F.A.Q.
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Tolkien’s Mythology

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Do Balrogs have wings? Can they fly?

Although visual artists almost always depict Balrogs with wings, a reader of Tolkien is usually less convinced. In the ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ Tolkien merely says the Balrog “stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall” (p. 330). There is no further mention of the wings as it plunges down into the abyss, or later when Gandalf describes his long fight with the Balrog. Tolkien’s description may just be a way of saying that the Balrog’s shadow seemed to take the shape of wings, because if it did possess wings, you would expect it to flap them when plummeting down into Moria, or use them in its battle with Gandalf on the mountain top.

When drafts of The Silmarillion were published in Morgoth’s Ring it was discovered that Tolkien wrote of Balrogs: “swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.” (p. 297). Again, at a first glance it may seem as if real wings are implied, but it’s also possible that “winged speed” is used in a metaphorical sense. Overall it is impossible to categorically say if Balrogs have wings or not, so it is up to each individual reader to decide.

[page references are to The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004; Morgoth’s Ring, 2002 UK paperback]

Is Legolas blonde or dark?

Throughout the whole of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien never describes the colour of Legolas’s hair, or many other members of the Fellowship for that matter. Legolas’s father, the Woodland King, in The Hobbit (later revealed to be called Thranduil) is described as golden-haired, so Legolas may have taken after him. At one point in the chapter ‘The Great River’ Tolkien mentions “his [Legolas’s] head was dark” (p. 387) against the sky, but as this was during the night it certainly doesn’t help determine Legolas’s hair colour. In Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings it is explicitly stated that the elves were “tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finarfin” (p. 1137). However, this apparent clear statement was contradicted by the publication of The Book of Lost Tales in 1983. According to a passage in there the facial and dark hair characteristics were assigned to the Noldor. In summary, Legolas’s hair colour cannot be determined by reading Tolkien’s texts, it is another matter on which the reader is free to make up their own mind.

[page references are to The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004]

Who was Tom Bombadil?

Since The Lord of the Rings was published many readers have been intrigued by Tom Bombadil. When Frodo asks Goldberry who Tom is, and she replies “he is” (p. 124); some readers have assumed he is God, or Tolkien’s equivalent, Eru. Tolkien invented Tom Bombadil prior to 1934, basing Tom’s physical characteristics on one of his children’s Dutch doll. Tom first came to life in an oral tale before appearing in a poem published in the Oxford Magazine. Tolkien originally added him to the narrative of his emerging “New Hobbit” sequel because he was already in existence and he needed to give his Hobbits an adventure on the way. Before Tolkien even started to write The Lord of the Rings he informed his publishers that Tom Bombadil was the “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside” (Letter 19, p. 26). Although Tolkien is on record as stating he heartily disliked allegory, there is evidence that he could write allegorically when the occasion arose – e.g. Leaf by Niggle.

Tom himself declares he is “eldest” and that he “was here before the river and the trees…Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn” (p. 131). This probably indicates that Tom entered the world at the same time as the Ainur, when they arrived to begin shaping the world in accord with the vision they had witnessed in the Music of the Creation. This hypothesis leads to the possibility that Bombadil may be one of the Maiar, but he decided to remain in Middle-earth rather than to take up his abode in Valinor. It is difficult to be entirely conclusive about Bombadil’s nature because Tolkien said that he deliberately included Tom as an intentional enigma.

[page references are to The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004]

Who is older, Tom Bombadil or Treebeard?

Readers have noted that Gandalf says that Treebeard is “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth” (p.499), and Celeborn calls Treebeard “eldest” (p.981). Although it is possible Celeborn may have been using the word more as a courtesy title than a statement of literal fact, Gandalf’s remarks seem harder to counter. However, Christopher Tolkien with ample justification has said on other matters that his father was fond of making hyperbolic statements, and this may be the case here. Perhaps Tolkien had forgotten that he’d used the adjective “eldest” for both Tom Bombadil and Treebeard.

There can be no doubt that Treebeard is old, but even he admits there are trees in Fangorn older than himself. However, when Tolkien refers to him as eldest he must mean that he is the oldest walking and talking sentient being in Fangorn. At one point Treebeard says that there are only three Ents left of those who walked in the woods before the Darkness. This must refer to the Darkness which entered into the world with Morgoth. However, Bombadil was present before the first acorn, which must predate the woods before the Darkness. Therefore, although it is difficult to be certain of Tom’s origins it is possible to argue with more certainty that Tom Bombadil is indeed the eldest of all the inhabitants of Middle-earth.

