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Tolkien’s Mythology

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Tolkien the Man



Do Balrogs have wings? Can they fly?

This is the archetypal example of the within-Middle-earth obsessive debate, and I shall use that as an example.

I was relieved a couple of years ago to see that the compilers of the New Tolkien Newsgroups FAQ (enquiries to Steuard Jensen, contact for the New Tolkien Newsgroups FAQ, at sbjensen@midway.uchicago.edu) had arrived, after much debate and the application of many minds to the subject, at a conclusion not completely different from the one I arrived at after a long and eyeball spinning study of the sources. I quote their conclusions here:

” * The Balrog in Moria had “wings” of some sort, which the company saw stretch from wall to wall.

* Those “wings” were probably not made of flesh and blood, but rather of some sort of “shadow-stuff”. (Thus, when the Balrog is in front of the pit of fire, the fire seems dimmed, not just plain blocked.)”

Although this answer is drawn from careful comparative study of Tolkien’s writings over a long time, it was not given to us by Tolkien himself. The final answer remains unknown, not least because Tolkien died before he could re-write the encounter of Glorfindel and the Balrog from The Fall of Gondolin, which he intended to do, to take account of his latest views.

The only thing we can be absolutely certain of is that the Company in Moria saw – briefly – something that looked like wings. But wings are never mentioned again, even though Gandalf follows the Balrog closely up miles of winding stair without getting a single leather-burn, and the Balrog (known to junior Balrogs around here as “Uncle Aarrrrrgh” after his last meaningful statement) twice falls off a high place with no apparent attempt to save himself by flapping. But I admit that, since studying the Histories, I, the archetypal snarler of “Balrogs don’t have wings”, have added optional wings of shadow to my Balrog costumes, and feel quite at home with them after years of trying to look fierce (rather too successfully, according to my colleagues) with nothing to flap.

The question of whether Balrogs could fly is to debating groups an even more vexed one. The passage often quoted as conclusive evidence is in Morgoth’s Ring, History 10 (HX) 297-8: “Swiftly they arose, and they passed with winged speed over Hithlum, and they came to Lammoth as a tempest of fire.”

Unfortunately, Tolkien uses wings and flight as a metaphor of speed so often that the evidence cannot be conclusive. And fire is famous for the speed with which it runs over the ground. And so on.

Balrogs spent the eons of the Histories, as Uncle Thsssp (a survivor) said: “… being withered by wind, leading orcs, climbing, riding, fleeing, springing, pouring about breaches, being harried about by *lv*s and slaughtered; smiting, going forth, marching, standing, smiting; more leading; being driven and destroyed; rushing, leaping, racing, stepping, bounding, lurking, sleeping and bursting into flames, and, rather, often, falling [no fewer than seven references, far outstripping any other Balrog activity]. … We can do anything the public wants, except fly … No servants of Morgoth assailed the air before the winged dragons came, and that was at the end, in the War of Wrath. The dwarf almost mistook a Nazgûl for us, but what does he know? The heart of the Hobbit, curse it, knew better.”

And yet, there remains the suspicion that once Tolkien saw in his mind the image of a Balrog clad with wings, he could not forget it. The wings appear, for the first time, in the published version of The Lord of the Rings. In the drafts in The Treason of Isengard (HVII) there are no wings. Only the shadow appears, in a pencilled after-note, as a new stroke to the canvas. It may be that the new conception of a Balrog that could do more than stroll, bound and ride dragons was born at that moment.

But nowhere do we see a Balrog flap his wings, rise up in bat-like glory or swoop upon his stricken foes. The vision was not completed, and we do not know how he would have completed it.

We do know, however, that Balrogs, at least in their developed phase, were Maiarin beings, and that Valarin and Maiarin beings who came into Middle-earth in rebellion (or, in the case of the Istari, voluntarily to become “rational incarnate beings”) sooner or later lost their ability to take on new physical forms, and became vulnerable to physical damage. So with Morgoth, so with Sauron, and so too with the Balrogs. They seem to have taken a fixed form and become recognisable as a “species” early on (I personally believe that they were originally intended by Tolkien to be a kind of fire-goblin, a type of being that he would know about from his Old Norse philology, and only later were elevated to great spirits). Winged bodies are not natural to rational incarnate creatures in the human form that Eru chose for his “children” and that the Valar, including Morgoth, imitated. But they may, like great spirits in many mythologies, have been heir to wings of the spirit, which they lost in the course of their rebellion and entry into Arda.

