Understanding Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
Posted On September 22, 2021
Written by Dr. Keith Mathison, professor of systematic theology
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a class on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as an elective course in RBC’s Great Works department. This semester, I am teaching that course again. It was difficult to determine exactly which works to read and discuss, since The Lord of the Rings alone is a little over a thousand pages. However, reading a thousand pages of Tolkien is not like reading a thousand pages of Augustine, Aquinas, or Calvin, and with some careful thought, we were able to cover more of Tolkien’s work than originally anticipated.
We begin by working through the poem “Mythopoeia” and the essay “On Fairy-stories” to get our bearings and understand what Tolkien believed himself to be doing in the creation of this fantasy world. We then proceeded through The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings. We conclude the class by reading Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle, a story which I believe gives us insight into the way Tolkien saw his own life’s work.
In preparation for the course, I read and consulted a number of books and articles written about Tolkien and his work. It occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to share the most helpful of these works. If the popularity of Tolkien among our students is any indication of a broader trend in the church, then I cannot help but think there are others out there who might be interested in knowing where they could learn more. The following, then, are some of the works I found most helpful in better understanding the nature and purpose of Tolkien’s writing.
On Fairy-stories — This essay by Tolkien himself is indispensable for an understanding of Tolkien’s larger mythology. In it, he explains the nature and purposes of fantasy literature. It is available in several collections of Tolkien’s writings. The most helpful version is one edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien — The collection of Tolkien’s letters edited by Humphrey Carpenter is a gold mine of information. These letters span Tolkien’s entire life. They are all fascinating, but the letters written in response to the questions of fans are invaluable for understanding Middle-earth.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-earth — These two books by Tom Shippey provide a great introduction to Tolkien’s mythology. The Road to Middle-earth provides information on the background and sources that inspired Tolkien’s imagination. Author of the Century takes a close look at The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, focusing on the most important themes.
A Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien — This work is a collection of thirty-six scholarly essays on every aspect of Tolkien’s life and work. It contains essays on everything from the various sources that inspired Tolkien (e.g. Old English, Old Norse, Finnish, etc.) to various themes in his writings. The bibliographies at the end of each chapter are very helpful.
The Annotated Hobbit — This volume is a must-have for any fan of The Hobbit. The editor, Douglas Anderson, includes a wealth of information in the marginal notes about the characters, places, and events in the tale. He also explains many of the sources of Tolkien’s ideas.
Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit — This book by Corey Olsen is probably the best single-volume examination of the themes of The Hobbit. Let me say this. As one who was introduced to Tolkien through The Lord of the Rings, I always had a difficult time enjoying The Hobbit as much as I enjoyed LotR. Olsen’s book did more to help me finally enjoy The Hobbit than any other work I’ve read.
The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faërie — This book by Jonathan McIntosh is a dream come true for those who love theology, philosophy, and Tolkien. McIntosh examines the metaphysics of Tolkien’s invented world and argues that Tolkien was highly influenced in his thinking by Thomas Aquinas. It is a great way to introduce fans of fantasy literature to philosophy.
Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty — No study of Tolkien would be complete without an examination of how his works are intended to portray truth, goodness, and beauty. Lisa Coutras’ book is the first book-length scholarly examination of the theme of beauty in Middle-earth.
The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion — Imagine that someone produced an edition of The Lord of the Rings that included extensive notes at the bottom of each page explaining certain things found on that page (much like a study Bible). Imagine that the notes are written by two of the top Tolkien scholars alive today. Now imagine that someone took those notes and published them in a separate volume. That is what this book is. It is extremely helpful.
Last, but not least, there are a few volumes in Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume History of Middle Earth set that include material every Tolkien fan should read (I say this knowing that few will ever read all twelve volumes).
The Lost Road and Other Writings — Of particular interest in this volume is the 1937 version of the Quenta Silmarillion, the version of The Silmarillion as it existed when Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings. One revealing comparison is of the ending of this version of Tolkien’s Silmarillion with the published version edited by his son, Christopher.
Sauron Defeated — This volume contains an epilogue to The Lord of the Rings that didn’t make the final editorial cut in the published version. The events in the Epilogue take place some 15 years after Frodo departs from the Grey Havens. Sam is reading to his children. They ask him many questions, and he attempts to answer those questions. It’s a moving work.
Morgoth’s Ring — This volume contains the Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, a discussion between an elf king named Finrod and a human woman named Andreth. In the discussion, these two talk about the metaphysical differences between elves and men, the nature of death and immortality, and the ultimate future of both elves and men. Tolkien intended it to be included as an Appendix to The Silmarillion, and I believe it was a mistake to leave it out. I believe that when this debate is read alongside the original ending of the Quenta Silmarillion, we gain great insight into Tolkien’s ultimate purposes in the writings of these works.
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.
Read Other Articles Written by Dr. Keith Mathison: