Your basic Dwarf+Giant Overview is a comprehensive survey of an author or series. It is not an in-depth analysis, nor is it a summary. Think of it as a buying or reading guide, telling you what’s out there, what’s essential, what to avoid and so forth.
Most fantasy literature since JRR Tolkien has tried in some way to emulate his work. If you have never understood the value or appeal of fantasy literature, it would be helpful to read the extraordinary essay “On Fairy-Stories” found in “Leaf By Niggle” (available in The Tolkien Reader, see the other half of this Overview). It is scholarly, but completely accessible. He’s an old Brit steeped in medieval and classical literature, so if the language seems stilted at times, cut him a little slack. His work is, in fact, juicy with wisdom and soul. You will be inspired to deeds of goodness and courage. Dragons notwithstanding, Tolkien has real traction in the everyday human condition: finding courage in impossible circumstances, the value of wisdom over knowledge, the richness of simplicity, the danger of power, the value (and cost) of loyalty and compassion, and so much hope it hurts – the good kinda hurt.
– Don’t read the Middle Earth material trying to figure out which character is Jesus and which is Apollo, “Is Melkor supposed to be Satan?” and so forth. John Ronald Reuel (Tolkien) and his drinking buddy Clive Staples (Lewis) were in different camps on the subject of allegory. His work is not intended as allegory nor as a parallel to any other mythological world. It is natural to see connections and influence from the legends and sagas he knew so perfectly. He’s not above retelling stories. In fact, it’s not stretching to say that his own creations are an attempt to fill in the gaps between existing mythologies, specifically for England which he felt lacked its own native legendarium. This is far from allegory. You can even see his Christianity come through in places, though in a sort of natural expression of his world view, not in the more explicit way of Lewis. In place of the blatant 1 to 1 correspondence of allegory, there is an applicability you can find in the situations and how the characters deal with them. You just have to look for it.
– Everything in Middle Earth – almost every place, person, event – has multiple names. This is maddening. Tolkien loved inventing languages and naming things even more than he loved pipe tobacco, ale or his own children (maybe not true). It has been said that he invented Middle Earth just to have a place to use the languages he invented. You just have to push through it; there won’t be a test. And speaking of children, he told many of these stories first to his own kids. Can you imagine?
The Lord of the Rings
(A trilogy which includes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King)
This is the jewel of all things Middle Earth. You prob know the basic thing: There is a magic ring so powerful it endangers the entire world. Much fighting and questing ensues.
The films – though really good in their own right – diverge in places. As perhaps all films must. The differences are many, but not nearly as many as in the Hobbit films.
The Fellowship of the Ring famously starts a little slow, with maybe one too many scenes of Hobbits trudging across fields. It might feel a bit like “grinding” through a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Once they’re really on their journey, though, you’ll encounter barrow wights, angry willows, Nazgul and a dopey badass with yellow boots – all before you even get to the The Prancing Pony. This slow build is necessary and pays off. There is real depth and detail to Tolkien’s world. Indeed, on every other page you’ll find some enticing allusion to another tale, character or event – perhaps thru a song, a stumbled-upon ruin or a flash of memory – that illuminates the situation and then disappears, never to be explained further. (Unless you go on to read The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales).
By the time you get to The Two Towers, you will have acclimated to the language, developed a sense of Middle Earth, and will be completely wrapped up in the action. Since Tolkien takes large chunks of the separate storylines at a time, you get so involved with the one you’re on that it can be a little jarring when he switches to another. The last moment of this book will make you pull your hair out. A bucket of mithril says you immediately start The Return of the King. A thing to note: the main action climax is not really the climax of the story, which has a more emotional ending a few chapters later. And, no joke, the appendices (at least some of them) are worth reading. A lot of the extra material in The Hobbit films are taken from here, for better or for worse. (See note below under The Silmarillion for an explanation of why extra film material comes from here and not elsewhere in the canon.) The Lord of the Rings is the absolutely essential Tolkien.
Read this aloud to your youngins or rip thru it as an adult. It’s definitely more of a children’s story than LOTR (and much faster paced), but still has Grimm wedged into the Smurfiness. Contrast the “Tra-la-la-lally” Elf song in chapter 3 with the life-or-death riddle scene between Bilbo and Gollum, or giant spiders salivating about the “good juice inside” the webbed-up Dwarves with the talking Troll wallet.
