3 books you need to read before/after watching TOLKIEN the biopic
On March 16–17, 2019, the Tolkien Weekend happened in New York City. One of the highlights was a preview screening of Dome Karukoski’s TOLKIEN, a biopic on the bestselling author J.R.R. Tolkien, and this is my suggestion for you to even better enjoy it.
After the lights went up in the AMC Kips Bay 15 cinema in New York City my first reaction was: “This is going to be successful.” The film — as you will see — does take artistic license when it comes to depicting J.R.R. Tolkien’s life but its very aesthetic and how characters are portrayed and developed do fit all the bills for a successful biopic in the vein of the recently celebrated Bohemian Rhapsody.
However, any film detailing either the life or the works of J.R.R. Tolkien is not capable of providing all the details necessary to fully and/or correctly appreciate the intricacies involved. So if you have questions on JRRT or his wife Edith Bratt, on the linguistic creativity involved in inventing languages, on the events at the Battle of the Somme in World War I and how a young signalling officer managed to survive its atrocities you will have to turn to some amazing books dealing with those questions.
The reasoning behind these three books is very simple: One is the biography to this film, one is the best introduction into Middle-earth, and one is a collection of personal and professional material highlighting the incredible complexity of Tolkien’s achievements and how they inspired new creativity. Together, they will provide you with a framework of better understanding and appreciating not only Tolkien but most surely the film.
I would like to note that these suggestions are based on my assumption that they will help you best if your interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and works is kindled by watching TOLKIEN the biopic. There are many other amazing works which one could suggest, of course, but I think this Tolkien Introductory Trio will be a wonderful start into your very own adventure!
John Garth, Tolkien & the Great War
John Garth has published the one biography to rule this particular film: Tolkien & the Great War provides insightful and meticulously researched material particularly on JRRT’s war experiences. The UK publishers of Tolkien’s work, HarperCollins, offer this short summary:
John Garth argues that the foundation of tragic experience in the First World War is the key to Middle-earth’s enduring power. Tolkien used his mythic imagination not to escape from reality but to reflect and transform the cataclysm of his generatuion. While his contemporaries surrendered to disillusionment, he kept enchantment alive, reshaping an entire literary tradition into a form that resonates to this day.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by Catherine McIlwaine (ed.)
If you haven’t seen the single best exhibition on Tolkien yet you should hurry up — it will run with the Morgan Library & Museum until May 12, 2019, and will then move to its final installment at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
However, this isn’t only an amazing presentation on Tolkien’s life and works which moves Tolkien fans deeply — coming to the exhibition from all over the world — it has also one of the best exhibition catalogues ever printed.
Catherine McIlwaine, curator of the original exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, has brought together six of the best researchers on Tolkien’s life and work to provide introductory essays which will give a great overview on all important issues — and then a gazillion of pictures, personal items, fan letters, memorabilia of any kind providing an intricate, beautifully detailed tapestry of life.
T.A. Shippey. The Road to Middle-earth
It is no exaggeration to say that T.A. (or Tom) Shippey singlehandedly put Tolkien on the map as a topic for academic research. When his book The Road to Middle-earth first appeared in 1982 it changed how Tolkien’s works were conceived and shed light not only on the linguist side of things but he also argued putting Tolkien in the same category as other post-war writers such as Vonnegut and Golding, the ‘traumatized authors.’ Now in it’s third edition (2003) the book is one of the most essential and influential books ever written on Tolkien.
Again, HarperCollins gives a good summary:
Tom Shippey shows in detail how Tolkien’s professional background led him to write The Hobbit and how he created a work of timeless charm for millions of readers. He discusses the contribution of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales to Tolkien’s great myth-cycle, showing how Tolkien’s more ‘complex’ works can be read enjoyably and seriously by readers of his earlier books, and goes on to examine the remarkable 12-volume History of Middle-earth by Tolkien’s son and literary heir Christopher Tolkien, which traces the creative and technical processes through which Middle-earth evolved. The core of the book, however, concentrates on The Lord of the Rings as a linguistic and cultural map, as a twisted web of a story, and as a response to the inner meaning of myth and poetry.
DISCLAIMER: I would like to let you know that I happened to co-translate two of these three books into German with colleagues Dr. Birgit Herden and Dr. Helmut W. Pesch respectively, Tolkien und der Erste Weltkrieg and Tolkien: Schöpfer von Mittelerde. To any translator a close reading of the source text and excellent knowledge of the textual context is key to provide a good translation, particularly with Tolkien’s works or Tolkien-related titles as these three; that is the reason why I had been chosen to work on the books by John Garth and Catherine McIlwaine. And after reading those books very, very closely, I can only say they are worth reading, indeed.
I hope you will enjoy these books and I hope they will help you better appreciate and enjoy not only the wonderful stories created by J.R.R. Tolkien but also the life of a man who despite all shortcomings and obstacles in life changed the world for many.