[page references are to The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004]

Is the Glorfindel in The Lord of the Rings the same as the one in Silmarillion?

Yes. The answer to this question was hotly debated by fans for nearly two decades, but when the Peoples of Middle-earth was published in 1996 it became possible to give a definitive answer. In The Silmarillion, Glorfindel is slain fighting a Balrog during the Fall of Gondolin. When writing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien simply reused the name, and the characteristics, of the earlier character from the as-yet-unpublished narrative. Much later in life Tolkien wrote two essays on Glorfindel: in these he came to the conclusion that the two Glorfindels were indeed one and the same. After death, Glorfindel’s spirit went to the Halls of Mandos where he was healed but ultimately he was re-embodied and returned to Middle-earth, probably in the Second Age. In one text Glorfindel is even said to have returned at a similar time to the Blue Wizards, however, unlike them, he was sent to aid Elrond in the war in Eriador.

What is known of the other Two Wizards?

In the chapter ‘The Voice of Saruman’ in The Two Towers, when Saruman argues with Gandalf he refers to “the Rods of the Five Wizards”; and as readers know about Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast they have often speculated as to who the other two Istari were. Interested fans had to wait for the publication of Unfinished Tales in 1980. When Tolkien was working on the index to The Lord of the Rings in the summer of 1954 he produced an essay on the Istari – in that, Tolkien states: “of the Blue [wizards] little is known in the West” (p. 390/504). Tolkien went on to say that they went East with Saruman, but they never returned and their ultimate fate is not known. However, in more hastily-written jottings the Ithryn Luin [Blue Wizards] are both said to be followers of Oromë and are individually named as Alatar and Pallando. (p. 393/508)

When assembling Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien was unable to decipher all of his father’s writings on this subject, but after longer study for The Peoples of Middle-earth he was able to discern another note. This states that the Wizards’ names were Morinehtar and Rómestámo (pp. 384-5). They came to Middle-earth in the Second Age, possibly with Glorfindel, but unlike him their mission was to stir up rebellion amongst men against Sauron in the dark East. Apparently, in contradiction to what is written elsewhere that they failed in their mission, in this note they were successful in the Second and Third Ages in diluting the forces which would have supported Sauron. Without their assistance Sauron’s forces in the War of the Ring may well have overwhelmed and outnumbered the forces of the West.

[page references: Unfinished Tales 1980/1998 UK paperback editions; Peoples of Middle-earth, 2002 UK paperback]

Do Tolkien’s Elves and Hobbits have pointed ears?

Yes, they do. Tolkien doesn’t often dwell on describing the minute physical details of his characters, so it is possible to read The Lord of the Rings and his other writings without noticing that either Elves or Hobbits have pointed ears. However, in a 1938 letter (No. 27, p. 35) to his American publishers Tolkien says Hobbits have “a round, jovial face; [with] ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish.’” From this it is clear that Elvish ears were more obviously pointed. This was confirmed when The Lost Road was published in 1987. In the Etymologies under the first definition of ‘LAS’, which is the element in lasse meaning ‘leaf’, there is this note: “The Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than [?human]” (p.368).

[page references: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981 & 2006; The Lost Road, 2002 UK paperback]

Do Hobbits have big feet? Are they fat?

No, Hobbits don’t have big feet. Mr. Proudfoot (and no doubt his family) has large feet (for a Hobbit) (and both were on the table) but no other Hobbit is described as having big feet. The idea that Hobbits have big feet seems to have begun with the Brothers Hildebrant, who did numerous popular illustrations in the 1960s and 1970s. They also showed Dwarves with very large feet. Tolkien did not.

The main description of Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings is in the Prologue:

“For they are a little people, smaller than Dwarves; less stout and stocky, that is, even when they are not actually much shorter. Their height is variable, ranging between two and four feet of our measure … Bandobras Took … was four foot five and able to ride a horse. He was surpassed in all Hobbit records only by two famous characters of old.”

That story is told in The Lord of the Rings. Ironic then that poor Merry was left behind by the Théoden because he wasn’t large enough to ride one of their war-horses. Merry eventually grew taller than Bandobras (possibly in revenge for being left behind by Théoden). (No: it was the Entdraught that did it, and Pippin grew too.)

