Hobbits, Elves and Wizards: The Wonders and Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” by Michael N. Stanton
There are very few better qualified to write an introductory book on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than Michael Stanton, a scholar who has studied and taught the trilogy for twenty-five years. He’s obviously a great fan of the book (that is, he does not seem to be simply trying to cash in on the recent popularity that the movies have caused) and writes in a simple, chatty style that is easy for most non-academics to understand. For those who are more experienced in reading essays and critiques, Hobbits, Elves and Wizards may come across as either too simplistic or repetitive, and I admit that there was very little here that I hadn’t already come across in more comprehensive essays on this subject.
But Stanton is well aware of this, and has no delusions about what it is that he’s writing — in fact, on many occasions he encourages other authors that go deeper into the text, and often apologises for his ‘bare-bones’ treatment of the subject. To like the author’s own voice makes up a great part of one’s enjoyment of these exploratory books, and there’s nothing pretentious or overtly opinionated in Stanton’s techniques.
In saying that however, this is a book for beginners to the world of Tolkien. Long time studiers or fanatical fans will know all this stuff already — and probably through their own readings of the book. Yet for those starting out, or those that need a helping hand in grasping the finer details of Tolkien’s great work, this is a readable and clear-cut ‘helpmeet’ to The Lord of the Rings.
In Part One of Hobbits, Elves and Wizards Stanton gives us a (very) brief biographical account of Tolkien’s life and his inspiration for the book, and the publishing history, followed by a chapter devoted to the geography, history and themes that make up Middle-Earth. The bulk of the book is taken up with accounts of the six books that make up the complete Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. This is perhaps the most interesting part (at least for me), as he explores the meanings and finer details of the chapters and the events and characters within them.
Part Two divides up the `species’ of Middle Earth and explores their cultures closer: Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Humankind (including Hobbits) and the forces of evil are all discussed separately, and then finally Tolkien’s use of language (undoubtedly the basis of the entire saga) and the use of dreams and spirituality throughout the story.
Lastly comes a chapter on the Peter Jackson version of The Fellowship of the Ring that is enthusiastically advertised by the publishers on the front cover: “includes a new essay on the first part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy!” As it turns out, this is the most unnecessary part of the book, and I couldn’t help but feel that Stanton was either coerced into doing this for the benefit of sales, or that it was simply a little ‘pet-project’ of his that he wanted to sneak in. As it is, it is not an ‘essay’ at all, but simply a list of opinions concerning the movie that verges into being a movie review. As you may have guessed, the absence of Tom Bombadil and the role of Arwen are mentioned, as are a few other little nitpicks, but at least Stanton appreciates Sean Bean’s role as Boromir, a performance that I believe is often overlooked by viewers.
He’s not afraid to criticise certain portions of the book (he points out that only three of five wizards sent to Middle Earth are identified, and that Tolkien puts the title of ‘oldest living thing in Middle Earth’ on two separate characters: Tom Bombadil and Treebeard), and to go against popular fan speculation (in his opinion the ‘unsung hero’ of the story is not Samwise Gamgee, but Prince Imrahil) but on the whole you can tell that he simply adores Tolkien’s work and has read it multiple times.
He also points out some interesting titbits that are obvious in hindsight, but which were overlooked by me in my own reading of Lord of the Rings, such as the fact that Pippin is the only character in the book to directly converse with Sauron.
It is not a thick book, nor a very deep one, but it is interesting nonetheless and would be valuable to those just beginning to explore Tolkien’s world. I’ve been exploring for a few years now, and I still found some interesting theories and explanations — but then I brought this book at the University’s book store for only two dollars, so I’m hardly going to take a harsh view of something brought so cheaply. Anyone well-versed in Tolkien’s universe has more comprehensive works to explore, but beginners are most welcome here.