Review of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed

Audrey Isabel Taylor

Toby Widdicombe. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Guides for the Perplexed. Paperback. 208 pg. $24.95. ISBN 9781350092143. Ebook ISBN 9781350092150.

Toby Widdicombe’s J. R. R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed does what it says it will: it answers questions about Tolkien and his work from a hypothetical (perplexed) reader. The book examines a range of themes and content across Tolkien’s work and life and brings them together in a tidy package. Widdicombe has done a fine job across the book as a whole.

J.R.R. Tolkien consists of a foreword, introduction, and six chapters, followed by an afterword largely devoted to The Fall of Gondolin (2018), which was published when Widdicombe’s book was nearly ready for print. There are also three useful appendices. The first lists Tolkien’s sources, including names, dates, languages/sources, as well as brief notes on significance. To those who are teaching Tolkien, this information is particularly valuable. The other two appendices cover the Films of the Legendarium, and, more briefly, Scholarship on Tolkien. There is also a helpful reference list and an index. Widdicombe comments in chapter five that “I will focus on the major works (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings), but my portrait will be fleshed out by my understanding of other, less-well-known Tolkien works” (107-8), but this could be said for all his chapters.

Chapter One: Tolkien’s Life and Art, provides a quick overview of the basic biography of Tolkien and how his life influenced his work. Chapter Two, Tolkien’s Legendarium, showcases one of Widdicombe’s strengths, making a complex topic clear. He lays out the complicated history of Tolkien’s legendarium in a straightforward way (or as straightforward as could be done). In Chapter Three, Tolkien and His Languages, Widdicombe points out how Elvish, in its incompleteness, intentionally parallels natural languages (47). This chapter gives a good overview while also making clear the complex, recursive nature of Tolkien’s work on and with languages, leaving plenty of room for further scholarship or interest. 

Chapter Four looks at Tolkien on Time. This chapter presents a series of interesting points, for instance, that Tolkien “suggests the events have a reality beyond his ability to control them” (97), as well as how time is “less about the broad strokes of history [and more about how] friendship lasts even until the inevitable end” (102). There is also a useful timeline included with some comments about what events being in which place on the timeline might mean (98-101). Widdicombe notes in comments on Year 2 of the Third Age, for example, that “If the Second Age began with a burst of creation…so does the Third Age, for it is in this year that Isildur ‘plants a seedling of the White Tree in Minas Anor’” (98). These facts combined with editorial comments provide the reader insight into both events and their significance in time.

Chapter Five is Tolkien on Peoples, which examines the peoples and creatures of Tolkien’s work. Widdicombe also has a good approach to a big chapter like Chapter Six, Tolkien’s Themes. In Chapter Six he discusses themes he and his students found important, but also those put forward by other scholars, and points out that “Any discussion of themes is just a means to an end: to stimulate discussion of the meaning and relevance of Tolkien’s legendarium” (129). This includes a beautifully concise summary of Tolkien’s take on death: “In the same section of The Silmarillion as that in which Ilúvatar talks of elvish immortality as a sorrow, Tolkien contrasts that quality with the brevity of human life and considers this brevity to be akin to a sort of freedom ‘to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world’” (111-112).  My only quibble with this chapter is that although thorough, a list of themes at the beginning of the chapter might have been useful, particularly as there does not really seem to be an order to the themes, or not one I saw explained.

Although Widdicombe’s focus is largely on “bigger picture” items, he does include fascinating tidbits of close reading—a  discussion of the “queer sign” on Bilbo’s door from The Hobbit for example (48), or the thought-provoking point in Chapter Three about how Tolkien is rarely praised for “his attention to role and context, and his humorous extension of the fiction of the epic’s frame story,” demonstrated for instance when he frames his own work as only that of an editor or translator (61). Widdicombe reads beyond the surface, and is able to make connections within not only Tolkien’s work, but his life as well. 

There are elements that do not quite work. Widdicombe does not always manage to be as clear as one would like—the section on writing for example (pp. 59-60) left me confused rather than less-perplexed. Nor does he quite round out his point in the themes chapter about technology. He ends with a “good” use of technology after a long discussion of instances of its misuse, but unlike other cases he does not speculate about why, or how, this changes other readings (156-7). And though he looks at the lack of women with agency in Tolkien, he does not tackle the racism inherent in the Southrons (black men) (113), which is presumably something a modern audience of students might react strongly to.

Who the hypothetical reader of this book might be is a slightly thornier question than its general value to Tolkien studies. Widdicombe explains, “It is not my intent to be exhaustive; it is my intent to provide enough information to make engaging with Tolkien’s world as rich an experience as I can for the enthusiast” (107), thus indicating that this is for someone already an enthusiast on Tolkien. Widdicombe comments a great deal about what readers think or feel about Tolkien and his work based on his own experience with his students, but this seems rather limited. Further, to understand Widdicombe’s text, a good knowledge of Tolkien prior to reading Widdicombe is helpful, perhaps even necessary. Widdicombe obviously loves Tolkien’s work, but this does not occlude the critical, or interfere with J.R.R. Tolkien: A Guide for the Perplexed’s principal mission: to elucidate Tolkien.

Audrey Isabel Taylor is Assistant Professor of English at Sul Ross State University, Rio Grande College. Her first book, Patricia A. McKillip and the Art of Fantasy World-Building, came out in 2017, and she is at work on a second on science fiction author Anne McCaffrey.

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