To celebrate Tolkien’s twelfthty-ninth (or eleventy-nineteenth–a joke that expires this year) birthday on 3 January 2021, the Tolkien Society is once again raising a toast to the Professor (see here). After Bilbo left the Shire on his eleventy-first birthday in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo toasted his uncle’s birthday each year. Tolkien fans continue the tradition for the maker of Middle-earth on this day. J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on 3 January 1892, making this (if he had had Hobbitish longevity), his 129th. The Tolkien Society invites you to celebrate the birthday by raising a glass at 9pm your local time, simply toasting “The Professor!”
If you go to the Tolkien Society site, there are a number of Tolkien gatherings listed for today. You can also use the Twitter hashtag, #TolkienBirthdayToast for a little social media cheer.
In honour of Tolkien’s birthday, each year I update the catalogue of Tolkien posts featured here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. Among countless references and new reflections on his writings, the key Tolkien post of the year–and one of the most viewed posts of 2020–was my tribute to Christopher Tolkien, who passed away in mid January. There are now over 100 article links in this post! I hope you enjoy the great selection of guest bloggers, hot links, and feature posts, filling out your Tolkien reading and inspiring you to widen and deepen your Tolkienaphilia.
Tolkien’s work is rich with reflections upon the world around us. In posts like “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Power in the Lord of the Rings” and “Affirming Creation in LOTR,” I explore themes related to ideas that are central to Tolkien’s beliefs. The latter idea, creation and good things green, is covered also with Samwise Gamgee here and with Radagast the Brown here. One that resonates long after first reading is the theme of Providence, which I explore in “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark.”
One surprising connection was “Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings“–a pairing that many would find unusual and includes some great old footage. Guest blogger Trish Lambert rounded out the discussion with “Friendship Over Family in Lord of the The Rings.” Author Tim Willard talks about “Eucatastrophe: J.R.R Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope.” And you can follow Stephen Winter’s LOTR thought project here and Luke Shelton’s Tolkien Experience Project here.
Perhaps Tolkien’s most central contribution beyond the storied world is his idea of subcreation in the poem, “Mythopoeia” and in other works like the essay, “On Fairy-stories” and the allegorical short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” I have been reading a lot about this concept–partly because of students working on the idea–and appreicated poet-philosopher Malcolm Guite’s take on it here.
My most important contribution, I think, is my Theology on Tap talk, called “A Hobbit’s Theology,” which I am hoping to deepen and rewrite in 2021 for Northwind Theological Seminary. It is one of the ideas I am struggling with most specifically in my academic work. In a similar mode–thinking of Tolkien’s work through a theological lens–is Mickey Corso’s excellent work on Tolkien and Catholicism. The entire video conversation of “The Lady and Our Lady: Galadriel as a ‘Reflexion’ of Mary,” A Signum Thesis Theatre on Tolkien and Catholicism by Mickey Corso, is now online.
And one of the more popular posts of 2016 was a very personal one, “Battling a Mountain of Neglect with J.R.R. Tolkien.” Though I am still not sure if I should have written that post, it has connected with readers.
Tolkien as Writer
I remain fascinated by Tolkien’s development as an author, and spent some time of late exploring the theme. The most popular of pieces I wrote was the coyly titled, “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” The reason is, of course, not all that shocking, but could be helpful for the subcreators amongst us. Two more substantial posts on the topic are “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” and “The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat.”
C.S. Lewis took an interest as well in Tolkien’s formation (see “Book Reviews” below). You can read more about it in Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch, and in this blog post, “‘So Multifarious and So True’: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring.” Lewis’ support for Tolkien did not go unrewarded. Besides the great joy of Tolkien’s work, there was a time when Tolkien interceded a time or two on Lewis’ behalf. Friendship goes both ways. Tolkien historian John Garth takes some time to explore this literary friendship further in his detailed explanation of “When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars.”
One post from 2018 created a lot of (pretty positive) controversy. In “Lewis, Tolkien and Different Views of Fan Fiction” I invited thought about two trends: Tolkien-readers’ resistance to fan fiction (in concert with Tolkien himself), and a strong trend of good fanfiction from Tolkien lovers. The post is worth reading, but so are the 100+ comments. But my most substantial and original piece on Tolkien’s writing, I think, is the 2020 article, “Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,’” which includes art by Emily Austin.
Tolkien’s letters remain a rich resource for researchers that is available to everyday readers–and usually available used for a pretty cheap price. In these letters I discovered the tidbits on writing above, and notes like “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life” (which remains a top 10 post). But it goes much deeper. In “The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read“–also a top 10 post–I include much of a draft that Tolkien wrote to a Mrs. Mitchison that fills in much of the background to Middle-earth. I also took the time to put Tolkien’s great “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” quotation in context, which I updated in 2020 with a note on books and their authors.
