The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, by John Garth
New book brilliantly explains how the Primary World informed Tolkien’s Secondary one.
Few authors’ lives have been as well documented as J.R.R. Tolkien’s: we have biographies (in the plural!) available; greater and lesser chronologies; photograph books; various accounts of who the greatest fantasy writer of the twentieth century was, what he did and what he thought. Such vast documentation brought about two consequences: firstly, alongside high-quality biographic books, we witnessed the proliferation of extraordinarily bad, plagiarized, or repetitive material (Michael White’s biography is all of them at once). The second consequence was the emergence of ill- or little explored niches in the studies of Tolkien’s life.
One such lacuna is related to the places that were important to Tolkien, either because he visited them, because they influenced his works in varied ways, or both. John Garth’s new book, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, launched in June, closes this gap with excellence, dodging the three plagues of biographic writing (lack of quality, plagiarism, and repetitiousness). Garth is already a renowned and experienced Tolkien biographer: his outstanding Tolkien and the Great War (2003), which covers only one — but decisive — slice of the philologist’s life, shows that the incessant search for good information and originality, for trustworthy sources, as well as the contempt for groundless conjecturing, are a hallmark of his work, something evident again in his recently-launched book.
In eleven chapters, the biographer seeks to advance “many theories of [his] own about what inspired the Middle-earth ‘legendarium’, alongside a few of the most cogent and interesting claims made by others” (Garth 2020: 6). According to the author, the book is not restricted to “identifying real locations as the inspiration for particular spots in Middle-earth. The book also looks at places, real and imaginary, that Tolkien knew from reading. It examines the influences that shaped his imagined cultures and cosmology, [counting] place as a combination of location, geology, ecology, culture, nomenclature and other factors” (Garth 2020: 6).
Thus, Garth strolls along many places that certainly or probably inspired Tolkien: he explores England and its relationship with the Shire; climbs mountains and goes to valleys; unveils rivers, lakes, and seas that were part of the author’s life, and treads the forests that Tolkien held dear. Concisely, Garth examines the influences that would have come from the four cardinal points: the Germanic mythology from the North; from the West, Celtic mythology and the stories from the North-American indigenous people; the classical world and his African homeland, in the South, besides the possible inclination to the Middle East, filtered through the medieval European eyes.
The biographer does not forget the buildings, such as the ruins in archeological sites, towers, and factories, and does not lose sight of this nefarious human creation, the war, with its battlefields and trenches. As the book progresses, it fades chromatically; everything becomes greyer and smokier; forests and waters recede as the cities move forward, consuming all. The chapters are lavish in illustrations and photographs and, occasionally, maps help the reader navigate through the places that influenced Tolkien’s writings (the author also converts units of measurement for people like me, who can never memorize how many kilometers make up a mile).
The lush graphic project is, doubtlessly, a high point of the whole work but, as mentioned, the search for trustworthy sources is perhaps its greatest quality. The author affirms to have favored “conclusions that seem cogent” and claims that even though his intuition may be wrong at times, “everything [was] weighed on the scales of fact and likelihood, drawing on rich published resources as well as [his] own extensive researches” (2020: 6).
An example of how research led him to a given conclusion is seen in chapter 5, “Roots of the Mountains”. There, Garth (2020: 89) considers the possibility of Tolkien being familiar with an account by A.F. Mummery about supposed ghost encounters in the Matterhorn, a mountain in the Swiss Alps, and which may have inspired Tolkien’s Paths of the Dead. One could ask what led Garth to think that Tolkien would have read such account. The answer comes in the notes, in which we find out that Mummery was friends with Cary Gilson, headmaster at the King Edward’s School, and father of the T.C.B.S member Rob Gilson. The book in which Mummery comments the supposed ghost encounters was recommended by Cary Gilson to the literary society which Tolkien frequented (Garth 2020: 193).
This kind of unexpected and well-grounded connection — which I find particularly interesting — is frequent in Garth’s book, and to all of us who study Tolkien’s works it is also a warning about how careful we must be when reading or making claims such as “Tolkien undoubtedly was/knew/wanted/thought/read this and that” without offering a wisp of evidence. John Garth skillfully avoids this kind of assertion by demonstrating he has indeed read extensively the best bibliographical sources and talked to authorities in the disciplines he deals with. Thus, his own book ends up being a trustworthy source, with very up-to-date information.
Apropos, it is in the endnotes that many information gems are to be found. Garth used a different method than the one he employed in Tolkien and the Great War. In that book, “to avoid littering the narrative with superscript numerals” (Garth 2004: xviii), the text did not indicate or refer the reader clearly to the endnotes. Fortunately, this potentially confusing method was eschewed in The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien. The copious notes are clearly indicated in the text by superscript numerals which never litter the narrative. Frequently, more than simple references, they bring a whole tiny universe of explanation. One of them, I gladly noticed, mentions Brazil and the well-known theory that our country’s name might be connected to the Irish island of Hy Breasail, to which Tolkien himself alludes in On Fairy-stories (Garth 2020: 192 and Tolkien 2014: 29).
Many Tolkien readers, and I count myself among them, arrived in his fictional world having a choice of consolidated critical works available, with indispensable studies for the full and accurate understanding of Tolkien’s books. However, amid the deluge of new books and studies dedicated to Tolkien’s literary legacy, we have to be extremely selective with what we read, and with what we spend our money. For bringing freshness and originality to Tolkienian scholarship, with a wealth of information and factual accuracy; for correcting distortions and pointing out shortcomings in previous studies, promoting a reasonable discussion about the interference of an author’s life in his works, John Garth’s book is one of those we must read.
The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth
Author: John Garth
Publisher: Princeton University Press (2020)
268mm x 217mm
Garth, John. 2020. The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press).
—— 2004. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (London: HarperCollins).
Tolkien, J.R.R. 2014. ‘On Fairy-stories’, in Anderson, Douglas A., and Verlyn Flieger (eds.). Tolkien ‘On Fairy-stories’: Expanded edition, with commentary and notes (London: HarperCollins).