Tolkien goes on:

” … they seldom wore shoes, since their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads …”

And further:

“The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble … the Stoors were broader, heavier in build; their feet and hands were larger … the Fallohides were fairer of skin and also of hair, and they were taller and slimmer than the others …”

And he says “The Harfoots … were the most normal and representative variety of Hobbit” and also the most settled. The four Hobbits of the Fellowship appear to have been Harfoots with (in the case of Merry, Pippin and Frodo at least) some Fallohide ancestry.

Humans who go barefoot all their lives often develop feet wider and stronger than modern feet, but not feet which are abnormally long (or rubber). The quartermasters of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films could have saved the cost, and the fitting time, and the discomfort to the actors of all those rubber feet and invested in some good curly wigs for the actors’ feet instead!

As for being stout, Tolkien says often that the Hobbits enjoyed eating and drinking. People who do hard physical work (like farming) can eat lots without becoming fat. The average Hobbit however appears to have been at least well-covered. “Fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg”, remarks Tolkien in Letter 27. But they were not always stout. Like humans, they were inclined to expand as they got older. In Rivendell (‘Many Meetings’), Frodo finds that “Looking in a mirror he was startled to see a much thinner reflection of himself than he remembered: it looked remarkably like the young nephew of Bilbo who used to go tramping with his uncle in the Shire …” Frodo, who is middle-aged, has been getting stout, but he soon thins down again when he starts walking. (And running.)

Pippin says to Bergil son of Beregond in Minas Tirith, “I am nearly twenty-nine … though I am but four feet, and not likely to grow any more, save sideways.” Pippin is young – somewhat like a twenty-year-old human – and clearly expects to be broader when older. He was wrong about growing upwards, though (see above, Entdraught).

It is a tradition among film-makers and some illustrators to make Sam Gamgee fat. In the story, Sam is never called fat, and as a young Hobbit (and a hard worker) is probably fitter than any of them. Pauline Baynes’s illustration of the Fellowship, done while Tolkien was alive, shows all four hobbits of much the same build. In the The Two Towers film, Gollum calls Sam “stupid fat hobbit” (which always gets a laugh). In the book, Gollum calls Sam cross, rude, nasty, suspicious, not nice and Nasssty. And silly (several times), along with “thinking him” stupid and slow (wrongly, as it happens). But never fat.

Why make Sam fat? It could be “Watsonisation”. In Sherlock Holmes movies (not in the books), Dr. Watson is sometimes made into a stout, bumbling fool, apparently for a low-cost laugh. (Sean Astin, who plays Sam in the movies, was told by his agent to put on weight or the part would go to “a fat guy in England”, rumoured to be comedian Johnny Vegas. Fine comedian though Vegas is, it’s a scary thought that Peter Jackson might have seen in him the image of Sam Gamgee. However, Sean dutifully put on weight and remarked to one interviewer that he stopped when he realised that PJ would be happy for him to go on getting fatter indefinitely. The movie does not explain why their Sam is more or less the same size when he leaves Hobbiton and when he reaches Mouth Doom after some weeks of semi-starvation.) However, the makers of the films may have made Sam stout, but at least they haven’t made him a fool.

Are there any female Orcs?

Yes, although the depiction of Orc reproduction at Isengard in the Peter Jackson films has created rather a strange impression of Orcs being bred in pods. The original readers of The Lord of the Rings were not much more enlightened. Some readers have assumed from Gandalf’s comment “I must rest here for a moment, even if all the orcs ever spawned are after us” (p. 327), that Orc reproduction was akin to that of spawning fish. However, too much has been read into Gandalf’s remark uttered under extreme duress after a mental duel with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Later, at the battle of the Hornburg Gamling refers to half-orcs and goblin-men, and subsequently Aragorn also mentions half-orcs at Isengard. These remarks, if Gamling and Aragorn are correct, imply that Orcs had similar reproductive qualities to mankind.

Confirmation comes in a single phrase in The Silmarillion which says “the orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar” (Chapter 3, p. 50). A lot more information may be gleaned from an essay reproduced in the ‘Myths Transformed’ section of Morgoth’s Ring (pp. 418-19). This reveals that under Morgoth Men could be made to mate with Orcs, producing larger and more cunning breeds. Saruman rediscovered this and did the same resulting in larger cunning Men-orcs and treacherous and vile Orc-men. Incidentally, during the course of this essay Tolkien reveals that Orcs were not immortal, on the contrary they were short-lived in comparison with men of higher race, such as the Edain (p. 418).

