[18 October 2012]
J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterworks, as his fans in the ‘60s learned from the appeal by the author on the back of the ubiquitous Ballantine paperbacks, were soon plagiarized by unscrupulous publishers. The massive amounts of notes and half-finished tales, edited by his son Christopher over the decades since the success of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, complicated the canon. Diligent guides such as Robert Foster’s The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, J.E.A. Tyler’s The Tolkien Companion and later Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle-Earth themselves found “complete” a misnomer as compilers encountered the fragmentary prequels and sequels within the original Tolkien’s archives published for an audience demanding more than The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales could provide half a generation after hippies sported buttons with “Frodo Lives”.
This diligent if attenuated legacy, shared by the fantasies and their exegeses, demonstrates Tolkien’s appeal. The Hobbit and especially LotR “core”, as Tyler agrees in his introduction, endure as the heart of the body of work. This extended in the later 20th century as Christopher Tolkien and colleagues restored in 12 volumes a Middle-Earth history. For Tyler, such efforts remain minor and tangential, as they often preceded the core texts, and left many areas half-explored, abandoned, or in contradiction to what the standard canon articulates.
As a ‘60s musician turned rock publicist, author of The Beatles: An Illustrated Record and I Hate Rock and Roll, the late “Tony” Tyler might have agreed with the analogy of demo tapes and studio outtakes abandoned only to be resurrected and restored for a core audience desperate for every scrap from their heroes or idols. Only when the archival material was conceived or executed after the LotR publication, or when earlier manuscripts have influenced the genesis of Unfinished Tales or The Silmarillion does Tyler enter such data. Those two volumes contain the gist of what Tolkien continued to work on, 60 years in Middle-Earth, and left incomplete at his death in 1973.
All the same, the publisher of this edition leaves it unclear how much this third release offers anything truly new. This may be clever marketing, recalling that bedeviled Tolkien in his copyright battles with pulp publishers in New York in the ‘60s. Intriguingly or ironically, this guidebook may spark similar confusion over what represents the author’s final intentions, given a devoted fan base.
Tyler’s second edition (The New Tolkien Companion, 1979) added 1,800 entries; we do not learn in this printing how many more definitions have been provided to his own, now posthumous, third edition. (Neither cover nor title page refer to this as such, but the foreword is titled accurately.) The date of the introduction for this “new” edition is not given, but Tyler died in 2006. He credits as appearing 23 years later (which corresponds to a roughly 2004 publication), due to popular demand, another revision incorporating what can be gleaned from the corpus, now quadrupled in size for him to digest from what in 1976 began as The Tolkien Companion (reissued 2000). Tyler defends as the ultimate source for his endeavor in his introduction (to this “Second St. Martin’s-Griffin edition” listed on the copyright page as October 2012 to anticipate the release of Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit on film, but seeming not to differ from an edition printed in 2004) his reliance on the “Master Volume”: LotR.
This seems a wise choice. At least one sharp-eyed reader of this book’s 1976 debut turned to the first three entries and disagreed with each. The third, for example, has been corrected. “Edain” is translated as “The Sacred People” and not as “Friend-of-Man”.
Another spot-check, in my copy of Foster, showed he prefers brevity, if partially to accommodate pagination references. Tyler avoids these. Texts refer to book and chapter in the few endnotes, making this more a work to be read for pleasure—if the entries full of dense detail and stately tone echo the source texts, understandably if rather boldly—than referred to for concordance or analysis.
Maps prove scarce and may resist clarity; the Atlas mentioned above supersedes them. Charts fare better, thanks to a trade paperback format and larger fonts. While this uneven production makes for an arguably less helpful resource than Foster or Fonstad, Tyler’s effort improves with a pleasant prose style and—despite his belated disclaimer for this third version—an underlying tone that relates Tolkien’s vision as shrouded both in antiquity and a faint if evanescent presence barely traceable down to our own earth. While this may dismay purists insisting on separating fantasy from reality, it adds to the verisimilitude of Tyler’s ambitious attempt to elucidate these core texts and their mythos.
Tyler’s compendium, over 700 pages in its own wandering evolution in successive and revised editions, has gained mixed reactions from Tolkien’s attentive coterie of critics. Whereas Foster’s slightly shorter A-to-Z reference includes textual citations, Tyler’s eschews these except for a handful of modest endnotes inserted after a chapter for each letter of the alphabet. Therefore, while Tyler’s volume flows better, more fluidly taking the tales as if relating an existing if very distant chronicle of misty events in another age, it may annoy sticklers.
All in all, from my perspective as a nearly lifelong admirer of Tolkien’s masterworks, this encourages a return to them. While I lack expertise of the expert fact-checkers of these venerable, distilled, precise (pre-)modern myths, Tyler’s good-natured acceptance of their genuine basis in a hint of real language, real territory, and real memory aligns with Tolkien’s own intentions, and those necessarily expected from any reader entering Middle-Earth, where belief may be not suspended but rewarded.