J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien on the Blessed Sacrament...

"Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that." J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to his son

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Man Who Created the Lord of the Rings
Book cover: 'J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created the Lord of the Rings'
Author(s): 
Michael Coren
Copyright: 
2001
Publisher: 
Scholastic
Binding: 
Softcover
Number of pages: 
82 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This is a surprisingly good, very readable biography of one of the most popular authors of all time. J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa, the son of an English banker. After her return to England and the death of her husband, Tolkien's mother, Mabel, converted to Catholicism. Shunned by relatives after this, she was assisted by a kind parish priest who took care of her two sons after she died at age 34.

Michael Coren skillfully recounts Tolkien's life - growing up as an orphan, his lasting interest in language and learning and his battle experience in World War I. All the way through he includes interesting and enlightening details - especially ones that we will recognize as relevant to Tolkien's stories. Despite the secular publisher, Tolkien's faith is discussed in some detail (and quite fairly) with Joseph Pearce's book, Tolkien: Man and Myth, (Ignatius Press) featured as a prominent source. Coren does include brief summaries of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings which include some real plot-spoilers for those who haven't yet read them (they also aren't the most accurate book summaries I've ever read). I would suggest reading this biography after already having read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Although intended for youth reading, the story is delightful and interesting for adults (as well as a nice quick read).

Review Date: 
2-27-2002
Reviewed by: 

Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham

Author(s): 
J.R.R. Tolkien
ISBN: 
345 336 062
Copyright: 
1976
Publisher: 
Random House
Number of pages: 
156 pages
Subject(s): 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Tolkien has a habit of making stories that are just plain fun to read. And a sneaky little tendency to make them exceedingly rich too - offering many levels of interpretation and withstanding rigorous study by philosophers, theologians, philologists and anyone else. But all the time they remain delightful - and offer a healthy dose of poetic knowledge even to the most superficial readers. Both of these stories are 'old-fashioned' in style. If I were a scholar of medieval literature I would probably recognize them as astonishing models of the style (Tolkien himself was a scholar of medieval literature and I don't doubt at all that they are pristine examples).

This volume contains two stories. I will take them one at a time.

Smith of Wooton Major is a faery tale in the most literal sense. It is a pleasant little story not burdened with trying to teach you a lesson or even a moral. However, it will teach you lessons, remind you of good morals and make you laugh. Smith is a bright little boy who is invited in a special way to learn about faeries. To his neighbors he is special, talented, touched or pixelated - to use a variety of terms. Through a brief story of his life we learn: he is happy, he does excellent smith work, he raises a happy family. But there is more to him than meets the eye. It is the faeries. And it is his interaction with the faeries that makes him more circumspect and benevolent than most of his neighbors. It is an easy and enjoyable read - not to mention short! Use this story as a reward for intermediate readers. And as a reward to yourself just open the book and read the first paragraph - it is a marvel of Tolkien's ability to write and a refreshing reminder of what good writing looks like.

There was a village once, not very long ago for those with long memories, nor very far away for those with long legs. Wootton Major it was called because it was larger than Wootton Minor, a few miles away deep in the trees; but it was not very large, though it was at that time prosperous, and a fair number of folk lived in it, good, bad and mixed, as is usual.
(First Paragraph Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Farmer Giles of Ham is a tale of a reluctant hero. Just a farmer, he meets the trials thrust upon him with less than perfectly heroic enthusiasm. In fact he would rather avoid the two great trials of the book had he been able. But chance and fate combine with his degree of wit and sense of duty to raise him to a merited degree of fame and power. This book cannot hide it's lesson. In being a story of a rather ordinary man who becomes great it is obviously a lesson to those who are just beginning to find out how to use reason to direct their wills (and those of us who need occasional reminders). Life sends you tough circmstances. What you do with them is what makes you better or worse than average. Make your decisions and realize that making the right decisions (the right activities) makes you a great person. Period. This story is a must read for teens just finding their feet. Follow this up with community service activities to reinforce the ideas. Then make them read it again so they recognize how they have been living it.