Tolkien doesn’t describe any female Orcs in the published texts, but in a 1963 letter, which came up for sale in 2002, he did refer to the subject in his reply to a Mrs Munby. Tolkien said “there must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.”
[page references: The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004; The Silmarillion, 1977; Morgoth’s Ring, 2002]

Why didn’t the Eagles just take the ring straight to Mount Doom?

This question has become more prevalent in recent years after movie-goers saw the Eagles’ dramatic rescue of Gandalf from Orthanc and the Ringbearers from Mount Doom with no apparent motivation forthcoming for their appearances. However, Tolkien was aware of this question at an early stage, especially after reading the first film storyline for The Lord of the Rings in 1957. In that according to Tolkien “people gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation” (Letter No. p. 261). He knew for the strength of the story that they should be used sparingly.

In Tolkien’s mythology Eagles are the servants of the Lord of the Valar, Manwë. In the Silmarillion they were sent by Manwë to spy on Morgoth’s stronghold Thangorodrim, and guard Gondolin against Morgoth’s servants, and they played a part trying to protect the Elves during the fall of Gondolin. The Eagles already had a prescribed role, so they were not always at the beck and call of Gandalf.

Another point worth considering is that an Eagle of the size capable of carrying a tall humanoid would be an obvious target for both Orc archers and the flying Nazgûl. On a mission in which secrecy was a key element employing a giant Eagle to carry the ring is not the most sensible option.
Of course the ultimate answer to someone asking this question, is to reply that if the Eagles had just taken the ring to Mount Doom, then there wouldn’t be a story, and who would want that?

[page references are to Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1981 & 2006]

Which order should I read Tolkien’s books in?

People often wonder whether they should read Tolkien’s works in Middle-earth time or in the order published. Those familiar with Tolkien would generally recommend the latter as this reflects Tolkien’s finished and then partly-finished ideas in order.

  1. The Hobbit
  2. The Lord of the Rings
  3. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (if you like the poems)
  4. The Silmarillion
  5. Unfinished Tales
  6. The History of Middle-earth series
  7. The Children of Húrin

There is no disgrace in giving up any time you’ve had enough. Tolkien only finished The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (and the Tom Bombadil poems) for publication in his lifetime. The stories of The Simarillion were largely written, but not completed as a single work. His son, Christopher Tolkien, later edited the manuscripts for publication in accordance with his father’s wishes.

The History of Middle-earth series, which comprise earlier drafts, working notes, items such as language essays and draft maps, and some complete excerpts or tales written in detail, are published in order of the original writing. This began around 1917 with the ‘Books of Lost Tales’, working through the genesis of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, to Tolkien’s ideas in the 1970s at the end of his life. The Histories will be of great interest if you don’t mind variant versions and pages of notes.

To integrate The History of Middle-earth (HoME) series in the order of Middle-earth time, roughly, read HoME 1-5 (omitting HoME 3 if you are not keen on epic blank verse), then 10-12, then 6-8 and the first half of 9, then The Lord of the Rings and then the second half of HoME 9. This will take a long time and a good memory. You should insert The Silmarillion after books 1-5, Unfinished Tales before books 6-8 and The Hobbit somewhere in the middle of Unfinished Tales. Complicated! This is why people recommend reading Tolkien’s books in order of publication.

I’m having trouble getting into The Silmarillion. Have you got any tips?

There is no doubt after the relative simplicity of the prose in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, the rather more severe, ‘biblical’ style of The Silmarillion can be an unfamiliar jolt for some readers.

There are several possible remedies:

  1. Omit the first two sections and start reading ‘Of the Beginning of Days’. When you’ve finished the book, go back and read those two missed sections: ‘Ainulindalë’ and ‘Valaquenta’.
  2. Write brief notes on the characters mentioned and consult the family trees at the rear of the book.
  3. If you have read The Lord of the Rings go back to just before the attack on Weathertop and read Strider’s summary of the story of Beren and Lúthien (p. 210). Then, go straight to the chapter ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ in The Silmarillion.
  4. Read The Children of Húrin, which is almost written in the same depth and style as The Lord of the Rings but is an expanded version of the same basic story as ‘Of Túrin Turambar’.
  5. Some readers find the style of The Silmarillion hard to get used to. Try reading the final section, “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”. This summarises some of the events of The Lord of the Rings but is written in the same style as The Silmarillion.
  6. If you are still encountering problems, get a copy of Unfinished Tales and read ‘Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin’, which is a part of a story from The Silmarillion but written in the same style and depth as The Lord of the Rings.
  7. Several people have found that listening to Martin Shaw’s unabridged reading of The Silmarillion helps them to go on and read the book themselves.

