When Bilbo Baggins finds and steals the magic ring, Gollum cries, “Thief, thief, thief!” Was J.R.R. Tolkien one as well?
Perhaps it’s not entirely fair to use the words of one of his own characters against him. But, as Christopher Snyder’s “The Making of Middle-earth: A New Look Inside the World of J.R.R. Tolkien” makes clear, Tolkien cleverly adapted ideas, characters, and themes from myriad source materials.
His imaginary world, Middle-earth, was built upon the backs of works from Anglo-Saxon, Old English, Middle English, and Scandinavian literature, even the Pre-Raphaelites. Tolkien was, as Gollum might mutter, a “tricksy” borrower of nearly everything he read, from “Beowulf” to the Icelandic Sagas, “The Wanderer” to the Finnish “Kalevala.”
Now, as the second of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” film adaptations, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” steamrolls viewers this season with dwarf overload, Snyder’s study brings us back to the source material.
“After our first encounter with Middle-earth, our world does not quite feel the same. We cannot look at gently rolling hills without thinking of the Shire, cannot watch autumn leaves turning gold without recalling Lothlorien,” Snyder writes. “Indeed, how many of us have looked hard into a mighty tree hoping to find the eyes of Treebeard peering out at us.”
In the same way Tolkien has altered, or warped, our reality, in Snyder’s readable study we see how Tolkien was changed by his literary forebears, which inspired him to create his own “legendarium.”
All that he read — including the first use of the word Middle-earth from “Crist II,” a poem dating to the eighth or ninth century by the Anglo Saxon writer Cynewulf — became “the catalyst for Tolkien’s ‘subcreation’ of Middle-earth,” the “inventing [of] an imaginary secondary world” as richly detailed as our own, replete with languages, history, races, annals, poetry, and a multitude of plots, subplots, and rumors.
Author of “The World of King Arthur,” Snyder breaks his enormous topic into a series of short sections. Each focuses on a text, such as Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” or topic, like “Mountains, Rings and Riddles in the Dark.” He then traces how the chain of influence played out in works ranging from “The Lord of the Rings” to less-known books like “The Silmarillion” and “The Children of Hurin.”
In a sub-chapter titled “Concerning Dwarves,” we learn that “Tolkien borrowed wholesale” the names Durin, Bifur, Bombur, Nori, Fili, Kili, and others from the Old Norse work the “Elder Edda.” The idea of Gandalf as a wizard amalgamates ideas of Odin and Merlin, Snyder postulates; the name itself is probably pilfered from two sources: Gandalfr from “Elder Edda,” and Gandolf from “The Well at the World’s End” by William Morris.
We learn about Tolkien’s fascination with the Anglo Saxons and Goths. He hated the Victorian idea of “diminutive” Victorian fairies; hence, in Middle-earth, his elves were full-size and not frivolous.
Where hard evidence, such as a letter by Tolkien himself admitting to his gentle borrowing, does not exist, Snyder is careful not to be definitive. Rather, he smartly hedges. Tolkien’s idea for the horse people of Rohan “owes much to Gothic and Anglo-Saxon culture.” Heorot, the mead hall in “Beowulf,” is “similar in description to” Beorn’s house in “The Hobbit.”
The information about Tolkien’s formative experiences — the death of both parents, the trauma of fighting in the Battle of the Somme, his friendship with C.S. Lewis — feels much like a gloss of more in-depth works by Tolkien biographers such as Humphrey Carpenter and critics such as Tom Shippey, Wayne Hammond, Christina Scull, and John Garth.
But as a beginner’s guide, “The Making of Middle-earth” adds an important voice to the growing body of Tolkien scholarship for laypeople and provides a lightning quick overview of Tolkien’s life, academic trajectory, and literary interests in a highly readable style. Colorful sidebars and archival illustrations bring the history alive, and the look and feel are appropriately medieval (though the calligraphy can be hard to read). Comprehensive footnotes, appendices, and other resources are there for more in-depth exploration.
Tolkien’s ultimate goal was to create a mythology for the English, a people who never had one. Middle-earth is a manifestation of “nostalgia,” Snyder writes, Tolkien’s longing for a “return to the golden years.” To get us there, Tolkien’s appropriating can be forgiven. Just don’t call him thief.