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David Bratman – Studies in English on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien

David Bratman, independent library consultant, selects the key reference works in English, published up to 2007.

So much has been written on Tolkien and his works that the shelf of books about him is far longer than the shelf of books by him.  Nevertheless, some outstanding scholarship on this shelf deserves to be pointed out.  A good critical study should be accurate, easy to read without jargon or turgidity, and have insightful critical judgments that are about Tolkien rather than the critic. Here are some books in English that have earned praise from other Tolkien scholars.  Publication information is for original U.K and U.S. publications.  Some of these books have been reprinted or translated into other languages.

General reference

Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2006; revised edition HarperCollins, 2017). Originally two now three volumes: a detailed Chronology of his life and a Reader’s Guide including theme essays on his interests and writings, synopses, accounts of persons and places he knew, and checklists of his publications.


Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin, 1977). The authorized, and indispensable biography. Well-organized, and clear on how Tolkien’s works reflected his interests and his beliefs.

John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2003). A detailed biography of Tolkien’s young adulthood, explaining his birth as a writer in the context of his school friendships and service in the First World War.

General literary studies

Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World (Eerdmans, 1983; revised edition Kent State University Press, 2002); A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie (Kent State University Press, 2001); Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology (Kent State University Press, 2005). Flieger looks at the broad themes of Tolkien’s work and his use of evocative metaphors in these books. Splintered Light discusses the relationship between language and the nature of reality. A Question of Time deals with the role of dreams, time travel, and the otherworld of Faërie. Interrupted Music addresses the framing of the legendarium, its overall structure, and its function as a story being told.

Paul H. Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, Thames and Hudson, 1972). Some of its facts are outdated, but it remains one of the most insightful studies of Tolkien. Nothing published since has invalidated Kocher’s treatments of the character of Aragorn, and of morality and evil in The Lord of the Rings.

Brian Rosebury, Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). Expansion of an earlier book, Tolkien: A Critical Assessment (Macmillan, St. Martin’s, 1992). Applies stylistic analysis to evaluate Tolkien’s work, especially The Lord of the Rings, by the standards of modern literary criticism.

Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth (Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin, 1982; revised edition HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2003); J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Shippey describes Tolkien in the context of the traditions in which he worked. The Road to Middle-earth explores the philological, linguistic, and philosophical roots of all Tolkien’s writing, concentrating on the medieval background. Author of the Century covers some of the same material, but primarily argues that Tolkien’s approach made him a representative and significant twentieth-century author.

Source studies

Marjorie Burns, Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (University of Toronto Press, 2005). A collection of studies of the influence of Celtic and Norse mythology and imagery on Tolkien’s work.

David Colbert, The Magical Worlds of The Lord of the Rings (Puffin, Berkley, 2002). Intended for juvenile readers. Simple, basic explanations of the most obvious parallels from past mythology in Tolkien’s story.

Textual studies

In addition to the following, scholarly editions of some works by Tolkien include commentary and annotations by the editors and supplementary material by Tolkien himself. First and foremost, Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth, these also include Unfinished Tales edited by Christopher Tolkien, Roverandom and Farmer Giles of Ham: 50th Anniversary Edition edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 1998 and 1999), and Smith of Wootton Major: Extended Edition edited by Verlyn Flieger (HarperCollins, 2005).

Anderson, Douglas A., ed., The Annotated Hobbit (Unwin Hyman, Houghton Mifflin, 1988; revised edition, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2002). A full and corrected text of the story, accompanied by marginal annotations on a variety of subjects. Includes a complete catalogue of textual revisions between published editions, and illustrations selected from editions in many languages.

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2005).  Annotations for The Lord of the Rings, omitting the text of the book itself. Concentrates on textual changes, details of the sub-creation, names and definitions, sources and inspirations, and literary interpretations.

John Rateliff, The History of The Hobbit (HarperCollins, 2007). Two volumes, Mr. Baggins and Return to Bag-End. A full study of the composition and revision of The Hobbit, including pre-publication drafting. Concentrates on placing The Hobbit in the context of the legendarium.