Review Date: 
4-9-02
Reviewed by: 

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

Book cover: 'The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien'
Author(s): 
Humphrey Carpenter (ed.)
Copyright: 
1981
Publisher: 
Houghton Mifflin
Number of pages: 
432 pages
Subject(s): 
Setting: 
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

This book is not a "must read", but it is an enlightening read (best for high school and up). I have not read any other compilation of letters like this, so even the concept was new to me. There isn't a format, a thesis or an argument to unify the book. Rather, it is the life, work and times of Tolkien which generate the letters. He writes to his wife, his children, fans of his work, his publishers and various friends. The book is a subset of his letters (edited with the help of his son Christopher). Much of what is represented is in response to questions about his works - Middle Earth, elves, hobbits etc. - and so it is much more interesting to read if one is familiar with his works. One missive in particular was written to his son about love and marriage (MOST interesting). Others relate events of his life. The letters to his publishers reveal how difficult it was for him to write.In explaining these things, much is revealed about his understanding of the world (both philosophically and theologically). Reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, he, in one letter, describes as a "keyhole" view of his subcreation, Middle Earth. This in itself is revealing. It seems to have been very time consuming and difficult for Tolkien to produce his works. Through the letters, you begin to see that this is partly due to the fact that he was a perfectionist. He would let you see something through the keyhole (eg. a fairly brief mention of the story Luthien Tinuviel looked upon as an historical event) but wasn't really satisfied until he tackled the complete story of Luthien as well. He must have had an enormous amount of material in his study and in his head! He indicates that there are only two things in the Lord of the Rings that he does NOT know about - one being "the cats of Queen Beruthiel". ... the point being that he DOES know about the rest in great detail. He has firm ideas about the creation and descent of the elves, the work and character of the Valar/Angels, the history of the landscape, the fables associated with the morning star, Earindel. And nothing gets more attention than the languages used. He made them up for fun - it was a true love of his. He knows where they started, how they mingled with others down through Middle Earth's history, their forms, changes and pronunciations.But I lost my thread. His philosophy and theology are very evident in his works of fiction - they make the world of Middle Earth seem real BECAUSE they are so well grounded. They blossom in these letters. He can stand back from the events and tell an inquisitor WHY something in Middle Earth happened - and that is very edifying. His perfectionism has driven him to understand our own world well enough to figure out what is really possible in Middle Earth. He makes the critical distinction between what is accidental and what is essential so that Middle Earth may diverge from our own place in space and time yet still appear REAL.As an example, he responds to a priest who challenges Tolkien's ideas about elves - elves are undying in Middle Earth. Tolkien explains the notion that this is not an essential problem with God's creative abilities - even if it seems impossible that we would see it ourselves. You have to read his explanation - the whole point being that he DID think about it and had reasons for it even before he put it in the books.It is gratifying, as a Catholic, to learn that Tolkien's good philosophy and theology are heartily Catholic in nature. And to learn that his greatest inspiration, comfort and love was the Eucharist!It is interesting to read that one letter of fatherly advice to his son about love and marraige. This is one area where he makes so much sense you want to cheer. It is not mushy sentimentalism and it is not clinical psychology. It is the very human assesment of the how fallen-nature and super-nature manifest themselves in finding and keeping a spouse. And as such it is darned good advice for anyone!You will also learn a lot about Tolkien in this book. And even though he is not perfect - there is so much to learn. There are areas in which you want to emulate him. And areas in which you may find him shy of the mark. You can do your own philosophizing about where to draw that line - and his manner and style - so humble - INVITES you to reflect like this. This book is like a life experience. His life is, after all, another life. It is good and not so good and filled with the decisions that help make us who we are.

