I Want to be a Tolkienologist — my review of David Day’s The World of Tolkien: Mythological Sources of The Lord of the Rings

The fact that it is still December and I’m already writing a review of a book I got for Christmas should tell you everything you need to know about how wonderful this book was.

I also got a new laptop, but this was still my favorite Christmas present.

David Day’s The World of Tolkien: Mythological Sources of The Lord of the Rings. (New York: Chartwell Books, Inc., 2013) is a 184-page-long, richly-illustrated exploration of the historical, mythological, philosophical, linguistic, religious, and literary foundations of the major creatures, cultures, places, and events in JRR Tolkien’s works, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion.

As an ardent fan of both literature and history, it is hardly surprising that I enjoy learning about the historical sources behind my favorite works of fiction. Before the release of the final two Harry Potter novels, I eagerly devoured every secrets of the wizarding world-type book I could find, even if I didn’t believe or agree with all the theories. However, Day’s book was my first foray into roots of Middle Earth despite being a longtime fan of Tolkien’s work. Trust me when I say that it certainly won’t be the last. My only prior experiences with Tolkien’s source material came from studying the design elements in Peter Jackson’s films and a few articles I read on I knew the waters of historical, literary, and mythological reference ran deep, but I had no idea just how far they actually went.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the discussion of language’s importance to Tolkien. Tolkien was deeply invested in philology, or the study of languages’ histories and development. His love of language is evident from the fact that he invented so many of his own to be spoken in Middle Earth; I have personally always been impressed by the fact that he created multiple different languages for the elves alone. To a large degree, words were primary inspirations for everything that Tolkien wrote about. According to Day, “Middle-earth and its stories have their roots in Tolkien’s love and fascination with language. As he explains in one of his letters, ‘the invention of language is the foundation… to me a name comes first and the story follows”. In the word, to put it another way, was the beginning”. (Day 9) Day traces Tolkien’s creation of people and places through the development of their names and their layers of meaning in various languages – ancient, modern, real, and invented. The exploration of the word “hobbit” on pages 112-113 is a particularly illuminating insight into the layers of meaning behind many of Tolkien’s names, including puns and forms of wordplay based in his invented languages.

The map of Middle Earth is full of tongue-twisting names with fascinating linguistic origins.

A bigger revelation even than the sophistication of Tolkien’s linguistics, however, is the intention behind his writing. I had a vague idea that Middle Earth was intended to be some sort of backstory for Great Britain, but that was pretty much all I knew. According to Day, Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth was a conscious attempt to link all histories, legends, mythologies, and fairy tales in order to create an epic prehistory for the English culture – a “heroic legend on the brink of fairy tale and history” (Day 12). Middle Earth wasn’t supposed to be like early Europe so much as it was intended to actually be early Europe before recorded history, and Tolkien’s creations actually become the forebears of their source material. In this way, geography can become very important. Different nations and areas of Middle Earth often have one or more real-life equivalents, and their locations relative to each other can imply certain attributes and relationships when compared to the map of real, historical Europe. For example, The Shire is widely known to be based on the real, English shire in which Tolkien grew up, and geographically extrapolating from that, Rivendell, an Elvish center of learning, is an analog for Oxford, an English center of learning (Day 18, 51-52). I knew there was a reason I have always wanted to live in Rivendell.

“On several occasions Tolkien wrote about his desire to create an entire cosmology based upon his own readings of ancient English history, language, and literature. […] He wished to create a body of work that would range from epic poems, to creation myths, fairy tales, and romance which could bear the dedication: ‘to England; to my country’. He wished to create something that seemed born of the soil of England and evoked the air of its rich northern history. He wanted to avoid comparison with the Mediterranean epic tales and cycles and to strike out in a new way more suited to the people and nation that produced one of the most dominant civilizations in the history of the world.” (Day 13)

The book is nearly as beautiful as it is informative, including many illustrations of both Middle Earth and its source material. Some of the illustrations bear a strong resemblance to the movies, while others represent their subjects quite differently. Speaking of the Peter Jackson films, they are referred to very little in this book. Although the edition I read is dated 2013, the book was originally published in 2003 – the year that Return of the King came out in theatres – so the Hobbit films are not referenced at all. However, anyone familiar with the movies will have no trouble seeing how Jackson made very good use of Tolkien’s source material. It is clear that Jackson and his designers had a very keen understanding of the connections and comparisons Tolkien intended to create, and I personally believe they did a phenomenal job in highlighting them, particularly visually.*

Rivendell (aka my true home) as seen in Peter Jackson's films. Each one is such a visual treat.
Rivendell (aka my true home) as seen in Peter Jackson’s films. Each one is such a visual treat.

The rich and detailed world of Middle Earth is so full of potential for endless study of the sort that makes me better understand not just made-up worlds better but also my own. If Tolkien’s aim was to create an origin story to precede all other origin stories, perhaps he succeeded, since through it, I learn something about almost every culture’s mythology and history. Perhaps more importantly, I can see the parallels and points of overlap as clearly as the differences.  I would be remiss, however, if I completely neglected to provide any criticism of the book. I did notice a few more typos than I think I should have in a book that was otherwise so well written and beautifully published. I also found that Day assumed that all his readers possess an extremely high level of familiarity with the finer points of Tolkien’s works. That’s okay, but a few simple pieces of reference would have helped those of us who aren’t walking Tolkien encyclopedias. For example, I’m not as familiar with the events of The Silmarillion as I am with those of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and even though I understand the major events, I would have liked some kind of timeline to help me remember when things happened relative to each other. A glossary and more detailed map would have been helpful, too. But on the whole, I loved the book and had so much fun making discovering about Tolkien’s world and mythology in general that I am about to go add “history and origin of myths and legends” to the list of my ongoing research topics. In the meantime, I will return to the Arwen costume I’m sewing for myself, though I’m not exactly sure Tolkien would approve.

* For more about on this topic, I highly recommend Gary Russell’s series of books about the art of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Lord of the Rings: The Art of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Art of The Two Towers; The Lord of the Rings: The Art of The Return of the King.

Click here to purchase The World of Tolkien: Mythological Sources of The Lord of the Rings on Amazon. You can also purchase Gary Russell’s series at the links directly above. (As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. However, I only recommend books that I have personally read and enjoyed.)

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2 thoughts on “I Want to be a Tolkienologist — my review of David Day’s The World of Tolkien: Mythological Sources of The Lord of the Rings

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