I think most of us relate to the actual Hobbits in all these books – as opposed to the Elves or even the Men. Hobbits start off so docile and deliberately unexcited, that they seem unworthy of any story, much less a grand adventure. Bilbo is one of us: “I’m awfully sorry… but I have come without my hat, and I have left my pocket-handkerchiefs behind, and I haven’t got any money. I didn’t get your note until after 10:45 to be precise.” Though Tolkien has towering Heroes aplenty in his works, he very often saves the game-changing roles for the guy standing in the corner, trying not to be picked. What makes it great for kids (and it’s mostly true of the hobbits in the trilogy as well) is watching the growth of that main character. Bilbo transforms from a pleasant but self-indulgent homebody at the beginning of the story, to a resourceful, bold hero: being lost and alone in a dark tunnel and working out that the only thing to do is to go on, deciding to be merciful to a helpless enemy, finding his courage and using his wits in impossible situations. There is a lot of value in here, beyond just the entertainment. If I had kids, we’d go through this book every year. It goes back to the applicability of Tolkien, digging into real, everyday stuff: being true, facing your demons, doing what you must – never mind that the dragons here are literal. If you love your children – even a little – you will read The Hobbit to them.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are told from the perspective of Hobbits, while The Silmarillion is the Elves’ story. Given the Elves’ status in Middle Earth (they are called the Firstborn), it’s the closest thing to an authoritative account of the history of that world. (Really, it’s our world. Middle Earth is Europe a very long time ago, though he doesn’t explicitly say so here. This is part of his attempt to furnish a mythology for England and points up the folly of hunting for allegory in the stories.) To give you an idea of the scope of this account, the bulk of the ring story from the trilogy takes up a scant 2 paragraphs in The Silmarillion.
Here you will learn where Elves, Men, Dwarves, Orcs and Wizards come from (at least as far as the Elves know). You will find tantalizing clues on the origins of Ents, giant eagles/spiders and just who/what the hell Tom Bombadil is (but don’t hold your breath for anything definitive).
Besides the origins of things, here are the major figures and events of the three ages of Middle Earth. Tolkien despaired at the upswing of Disney-style fantasy (at least as far as the Seven Dwarfs), and it shows. In place of Goofy the buck-toothed dog, there is Huon the Hound (an actual hound) who fights the wolf-form of Sauron (the major bad guy of the trilogy) to a standstill- no mean feat. A few civilizations and a third of Middle Earth suffer near-Ragnarok cataclysms. It’s just full of horrible, tragic tales. Still, there are threads of light and hope: the shared song of creation (Ainulindulë), the faithful service of hounds (Huon) and death-defying love (Beren & Luthien). For a more grounds-eye view of the heart-grinding story of Turin Turambar (chapter XXI of the Quenta), read The Children of Hurin (below).
NOTE: You have to read The Silmarillion because there will not be a movie. In the 60s, Tolkien himself sold the film and merchandise rights of only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to a company now called Middle Earth Enterprises. That’s where the movies come from, not the Tolkien Estate, which owns everything else, including The Silmarillion. The Estate is not all that pleased with Hollywood’s treatment of the other material. Ergo, it is unlikely that anything in not in Hobbit or LOTR will make it into a movie.
The value of this book is best stated by Christopher Tolkien (Tolkien’s son and foremost editor and authority on his work), from his introduction, “…new elements set into the existing edifice will in such cases tend to contribute less to the history of the invented world itself than to the history of its invention.” (p. xiii)
Crackly golden nuggets await those willing to wander these forsaken hills. Notes aplenty, there are – and the legends behind the legends. Here is your chance to look under JRR’s sofa cushions. The first story, “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”, is actually a development of the very first Middle Earth tale of the First Age, in part scribbled on the back of a military document around 1917, somewhere on the Western Front. And, as with most material herein, it is incomplete. In “History of Galadriel and Celeborn”, you will learn that Galadriel’s grandfather-in-law was named Elmo. And how about a short scene of Aragorn and Gimli rummaging the cupboards of Orthanc?