Perspective: 
Catholic
Additional notes: 

also includes extensive notes and index

Review Date: 
5-8-04
Reviewed by: 

The Lord of the Rings

Book Cover: 'Lord of the Rings'
Author(s): 
J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: 
Del Rey
Series: 
The Lord of the Rings
Grade / Age level: 
Review: 

Five Reasons to Read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

This multi-volume work begins with a loosely connected prelude work called The Hobbit, followed by a tight trilogy consisting of: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The trilogy concerns the mission of Frodo Baggins who must destroy a magic ring whose powers are great and attractive, but whose tendency (the ring's tendency) is ultimately obedient to evil. His companions, his travails, and his decisions make a profound tale. I will give away no more of the plot, but only tell you that this is a great read if you like poetry, fantasy, theology, philosophy, or walking.

1. First of all, Tolkien is truly a master of the English language. His sense of the music of English is deftly put to use in a series of characters whose language spans everything from the simple stateliness of Tom Bombadil, (who always speaks in iambic pentameter, not only when the verses are written out so), to the uneducated and plain-spoken Gaffer, Frodo's gardener. In between are all sorts of characters who speak different kinds of prose and poetry, and out on the rim are those with nothing but harshness of heart and language. Tolkien's words are so musical and well-chosen, they are a joy to read and hear.

2. But music is not enough. One wants an author of fiction, even of fantasy, to have a thorough imagination so that his world comes to life. One dislikes any reminder that this world is just a box of paper; one wants the sub-creation to work. And in making the fantasy work, one thing above all cannot change from this world to the fantasy -- the effect of goodness and evil within and among the hearts of persons. Water may flow uphill, and animals may talk, but character development must be true to life. The author must understand human nature, even if he chooses to give it to animals or dwarfs or elves -- or to hobbits! And he must love his characters so that they may live, even as God loves us and gives us life. Tolkien has a thorough imagination and a loving fullness of human wisdom.

3. What of theology? Shortly after reading the Lord of the Rings, I was directed to read Watership Down, a story about a prophetic rabbit who was always falling into a trance before giving his greatest prophecies. But St. Paul tells us that prophets have control over the spirit of prophecy. True prophecy is never in a trance. Tolkien would not have made such a theological error. His good characters always act on their own free will, tempered and developed over time and suffering. They may have unusual gifts, but goodness is always the fruit of generous effort and long patience. In a most astonishing way, Catholic theology comes to life in Tolkien, not in a self-conscious manner, as if he were writing an allegory, but simply and deeply. Catholic readers will not fail to feel the presence of Mary in these volumes (I will not say how, but you will see it). And students of moral theology must marvel at the combination of weakness, wisdom, and mercy-responsive mercy which resolves the plot.

4. Not only a theologian, Tolkien is a master philosopher. In the persons of Gandalf, Strider, and Galadriel especially, but in many other ways, he reflects on the path of wisdom in confronting evil with humility and a sense of service. The folly of attempting to fight evil with evil -- or even with mere magic, a tool ultimately shaped in darkness -- is clearly portrayed.

As long as we are talking about confronting evil, there is a side issue that must be considered. Some have suggested that Tolkien's work is a metaphor on the issues of the Second World War. It needs to be clearly understood that any work of serious value may be read on several levels -- simply as a good story or beyond that, as an allegory of one kind or another. But a truly creative work is not self-consciously allegorical; its allegorical or metaphoric power flows from its creative origin in a heart that lives on many levels -- in the author's own created world and also in the real world of the author. Tolkien clearly stated that his work was not about the War; it is just a story. Still, if you can't see the metaphor for various world events, you must not have studied history. Nor can you have studied the human heart if you cannot see a metaphor for the service of God. But these truths are inside the fullness of the story, which is just a plain good story. No metaphor may be permitted as an intruder in its landscape.