Most of all persevere because you will be rewarded for all your hard work with some marvellous epic tales!

[page references are to The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary Edition, 2004]

Can I learn to speak or write Elvish?

There are parts of the languages worked out quite thoroughly, but not a complete grammar. Tolkien himself said that he did not have the urge to converse in Elvish, which was just as well because he did not make enough to converse in, except perhaps about stars, trees and death. However, he wrote poems in various Elvish languages, and recited them for his pleasure, and also some phrases like the Elvish greeting that Frodo greets Gildor with, elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo (a star shines on the hour of our meeting). Some language enthusiasts write short poems in elvish for much the same reason. He made many different dialects of Elvish, and kept changing them (this is what he liked doing). There is less of the other languages, although there is quite a bit of Adûnaic (Númenórean) grammar in Sauron Defeated.

The first place to start with Tolkien’s languages is Appendix E and Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King), where the languages are described, the Tengwar and Cirth letters are described, and a guide to pronunciation is given. There is some additional information plus Tolkien’s own examples of written script in The Road Goes Ever On, a book of music, along with a CD of some of Tolkien’s songs.

Jim Allen’s An Introduction to Elvish is old but still the only substantial book on the subject. Ruth Noel’s The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a sketchier and less accurate guide but is a starting point. We have also in our Peter Roe Booklet series a concise Sindarin word list compiled by Ken Chaij, which can be useful as a reference for someone who has already read The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices. The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship has two journals devoted to Tolkien’s languages, Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar. These often include previously unpublished material from Tolkien’s papers, and they have been produced with assistance from Christopher Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien regarded his invented languages as a pleasure, a study and an art all his life. They were his own work, drawn from knowledge that he gradually built up over 70 years. He did not approach his art as an obsession or a battlefield. A man of strong opinions, he nevertheless strove to establish peace and reconciliation in his academic roles. He aimed to understand in depth, and respected the work of others.

“I am doing a term paper. Tell me all about J.R.R. Tolkien.”

The authorised biography, and one of the earliest is still one of the most thorough and is very readable: Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography. This should be supplemented by The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter (and Christopher Tolkien). For more details of Tolkien’s early life, his experience during World War 1, and the development of his mythology the best source is Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. The chronology produced by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond for their J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide tracks Tolkien’s life and career almost on a daily basis. Some family photographs are reproduced in the charming The Tolkien Family Album by John and Priscilla Tolkien.

If you are interested in Tolkien’s art the best books are Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull’s Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and The Art of the Hobbit. If you are studying Tolkien at a higher level Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth is an essential starting point. Have a look at our Books about Tolkien page for a more exhaustive list of suggestions.

Can I read books which inspired Tolkien?

Two enterprising publishers have recently introduced dedicated ranges of specific books designed to appeal to readers interested in Tolkien’s inspirations.

Five titles are available from Penguin Books with thorough introductions under the byline Legends from the Ancient North:

  • Beowulf – a verse translation by Michael Alexander
  • The Elder Edda – translated by Andy Orchard
  • The Saga of the Volsungs – translated by Jesse L. Byock
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – translated by Bernard O’Donoghue
  • The Wanderer: Elegies, Epics, Riddles – translated by Michael Alexander

Meanwhile Tolkien’s Bookshelf have put together less academic editions. These contain late nineteenth-century texts which may have been known to Tolkien. Several are also illustrated by the most popular contemporary illustrations of the time, and all are introduced by fantasy author Cecilia Dart-Thornton. The full list is:

  1. The Song of the Nibelungs by William Macdougall, illustrated by Margaret Armour
  2. The Poetic Edda translated by Olive Bray, illustrated by William Gershom Collingwood
  3. The Story of the Glittering Plain by William Morris, illustrated by Walter Crane
  4. The Red Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, illustrated by Henry Justice Ford
  5. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith
  6. The Saga of Eric Brighteyes by H. Rider Haggard, illustrated by Lancelot Speed
  7. The Dragon Ouroboros by E.R. Edison, illustrated by Keith Henderson
  8. The Book of Wonder and the Last Book of Wonder by Lord Dunsany, illustrated by S.H. Sime
  9. The Story of King Arthur and his Knights written and illustrated by Howard Pyle
  10. Grimm’s Fairy Tales translated by Lucy Crane, illustrated by Walter Crane

Why is J.R.R. Tolkien so popular?

