J. R. R. Tolkien

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Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tolkien, J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) 1892–1973

A South African-born British novelist, poet, and Anglo-Saxon scholar, Tolkien is best known for his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Along with C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, Tolkien has been credited with reviving the romance. Certainly his fantasy is many-faceted: history and fairy story, realistic and magical, pessimistic about society and hopeful for the individual. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[J.R.R. Tolkien's children] received a letter from Father Christmas every year. The first arrived in 1920 when Tolkien's oldest son was 3, and they continued to arrive for 20 years thereafter. In "The Father Christmas Letters" Tolkien's daughter-in-law, Baillie Tolkien, collects and edits them for our enjoyment.

The facsimiles included show a handwriting that is shaky but elegant…. Fortunately age does not prevent the writer from sending richly detailed paintings of his house, his sleigh gliding over Oxford ("Your house is just about where the three little black points stick up out of the shadows at the right"), and the misadventures that make these letters such lively reading….

Nobody, I think, knows more about elves than Tolkien, who never confuses Father Christmas with that old moralist, Santa Claus….

By 1939, even Father Christmas finds the world a chilly home for magic. The Tolkien children are growing up. "The number of children who keep up with me seems to be getting smaller. I expect it is because of this horrible war…." But wars between nations pass. The war between Father Christmas and the Goblins is as old as Good and Evil, and his magic survives our technology. "You need not believe any pictures you see of me in aeroplanes or motors. I cannot drive one, and I don't want to."

Father Christmas lives. And never more merrily than in these pages. (p. 90)

Nancy Willard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 5, 1976.

The sequel to The Lord of the Rings [The Silmarillion] is actually its prologue, both in narrative time and in the mind of the creator. Spanning vast landscapes and thousands of years, the stories in this book tell us what happened in Tolkien's universe from the beginning of time until that eventful period, late in the Third Age of the world, when Frodo Baggins obtained the fateful ring and (with a little help from his friends) finally carried it through numerous perils to its destruction in the Crack of Doom.

There is an enormous Tolkien readership, including some who devour his books and read practically no others…. Unbelievers will scoff because this not-quite-digested mass of material is Tolkien and fantasy; hobbit-fanciers may find their loyalties divided because it is Tolkien but contains not a single hobbit, until the very end when the name of "Frodo the Halfling" appears once and the whole Lord of the Rings cycle is compressed into two pages.

From the viewpoint of the Ring trilogy, what we have in this new volume is a substantial part (one hopes that more can be edited and published from the remaining Tolkien manuscripts) of the Translations from the Elvish to which Bilbo Baggins devoted himself for long years after celebrating his eleventy-first birthday and slipping quietly out of hobbit society. Its central and longest part, from which the entire volume takes its name, is the epic tale of the theft and quest of the silmarils, three jewels of extraordinary powers which were made by the hot-tempered elven king and craftsman Feanor and were stolen by Morgoth, a demigod devoted to darkness and chaos, who wished to make himself master of all Middle-earth.

The slow unfolding of this story covers centuries and all sections of the old creation before the earth was changed (one of the things that happen in the various wars chronicled here is that it becomes round). Titanic forces struggle after...

(The entire section is 2,113 words.)