Saturday, September 12, 2009

10 Books A Day: #141

Understanding Tolkien And The Lord Of The Rings (1st Printing, 1969)...William Ready...Paperback Library

Understanding Tolkien And The Lord Of The Rings (7th Printing, 1976)...William Ready...Warner Books

J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect Of Middle-Earth...(1st Printing, 1977)...Daniel Grotta-Kurska...Warner Books

J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect Of Middle-Earth (Re-issued 1981)...Daniel Grotta-Kurska...Warner Books

Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord Of The Rings (5th Printing, July 1972)...Lin Carter...Ballantine Books

Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord Of The Rings (13th Printing, Nov. 1977)...Lin Carter...Ballantine Books

Master Of Middle-Earth (1st Ballantine Books Edition Oct. 1977)...Paul H. Kocher...Del Rey

A Tolkien Compass (June 1980)...ed. Jared Lobdell...Del Rey

Writers For The 70's: J. R. R. Tolkien (1st Printing 1972)...Robley Evans...Warner Paperback Library

Tolkien: A Biography (1st Ballantine Books Edition, Sept. 1978)...Humphrey Carpenter...Ballantine Books

Today's list of books is, in effect, a short history in itself of "Tolkien Studies" in the late 60's and the 70's. Many of these books are a curious blend of biography and literary criticism. Tolkien himself noted a strange tendency in his fans to confuse "ME with my work."

Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is the first and the worst book here. It was actually published (in the US) during Tolkien's lifetime, but it seems that since Tolkien knew William Ready personally (if briefly) as an agent of the Marquette Library when they were in the process of buying his manuscripts, he felt disinclined to stop his publication, but declined to supply any personal information, beyond "[Ready's] own memory of the few remarks I made about my personal history. These he appears to have embroidered with wholly illegitimate deductions of his own and the addition of baseless fictions." Tolkien also remarked that in the one hour long talk they had had, Ready talked mostly about himself, and this book seems mainly about Ready's personal ideas and reactions to LOTR, rather than any well-considered history or criticism. It is, however, a fascinating look at a somewhat primordial point of view of Tolkien Studies, kind of like seeing the small weasel-like beast that could evolve into man someday.

Lin Carter's Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, takes a much broader view of the subject. He dedicates one chapter to Tolkien's biography, compounded from reliable sources and interviews, and spends the rest of the book summarizing Tolkien's work and looking at it's antecedents and place in a long history of Fantasy writing, including a look at the LOTR's influence on writers that had come after it. Carter's main thesis is to show that, as epoch making as LOTR was, it did not just fall out of the sky fully formed, but is part of an ancient and developing tradition.

Daniel Grotta-Kurska's J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-Earth was the first full biography of Tolkien published, but without authorization, access to Tolkien's personal papers, and with discouragement from the Tolkien Family to friends and family to provide any information (they were already in the process of producing an authorized biography). Despite all these drawbacks, the book has been described as generally well-researched, but with some glaring mistakes and false assumptions that have remained even in subsequent editions. Still, you have to love that cover illustration by the Hildebrandt's of Tolkien and a dwarf.

Master of Middle-Earth, A Tolkien Compass, and Writers For The 70's: J. R. R. Tolkien all deal with Tolkien's work, usually with only a side glance at the "personal heresy", as C. S. Lewis called the habit of judging a work by the life of its' author. I like Master of Middle-Earth especially, not only because of it's enlightening insights on Tolkien's work, but also because it has the most detailed look at one of JRRT's works not widely available, "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun", a poem in the style of a Breton lay, about a childless Lord and Lady and their dealings with a "Corrigan," or witch. A Tolkien Compass (first published in 1974), has, among other critical essays, Tolkien's own "Guide To The Names In The Lord of the Rings," which he made to help translators for foreign editions. The Writers For The 70's book (the other writers considered in the series are Herman Hesse, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Richard Brautigan) offers a clear, non-fan assessment of the techniques and themes of Tolkien's works.

Tolkien: A Biography presents a dividing mark in Tolkien Studies. No more need speculation run rife: someone with access to all the papers, letters, and personal memories of close family and friends had finally produced a definitive history. Most biographical works on Tolkien afterward draw heavily on this book, and all refer to it, although deeper looks at aspects of JRRT's life (like his time in WWI, or his work on the OED) are still being produced and new facts revealed.

Book Count: 1677.

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