This is a difficult question. At the turn of the millennium The Lord of the Rings was voted first in a poll conducted by Waterstone’s to find the book of the century. This ‘shock result’ was later confirmed by polls conducted by both the Folio Society and the BBC’s Big Read campaign (2003). Tolkien was a good writer, and he understood how language works from the inside out. He wrote about fantastical beings in such detail, and placed his characters in believable settings and situations that makes his narratives acceptable to almost all open-minded imaginative readers. He provides a lot of background to what he writes, people find that the story of The Lord of the Rings echoes all sorts of dilemmas that belong to the present day as well as the world of the imagination. There is also a belief among some that Tolkien’s environmental concerns chimed with the counter-culture revolution from the 1960s onwards. Tom Shippey tackles Tolkien’s popularity in his book Author of the Century, which argues for Tolkien’s literary value – merits which have often been denied by the literary establishment.

Did J.R.R. Tolkien win any awards for his books?

Tolkien won few awards during his lifetime. Awards for books were not so commonplace as they are today and, even today, awards rarely spot a classic in the making.

In April 1938, The Hobbit won a prize, awarded by the New York Herald Tribune, for the best juvenile (i.e. written for children) story of the season. (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 28.)

In 1957, The Lord of the Rings won the International Fantasy Award at the 15th World Science Fiction Convention. As a point of historical interest, this award preceded the “boom sales” of the 1960s, and led to film-maker Forrest Ackerman showing an interest in adapting the story for the screen. (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 202.) It is not true, as has sometimes been suggested, that the book was obscure until it was released in US paperback.

Tolkien said that he thought the rocket statuette “absurd”, but the speeches at the convention “far more intelligent”. He kept the statuette, which is still in the family’s possession.

The Hobbit was awarded the Keith Barker Millennium Book Award Winner presented in 2000 by the Youth Libraries Group, School Library Association and Library Association Schools Library Group for the most significant children’s book published between 1920 and 1939. This medal, a one-off award in memorial of librarian Keith Barker, was awarded under the aegis of CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, awarders of the UK’s prestigious Carnegie Medal.

The Hobbit did not win the Carnegie in its year of publication, losing narrowly to The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett. Eve Garnett’s book, excellent though it was at the time, is little remembered now.

The Hobbit was also named “Most Important 20th-Century Novel (for Older Readers)” in the Children’s Books of the Century poll conducted by the US publication Books for Keeps.

The Silmarillion won the Locus Award for 1997. Locus is a respected US industry publication for Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing.

J.R.R. Tolkien recorded in his essay ‘English and Welsh':

“… the only prize I ever won (there was only one other competitor) [was] the Skeat Prize for English at Exeter College …”

He spent the prize money on books about Medieval Welsh.

Personal awards:

On the academic front, Tolkien never “took a PhD.” as we now sometimes say – he was too busy working professionally on the kind of stuff people normally do PhDs on – but he was awarded a Doctorate of Letters (D. Litt.) and Philosophy by the University of Liege in Belgium in 1954 and similarly a D. Litt by the University of Dublin in Ireland that same year. In both cases this was for his contribution to his field of philology and medieval literature in general, and his services to the universities in particular as a contributing examiner and researcher.

(This was not of course for his fiction. The Lord of the Rings had only just begun to be published, although he noted with some bemusement that in Belgium he was also welcomed by the faculty as “the creator of Monsieur Bilbo Baggins”, as The Hobbit had been out since 1937 and was quite well known.)

In 1972, the year before his death, J.R.R. Tolkien was honoured as a C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his contribution to literature, and also (probably even more important to him) awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by Oxford University for his contribution to philology. To the end of his days, Tolkien never applied for a PhD, although he had done work at that level many times over, and held three Professorial chairs in his life.

In Great Britain, the title “Professor” accompanies a specific and senior academic position, or Chair, rather than a regular senior or tenured teaching post.

Why was Tolkien given the unusual third name Reuel?

In Letters 309, Tolkien writes: “This was (I believe) the surname of a friend of my grandfather. The family believed it to be French (which is formally possible); but if so it is an odd chance that it appears twice in the O[ld] T[estament] as an unexplained other name for Jethro Moses’ father in law. All my children, and my children’s children, and their children, have the name.”

Tolkien’s father Arthur also bore the name, so the grandfather in question was John Benjamin Tolkien, who gave it to him (but did not bear it himself). It is not clear why the family was so attached to the name, and it appears from Tolkien’s comments that he had no clear answer, either.

