I’m a huge fan of Tolkien – if you’re not, move along, nothing to see, etc. – and of the better scholarship about him and his literary creations (the best commentators, in my view, being Tom Shippey and Verlyn Fleiger – who herself has a new anthology of essays and talks on Tolkien out very soon – and historian John Garth, plus the late great Humphrey Carpenter).
Added to the list of great Tolkien scholars are the husband and wife team Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull. Their colossal ‘JRR Tolkien Companion & Guide’, a double book set comprising ‘A Reader’s Guide’ and ‘Chronology’, was published a number of years ago and represented a mammoth achievement – a finely crafted, forensically researched book of biographical data – almost days by day in places – alongside an encyclopedia-type volume of essays on Tolkien’s works, his peers, influences, episodes in his publishing history, schools and colleges attended, academic work, etc., etc.
Well, there’s now a new edition, expanded to a three volume set – or 1.3 million words. It’s on amazon UK at £78 – that’s a huge saving on the RRP of £140.
There are great numbers of third-rate, poorly researched cash-in works on Tolkien in the world – any numbers of biographies that basically rewrite Carpenter’s 1977 work and add little else – and a vast amount of scholarship/commentary that ranges from superb and insightful through to well-meaning but amateurish and then to bafflingly wrong-headed (a recent book building a ludicrous argument that Tolkien was some kind of secret agent). Hammond and Scull are fantastic at accumulating all of this material and sifting through it looking for anything of worth and citing it scrupulously, weighing against other evidence (if biographical) or opinion (if interpretive). Their scholarship is of the highest level and there is no ego involved: they are tremendous gardeners of a vast landscape – like museum curators, laying out not only terrific exhibits but detailing current knowledge on said exhibits and also a fascinating historiography of how that knowledge developed.
Their research is also primary – exploring sources and archives (for instant, university, school, publisher archives and genealogical resources) that are essentially open to anyone with the will to do the work but many of which had been unexplored before Hammond and Scull started delving. Their introduction to the original edition of the ‘Companion and Guide’ suggested that their work could be a good foundation resource for others wishing to create biographical works on Tolkien (combining factual matter with literary criticism and other insights) but, actually, their modesty does them a disservice: their work *on its own* trounces almost all biographies on Tolkien. The only difference is in the layout of the material – thematic essays and rigid chronology, rather than interwoven prose. Their writing style, I would say, is not so much dry as neutral – they aren’t dull, but they take the approach of being messengers rather than the message, so while there is certainly some personality and carefully expressed personal opinion in their writing, it’s not swaggering.
If you’re a more than casual reader of Tolkien, this new work will be indispensible. Their recent blog posts give a good idea of the new content and a glimpse at the depths and range of their enquiry:
I’ve had the pleasure of writing a few books on music, and bringing, I hope, a pretty thorough approach to research to that – insofar as my resources at any time allow (and usually a bit further) – but Hammond & Scull are on a different level. They are the Mark Lewisohn of the Tolkien world – and one can not only appreciate the content they deliver but simultaneously one can quietly marvel at the work that went into it. Aside from my musical interests, nothing enthrals me more than Tolkien. I could never write anything about Tolkien, though, because it would never be at the level of the writers I’ve cited above. But sometimes it’s terrific to just be a consumer. I can’t recommend Hammond & Scull’s ‘Companion & Guide’ highly enough.