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Brief Take on Recent Books

Brief Takes on Recent Books

The flood of new Tolkien-related books continues, and I haven’t been able to keep up. So here are brief looks at some of the books I have found time for.

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The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, illustrated by Alan Lee. (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). $80.00 slipcased hardcovers, ISBN 0618260587

What can I say about an edition of The Lord of the Rings with fifty full color illustrations by Alan Lee beyond the fact that it is wonderful? First, that such an edition has come out before–in 1991, when it came out in a heavy one-volume edition, and also in a three-volume format. This new edition is in three volumes too, but the volumes are bigger, with a wider format, and the production qualities seem a few steps above those of the previous editions. Colors are more vibrant in the illustrations, and the details seem crisper. This is definitely the edition to own if you want an illustrated Lord of the Rings. With the slipcase it makes five full pounds of wonder. (Yes, I weighed it on the household scale.)

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Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe (HarperCollins, 2001). $35.00 hardcover (141 pp.), ISBN 0-00-710795-1

As is well-known, John Howe was, with Alan Lee, one of the two conceptual artists for the Peter Jackson films of The Lord of the Rings. This book highlights his career as an artist, emphasizing his Tolkien work but also showing other science fiction and fantasy cover art that he has done, with comments by some of the authors whose books he has illustrated. Howe has illustrated quite a number of Tolkien works, including various British editions of the History of Middle-earth series. These fine illustrations are probably much less known in America than in England, so many Americans will find in this book a way to appreciate Howe’s talents more fully. There are some added perks too-- an afterword by Alan Lee, a foreword by Peter Jackson, and some paragraphs by Sir Ian McKellen on playing Gandalf the Grey, and a few pages by Brian Sibley in appreciation of Howe’s work. This is a fine book, which will be well-appreciated by movie fans as well as anyone interested in artistic interpretations of Tolkien’s works.

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Finding God in The Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware (Tydnale House, 2001). $12.99 hardcover (120 pp.), ISBN 0-8423-5571-5

The question whether one cares about finding God in Tolkien must be addressed before picking up this book. The authors are fundamentalist propagandists, and the book is laced with quotes from scripture and banal reflections set off separately from the text--e.g., "We are ruled by what we believe, whether it is true or not." (p. 102). Aye. I found this book to be a complete waste of time and money.

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Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues: Exploring the Spiritual Themes of The Lord of the Rings by Mark Eddy Smith (InterVarsity Press, 2001). $10.99 trade paperback (141 pp.), ISBN 0-8308-2312-3

Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues is, if possible, a kind of dumbed-down version of the above book, Finding God in The Lord of the Rings. There is nothing in it for one to learn about Tolkien, but there is a lot of mushy pablum in applying supposedly Christian virtues to characters and situations from The Lord of the Rings. This book, quite simply, is Christian product with a Tolkien slant. Unless that’s what you are looking for, I’d say stay away from it.

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Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger (Kent State University Press, 2002). $19.00 trade paperback (196 pp.), ISBN 0-87338-744-9

Coming in the wake of reading the last two books, this book is like a ray of bright sunshine. Here at last is a consideration of Tolkien’s philosophical and linguistic roots with an intelligent look at the Christian elements in Tolkien–with these elements considered as part of his whole mind-set and not cut out and simplified in an effort to proselytize his faith. Scholarly in approach and style, this is a revised edition of a book first published in 1983. It is an essential book for a scholarly appreciation of Tolkien’s writings.

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One Ring to Bind Them All: Tolkien’s Mythology by Anne C. Petty (University of Alabama Press, 2002). $18.95 trade paperback (124 pp.), ISBN 0-8173-1205-6

This is a new edition of a book that originally appeared in 1979. It sports a new introduction and an updated bibliography, but the study itself is apparently unaltered. It is basically a consideration of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in a mythological sense as regards structure, using the works of Joseph Campbell and Claude Lévi-Strauss as a basis for analysis. The blurb on the back cover explains the author’s approach better than I can:

"This cross-disciplinary analysis shows that Tolkien presented to modern readers and other writers a rich array of reinvented mythic archetypes and icons: the desperate quest (good vs. evil); a magical object that embodies or initiates the quest (the ring); the wise wizard who oversees or aids the quest (Gandalf); the reluctant hero, an ordinary person with untapped abilities (Frodo); the hero’s loyal friend and supporter (Sam); the warrior king whose true identity is hidden (Strider/ Aragorn); and the goddess figure (Galadriel)."

