- The Making of Middle-earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien by Christopher Snyder, and: The Essential Tolkien Trivia and Quiz Book: A Middle-earth Miscellany by William MacKay
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These are two books intended for a general audience with only a superficial acquaintance with Tolkien’s works. Though they contribute little or nothing to Tolkien scholarship, they are interesting for their presentation of the public perception of Tolkien today.
Christopher Snyder is that rare thing, a medievalist writing on Tolkien who did not become a medievalist through being a Tolkien fan first. Snyder is highly enthusiastic about the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, and though he (mostly) avoids confusing them with the book, he cannot help conflating them. This is signaled at the very beginning, when Snyder opens his preface by quoting from the movie script (ix). And although this is a book about Tolkien, a 33-page appendix on “Media and Middle Earth” devotes 22 pages to Jackson’s productions, including notes on casting and plot summaries focusing on noting the differences between movies and book.
Primarily, however, this is not a Jackson fan’s Tolkien book but a medievalist’s. Appendices aside, the book consists of three parts. A brief opening biographical chapter is a basic rote account, with the advantage of not getting bogged down in details. Here appear summaries of “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-stories.” This chapter seems to attract Snyder’s interest the least, for it is often too succinct—a brief observation that Tolkien worked on the Oxford English Dictionary says nothing about what he did there or its significance (15), and the book’s quota of niggling factual errors is concentrated here, such as a reference to a book titled Leaf and Tree (22).
In a chapter titled “Tolkien’s Middle Ages,” Snyder is most in his element. Here he is more sure-footed, whipping his way through a variety of medieval and medievalist history and literature, from a brief introduction to classical civilization through the pre-Raphaelites and George MacDonald. Snyder ties this to Tolkien with potential sources and parallels: for instance comparing the fates of Arnor and Gondor with those of the two halves of the Roman Empire (41) or referencing Tolkien’s own alliterative verse when discussing Icelandic literature (68–69).
The remainder of the main text—well over a third of the book—does pretty much the same thing the other way around, consisting of plot summaries of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Húrin. Tending to assume that the reader already knows the story well, they are pecked with references to potential sources [End Page 255] and parallels. While largely focusing on ancient and medieval source material, particularly for the last two books, the source and parallel references run all over the map. All are interesting but there’s no consistency of style or of depth, and while Snyder shows familiarity with Tolkien’s known inspirations, he’s very scanty on the author’s development of his ideas from The History of Middle-earth.
Some of these are conventional, some are borrowed with credit from other scholars, and some are a little loose or speculative. A comparison of the wounded Frodo’s journey from Weathertop to Rivendell to the Goethe-Schubert song “Der Erlkönig” works better in relation to the more frantic pace of the movie than of the wearying slog of the book (132–33). Presentation of the moral aspects of the story is pretty much limited to an appendix entry on the moral virtues associated with individual Lord of the Rings characters (279); in the main text, we are told that the discussion of Boromir’s death “very closely parallels the...