David Day’s A Tolkien Bestiary may be the greatest companion book ever. Even if it’s not, it’s still my favorite. Day provides an overview of people, places, races, and Middle Earth’s history. Although Day explains why he refers to the work as a bestiary, I usually think of it as an awesome encyclopedia.
In A Tolkien Bestiary, readers can lose themselves for hours at a time. I have encountered this book in many places — classrooms, libraries, and, of course, my childhood bedroom when visiting my parents during the holidays. Each time that I see it, I can’t resist opening it, thinking to learn more about the Istari or Elrond or Strider. Then, I go on to spend the better part of an hour reading about Melkor or the Valar or Gollum.
To some extent, what makes A Tolkien Bestiary work best is the source material. J.R.R. Tolkien’s world still stands out for the depth of its invention, but there’s also something to be said for the way his novels were released — and weren’t, at least not at first. Unlike other fantasy series, many people have read The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings, but fewer read the other novels set in Middle Earth. Consequently, this companion can reveal a lot about Tolkien’s creations. Where did the dragons come from? What was it like when there was more than one balrog? So while, say, The World of Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time provides an overview of Randland, it doesn’t show much about the world that isn’t revealed in the novels.* Unlike in many other fantasies, I often look at the map of Middle Earth and, sighing, think, “There was still so much to do and to see.”
This may strike some readers as a sacrilege, but reading Day’s Bestiary often improves on the original books, which, for one thing, do not have access to the artists that Day relies on. Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights — which, I’ll note, are both cut from Jackson’s film adaptations — never really interested me when I first read the trilogy, but both seem far more interesting here. In the case of the Barrow Wights, it may simply be because they look totally epic. As for Tom Bombadil, I suspect that he’s just more interesting as a concept than as a character responsible for delivering dialogue.
And there are also great maps.
As a child, I often imagined that it would be cool to look at a photograph from an angle and see what was outside the boundary of the image. While that project never succeeded (at least not yet), A Tolkien Bestiary does allow readers to peek past the edges of Bilbo and Frodo’s adventures.
*Another complaint: I often felt that work would have been much greater if it had been The Travels of Jain Farstrider.