Robert Foster, A Guide to Middle Earth (Ballantine, 1971)
[originally posted 9May2000]
Much of the criticism surrounding Tolkien’s masterwork is all the niggling little detail– fifty pages of preface, two hundred(!) pages of appendix, and the hobbits’ collective obsession with genealogy. Well, there’s more to it than that, but you get the idea. Given that, I’m not sure whether Ballantine aimed to aid or annoy the reader with the publication of A Guide to Middle Earth which is, in essence, a companion to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion. It’s an encyclopedic listing of people, places, and things. So why review it? Mostly to put things into perspective with criticism (and to up the year’s body count, because I’ve been something of a laggard since the new century dawned).
Whatever you think of Mr. Tolkien’s obsession for detail, I can pretty much guarantee that you WILL get confused about some minor plot point relating to who’s who, what gets called by what other names, or what language any give character is supposed to be speaking. And because of that, this book really is a rather indispensable thing to have beside you when immersing yourself in Tolkieniana. It does, by definition, suffer from the same unwieldiness as does the work it references; after all, just because Pippin can rattle off his whole family tree by heart, that doesn’t necessarily mean we need all of them listed in the companion volume (unless we’re making a roleplaying game out of it, and one thinks many roleplayers have had a tattered copy of this book in their collections).
In short: if reading the major works of Tolkien, you’d be well-served by having a copy of this about. ** ½