Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings is an engrossing summary, review, and search for the origins behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga. This article then could be defined as a review of a review. Though I am not a very dedicated reader, I do enjoy juicy tidbits on the history of pop culture. And this book was not a let-down. It was fascinating.
First off, the author of this 201-page review of Tolkien was Lin Carter, an editor as well as a fantasy/sci-fi novelist. Obviously a rather knowledgeable man, his familiarity and passion for literature definitely shine through. A detailed and scholarly review, Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings can easily be read and comprehended by the common layperson; you need not be a PhD, rocket scientist, or even a historian. The employed individual with any kind of social life should be able to find the time to read this book within 1-2 weeks.
If you are a Tolkien fan, if you have gotten through The Silmarillion, or if you enjoyed the four-volume book series The History of the Lord of the Rings, this book should be added to your repertoire of Tolkien-related books. Originally published in 1969, the early chapters discuss the huge revival of popularity LOTR received in the U.S. taking place at that time. Carter presents some first-hand observations on Tolkien’s marks on the American culture of the day.
Many critical reviews of Tolkien and his fantasy works were published throughout the sixties and early seventies due to the renewed American interest and readership. Another review of Tolkien’s life and life’s work was published around the same time as Carter’s. It was originally entitled The Tolkien Relation (later renamed Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings) and was written by William Ready. A mere 96 pages in its entirety, Ready’s work names Tolkien’s religion, Catholicism, and points out how many of the main plot scenarios reflect Christian ideals, and Ready is not inaccurate in that observation.
However, Carter does not come out directly and say Tolkien was Catholic, though he does state how characters such as Aragorn and Gandalf can be taken as Christ-figures. (If this aspect of Tolkien’s writing interests you, look for the books and video courses put out by Tolkien expert Joseph Pearce.)
Carter dedicates an entire chapter to summarizing the plot of The Hobbit and then three more individual chapters to the plot of each installment of LOTR. Both Carter’s book and Ready’s book mention Tolkien’s good friend C.S. Lewis and the literary group the Inklings to which both were loyal members. (No review of Tolkien would be very thorough without the elements of CSL or the Inklings.)
And both of these lengthy reviews note that Tolkien’s work should not be compared to other fantasy novels of the 19th and 20th centuries. Carter brings up such memorable literature as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and Doctor Dolittle. (Interestingly enough, all these classics have been adapted into films.) Tolkien is unique in his own right as is every author.
Carter’s work and Ready’s work explore Tolkien and LOTR along different paths, though at certain intersections the paths do cross over some of the same terrain. From the updated title, Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, William Ready’s work strives to define the actual meaning of the epic tale. Whereas Lin Carter in his book primarily searches out how Tolkien thought, which classics influenced him, to what fantasy genre Tolkien’s large body of work belongs, and the ways in which LOTR had an impact on society and pop culture.
The closest Carter (who I find easier to understand) comes to attempting to explain the supreme theme of the trilogy is stating the noticeable fact that it uses the ancient concept of the struggle of good versus evil. But he rightly points out that “Perhaps it is rather old-fashioned, the idea of literature as teaching a moral, but if so, much of the greatest literature of all ages must be called old-fashioned” (93).
Carter deeply discusses the likely influences on J.R.R. Tolkien from ancient mythology, Norse sagas, medieval literature, and even more recent novels of fantasy. He covers a lot of ground, relating to his reader a significant amount of history of the epic literary style from Homer and the ancient Greeks up to the modern styles (as of the 1960’s). He almost overdoses on the history, but I didn’t mind it.
The book also makes some good generalizations and delivers interesting and vital facts to the attention of the reader. It includes many pages on Greek mythology and the weird races found in it. Once it touches on the ancient Roman era it bluntly serves up the following opinion which I heartily agree with, “there is nothing duller than a dull Latin epic” (Carter 114). And that made me laugh. As far as useful statements, a footnote by Carter on page 10 is one of many. In it, he tells us that Oxford University is actually made up of 21 separate colleges. This little fact in a rather old book was news to me! The book was full of such comments.
Late in his review, Carter begins to show where Tolkien took exact names from old literature to reuse as his own characters. Such names included Gandalf, Thorin, Durin, Thrain, Thror, Fili, and Kili among others. He even suggests that Tolkien’s Bombadil may have originated from the Muslim tale of a man called Boabdil. Carter wrote and published this book prior to the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), but the general public was aware it was going to be published and of what its title was to be.
Thus, Carter’s timely review gives some speculation as to what The Silmarillion‘s content will be. So Carter includes some fan suggestions and some of his own guesses, hinting as to what the silmaril story might entail. He backs up several of his ideas with quotes from the appendices at the end of The Return of the King. If you have read The Silmarillion, it is interesting to see how accurate or inaccurate his theories are.
Another aspect I liked is that Lin Carter gets frank and personal with his reader. He does not fail to mention the fact that he himself is a fantasy author more than once; the very last sentence in the book discloses his most recent fantasy story endeavor at the time. He also relates information that can be of interest to aspiring writers (such as myself) or to true authors as well.
Carter talks about some of the inside jokes writers play on their friends, jokes which subtly appear in their books. And he also says that Tolkien may have taken the name Gondor from an atlas, “a trick many fantasy writers use,” because Gondor itself is a true name of an Ethiopian province. All in all, it was a great read. If you are anyone less than a Tolkien expert, you will certainly learn something new.
Carter, Lin. Tolkien: A Look Behind “The Lord of the Rings” .. Ballantine, 1969.