Book Review: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (Five stars)

Book Review: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien

Five stars out of five.

“It is a curse having an epic temperament in an overcrowded age [1944] devoted to sappy bits!”

A treasure trove of insightful material into the life and writings of Tolkien, but not for everyone. Readers uninterested in Tolkien’s writings need not waste their time.

Where to start? With the negatives, since they’re so few. J. R. R. Tolkien is opinionated, peevish and pedantic. He hated the appellation “professor.”

Among these letters covering most of his adult life, we learn how he viewed his world, his writings, his friends, his religion and his invented languages and history. That is how he saw Middle Earth as history he had discovered as much as created—or, as he would say, sub-created. The letters begin just after publication of The Hobbit and cover the production of Lord of the Rings and the aftermath of its unexpected popularity, and his futile struggle to complete and publish The Silmarillion, which his son Christopher succeeded in publishing five years after his father died.

For those, like myself, who count Tolkein’s works as the gold standard of epic fantasy, these letters give insights only alluded to elsewhere. It’s slow and difficult reading in some cases, partly because context is missing. But the payoff is deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s life and world (real and imagined). We learn the origin of the world, names and characters of the fantasy, and his struggle to keep others from reading alien ideas into the works. Though he admitted (in 1939), “The darkness of the present days has had some effect on it.”

“A most amusing and highly contentious evening, on which (had an outsider eavesdropped) he would have thought it (the Inklings) a meeting of fell enemies hurling deadly insults before drawing their guns.” Sounds like fun.

Now I’ll the only logical thing: re-read The Lord of the Rings. Again.


Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien by Wyatt North (Two Stars)

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien: A life Inspired by Wyatt North

Two stars out of five.

Modern authors have the idea that biographies must be at least seven hundred pages long, even if they don’t have seven hundred pages of material. often resulting in a bloated mess of myth and rumor.

Therefore, a tight, well-written biography of barely one hundred pages is refreshing. This work is the perfect companion to Tolkien’s works, especially The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

That said, there must be more fruitful information which modern readers would enjoy knowing about the professor who birthed modern epic fantasy. This volume only refers to fellow Inklings C. S. Lewis and Hugo Dyson in a literary context, while Tolkien and Dyson played decisive roles in the re-conversion of Lewis to Christianity.

Can you imagine, reader, having read the two mentioned volumes when the Professor still lived, and feel as I did the hope of more? It was not to be, but I have re-read those volumes once a decade since. They are the gold standard for all light and epic fantasy since.

North seems to specialize in hagiographies of Roman Catholic persons, of which this is definitely one.

Movie Review: Hobbit 3 (Three Stars)

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (AKA Hobbit 3)

Three Stars out of Five

This movie hewed closer to Tolkien than the other two Hobbit movies. I did like it. Three stars is a good rating.

For folks concerned about the length of the battle scene, I direct them to the title of the movie. Don’t go if you’re not ready to see dozens of different ways to slay orcs and humans, and elves and dwarfs. (But no non-sentient creatures were injured, I’m sure. Well, you know, except orcs.)

Some of the added characters had big roles in this movie (especially Legolas, who is not identified by name in The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien), but the identified characters followed the story arc of the book, except of course for Fili’s love connection with an elf (also extra-Hobbit). As in the book, Gandalf did next to nothing, and little old Bilbo Baggins saved the day.

Plenty of tie-ins to the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies which follow the Hobbit chronologically.

The technology is better, but the story telling was not quite at a level with the LOTR movies, perhaps because Peter Jackson et al. had less to work with.

Pre-review: J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf”

Never done a “pre-review” before, but …

The Tolkien family has published the Professor’s 1926 translation and later commentary of “Beowulf.” Within the last year I read Tolkien’s 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics” and the 1940 “On Translating Beowulf,” both of which awoke a new appreciation for and understanding of that classic. I’ve backed off buying “new” Tolkien fiction as they often have not the quality of the material he actually published. But this was Tolkien’s day job.

Of the controversy over publishing Tolkien’s unfinished work, New York Times “Beowulf authority” Kevin Kiernan wrote, “It’s like Gandalf says, ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ He decided he didn’t want to waste it on a translation. He worked on ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord the Rings’ instead.”

For a professional reviews, see the Wall Street Journal or New York Times.

Looking forward to this one.