The Oxford Dictionary of First Names by Hanks and Hodges gives “m. Biblical name (meaning ‘friend of God’ in Hebrew) borne by a character mentioned in a genealogy.” Withycombe in The Oxford Book of English Christian Names (loosely applied) doesn’t mention it at all, which implies that it was not in historical use as a forename in England. Reaney and Wilson in A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford) lists the form Revel, which is from a French name Revel(l) and variants (one of which is Reuel), from the Old French for a sportsman, reveller or rebel, ultimately from the Latin for a rebel.

Therefore the Biblical Reuel (if Hebrew) and the French Revel are two different and unrelated names, and either is a possibility. If a surname, then Revel would be the correct form, and Reuel (from the 11th century) one of those odd spellings which results from writing u as ‘v’ or vice versa. As Tolkien says nothing about whether his grandfather was Biblically inclined, or had a friend named Revel (or Reuel), possibly whose handwriting wasn’t very clear, we are none the wiser about the name.

The family used the pronunciation “ROO-el”.

A correspondent to our website who gave the name (independently) to one of her children adds: “the Jewish faith does hold that if you are the namesake of a person, your good deeds are counted to him as well, so it is interesting that perhaps this friend [of Tolkien’s grandfather] was special enough to gain the good deeds of the whole Tolkien line!”

The Tolkien family at that time were ordinarily devout Christian Protestants, but the naming of a child for a relative or friend is often intended as a tribute or spiritual tie, so the namesake was probably someone of importance to John Benjamin Tolkien. Beyond this, the reason for this unusual name is a mystery.

Will The Silmarillion be adapted into a film or television series?

No. Or at least, not any time soon. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have, of course, been adapted a number of times on screen. This was made possible in 1969 when a deal was agreed between Tolkien’s publishers (Allen & Unwin) and United Artists, who purchased the film rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Film rights to The Silmarillion have never been sold, and it remains unlikely that they ever will be. Snippets of ‘Silmarillion’ material do, however, appear in The Lord of the Rings – mainly through songs and poems recited by characters, and the Appendices – and it is therefore possible that a film studio could push the limits of copyright by adapting these fragments.

It has been speculated that copyright protection on The Silmarillion will expire in 2043 and will then be free for anyone to adapt. Under UK law, copyright protection lasts for 70 years after the author dies (Tolkien died in 1973). However, if Christopher Tolkien is considered an author of the work (he is credited as an ‘editor’) then copyright protection will last 70 years after his death. While the legality is therefore somewhat ambiguous, it is clear that The Silmarillion will not enter the public domain for a very long time.

Can I contact the Tolkien Estate and/or Tolkien’s publishers?

You can. Probably the best way would be to use this contact form on the Estate’s website.

Alternatively you can write to them.

Tolkien Family

All enquiries regarding the Tolkien Family should be directed to the Tolkien Estate.

Tolkien Estate

Maier Blackburn
Prama House
267 Banbury Road
Oxford
OX2 7HT
United Kingdom
e-mail: info [at] maierblackburn.com

Publishers

David Brawn
Publishing Director, Tolkien
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
77-85 Fulham Palace Road
Hammersmith
London W6 8JB
United Kingdom

How do I start my own Tolkien society?

What you need to start a Tolkien society, mainly, is a way of letting other Tolkien readers in your area know that you want to start a society (or club, or group, or moot, or association etc.). Then make sure you keep in touch by having meetings and (if you wish to) publishing a bulletin now and then. This is how The Tolkien Society started in 1969. Our founder Vera Chapman put a small advertisement in a widely-read literature and current affairs magazine asking people to contact her, and then arranged a meeting at an inn in London. Then someone volunteered to host a meeting in their house, and so it went on.

Sometimes these things start from very small beginnings. We were one of the first, although there was at least one long-lasting Tolkien society in America before us. Many have come after, sometimes out of the blue, sometimes starting as a smial of the Tolkien Society, sometimes as a sub-group of another local group. Our membership fees basically pays for our publications, and the essential administration to run the Society. If you want to start as a Smial of the Tolkien Society, one of you in the Smial must be a member, but the others do not have to be. It is a personal thing. Our members will then get our publications (and perhaps they will show them to their friends!).

On a very simple level, if you can find three Tolkien readers who are happy to have a meal together and visit the occasional castle, you probably have the core of a Tolkien group.

Suggest some good companions to Tolkien’s books.

