent biography that explores Tolkien's faith and its impact on his work is Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: Man and Myth (Ignatius: 1998).
For a warm portrait of the man and his work, see Clyde Kilby, Tolkien and the Silmarillion (Harold Shaw, 1976). It is in part a record of Kilby's attempt to assist Tolkien in finishing The Silmarillion, but its lasting value lies in the many interesting personal and professional details it provides about Tolkien, as Kilby gently relates in anecdotal detail the Oxford author's working habits, his convictions, and his foibles.
In The Tolkien Family Album (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), an easily accessible "photo-biography," John and Priscilla Tolkien chronicle memories of their father. Containing many rare pictures of Tolkien, his family, and the places they lived over the years, along with affectionate reminiscences illuminating his life and times, the book is a treat for fans.
Books on his books
An invaluable reference work covering every aspect of Tolkien's imaginative world is Colin Duriez, The J. R. R. Tolkien Handbook (Baker, 1992). This also contains a valuable short bibliography of books by and about Tolkien.
Professor Tom Shippey has produced an outstanding literary analysis of Tolkien's work in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). Shippey's grasp of Nordic and Celtic myth makes for some penetrating insights into how Tolkien constructed Middle-earth. Readers will especially appreciate Shippey's reflections on the concept of evil as developed in The Lord of the Rings. For more on Tolkien's myth, check out Shippey's classic The Road to Middle Earth (George Allen & Unwin, 1982).
A thorough and insightful inquiry into the Christian convictions at the heart of Tolkien's mythic world, including in its first chapter a delightful mini-biography, is Bradley J. Birzer, J. R. R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (ISI Books, 2002).
For a quick, enjoyable tour of the moral world of Tolkien's writings, pick up Mark Eddy Smith's Tolkien's Ordinary Virtues (InterVarsity Press, 2002). Smith takes almost a devotional tack by exploring, one by one, a set of virtues exemplified in Tolkien's characters. These include generosity, friendship, hospitality, courage, hope, and faith.
A perceptive study relating Tolkien's work to that of other Christian imaginative writers, past and present, is Rolland Hein, Christian Mythmakers (second edition, Cornerstone, 2002). The book provides a revealing, theologically sensitive account of the literary techniques of "mythmaking" employed by such classic authors as Dante Alighieri and John Bunyan, and such modern-day writers as Madeleine L'Engle and Walter Wangerin.
Joseph Pearce, Tolkien: A Celebration (Ignatius Press, 1999), provides a set of essays that focus on the author's work, values, and legacy, along with recollections by two authors who knew Tolkien personally, George Sayer and Walter Hooper.
Finally, a classic study dealing with Tolkien's debt to Owen Barfield's linguistic theory of the fragmentation of meaning is Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World (revised edition, Kent State University Press, 2002; first published by Eerdmans in 1983).
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