Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tom Shippey’s Top 10 Tolkien Books

Nothing substantial today (though I’ll have something more interesting in a day or two), but I just got a link to a piece in The Guardian by Tom Shippey — his picks for the Top 10 books on/by J.R.R. Tolkien. The piece is quite old, so I’m not entirely sure why it popped up in a Google Alert today, but it’s worth revisiting — even if quite a few good books have come out since the list was published. Take a look. I wouldn’t necessarily construct exactly the same list myself, but Shippey includes a few one doesn’t see recommended so often these days (e.g., Jim Allan’s Introduction to Elvish), as well as some which are pretty hard to find (e.g., Pictures by Tolkien).

In fact, I have to say, it would be pretty hard to come up with a list of only ten books on and by Tolkien. Perhaps ten of each would be more appropriate. What would your list(s) look like?


  1. It's pretty hard to come up with a list of only ten books, so I'm going to cheat a little:

    1. The Hobbit + The History of the Hobbit (Radcliff) + The Annotated Hobbit (D. Anderson)

    2. The Lord of the Rings + Companion (C. Scull, W. Hammond)

    3. Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien + A Biography (H. Carpenter)

    4. J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (C. Scull, W. Hammond)

    5. The History of Middle-Earth (all of them but especially 1, 2 and 3)

    6. The Silmarillion + Unfinished Tales + The Children of Hurin

    7. Tree and Leaf + Tales from the Perilous Realm

    8. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (M. Drout)

    9. Pictures by JRR Tolkien + JRR Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (C. Scull, W. Hammond)

    10. Atlas of Middle Earth (Fonstad)

    These are the basics that I consider mandatory, but I can just as easily think of a dozen more essentials.

  2. Adanedhel, great list. And that was some cheating indeed, hahae. For ten spots on the list, you actually have thirty-one books! Now that’s my kind of Top 10! ;)

    You might as well add Barbara Strachey’s atlas, The Journeys of Frodo to your #10. And to your #7, I would add Flieger and Anderson’s new extended edition of Tolkien On Fairy-stories, which I’m reading now.

    Myself, as much as I would like to say that your #8 deserves a spot, I’m afraid I’d have to cut it to make room for Tom Shippey’s two books. I would want to include Verlyn Flieger’s as well, if I could. And what about John Garth’s biography of Tolkien’s early years? Yeah, limiting oneself to ten is well-nigh impossible, isn’t it?

  3. Of course, I considered Tolkien and the Great War by Garth and I should have probably added it to #3. Flieger and Shippey were also right there but somehow I couldn't make room for them on the list. It's incredible that even if I only make a list of books on Tolkien, ten would simply not be enough. Prolific author, prolific scholars...

  4. It's incredible that even if I only make a list of books on Tolkien, ten would simply not be enough. Prolific author, prolific scholars...

    Some (like us) would say prolific; others might say prolix was closer to the mark. :)

  5. It may be worth noting that Shippey’s list is not a list of the best work by and about Tolkien, but more specifically is intended to highlight “Tolkien’s previously unpublished writing” (i.e., since 1973) and scholarship that has “variously explained, expanded, and set in context” Tolkien’s writing since that time. So The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are mentioned in Shippey’s introduction, but don’t appear on his list. (Only the focus on post-1973 work makes it possible to make a top ten list, anyway. Tolkien himself only had, what, nine books published in his lifetime, including scholarly work?) And his emphasis (rather like Adanedhel’s) is on primary rather than interpretive works. Plus he omits himself.

    At the very least, I’d want to add The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (both Shippey), Master of Middle-earth (Kocher), Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (Rosebury), The Hobbit: A Journey to Maturity (Green), Tolkien’s World (Helms), Splintered Light and A Question of Time (both Flieger), and maybe a few of the collections, possibly J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances (ed. Clark and Timmons) or Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference (ed. Reynolds and GoodKnight) or just maybe Tolkien and the Critics (ed. Isaacs and Zimbardo).

  6. N.E.B. —

    I don’t know. I think I’m going to have to quibble with a couple of your statements here. First, Shippey does not explicitly state that his intent is to highlight (your word) Tolkien’s “previously unpublished writing.” It may be a reasonable assumption; however, looking at his list, only three of the ten items (The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales (two volumes), and The Lost Road) represent major unpublished work. The Carpenter biography includes a little, but of course, it is (along with The Silmarillion and Introduction to Elvish) among the oldest items here. Similarly, Pictures includes a small amount of previously unpublished material, but the bulk of it (indeed, its stated reason for being) is to collect together in one place the series of illustrations previously published in the Tolkien calendars of the 1970’s. I might admit Tolkien’s Legendarium, since it refers to much work unpublished during Tolkien’s life.

    But so, basically, I don’t think it can be said to be so obvious that this is (or was) Shippey’s intent. And in any case, I think The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sort of go without saying, don’t you? :)

    You also twist another of Shippey’s statement a bit too much, I think. You say that his list is meant to highlight “scholarship that has ‘variously explained, expanded, and set in context’ Tolkien’s writing since that time,” but in making that edit, you’ve substituted a new direct object. Where you have “Tolkien’s writing since that time” [i.e., 1973], Shippey simply wrote “his works” (i.e., including all those published during Tolkien’s lifetime). Your edit may (or may not) represent what Shippey was thinking, but it’s not what he wrote — and so I think it goes a bit too far.

    Anyway, that was probably much more of a quibble than your comment deserved, but there you go. :) As to your suggestions for a list, I like those — though I still have not read Rosebury (but I bought a copy recently). I’m also looking forward to reading his essay in the new Tolkien Studies (which I still haven’t received in the mail yet!).

  7. You're right, I went too far in characterizing Shippey's intentions. And yet, doesn't Shippey (in Author, I think) remark that "The Lost Road" doesn't really get anywhere? If so, what is The Lost Road doing on a top ten Tolkien list?

  8. I can only dimly (more dimly than you :) recall the passage you’re thinking of, and I don’t have the books handy to look for it. I remember there is a fairly extensive discussion (several pages, at least) of The Lost Road in Author of the Century. If there’s any equivalent analysis in Road to Middle-earth, it would have been added later; the first edition of Road, despite the suggestive similarity of the titles, predated The Lost Road by several years.

    Perhaps it’s time to read both of Shippey’s books again in full. :)

  9. Hmmm, maybe it should be the top 30 (or 50!) books by/about JRRT. :)

  10. Fifty might be overkill, but thirty sounds about right. :)