For myself, I don’t know much about comparative mythology, but this is an interesting approach, and a different one from that usually found in works on Tolkien. Though the book is centered on The Lord of the Rings, I would have liked to see the author’s views on Tolkien’s legendarium as a whole.

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The Magical Worlds of The Lord of the Rings: The Amazing Myths, Legends, and Facts Behind the Masterpiece by David Colbert (Berkley Books, 2002). $13.00 trade paperback (197 pp.), ISBN 0-425-18771-3

This book presents a kind breezy amalgam of facts and errors about Tolkien in a question and answer format. There are approximately three dozen questions, including "Why Is Frodo in Caves So Often?"; ‘What Makes a Forest Walk?"; "Could Middle-earth Be More Magical?" and "Why Do the Best Swords Break?". The answers seem cobbled together in a manner that recalls a college-student’s all-nighter with several Tolkien books and a few encyclopedias of mythology. Add to that some bad art to fill the pages, and you have a timely book whose publication coincides with the release of a successful movie. The author’s previous book, from 2001, was The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. Can you say hackwork?

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I Am in Fact a Hobbit: An Introduction to the Life and Work of J. R. R. Tolkien by Perry C. Bramlett (Mercer University Press, 2003). $25.00 hardcover (254 pp.), ISBN 0-86554-851-X

Neither the title nor the subtitle of this book really tells you what the book is intended to be. For that, you have to turn to the preface, where the author writes:

"This book is a basic introduction only, a ‘nuts and bolts’ survey of Tolkien’s life and works. It is meant for the general reader of Tolkien, the person who desires to know him a little better and wants to go past the movie and fanzine hype. The literature about him, both scholarly and popular, is so enormous that it would take a much larger book (or books) to interact adequately with the literally hundreds of detailed studies, interpretations, synopses, investigations, and analyses of Tolkien and his works that have been written (many of them excellent) starting over a half century ago. In this work I chose not to concentrate solely on the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, both of which have had more than their share of scrutiny. I have given comparable space, or as close to that as possible, to Tolkien’s other published works, including the lesser-known works for children, his oft-neglected poetry, his academic essays and talks, the posthumous Middle-earth writings edited by his son, his collected treasure-trove of letters, and some other ‘obscure’ pieces. My hope is that this book will ‘whet the reader’s appetite’ for all of Tolkien, and inspire him or her to read what is now currently popular . . . and then go beyond."

Which sums up the book precisely. And as a kind of reader’s guide to Tolkien, it does its job pretty well.

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Past Bookshelf
Listing by Date
"The Prince of All Dragons": A Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader Extra
Q&A with Henry Gee
Q&A with Anne C. Petty
The Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader Extras: Selections from The Poetic Edda
More Brief Takes on Recent Books
What is The Tolkien Fan's Medieval Reader?
The Cream of the Crop--Recent Tolkienian Books
Tolkien in Good Company
Q&A with Douglas A. Anderson
An Updated Look at Fall 2003 Tolkien Publications
Q&A with Jane Chance
TTT: The Film Books
Recent and Forthcoming Tolkien-Related Publications 2003
Brief Take on Recent Books
Reading Tolkien beyond The Lord of the Rings
Bilbo’s Last Song
Ted Nasmith’s Two Towers Calendars
A Roundup of Recent and Forthcoming Books by and about J. R. R. Tolkien: Spring and Fall 2002
Revisiting The Marvellous Land of Snergs
Report Card on Film One
Fears II: The Sequel
'Just When You Thought It Was Safe . . .':
What I Fear Most about Peter Jackson's Films

Ted Nasmith’s 2002 Tolkien Calendar
New Tolkien Publications Roundup–Fall 2001
How to Express Your Tolkien Ignorance: A Guide for the Media
An Interview with Tom Shippey
Responses to Critical Errancies
Critical Errancies
New Tolkien Publications, Spring 2001 and Beyond
New Technology Comes to Tolkien
Tolkien as Artist and Illustrator
The 2001 Tolkien Calendar
Tolkienian Publications: Fall 2000 and Beyond
How Not to Study Tolkien
There and Back Again, with Gorbo the Snerg
Tolkien: Life and Letters
Literary Sacrilege
Publications 2000
Millennium Edition
The Best New Tolkien for Christmas
50th Anniversary of Farmer Giles
The Tolkien 2000 Calendar
Books - Fall 99
Bookshelf Home


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