For some time I’ve had the intention of drawing up a list of what I consider to be the best books on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is, therefore, not a list of the best books by him but the best books about him. That said, I can’t help but begin by giving The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pride of place on the list. Even though it is really a book by Tolkien, rather than one on him, it’s simply indispensable for anyone wishing to know more about the background to the writing of The Lord of the Rings. All other books on the subject could not fill the vacuum that the absence of the Letters would constitute. Its omission would, therefore, be unthinkable.
And so to others.
Ralph C. Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien offers a good theological overview by a scholar whose corpus commands respect, as does Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision: Discerning the Holy in Middle-earth by Craig Bernthal, whose earlier book on Shakespeare, The Trial of Man: Christianity and Judgment in the World of Shakespeare also warrants high praise.
Tom Shippey’s Tolkien: Author of the Century is a robustly unapologetic defense of Tolkien’s work and legacy by arguably the finest Tolkien scholar of the past forty years. Another pioneering scholar who championed Tolkien’s work before Tolkien scholarship became the almost ubiquitous phenomenon that we see today is Verlyn Fleiger, whose Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World offers perceptive and penetrative insight into the linguistic dimension of Tolkien’s oeuvre.
The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft is essential reading for two very good reasons. The first reason is that it’s about Tolkien’s philosophy. The second reason is that anything by Peter Kreeft is essential reading!
John Garth’s Tolkien & the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth is excellent biographical scholarship combined with great critical perception regarding the connection between Tolkien’s experience in World War One and its influence on his work. Those wishing to explore this dimension further should also check out the great interview with Garth in the Tolkien theme issue (July/August 2016) of the St. Austin Review.
Stratford Caldecott’s Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien offers great spiritual and mystical insight into Tolkien’s world and, as with Kreeft, anything by Stratford Caldecott is worth reading.
Bradley J. Birzer’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth is an excellent book by an excellent scholar and gifted writer. As I wrote in my Foreword to this volume, “Professor Birzer combines his scholarship as a historian with his grounding in philosophy and theology to place Tolkien’s sub-creation in its proper sociopolitical and cultural context.” And, of course, Brad Birzer, like Stratford Caldecott, will need no introduction to followers of their writing here at The Imaginative Conservative.
Richard Purtill’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality and Religion is another superb piece of scholarship for which I was honoured to be asked to write the Foreword. Again, I can do no better than to quote what I had to say about this excellent volume upon its publication: “Purtill’s exposition of the role of heroic free-will in Middle-earth, and his masterful illumination of the mysteries of myth, magic and miracle, will delight the initiated and enlighten the newcomer to Tolkien’s world.”
Defending Middle-earth by Patrick Curry is, as its title suggests, a defence of Tolkien’s work and world from the arrogance and ignorance of modernity’s attitude towards them.
Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien by Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans should be essential reading for all those who are tempted to overlook Tolkien’s deep-seated and Franciscan love and respect for God’s Creation, a love and respect which illustrates how healthy lovers of Mother Earth can become tree-huggers without losing their mind in the nonsense of the New Age.
Those wishing to get seriously heavy in their study of Tolkien could do know better than to invest in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, edited by Michael D. C. Drout. This work is weighty in terms of its content but also in terms of the sheer physical size of the book itself! It also weighs in, at least in hardback, at a retail price of $240, though the paperback edition is considerably cheaper. Not for the faint-hearted!
At the other end of the spectrum, those looking for lighter fayre might enjoy Devin Brown’s Tolkien, or to give it the unabridged grandiloquence of its full title, Tolkien: How an Obscure Oxford Professor wrote The Hobbit and became the most beloved author of the century. Now that’s what I call a title! Ironically the book is itself on the short side, weighing in at a slender 140 or so pages. Professor Brown is, however, a popularizer and populist in the best sense of the word, making Tolkien’s work accessible without dumbing it down. It’s Tolkien delineated, not Tolkien diluted.
I also can’t resist including my own three books on Tolkien: Tolkien: Man & Myth, Bilbo’s Journey, and Frodo’s Journey, as well as the collection of scholarly essays that I edited, Tolkien: A Celebration. And whilst I’m being self-indulgent, I could also mention the four DVDs of the hour-long TV specials that I’ve done for EWTN and the eight-lecture courses on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit which I gave for Catholic Courses, which are available in both video or audio form. Enough! No more self-promotion! (At this point, the author is dragged off before inflicting upon the hapless reader his full bibliography …)