- The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Volume I: Chronology, and: Volume II: Reader’s Guide
Autumn 2006 brought a bumper harvest of reference works on Tolkien, with the near-simultaneous publication of Michael D.C. Drout's heavyweight J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, pooling the work of one hundred twenty-eight scholars, and this super-heavyweight contribution by two highly regarded veterans of Tolkien studies. While Professor Drout's book has the edge in its coverage of issues in criticism, Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond's magnum opus excels in its treatment of biographical matters. Like the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, the Companion and Guide provides an encyclopedia of matters relating to Tolkien, although it rightly eschews entries about the fictitious places, characters, and totems which have been the primary focus of older reference books such as J.E.A. Tyler's Tolkien Companion and Robert Foster's Complete Guide to Middle-earth. Uniquely, Scull and Hammond also provide an extraordinarily detailed chronology of Tolkien's life that runs to 800 pages.
The Chronology volume ambitiously attempts to provide for Tolkien's entire lifespan what his letters to Christopher Tolkien furnish for 1944. These diary-like reports of day-to-day life, written when his son was serving in South Africa in the Royal Air Force, form one of the most satisfying sections of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Their value lies in showing the epic of Frodo and Sam's journey to Mordor unfold, with amazingly speed, amid the stew of mundane events on the home front, in the Tolkien household, within Oxford University, and on the international stage. Reading these letters, an initial sense of disconnection between the life and the creative writings is soon jostled aside by thoughts of possible connection. Most striking of all, to my mind, is the realization that Tolkien wrote "The Passage of the Marshes" a matter of days after revisiting Birmingham, his childhood home, and seeing "ghosts that rose from the pavements" (Letters, 70)—the shades of old friends, many of them lost on the battlefields of the First World War.
Readers, researchers and biographers who are concerned with the why of writing can construe from an abundance of suggestive detail presented in the Chronology. Those concerned with the how of writing, too, can learn much from the ordinary and extraordinary rhythms of the [End Page 255] writer's life. Read in sequence, this many-threaded account of Tolkien's life—the consequential and the inconsequential, the fascinating and the dull—makes for a long read. The stretch spanning the writing of The Lord of the Rings occupies more than 250 pages, a significant proportion of which is concerned with other matters. The effect is to underline not only the sheer labor involved in writing the book, but also Tolkien's remarkable facility for keeping its complexities clear in his mind over such a long period. Not unjustly did C. S. Lewis comment in 1947—ten years into the process—that Tolkien "works like a coral insect" (Lewis, Letters, III, 1,579).
We can now see for the first time just how much of Tolkien's life was spent not only in tutoring and lecturing but also in committee meetings. The potted biographies of other members of the Oxford English faculty in the Reader's Guide may put some flesh on these dry bones, but not much. A further keynote is struck by the prolonged labor of marking examination papers; and another still by Tolkien's health: a veritable plague of complaints is gleaned from his letters, wheezily punctuating the Chronology and...