It’s difficult to know how to review something I’ve read so many times, and loved so much, with any kind of objectivity. I’ve been through phases with Tolkien: uncomplicated adoration of a plot I could get my teeth into and a mythic world it took work to imagine; disgust at the lack of female characters and the assigning of certain racial characteristics primarily or wholly to evil characters; nose-wrinkling at the moral absolutism; appreciation of the mythic framework and the sheer amount of time that went into the world.
Lately, I’m at the appreciation end — to me, the invented history around all aspects of this, including texts-within-the-text, is just so much fun, and the playing with language is inspired. From Elvish to Klingon (ed. Michael Adams) had a chapter which really made me appreciate the way Tolkien built his languages, including with a sense of history and an understanding of the fact (and the way!) that languages change. We are so ridiculously lucky to have this book, Tolkien’s mind at play on his ‘secret vice’ — it could have remained in his head and been lost, and we’d have been poorer for it.
This time, though, what I noticed mostly was the maps. I’m not a visual person, so I’ve never been good at imagining the sheer scale of the Fellowship’s journey, or understanding the geography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, hours spent riding around the Shire, Eregion and the Gap of Rohan while playing Lord of the Rings Online has given me a much keener sense of the geography (if not so much the scale, since obviously LOTRO isn’t set up to make you take days to cross Eregion). Suddenly it’s much easier to picture, and to realise that Tolkien had a very clear sense of where everything was, even when it came to small scenes. All the details work together — such and such is on the left, so the east wind does [x] — to make it a fully realised sensory experience. You have to have a heck of an imagination to keep all that straight, and for the most part, Tolkien does.
When you know that he also did illustrations for his own books and was a prominent scholar, one whose work on medieval texts is still relevant to undergraduates today, you just have to marvel. The man was a genius, and for all the flaws of moral absolutism and sexism I can see in his work — which nonetheless do make sense in the mythic context he’s creating — I can never again undervalue it. Anybody who dismisses J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is foolish. (Enjoying it is another matter, of course.)