10 Must-Read Books about J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

As Tolkien’s authorized biography, this work is often viewed as the defining text on Tolkien’s life.  Fans will undoubtedly enjoy learning more about Tolkien’s early life, his experiences in WWI, his professional life as a professor at Oxford, and, of course, how his most famous works came about.

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Part biography, part literary criticism, this book traces the influence of Tolkien’s early friends on his writing, as well as the impact of the Great War on his mythology.  Garth further examines Tolkien’s writings in light of other post-WWI literature.

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

Readers who long to know more about Tolkien’s youth, particularly his days as an undergrad, will delight in Garth’s detailed biography.  Originally published in 2011, it contains some sketches by Tolkien and some photographs of Tolkien that were previously unpublished.

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, et al.

This book begins by examining Tolkien as a philologist and then moves onto to examining the origin of many of Tolkien’s words, showing how he derived them or reimagined them.  Those who want to learn more of Tolkien’s language will delight in this volume.

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Glyer proposes to change our understanding of the Inklings by going against the common understanding that the Inklings did not influence each other’s writings.  She defines the difference between “influences” and “similarities” and goes on to outline how writers can be influenced by resonators (supporters), opponents, editors, collaborators, and referents.  It’s also a fascinating read for those interested in the writing process.

Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien by Paul H. Kocher

This volume of literary criticism, a recipient of the Mythopoeic Society Scholarship Award, examines Tolkien’s sources to address such questions as the nature of evil in Tolkien’s writing, the true hero The Lord of the Rings, and more.  It also examines other works such as “Smith of Wooton Major” and “Leaf by Niggle.”  Note that this book was published before The Silmarillion.

The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft

The Philosophy of Tolkien

Peter Kreeft explores the worldview behind Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by asking 50 philosophical questions and then explaining Tolkien’s answer in a three-part format: a quote from Tolkien’s works on Middle-earth demonstrating the answer, a quote from Tolkien’s other works expanding upon and clarifying his answer, and a quote from C. S. Lewis’s work explaining the answer more directly.  Kreeft encourages readers to use the book not only as a guide to Middle-earth but also as an introduction to philosophy; he suggests asking the same questions of other works of literature, especially those with philosophies greatly different from Tolkien’s.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth by Catherine McIlwaine

This collection features six essays by major Tolkien scholars on different aspects of Tolkien’s work including his art, his invented languages, his biography, his conception of Faerie, his Northern influences, and his relationship with the Inklings. It also includes photographs of archival materials from the Bodleian Libraries and Marquette University.  The photographs in particular will be of interest to avid Tolkien fans as it showcases much of his artwork, letters and drafts, family photographs, his working maps, and more.

J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey

Tom Shippey’s work is perhaps the Tolkien criticism and, if you can only read one book about Tolkien, this should be it.  Shippey explains how Tolkien was inspired by philological difficulties and missing information in old myths and legends to create his own mythology that explains those difficulties and fills in those gaps. Shippey’s own knowledge of philology gives him insight into Tolkien’s understanding that many other critics lack.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien ed. by Christopher Tolkien and Humphrey Carpenter

Humphrey Carpenter presents a collection of J.R.R. Tolkien’s letters that shed light on his professional life, his creative inspiration and philosophy, his Catholic faith, and his thoughts on World War II, among other matters.  Fans will be fascinated by Tolkien’s thoughts on his characters and their motivations, and will likely close the book feeling like they see Middle-earth in a new light.

6 thoughts on “10 Must-Read Books about J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    Interesting picks! I’ve read half of these and have a few others on my TBR. I have heard about Master of Middle-Earth but never added it to my TBR. I think I was under the impression it was too outdated?? But since you’re recommending it, I will add it!


    • Krysta says:

      I think some of it will be outdated since it was published before The Sillmarillion, but my understanding is (and I think I may have read it years ago?) that it’s generally still considered solid criticism. Briana has read it more recently.


    • Krysta says:

      Well, a lot of the books are literary criticism and not necessarily biographies. And he wrote an awful lot, so I guess there’s an awful lot to say about his writing! XD


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