Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index

A TOLKIEN BESTIARY

By David Day (1979, Crescent Books)

An encyclopedic description of the species and cultures that inhabit Tolkien's world, from a contemporary point of view.

 

 

Read August 7th to September 2nd, 2004  
    A wonderfully poetic journey into Tolkien's world.

I thought this book was a great idea. It collects the history of the world of Middle-Earth and the the Undying Lands (and beyond) into a series of entries, listed alphabetically, and gives us full context for each.

Most encyclopedia-type references are not meant to be read front-to-back, and this is no exception. However, whenever are we going to read all of the entries? If I was reading The Silmarillion, I would not stop to look up an entry for Olvar or Kelvar, because they are pretty well defined in that book. If I wanted a detailed explanation, I would consult Robert Foster's Complete Guide to Middle-Earth. In fact, I've owned this book for a very long time -maybe fifteen years or more, and I've barely read any of the entries before now. Perhaps the best way to read through this book, then, is to take it letter by letter, but not quite alphabetically. Mix it up a bit, because the whole thing is quite a journey.

I enjoyed the entries, mainly because they took on the same mystical feel of The Silmarillion, and to a lesser extent, The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, Tolkien's etymology places so many variants of the same thing under the same letter, so that while reading through the letter E, for example, we get entries for East Elves, Edhil, Eglath, Eldalie, Elven-Smiths, and Elves, which are more-or-less the same thing. Fortunately, the author is creative enough to give a different part of the story for each, or at least change the phrasing, so that each appears different enough that it is worth reading each. The entries are heavily stacked toward the elvish side, as there are so very many entries for elves, scattered throughout! They were the ones who invented speech, so I suppose they have the right!

The longest entries in the book belong to the Elves, Hobbits, Maiar, Orcs and Men, and give not only a history of those races, but some details on the individuals who became famous from those races, for good or evil. The entry for Valar is also quite long, but is, I think, shorter than the version given in The Silmarillion, which gives as many or more details of each individual!

There are a couple of small errors in the book, but that is to be expected, especially as much of the history is not stated explicitly, but is open to interpretation. This book was written long enough ago that there were not so many discussions as to the nature of this world, and Tolkien's early notes had not been published in his son's History of Middle-Earth series. However, it did remind me that the Shadow Host, or the ghost army that Aragorn commanded, did not take part in the battle on the Pellenor Fields, as depicted in the movie version of The Return of the King. It makes me wonder why they did this, as it seems like something that even casual viewers would think of as too much of a deus ex machina. Regardless, this book did remind me of several plot points that I had forgotten, as it's been so long since I've read the books.

One particularly useful feature of this book is the series of timelines outlining the major events of the ages. In addition, the encyclopedic references are interrupted in four places to tell the history of the world in paintings and captions. All of the major events of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings are presented here. Personal details are almost completely left out, as the battles and territories are described as a history. If you want a bare-bones summary of the world, this is it.

Another tool that I have found immeasurably useful over the years, especially when dealing with The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-Earth, is the composite map at the beginning of the book. It takes the descriptions of the world in the ages of the lamps, trees and sun, and puts them all together, so that Beleriand is shown north of Arnor and Gondor, and Numenor exists at the same time as well. The Undying Lands can be seen on one side, while The Shire and Bree can be found on the same map. It really puts things into perspective, and shows how through the ages and the wars, places didn't change names all that often, after all, even though some, like Beleriand and Numenor, were destroyed, and the Undying Lands were removed from the circles of the world.

The artwork was great, throughout the book. Especially pleasing were those that accompanied the history of the world, in full color. Particularly evocative were the fall of the lamps, the fall of Gondolin, the downfall of Numenor, and the death of Smaug. Yet almost all of the paintings were so full of detail as to be very impressive. The black-and-white sketches of beasts and flora also added depth to the alphabetic entries. Almost every page is adorned with details of something being discussed in the text. Some of the artists were better suited to my tastes than others, and I'm sure that other people would prefer the ones that I did not. Regardless, it helped keep the material from getting dry, and so many of them were really beautiful, too. In particular, the sketches of the Valar were really impressive.

At the back of the book, we get some genealogies -not of people, but of races, which is very different from what has been published before. The index is better than we get in some textbooks! It's amazing. There is also a reference of sources, so that if the reader is wondering where specific entries were found, it could be looked up in one of the stories or the appendices. I wish more authors had this kind of dedication.

This is a beautiful reference, even though the entries may not be as useful as they appear at first glance. Most of the names used are not so common that the novice reader will search for that entry by name. However, the index redeems the book on that front. This is a beautiful book for a terrifically detailed world.

 
   

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