A more sober but quite moving letter is the one that I featured in this popular post from fall 2018: “The Last Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th Anniversary of His Death.” It is a post to read when raising a toast. And now, with the passing of Christopher Tolkien, son of the genius, I have added a second toasting post. In my 2020 tribute piece, Christopher Tolkien, Curator of Middle-earth, Has Died, there is also a pretty poignant letter from his father. I hope you enjoy.
The letters afforded me some time to think about some other ideas. In a longer popular post that any conlanger will know is poorly named–“Why Tolkien Thought Fake Languages Fail“–I discussed Tolkien’s own constructed language program and surmised with the Professor that conlangs fail when the lack a mythic element. I think I am mostly correct and the essay is quite fun, even if I am missing some key elements. I was able to push further when I did a personal response to new Tolkien language research in this post: “J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Secret Vice” and My Secret Love: Thoughts on Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins’ Critical Edition of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Language.”
Finally, a little fun with the post, “When Sam Gamgee Wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien.” As you might guess, it is about a real-life Sam Gamgee who sends a note to the maker of Middle-earth. And, of course, when the season of advent returns, check out the Father Christmas Letters.
The Silmarillion Project
This is a newish feature for me, partly because 2017 was the year I completed The Silmarillion in its entirety in a single reading (rather than the higgledy-piggledy approach of cherry-picking stories and languishing in the mythic portions, as I am wont to do). I reread it in early 2020, this time by audiobook, and enjoyed it deeply. Still, I find it a challenge. I thought I would take advantage of my status as a Silm-struggler to offer suggestions and resources to people looking to extend their reading of the Legendarium.
In “Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time” I made a handful of suggestions for readers intending to read this peculiar book for the first time. If you are a fellow Silm-struggler, I hope this helps you get a fuller experience of a beautiful collection of texts. That experience inspired me to write “A Call for a Silmarillion Talmud,” an unusual post for Tolkienists with more creative and technological skills to consider.
Finally, I had to write as a fan and as a scholar together in considering the cycle of Lúthien and Beren. In “Of Beren and Lúthien, Of Myth and the Worlds We Love” I talk about my love of the story and its links to the Legendarium while noting my hope for the 2017 release of the Beren and Lúthien materials and sharing some Silmarillion inspired artwork.
When the teaser trailer of the third film, The Battle of Five Armies, was released, I wrote “Faint Hope for The Hobbit.” Although it is clear in the trailers that this is a war and intrigue film, I still had some hope I would enjoy it. The huge comment section shows in that post shows that not everyone agreed it was possible!
My review of An Unexpected Journey captures the tug back and forth I feel about the films. I called it, “Not All Adventures Begin Well,” and it is a much more positive review than many of the hardcore Tolkien fans or academics. And it gives this cool dwarf picture:
“What Have We Done?” These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. In this review I think about what it means to do film adaptations. While I do not hate this Hobbit trilogy, I think that Peter Jackson just got lost a bit.
When I finally got to The Battle of 5 Armies, I decided it would be fun to do a Battle of 5 Blogs. 5 other bloggers joined it, making it a Battle of 6 Blogs! But the armies are pretty tough to count anyhow. I titled my blog, “The Hobbit as Living Text.” It was a controversial approach to the film, I know. Make sure you check out the other reviewers link here. Some of us chatted about the films in an All About Jack Podcast, which you can hear here and here.
While these aren’t substantial reviews, I featured two indie films: a documentary on Tolkien’s Great War, and a fictional biopic recreating Tolkien’s invention of Middle Earth called Tolkien’s Road—both inspired, perhaps, by John Garth’s work.
Though the Hobbit films were unsatisfying, I still miss having a Tolkien-Peter Jackson epic to watch in theatre at Christmastime. 2019 supplied us, though, with the Tolkien biopic. Besides posting the trailers, I did lead-up posts like “Getting Ready for TOLKIEN: John Garth and Other Resources.” I still encourage people to read John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War before watching the film, but I am not like many Tolkien fans who simply could not connect with the film. I reviewed it in three different ways, in three different places:
- I wrote a guest article for Forefront Festival called “The Tolkien Film and the Problem of Beauty“
- I had a discussion with Diana Glyer about the Tolkien Biopic on William O’Flaherty’s All About Jack Podcast
- My blog review was called “My Defiant Appreciation of the Biopic Tolkien,” and was shared by the Director as “my favourite to rule them all”–a neat high point in 2019
There was no greater friend of The Hobbit in the early days than C.S. Lewis. In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Lewis not only encouraged the book to completion, but reviewed The Hobbit a few times. Here is his review in The Times Literary Supplement.