This book is for the obsessive completist, but it is not complete! This is the risk for the reader: to face the abrupt ending, the changes from a beloved version, the missing “best part”. It is most like real life, perhaps – no comfortable arc, just twists and dead-ends, unexpected starts and stops, amazing surprises and impossible-cuz-he-died-in-’73 hopes, thwarted. But, like loving a dog you know will die of some arbitrary disease, it is worth the effort. (Sorry for the grim metaphor, but it’s actually very Tolkienesque.)
The Children of Hurin
This is bleak stuff. Shorter versions of this exist in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, but if you want all the punishing details, then, lucky you, you’ve got the right book.
This is one of the most important legends of the First Age of Middle Earth, but – good lord – it’s brutal. The “Hero” is Turin, son of Hurin. He’s charismatic and unbelievably skilled in everything except decision-making. Though very handy in a fight, counting him as a friend (or family, or distant acquaintance, or standing anywhere near him at any time) greatly increases the chances you’ll meet a violent end. Glaurung the dragon addresses the protagonist thusly: “Evil have been all your ways, son of Hurin…. Thankless fosterling, outlaw, slayer of your friend, thief of love, usurper of Nargothrond, captain foolhardy, and deserter of your kin.” Glaurung, like all dragons, is a first-rate equivocator, but he’s on the money here. It’s not that Turin is deliberately bad; he is cursed and unlucky. And rash. And violent. And arrogant. I hate Turin.
There is something here that is characteristic of Tolkien. I’ve mentioned how much hope there is in his work, but it’s never at the expense of a realistic view that life is unfair and full of brutal struggles. He brings a light to darkness without pretending that there is no darkness. His concept of “eucatastrophe” is an example of this. It implicitly acknowledges the experience of “catastrophe” – a sudden, cataclysmic turn for the worse – but asserts that there is also a thing called a “eucatastrophe” – a sudden, dramatic change for the better. This is all over Tolkien’s work, and is very important to it and his world view – ie, Christianity. But if you’re looking for a true tragedy of the First Age of Middle Earth, this is the one, in the bloody Lear/Othello/Hamlet vein.
The Road Goes Ever On
This is primarily a book of music for Tolkien’s Middle Earth poetry (actual sheet music, though the most recent edition has a CD), but is an important and extensive source for various ME languages, through Tolkien’s accompanying notes. Illustrations from the Man himself.
The History of Middle Earth
A complete collection of this would include 13 volumes, but there are a number of different ways they are assembled, all of them very large. This has to be the most comprehensive chronicle of the development of Tolkien’s Middle Earth work. It is not a history of that imaginary world, but a history of how the ideas developed. If you read this, you’re an archaeologist or detective of Tolkien’s imagination. Christopher Tolkien collected and arranged his father’s notes, adding notes of his own, for over a decade. This is not the one you read aloud to your kids, but it is where you go when you’ve already read The Silmarillion 5 times. (I’m only at 4 times.)
Books 1-5, 10-11 and part of 9 relate to the Silmarillion period. Books 6-8 and the other part of 9 are The Lord of the Rings. 12 is a mix of connective material and a few unfinished ideas, and 13 is the index.
If you scale this mountain, you bow to no one.
(There are a few more very short Middle Earth pieces in The Tolkien Reader, which are covered in the non-Middle Earth half of this Overview.)
– Tolkien Gateway is vast. Look stuff up here, and tell me what I got wrong.
– Also vast is the Lord of the Rings wiki. Wiki of the Rings. The Wikimarillion. Unwikied Tales.
– Dr. Corey Olsen and his podcast The Tolkien Professor is an amazing source for exploring Tolkien. Dig deep into the archives, and you’ll learn a lot more from these guys than you will from me. There are long stretches where they focus on the films, which is fine, but look for the in-depth series on the books. Can’t be beat. You can actually take classes at the Mythgard Institute.
– Here’s a great Tolkien convo that goes very in depth. It’s pretty damn scholarly, and includes some theology and lit crit. It really starts about 6 minutes in.
– More scholarly discussion from Gregory Walter, a blog entry on (not) comparing LOTR with GOT (Game of Thrones).
For more, see Tolkien: All Things Not Middle Earth