As the field of JRR Tolkien studies has really taken off in the past few years, so has the number of critical texts, scholarly journals, biographies, and source studies.
That said, some of the most well-written and interesting Tolkien studies were written years ago before it was really “academically acceptable” to be a Tolkien scholar.
Not that there is necessarily a shortage of fascinating and poignant modern studies. A flurry of these academic publications appeared during the resurgence of interest surrounding the release of the Lord of the Rings movies several years ago.
There are also several societies dedicated to Tolkien studies, namely The Tolkien Society and The Mythopoeic Society, both of which publish annual and quarterly journals featuring essays related to Tolkien and the other Inklings. Mythlore, the scholarly journal of the Mythopoeic Society, is among my personal favorites.
Here is my list of suggested reading for those who are interested in the field of Tolkien scholarship and Tolkien studies. They are given in no particular order, but every book listed here is well worth its inclusion on this list.
I list these two books together because they are by the same author and overlap each other in many ways in terms of theme and ideas.
Thomas Shippey is, in my personal opinion, the best Tolkien critic writing today. Shippey currently holds a prestigious chair of Humanities at Saint Louis University, but has previously held a variety of positions which nearly overlap with Professor Tolkien.
He served as Tolkien’s successor as Professor of Anglo-Saxon language at Oxford, Professor of the English Language at Leeds (where Tolkien taught in the early 1920’s), and even attended the same school as a child (King Edward’s School, in Birmingham) that Tolkien once attended.
Shippey writes with a passion and a critical eye, but also with a very deep understanding of Tolkien’s source material, love of language, and his relationship to other twentieth-century literature.
His prose is incredibly readable, not overly stuffed with verbose academic speak, despite the very academic thrust of the studies themselves. He manages to speak of things such as Anglo-Saxon language, Norse mythology, and contemporary literature in a way that is clear and understandable even to the layman.
Two of the best books of Tolkien studies, bar none.JRR Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
There are a variety of Tolkien biographies available, but this, the first, is still the best of the bunch. Carpenter has written the only really “authorized” biography of Tolkien, which basically means he was the only Tolkien biographer given access to the large base of unpublished writings and notes, interviews, and other scholarship to provide a complete picture.
Carpenter is careful to step back and look at his subject. In spite of being something of a family friend, he does not put his subject on a pedestal, and he tells the story through a very clear lens.
Much of the emphasis remains on Tolkien’s “writing life”, especially the years during which he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and of note are the glimpses into the letters and thoughts of the subject himself.
Verlyn Flieger is another well-known Tolkien scholar, and her Tolkien studies, like Shippey’s, are both scholarly and readable.
She takes a very close look at language in Splintered Light, and how Tolkien’s passion and study of language really influenced (and perhaps became the primary motivator) for the development of Middle-earth and its mythology.
The second book, Interrupted Music, examines the process Tolkien used in building his created world. Much like the “Music of the Ainur” brought order to the Outer Void, Flieger attempts to give order to Tolkien’s creative process.
The building of Middle-earth and its inhabitants was not a random and baseless act…it was a slow, ponderous, and ultimately meaningful experience which allowed Tolkien to express and purge many of his thoughts and ideas on language, mortality, morality, mythology, and religion.
JRR Tolkien Companion & Guide by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond
This recent two-volume study of JRR Tolkien and his writings is just about as comprehensive as it gets. It examines everything down to the minutia of Tolkien’s life…his life during his school years at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, his experiences and travails during WWI, letters to friends and companions, his academic life and interests.
It is certainly the most detailed and in-depth study of Tolkien’s life, writings, and interests available. It is designed perhaps, more as a monstrous reference guide than as a readable narrative, and that is both its greatest strength and its biggest drawback.
This is the type of study that is indispensable for the serious Tolkien student, and perhaps a bit over-the-top for those with a more casual interest in Tolkien’s life and place in the literary canon.
Tolkien once called his years (during the early 1920’s) working on the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary as some of the most important and formative of his life.
Tolkien’s love of language and roots certainly played a defining role on the development of Middle-earth and his mythology.
This short study delves into these formative years and then goes on to elaborate on the impact these years would have on his later academic and writing life. It is intimately readable, and downright fascinating, even for those who have only a vague interest in Tolkien’s relationship with language and philology.
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