Lewis is not the only significant reviewer of The Hobbit. When he was 8, my son Nicolas published his review, just as the first film was coming to the end of its run. When I was posting Nicolas’ review, I came across another young fellow–the son of Stanley Unwin, the first publisher to receive the remarkable manuscript of The Hobbit. Unsure how children would respond, he paid his son, Rayner, to write a response to the book. You can read about it here: “The Youngest Reviewers Get it Right, or The Hobbit in the Hands of Young Men.”
I have also done more book reviewing in the last couple of years on this blog. I note Fimi & Higgins’ “Secret Vice” above. I reviewed Verlyn Flieger’s edition of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, which I quite loved. I also reblogged John Garth’s review of Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun–also edited by Flieger, and also gorgeous.
The Read-Aloud Hobbit
One of my first digital exchanges was participating in The Hobbit Read Along–you can still see the great collection of posts online. As I was doing this shared project, I was reading The Hobbit to my 7 3/4-year-old son. It was a great experience, but I made the mistake of doing accents to distinguish characters early on in the book. That’s fine when you’ve got oafish trolls or prim little hobbits. But a baker’s dozen of dwarfs stretched my abilities! You can read about my reading aloud adventures here.
In reading aloud I was really struck by the theme of providence in The Hobbit. I’m sure others have talked about it, but “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Chapter 5)” is a great example of that hand of guidance behind the scenes.
Hobbit and Art
I am fascinated by Tolkien’s own artwork. In some of the Tolkien letters we find out how his humble drawings came to be published with the children’s tale. I decided, though, that I wanted to explore it a little more, and so I wrote, “Drawing the Hobbit.”
There have been many other illustrators since–including Peter Jackson, whose work as a whole is visually stunning, even for those who don’t feel he was true to the books. One of my favourites was captured in this reblog, “Russian Medievalist Tolkien“–a gorgeous collection of Sergey Yuhimov’s interpretation of The Hobbit.
With the great new editions of unpublished Tolkien by his son, we also get to see some of Tolkien’s original art. I continue to be fascinated by this dragon drawing. What an evocation of the Würme in medieval literature!
I was also blessed throughout the year to wander through two beautiful and rich newish Tolkien books: John Garth‘s The World of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Bodleian Library exhibit text, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlywaine.
I would like to spend more time thinking about the speculative universes of J.R.R Tolkien. Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read Jubilare’s reblog of the Khazâd series. It’s just the first of a great series, but shows you a bit of the depth of Tolkien’s world behind the world. In reading up on the Wizards of Middle Earth–the Brown, the White, the Grey, and the two Blues–it struck me how relevant Radagast the Brown is to us today. I take some time here to put a comment that Lewis made about Tolkien’s work in the context of other speculative writers, especially J.K. Rowling.
You can also check out the work of people like the Tolkienist, the links on the Tolkien Transactions to catch what kinds of conversations are about these days, or the academic work of people like David Russell Mosley. And, of course, we are all interested in Tolkien’s work on Beowulf. I read it in 2017 for the free SignumU three-lecture class with Tom Shippey, which is now free on the SignumU youtube channel.
Let me add two posts from the Inklings and King Arthur series in Winter 2017. Prof. Ethan Campbell writes about “Wood-Woses: Tolkien’s Wild Men and the Green Knight,” and intertextuality expert Dale Nelson writes about “Tiny Fairies: J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Errantry’ and Martyn Skinner’s Sir Elfadore and Mabyna.” Beyond these, we are always on the lookout for new research. So check out the Signum University thesis theatre with Rob Gosselin. I chatted with Rob about his MA thesis on “J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sub-creative Vision: Exploring the Capacity and Applicability in Tolkien’s Concept of Sub-creation.” It’s not only a great conversation about world-building, but a very personal one.
And Just For Fun….
Well, before the fun but still interesting, I hope, is my post “Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien & Me: Thoughts on Grief.” Not super heavy on Tolkien, but we do know that Stephen Colbert is a fan. 2020 also saw two new pieces on Tolkien’s friendships. One was Pilgrim favourite Diana Glyer on The Babylon Bee, talking about “The Tolkien and Lewis Bromance.” The other piece on friendship is “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism,” a Paper by Justin Keena. This was the top guest post of 2020, and one of the few times a long, academic paper had gotten a lot of traction on A Pilgrim in Narnia. I think that is a testimonial to Justin’s work, but also a comment about how readers like that Lewis-Tolkien connection that I’ve brought out in some of those letter posts noted above.
For the fun…. Weirdly, the top 2019 Tolkien post is my note on “Philip Pullman as a Reader of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.” It’s short and light and good to get the blood-boiling.
Of course, some things are entirely meaningless, I will leave you with a quiz: What Character in the Hobbit Are You? You will not be surprised that I am Thorin Oakenshield! The LOTR Project is a great online source for all kinds of Tolkien geekery, by the way. The LOTR Project has some great connections to Sparrow Alden’s “Words That You Were Saying” digital humanities project.