Balrogs dream of wings. Balrogs pose in front of the mirror with wings. Alone in the night, wrapped in their wings of shadow, Balrogs remember wings. But no Balrog this side of the walls of Arda has ever been able to fly …

That is my conclusion. And what this proves, if it proves anything, is that the answer to the riddle of the Balrogs is truly “no and yes”, and that the only way to approach such riddles is to study till your eyeballs dry up and your favourite analgesic is running low, argue about it with your friends, and then shut your eyes tight and look at it creatively taking everything into account. There must be an easier way to have fun.

But we can say with absolute certainty that there is nothing in all of Tolkien’s writings about Balrogs wearing bulls’ heads, cow’s heads, buffalo medicine hats, or horns of any kind. Or tails. Horns and tails may be popular with demons, but they never appear on Balrogs.

Is Legolas blonde or dark?

Tolkien went to some lengths to avoid describing Legolas: in the Pauline Baynes picture of the Fellowship, painted while he was still alive, Legolas is the only one wearing a hood over his hair. This picture is not an absolute reference, as there are certain oversights in it, but there is probably some reason for the deliberate muffling of this well known character.

We know that Legolas’s father was blonde. (He is the Woodland King in The Hobbit, who is described, roughly, as having leaves in his golden hair.) Another often-overlooked point is that every single elf described in person in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, apart from the family of Elrond, is fair-haired. And they are all blonde apart from Celeborn, who is silver-haired, and Círdan who, for some unexplained reason, is old and grey (and even has a beard!).

So why did people start to think that Legolas is dark? The main reason, historically, is Tolkien’s note at the end of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, where he more or less says that all the Eldar were dark except “the golden house” of Finrod/Finarphir/Finarphin (depending on the edition).

This statement clearly did not fit the immediate evidence in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but the extent of the mismatch was not fully apparent until The Silmarillion was published. Before that, there was no clear reason to distinguish the Eldar from other elves. You simply never meet a dark one apart from Elrond’s relations.

When The Silmarillion came out it quickly became clear that the paragraph perhaps should read “eldar” for “Noldor”, or similar; and even that did not stand up well, because of the vigorous cross-breeding of the ruling houses with the fair-haired Vanyar. If you substitute “eldar” with something like “Finwe’s immediate offspring” it comes out about right.

Nonetheless, this is why it became “canonical” among some analysts that Legolas was dark. It’s backed by a paragraph in “The Great River” (LotR I) where Legolas’s “dark head” is seen against the sky. Readers who jump on this sentence forget that he was being seen in the dark, against a dark sky, wearing a cloak and hood specifically designed to make him hard to see. Even an albino coated in phosphorescent paint would look “dark” in that situation.

So is Legolas dark or fair? We don’t know. Tolkien’s oldest elves were fair, and it’s not clear why he adopted a “majority dark” policy. Various theories about the origin of elves and dwarves in folklore in the late 19th century may have something to do with it. (They were by some identified with the Picts, a thought-to-be-dark race in Northern Scotland.) Or he may have been trying to make his golden-haired elves special – there’s some circumstantial evidence in that direction – although, as we all know, the special dark ones, the house of Lúthien, are very special indeed. Perhaps he hadn’t made up his mind which appearance he preferred Legolas to have.

To sum up, Legolas is probably the only elf in the whole of Tolkien’s works who can legitimately be issued in two different colourways.

Who was Tom Bombadil?

J.R.R. Tolkien tells little about Tom Bombadil. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, he says: ” … he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyse the feeling precisely.” More famously, he described him as “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside” (bearing in mind that the third age of Middle-earth was set before Oxfordshire and Berkshire were invented), and later said, “Even in a mythical age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

The world of Arda and everything in it was created by Eru (see The Silmarillion). The great Vala Melkor rebelled and was determined to disrupt the sub-creative work of his fellow Valar. Some of the created beings followed him, and became the evil spirits (including the Balrogs). Other spirits however entered Arda in many forms, as is told in fragments in The Books of Lost Tales and other places. But they do not all belong to named orders, or kindreds that are explained. Tom himself seems to be a one-off, older than living things and not, himself, a living being, but one of the primaeval spirits taking form and setting up home in the World.