A brief bibliography of Tolkien’s writings appears as an appendix to J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Additional bibliographic information appears in issues of the annual scholarly review Tolkien Studies.

Wayne G. Hammond, with the assistance of Douglas A. Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography (St. Paul’s Bibliographies, Oak Knoll Books, 1993). A complete catalogue of Tolkien’s published writings through the date of compilation, with detailed physical descriptions of each edition of his books. Includes essays on the publishing history of each book, and a listing of translations.

Judith A. Johnson, J.R.R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism (Greenwood Press, 1986). Annotated bibliography of works by and about Tolkien, arranged chronologically by decade, up through 1984.

Richard C. West, Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist (Kent State University Press, 1970, revised edition 1981). The basic bibliography of writings about Tolkien up through its date of compilation.

Middle-earth and linguistic studies

Jim Allan, ed., An Introduction to Elvish (Bran’s Head Books, 1978).  This book is now outdated, but it is the definitive analysis of the linguistic side of all the fiction Tolkien published in his lifetime. Many of its speculations have held up in the light of posthumously-published material.

Karen Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin, 1981, revised edition 1991). Historical maps, geological maps, battle maps, city plans, and many other kinds of maps of Tolkien’s invented world, with extensive commentary and explanation of the cartographer’s speculations.

Robert Foster, The Complete Guide to Middle-earth (Del Rey Books, 1978). Expansion of A Guide to Middle-earth (Mirage Press, 1971). A complete encyclopedia of all the characters, places, and other named things in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Covers other writings published in Tolkien’s lifetime, but not post-Silmarillion posthumous works. Detailed and reliable; includes page references.

Brian Sibley and John Howe, The Maps of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 2003). Howe’s redrawn versions of four basic maps of Tolkien’s imaginary lands, with essays by Sibley on the origins of the original maps and the role of geography in each story, plus a gazetteer of each land.

Barbara Strachey, Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (Allen & Unwin, Ballantine, 1981). Detailed large-scale topographical maps showing the exact routes of the journeys in The Lord of the Rings. On occasion Strachey stretches Tolkien’s maps to explain discrepancies with the text: these problems are discussed in The History of Middle-earth.

Tolkien the artist

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator (HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, 1995). A book-length text on Tolkien’s development and interests as a visual artist, accompanied by extensive illustrations.

Judith Priestman, J.R.R. Tolkien: Life and Legend (Bodleian Library, 1992). Illustrated and annotated catalogue of the Bodleian Library’s 1992 exhibition of Tolkien’s art and writings.

Tolkien and the Inklings

Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin, 1978). A group biography of the Inklings, the literary circle to which Tolkien belonged. Intended as a supplement to the same author’s biography of Tolkien.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent State University Press, 2007). Discussion of the Inklings as an interactive writers’ group, with special attention to the encouragement, criticism, and collaboration among the principal members. Puts Tolkien into context as friend, colleague, informal critic, and fellow scholar.

Collections of essays

Jane Chance, ed., Tolkien the Medievalist (Routledge, 2003); Tolkien and the Invention of Myth (University Press of Kentucky, 2004); Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages (ed. with Alfred K. Siewers; Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Primarily on Tolkien’s adaptations and echoes of mythology and medieval literature, and the interaction between ancient and modern in his work.

George Clark and Daniel Timmons, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth (Greenwood Press, 2000). Principally comparative studies of Tolkien and other authors, especially ones whose works may have inspired his.

Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, ed., The Lord of the Rings 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder (Marquette University Press, 2006). Papers from a conference in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Lord of the Rings, many on the nature and impact of that book.

Neil D. Isaacs and Rose A. Zimbardo, ed., Tolkien and the Critics: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968). A valuable reprint collection of important and path-breaking early essays on Tolkien, originally published between 1955 and 1966.

Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter, ed., Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on The History of Middle-earth (Greenwood Press, 2000). Studies on the patterns of literary and linguistic creativity to be found in an examination of the volumes of The History of Middle-earth.

Patricia Reynolds and Glen GoodKnight, ed., Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992 (Tolkien Society, Mythopoeic Society, 1995). A very large collection of essays on a broad range of topics.