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A Guide to Tolkien, David Day (Octopus 1993)

If someone is a famous writer, then it’s certain they’ll have biographers, critics and other analysts. And it’s likely that they’ll be better writers than those who write about them. Often much better. That’s certainly true of Lytton Strachey and Michael Holroyd or George Orwell and Robert Colls.

But it’s not true of J.R.R. Tolkien and David Day. Whatever his merits – and my readings of Lord of the Rings (1954-5) and The Hobbit (1937) reached double figures long ago – Tolkien just isn’t a very good writer. He’s clumsy, he’s hackneyed and his ambition far exceeded his abilities. And so it turns out that David Day, the author of this short but interesting guide to Tolkien’s world, is a better writer than Tolkien. You could almost say that Tolkien provides the rough gems before Day cuts and polishes them:

Galadhrim

The forest that in the Second Age of the Sun was first named Laurelindórenan, “land of the valley of singing gold”, and later Lothlórien, “land of blossoms dreaming”, and even by some Lórien, “dreamland”, was east of the Misty Mountains by the Silverlode, which flows into the Great River Anduin. It was the Gold Wood, where the tallest trees on Middle-earth grew. They were called the Mallorn trees and were the most beautiful of trees in Mortal Lands. Their bark was silver and grey, their blossoms golden and their leaves green and gold.

Within the forest was the concealed Elven kingdom of the Galadhrim, the “tree-people”, who made their homes on platforms called telain, or flets, high in the branches of the sheltering Mallorn.


Woses

In the War of the Ring a strange primitive folk called the Woses came to aid the Rohirrim and Dúnedain in breaking the Siege of Gondor. These wild woodland folk lived in the ancient Forest of Druadan, which was in Anórien, below the White Mountains. They knew woodcraft better than any other folk, for they lived as naked animals invisibly among the trees for many ages and cared not for the company of other peoples. They were weather-worn, short-legged, thick-armed and stumpy-bodied. […] In the First Age of the Sun, these were the people who lived in harmony with the Haladin in Beleriand, who called them Drûgs. To the Elves they were known as the Drúedain; to the Orcs they were the Oghor-hai and to the Rohirrim the Rógin.


Nazgûl

in the twenty-third century of the Third Age of the Sun, in Middle0earth there arose nine mighty wraiths who in the Black Speech of Orcs were named the Nazgûl, which is “Ringwraiths”. And of all the evil servants and generals of Sauron the Ring Lord, these proved to be the greatest.

David Day writes more crisply and effectively about Tolkien’s world than Tolkien does, but Tolkien’s flaws may be part of his appeal. He’s subtler than I and many others have sometimes given him credit for, but he wasn’t a genius. Instead, he was an intelligent, conscientious and highly knowledgeable scholar who had a penchant for what he himself called “sub-creation”. There is only one true Creator, God, and only one true Creation, the Universe and the creatures that inhabit it.

But some of those creatures have the power to sub-create, that is, arrange the materials granted them by God into patterns of their own. It might be a statue or it might be a story. Tolkien was a sub-creator of stories – and of sometimes powerful art to illustrate those stories. He would have said that he was sub-creating in honour of his Creator and of Catholicism. If so, he wasn’t very effective. The Lord of the Rings is not known for bringing its readers to Christianity, let alone to Catholicism, but it does many other things. This guide condenses its appeal and helps you better understand Tolkien the Sub-Creator. There’s everything here from Gods, gods and goblins to Witchkings, wizards and Woses.

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