Some people have thought that he was a Vala or even Eru himself in disguise, but this does not fit Tolkien’s stated views of Tom very well. In Letter 144, he says: “… but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately, only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.” (Letter 144.)

Tom is not affected by the ring, but it seems that this is because he has no desire, even in the depth of his heart, for the power that the ring offers. Maybe Tom is just “more hobbit-like than the Hobbits”. Perhaps, if he were left with it long enough, and put into danger, even Tom might begin to feel its pull. But it has also been suggested that Tom’s relationship with the world is like that of Adam, the first Man in Judeo-Christian theology, who lived as master of other created things, but in harmony with them, not in domination. Tom never bosses anything around unless it is getting someone else into trouble (and they ask for help). It may be that he is so far beyond temptation because, even if he felt the pull of the ring, he might have an inner reason to reject it that is deeper than we can understand.

There is some interesting further consideration of Tom and Goldberry in Myth & Middle-earth by Leslie Ellen Jones (Cold Spring Press, NY, USA, 2002, ISBN 2002108145) in the chapter “The Cosmic Couple” (it’s better than it sounds), and in The Uncharted Realms of Tolkien by Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie (Medea Publishing, Oswestry, UK, 2002, ISBN 0954320700) in the chapter “An Analysis of Tom Bombadil”. This is less learned than Jones, but has a lengthy and useful look at the early drafts of Tom’s story, including the notable point that the Tom of the earlier drafts was more powerful than the Tom of The Lord of the Rings, while the Ringwraiths gained in power. These are largely speculative accounts, but more pertinent on the whole than the notion that Tom “must” be a Vala or a Maia. (Tom’s character is about as different from Aule’s as it can be and still marry a blonde in a flowery dress.)

However Tom and Goldberry are not a solemn couple. More about their relationship and past can be read in the poems “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” and “Bombadil Goes Boating” (In the UK in Tales from the Perilous Realm collection, and in the USA in The Tolkien Reader collection.) There is also a pertinent comment on Tom’s relation to water-spirits in J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter, shortly after the beginning of chapter 6, “The Storyteller”.

Do Tolkien’s Elves and Hobbits have pointed ears?

Yes, they do. This has become a minor moot point, as pointed ears are not mentioned in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings anywhere. However, Tolkien mentioned Hobbit ears in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 27: “… ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish’ … ” This letter is a good description of Hobbits all round.

Elf-ears are covered in The Lost Road (History of Middle-earth Volume V): The Etymologies, under LAS-(1) – (*lasse leaf): “The Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than [?human].” This is then related to LAS-(2) ‘listen’, and words about ears.

It’s not clear why Tolkien chose to give his elves and Hobbits pointed ears; still less why people thought so prior to the publication of Letters and the HoME series. Some literary and artistic traditions, going back many centuries, prefer to attribute to non-human beings animal-type ears. This appears to have introduced pointed ears as an artistic tradition for fairy beings. Some of Tolkien’s Hobbit illustrations may show Bilbo with pointed ears, though it is very hard to tell through the small detail and curly Hobbit hair.

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.

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.

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 main source books on Tolkien are J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, plus The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by T A Shippey. For Tolkien’s early life and the development of The Silmarillion, there is Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. There was also The Tolkien Family Album, with family photos and biographical details, but this may be harder to get hold of. The volume J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, is mainly about his paintings, but also has a fair amount about his life and work.

Have a look at our Books about Tolkien page for a more exhaustive list of suggestions.

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

Difficult question. We are really talking about The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit), which has come top of several reader surveys. He was a good writer, people find they can take him seriously even though he writes about dwarves and elves. 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. Borrow a copy, read it and see what you think. It’s a big question. You have to start somewhere.

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.

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
United Kingdom
e-mail: info [at] maierblackburn.com


David Brawn
Publishing Director, Tolkien
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
77-85 Fulham Palace Road
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.

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