Beowulf, the Volsunga Saga, anything in prose by William Morris; George MacDonald’s Curdie stories; a harp or guitar if you happen to play one. Red wine, beer and of course a pipe if you are a pipe smoker. English weather. Apples (not the rubbery sort). A friend if you like reading aloud. Bored of the Rings if you have a warped mind. The Road Goes Ever On by Swann and Tolkien if you play piano and can read music. A paint-box and an obsessive desire to draw maps. Firelight and a comfy armchair. Any mountain (the one-volume paperback makes a good camp stool if you are really stuck).

There must be others, but that will do for now.

Where can I find maps of Middle-earth?

Apart from the maps included in the books, various maps have been published over the years.

The following feature artwork by John Howe and include a booklet by Brian Sibley:

  • There and Back Again: The Map of Tolkien’s Hobbit - for The Hobbit
  • The Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-earth – for The Lord of the Ring
  • The Map of Tolkien’s Beleriand: and the Lands to the North - for The Silmarillion

A Map of Middle-earth by Pauline Baynes was produced in consultation with Tolkien and was first published in 1970. Although reprinted a number of times it may be difficult to get hold of.

Karen Wynn Fonstad’s An Atlas of Middle-earth is an established favourite. Barbara Strachey’s The Journeys of Frodo tracks the participants mile by mile right through The Lord of the Rings.

Weta Workshop has also produced replicas of the original maps found in the books.

There are no separate maps that show Middle-earth east of Mordor or south of the Mouths of the Anduin.

I have a book by Tolkien I want to sell. How can I find out what it’s worth? Where can I sell it?

The Tolkien Society does not give valuations or recommendations with regard to selling or buying books or memorabilia, as we do not have professional expertise in this area. However, we can pass on general information “from the grapevine” which members have mentioned to us. We have been asked if ebay is a good marketplace, or if more specialist outlets should be sought. We have heard that collectors do monitor ebay sites, and other popular auction sites, as well as more specialised outlets. If you are looking to sell, monitoring ebay and other auction sites, as well as searching for second hand and “rare book” dealers and looking at their lists, may help you to get an idea of current pricing. Looking at sales outcomes, or “completed items” lists, where available, can give some idea what prices are actually being achieved, rather than simply hoped-for. The value of a second-hand item is axiomatically what someone will pay for it, and this can vary great deal. While rare and collectable items may rise in price over time, they may also fall with fashion and demand.

Another method of gathering information about market values is to ask a second hand or antiquarian book dealer, or a reputable auction house, to give you an opinion, or ask what they might pay for the item, as appropriate. Bear in mind that professional dealers must buy for a lower price than they expect to sell for, else they could not make a living. They may also charge for a valuation, particularly if it is a potentially high-value item. Bear in mind also that some dealers place items for sale at very high prices, and leave them on sale for a long time. These books are waiting for the buyer who has been looking for that particular edition or item, but they may not reflect normal prices on the general market at the time.
It is usually possible to put an item up for auction at a “reserve price” – if the bids do not reach that price, the item is not sold and the seller can reconsider their pricing policy. The seller may have to pay a fee for the auction service, even if the item is not sold – find out what the policy of the website/auction house is.

If you are selling by post/online remember to include appropriate postal costs so that your expenses are properly covered. Look into the cost of appropriate insurance, and quote the cost of post and insurance if required. Look at some ebay pages and see how different sellers handle the post and insurance costs – there are various ways.

When mailing a book, or if you choose to leave it with anyone for any purpose, use common sense – it is prudent to have evidence that the book is yours, such as photographs, and to get a receipt for the book from the person you are leaving it with. Avoid mailing to a buyer or dealer until you have received cleared payment, and make sure you have appropriate mailing insurance.

The Tolkien Society bulletin Amon Hen will run small ads for non-members for a small fee. This may be helpful if you wish to dispose of a collection, however, bear in mind that members may already have the books they want, and only a proportion of them are collectors. The Tolkien Society itself does not handle sales or purchases for members, and any transactions resulting from ads are at the risk of the persons buying and/or selling.

If you have a book that you would be happy to give away, consider http://bookmooch.com/ or http://www.bookcrossing.com/ In the UK, most charity shops now only take small numbers of books, and are likely to pulp the surplus, but Oxfam has dedicated book outlets – you can take books to any branch of the shop.

If you have a “spare” of an unusual item or publication, please consider bringing it to the attention of the Tolkien Society Archive, which stores a collection of Tolkien-related books and other materials.