5. So, finally, what's this about Tolkien and walking? Tolkien walked. He walked for hours and hours, in all sorts of weather. And when you read this travel story, you will understand that he really did walk, and knew what it felt like to be tired, exhilarated, more or less lost, tangled, wet, and glad at last for food and song, -- and beer. Not only that, but if you know enough about the stars to keep track of them and let them give you directions, you will quickly learn that so did Tolkien. His constellations are the very constellations that burn in the English sky, season by season, no mere stick-ons in an obligatory, painted sky. They are thoroughly consistent. A walker will recognize this book as written by one from his fellowship.

In The Tolkien Reader, there is a little essay "On Fairy Stories" in which Tolkien explains the theology of creativity as he understands it. No discussion of Christian fiction is complete without this little gem, a flawless discussion of creativity among the sons of the Creator. Tolkien is one of the towering literary figures of the 20th century. We have read his volumes three times, as a family, since our first children were six and seven, and once before that in the first year of our marriage. The story is richer every time. Like a mirror of scripture, it has become a mine of wisdom and imagery for what we do, whom we meet, and how we conduct our lives. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and twice more wonderful.

Review Date: 
11-17-2007
Reviewed by: 

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Movie)

Shot from 'Fellowship of the Ring' movie
Copyright: 
2001
Publisher: 
New Line Films
Series: 
The Lord of the Rings
Subject(s): 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

What a happy thing, especially after all the Harry Potter fuss, to have such a revival in interest in the great Lord of the Rings trilogy because of this new movie (if Harry Potter leads people to Tolkien, I couldn't say much against him). I really believe (and I have noticed this with children of neighbors and friends) that in the end Lord of the Rings tends to be more beloved than Harry Potter. Although Harry Potter can be a little more accessible to younger and/or less experienced readers, the Lord of the Rings is a real adventure story, whereas Harry Potter is more of a fantasy/mystery with a much smaller scope. The Lord of the Rings movies are also making the books more accessible to a new generation of fans.

Overall, Tolkien fans (who are considered rather "fussy") seem to be rather pleased with the movie, and with good reason. Although it's very difficult to turn such a complex and imaginative story into a movie, and the movie will certainly never replace the book, overall I think the movie-makers did a fantastic job. First, and most importantly, I think they captured the overall themes (the temptation of power, the reality of evil, etc.) very well. The characters are very well-cast and quite believable. As might be expected in a movie version, the plot is simplified, several characters are compressed into one, etc. The neat thing is that significant portions of dialogue are taken directly from the book and the essentials of the plot are really quite faithful to the original story. My husband and I (who have both read the books) enjoyed the movie very much. Since we were expecting the birth of a child at the time and she decided to arrive significantly past her due date, we were able to see the movie twice in the theater, which is a real rarity for us.

For those unfamiliar with the books, this first part of three books introduces us to the main characters in the story - Hobbits - and the other races of Middle Earth - dwarves, elves, men and wizards. We see the beauty of the hobbits' homeland - the Shire - and their simplicity and love of nature. We are introduced to Bilbo who discovered "the Ring" and prepares to leave it to his nephew Frodo. When Gandalf discovers the true identity of the ring - the One Ring that was forged by the evil Lord Sauron to control all living things - Frodo sets out to bring the ring to a safer place and thus begins his quest.

This movie is not intended for young children. The story is very complex and focuses on major conflicts between good and evil. Turning it into a movie without making it silly and laughable creates rather intense cinema. Happily the moviemakers sought a PG-13 rather than an R rating and thus there is almost no blood and gore and no bad language or other objectionable content. The movie does, of course, portray battle and action scenes and a number of rather frightening creatures that some young children find too scary even when reading the book. It is sometimes easier to allow younger children to watch this sort of movie when it is released to video/DVD where the entire effect is less intense and scenes may be edited at will.

Although I think that watching the movie will lead many people to pick up the book, I think it best to read the book before seeing the movie so that one's first impressions in the imagination come directly from the book rather than another's re-creation of it. Parents, in particular, might do well to read the book before seeing the movie because, particularly if they aren't regular movie-goers, I think the violence and intensity wouldn't make much sense without being familiar with the plot and themes.

