Book Review: ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth’

There are times in life when you meet nerdy enthusiasts whose speech and mannerisms make you promise to never stoop to such depths of nerdy obsession yourself—only to later realize you merely needed the right book to pull you in. This is what happened to me when I first read The Lord of the Rings in high school; it has happened to me many times since. Through book series such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and The Song of Ice and Fire, I have long been a member of that global community of readers who relish immersion in other worlds. That sense of immersive enjoyment has always been strongest for me when reading the works of Tolkien, so it is no surprise that my obsession with his genius only deepened when I finished Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth.

From academic essays and drawings to manuscripts and handwritten notes, the book is a whopping 416 pages of heavy duty paper detailing Tolkien’s life and imagination. It begins with essays about his key interests, such as his invention of the Elvish language and his theories of Faerie; it then presents chapters on his life and his major works, beginning with The Silmarilion (which he began well before his best-known stories) and ending with his labor over The Lord of the Rings. While the essays are written by what you might call “Tolkien scholars”, most of the book consists of content produced by Tolkien himself. The book’s editor, Catherine McIlwaine, who works as the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian Library from which much of the content is sourced, has collected and organized the material for us in a superior manner, and is the insightful author of the book’s annotations.

Simply put, the entire volume is (to me) worth twice its cost. In addition to the well-documented facets of Tolkien’s life and work, you’ll get a deeper look into obscure minutiae about his creative mind. Perhaps most noteworthy of all is the sheer range of his visual art. Many readers will of course recognize the pictures that became book covers for The Hobbit and LOTR, but there are the dozens of other pieces he produced: drawings of Elvish heraldry, sprawling landscapes, vivid water colors, and doodles in the margins of newspapers. Tolkien was one of those rare individuals who wove his pictures into and around his fiction like vines around a trellis.

Indeed, one aspect of his art which I never fully appreciated until now was his talent for calligraphy. It is well known that Tolkien loved words and language, and much attention in the book is devoted to his invention of Quenya and Sindarin, the two elvish languages which form the backdrop of his legendarium. But if I had to guess, his fondness for fonts and letters is much less appreciated. Seeing the care he took to write balanced, elegant script in his drafts and final productions, I got this impression that he was singing a song with his letters, incorporating them into the music of his stories like a medieval scribe illustrating the Bible. His stories of Father Christmas were written in beautiful script to his children. There is one dated in the year 1932, that is exceptionally detailed and rich (page 257). His manuscript ‘Of Beren and Tinuviel’ is like a page straight out of a medieval codex. The manuscript titled ‘Lines relating to Smaug and to Elrond’ (page 230) is adorned with such graceful, authentic characters that you might think it was an actual Anglo-Saxon myth that Tolkien merely happened to stumble upon. Other noteworthy examples include the King’s Letter written in Elvish script and the dust jacket designs which Tolkien submitted to his publisher when LOTR was at last complete. Even his bloody account book (page 148) has the touch of a professional designer!

Dust jacket design for The Fellowship of the Ring. Try making your own version of the flaming red script surrounding the ring, and you’ll get a sense of the time, skill, and balance involved. Source:

Then there are Tolkien’s fan letters, which he received from such figures as Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson; and Margrethe, princess of Denmark. I simply never knew the breadth of them. The only disappointing thing to realize is that he spent so much time responding to these letters, sometimes launching long investigations into his own fictional history, that it cost him precious hours he could have invested in his creative work. McIlwaine in fact suggests this as one of several reasons why he didn’t generate so much original content in his lifetime. Then again, who’s to say that was always such a bad thing? Maybe those breaks helped him along.

(In this vein, I find it so interesting that Alan Jacobs, a biographer of CS Lewis with extensive knowledge of the life of Tolkien, wrote a fictional conversation in which Tolkien states: “I fritter the day away, putting off anything I can put off — I even answer letters, sometimes at great length, if that keeps me from whatever I’m supposed to be doing. Though sometimes I write long letters and then never send them. If I get around to my work at all, it’s often only after Edith is asleep. For years and years my writing workday began after I put my children to bed.”)

And of course there are his maps. Oh, Tolkien’s maps. Map after map of the Shire, Gondor, Rohan, Mordor. Maps drawn with the utmost precision on graph paper, covered with plot notes, and worn and faded with frequent use. With characteristic perfectionism, Tolkien relied heavily on gridlines and coherent scales, and ensured that his narrative descriptions matched the meticulously measured geography of Middle Earth. You could spend hours staring at the maps, for, as McIlwaine put it, “The many layers of emendations in different coloured inks and coloured pencil provide a fascinating glimpse into Tolkien’s creative process” (page 400).

I was so taken with this book that I borrowed books from the library on drawing and calligraphy. I even showed Tolkien’s pictures to my children, one of whom tried her hand at copying the elvish heraldry. It was nerdiness turned up to 11.

That’s the beauty of falling in love with a book and its author so much that you study creative processes behind them: You get that rush of inspiration for how to put a pencil to your own paper. Maybe what you create is absolutely clumsy and banal (my sketches certainly are), but who cares? You are simply enjoying the act of making, and that’s a pleasure worth pursuing in itself.

One thought on “Book Review: ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth’

  1. “Maybe what you create is absolutely clumsy and banal (my sketches certainly are), but who cares? You are simply enjoying the act of making, and that’s a pleasure worth pursuing in itself.”

    Bravo! 🥀


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