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.
Besides the Middle Earth material, Tolkien wrote everything from kids books to literary criticism. This other material is really solid. That he could change the course of Beowulf scholarship and both write and draw a long series of letters from Santa to his kids is just really humbling to those of us who will take 30 minutes to think of something passable to write in a wedding guest book.
The Tolkien Reader (which, in fact, does have a few Middle Earth things in it)
This collection is excellent. The first bit, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring”, is not by Tolkien, but is an intro by Peter S Beagle, no less. The dense, yet elegant, scholarly essay “On Fairy Stories”, which comprises the first half of “Tree & Leaf”, is a kind of rebuff of the idea that fantasy stories are a lesser form of literature:
Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine of picture it. But that is not enough…. To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. …When they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, storymaking in its primary and most potent mode.
Please read “On Fairy Stories”. Its companion piece “Leaf by Niggle” seems quite like a C.S. Lewis story, and has a really authentic spiritual resonance.
The equally charming but more playful “Farmer Giles of Ham” is a comic mini-epic following the career of a bumbling farmer turned dragon-tamer (hints of Hobbitry there).
Enthusiasts of Old English will enjoy not only “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”, the dramatized aftermath of the Battle of Maldon, but the essay which follows, comparing its heroic themes with those of Beowulf and Sir Gawain.
And if you read The Lord of the Rings, then you kind of know who Tom Bombadil is. The last section is of Hobbit poems and include a few about ol’ Tom, a friendly troll, and a wayward Man-in-the-Moon. It is very cool to see a Hobbit’s-eye view of treasure-hoarding. Surprising entries include something of Frodo’s “ring sickness” and a weird piece on the ghoulish “mewslips”.
The Letters of JRR Tolkien
Both personal and professional letters are included in this collection, edited by Christopher Tolkien and biographer Humphrey Carpenter, which ranges from the First World War to shortly before his death in 1973. They provide insight into his scholarship, his family life and Middle Earth.
Letters From Father Christmas
These amazing pieces were actual letters he wrote to his children over a period of about 20 years, in the guise of Father Christmas. They are stories and personal notes to the children and include his own illustrations, featuring goblins, reindeer, his hapless pal North Polar Bear and others. Squee. Best dad ever.
Smith of Wootton Major
Talk about weaving a spell…. This is a short tale about Faery (note the capital F) and a sort of gift periodically and temporarily bestowed upon a denizen of the village of Wootton Major. Apparently, Tolkien began writing it as an apologia for fairy stories in general, and it ended up taking on a life of its own. So much the better, as it is delightful. There’s no real plot to speak of, as far as having some sort of crisis and story arc and all that. It’s more like the feeling when you go to an amazing place: Disneyland, a lush garden, a perfect vacation – and then you have to leave – that ache? It’s that. Even when the characters are relatively simple, Tolkien makes them very human and familiar. This is sometimes paired with Farmer Giles of Ham.
This is a children’s book about the misadventures of a wayward puppy. It’s pretty epic, though maybe a teensy bit repetitive (or is that some sort of parallelism?). Young Rover encounters wizards, dragons, merpeople, marital strife, talking toys and a lot of settings and incidents you see in more well-known kid lit. It kind of reminded me of Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath, but with puppies. (It’s actually not at all like Dreamquest. It just feels epic like that.) The Alan Lee illustrations are great, as always – but there’s even a lot of adorable fan art for this one. Like these . . .
Originally published posthumously, and with his own illustrations and hand-lettered text, this is a story he wrote for his own children. A guy who likes tall hats and drives badly has a crazy day with some bears. Sounds like a winner. Take a peek at it in this BrainPickings post. There’s even a short film of it, using Tolkien’s illustrations. In Russian.
No, Tolkien did not write Beowulf. But he did translate it. His edition’s main fascination is that it includes his notes, from years of teaching. Fluid, detailed and oddly entertaining, the notes are a great way into Beowulf. Especially if, like Tolkien, you are interested in language. Check out our review and comparison with two other versions of Beowulf.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun
Two narrative poems, in alliterative meter, as the old northern European poems often were, one focused on Sigmund, one on Gudrun, plus a few smaller poems and notes make up this posthumous collection. You can really see what informs Tolkien’s imagination for Middle Earth in these tales, not so much the Shire sensibilities but the harder-edged stories like Children of Hurin and a lot of the darker legends of The Silmarillion. There are a lot of familiar faces and themes from the Ring cycle, the Eddas, plus Thor – even Atilla the Hun – lots of slayings and oaths and curses. Growing up, we always studied the Greek myths, rarely the Nordic, and maybe that’s what makes them feel so odd. To my mind, though – they are way cooler. Minus the incest.
The Fall of Arthur
More alliterative verse, unfinished but highly praised by all who read it unpublished, it was finally published very recently. This version of the tale pushed Arthur back to the time of the Saxon invasions of Britain. No grail quest, though. It also includes Tolkien’s notes and 3 essays from Christopher Tolkien. As we say in the intro to this Overview, he had the thought of creating or developing mythologies for England, and it is noteworthy that his version of Arthur has a strong connection to Middle Earth. It has its own merit, but is doubly interesting for that reason.
Here’s a great NY Times review.
Finn and Hengest – The Fragment and the Episode
If you want to go deeper into Tolkien’s scholarly work, you enjoyed his Beowulf notes, for example, then this is your jam. He examines the fragmentary episode (appearing in Beowulf and separately) of a conflict involving Danes and Jutes. He asserts it has some historical reality and parses out all the nitty gritty Geats -errr… I mean, deets. (<– lame Beowulf joke). It’s classic Norse oath-swearing and violence. Super fun.
The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays
If you only read one piece of Tolkien scholarship, read the titular essay of this collection (well, that and the superlative On Fairy-Stories – you must read that, too). Nothing has had a larger influence on Beowulf studies, and it’s very readable. Besides those two essays, included are “On translating Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, whose subjects are obvious. Also included are “English and Welsh” on the relationship between the two and “A Secret Vice” on the creation of imaginary languages, and an address given at Oxford at the time of his retirement.
Songs for the Philologists
Pretty damn obscure. A collection of songs and poetry, some in Old English, about half by EV Gordon. You will not find it. It was never formally published, only in an unauthorized private edition, most of which was destroyed. I put it here to frustrate the OCD collectors. Suffer.
There are a few other shorter works of a scholarly nature, but not a lot. This was a criticism he received from some of his more narrow-minded colleagues, that he neglected his scholarly publishing in favor of his fiction. Well, we’re all certainly glad that ol’ JRR ignored the misguided admonitions of that buncha goofballs.
For more, see Tolkien: All Things Middle Earth