The extended version of the movie, which was released to video and DVD in November 2002, is really worth seeing. It incorporates 30 minutes of additional footage into the movie which helps make the story more understandable and enjoyable, but made the movie too long for the theatrical release.

Additional notes: 

Rated PG-13 (Violence)

Review Date: 
1-2-03
Reviewed by: 

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Movie)

Still shot from 'The Two Towers' movie
Copyright: 
2002
Publisher: 
New Line Films
Series: 
The Lord of the Rings
Subject(s): 
Resource Type: 
Review: 

After much anticipation, my seven year old son and I saw the Two Towers on the Saturday before Christmas. My nine year old daughter watched it with my husband the night before in order to switch off with the little ones at home. A year ago I wouldn't have expected to be taking any of my children to see the movie (because of their age), but a lot has changed since then for us. John read the entire Lord of the Rings aloud to the children over the past year. Jacinta read it, again, on her own. She and Matthew have also listened to the 13 disc BBC audio drama numerous times. They also very much enjoyed the Fellowship of the Ring movie on the "small screen". The point is that they have really attained a decent grasp of the story. In addition, my son, who doesn't like loud noises much, wore earplugs (which diminishes the intensity quite a bit) and my husband and I both did a bit of editing by simply covering their eyes with our hands. This was necessary during the previews and commercials before the movie more than for the movie itself.

Two of the toughest characters to portray - Gollum and Treebeard - were absolutely amazing. Gollum is a complex character - tortured by his desire for the ring, whom you don't know whether to hate or pity. A computer graphics generated character, he was entirely believable and pathetic in the way, I think, Tolkien intended him to be imagined. Treebeard could so easily have been a silly cartoonish character. While not without humor, he's also magnificent and ...respectable in the way that one would appreciate and admire an older gentleman who's a bit eccentric.

There are several general things that I think remarkable about this phenomenal task of creating movies from Tolkien's beloved stories. (For those who really like movies, as my husband and I do, the Fellowship of the Ring DVD is interesting partly because of the extensive commentaries, interviews, photo galleries, etc. which provide details on both how the movies were made and what the movie-makers were trying to do.) Many of the people most intimately involved in the movie production have read the story countless times. Faithfulness to Tolkien was a major priority for them. They have referred to the books over and over again, not just in writing the screenplay, but in how the actors portray their parts. A great deal of attention and thought has gone into many, many details of the story. For example, recordings exist of Tolkien himself reading parts of his stories. Ian McKellan, who plays Gandalf, based his portrayal of Gandalf, in voice tone and expression, on these recordings. Christopher Lee, who plays Saruman, has read the books every year for decades. In addition to his excellent portrayal of the villain, he discussed parts of the book with the other actors to be sure that certain details weren't left out. The two artists most famous for illustrating editions of the Lord of the Rings, Alan Lee and John Howe, worked as art consultants on the sets and miniatures. Peter Jackson, the director, collaborated with hundreds of cast members, production members and Tolkien fans to fine tune the script and the ideas. We had a local news story here in Wisconsin about a man who was, as a hobby, an expert in Tolkien's fictional languages. He offered his services to Peter Jackson and was invited to play a part in the production. I've never heard of any project done in this kind of fashion and the final result is truly reflective of the incredible effort and labor of love that went into making these movies.

Jackson and crew did a great job of balancing this rather dark, middle part of the story with some enjoyable comic relief (especially found in the character of Gimli the dwarf) which flowed quite well. I thought there were a few more unnecessary plot-deviations than in the first movie (particularly a significant thread involving Aragorn), but this annoyance was rather minor. We enjoyed the movie very much and look forward to its conclusion, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, coming out in December 2003.

Additional notes: 

Rated PG-13 (Violence)

Review Date: 
1-2-03
Reviewed by: