Karen Haber (Editor), Meditations on Middle-Earth (St. Martin's, 2001)
Tolkien was religious. Not in the loud, proselytizing manner of his friend C. S. Lewis, but with the bone-deep sincerity of a man born into the faith he still holds. Which is to say, he was not trying to argue anyone to his beliefs, but only to portray the workings of the world as he understood them. -- Michael Swanwick
So when did you first read the work of Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien? What impact did it have on you? Meditations on Middle-Earth is, at its simplest, just a number of well-written essays by Raymond Feist, Poul Anderson, George R. R. Martin, Esther M. Friesner, Michael Swanwick, Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Diane Duane, Harry Turtledove, Douglas A. Anderson, Orson Scott Card, Charles De Lint, Lisa Goldstein, Tim and Greg Hildebrandt (as related by Glenn Hurdling), Terri Windling, editor Karen Haber, and illustrator John Howe. (Sadly, the volume is dedicated to Poul Anderson, who died late last year. May he enjoy his stay in Asgard.) Now you might think that this work was done solely to cash in on the popularity of the recently released movie The Lord of The Rings -- The Fellowship of The Ring ... but no publisher would be that crass, would they? Never! Well, almost never....
The problem for me is that this is a hit-or-miss collection of essays on J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, written by modern fantasy writers who obviously loved these books. Not that there's anything wrong with that; I spent a fair amount of cash on the high-end edition of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings a few years back so that I could reread them. (I first read them in the '60s in the cheap, bootlegged Ballantine editions.) Many of the essays are Proust-like remembrances of these authors' first experiences of reading Tolkien's epic tale and the lasting effect the story had on their lives. I won't deny that these essays have both an interesting personal interest angle and a charming feel to them, but they start sounding the same quickly.
There's good stuff here if you look for. (And a word of advice -- don't bleedin' read this all at one time. I thought I was going to gag after reading all of them in one sitting!) Well worth the price of the book is Terri Windling's story of her own upbringing with an extremely violent father and how Tolkien's writing helped her cope with that aspect of her life. Ursula LeGuin, a favourite of mine, whose work often gets reviewed by Green Man, writes an interesting but sketchy piece on the way time and other cycles pass in the Tolkien universe. And the best essay in this book is Orson Scott Card on how the world has changed since Tolkien wrote these books in the dark years before and during WWII. (Note to other reviewers -- The Lord of the Rings is not about WWII, since most of it was written well before that war started. If any war shaped this cycle of tales, it was The War to End All Wars, aka WWI.) If you read nothing else in this collection, read Scott's 'How Tolkien Means'.
(Many of these essays feel like they were written in one sitting. Could it be that this was rushed to market? Not that a publisher would do that....)
Sigh. The three essays mentioned above are by far the best material here. It's not that the other writers are poor writers -- far from it -- but they write clearly as fans of Tolkien. And do we really need essays telling us how great Tolkien was and how he influenced their writing careers? In a word, no. This won't be the worst book that the publishing industry will inflict on the Tolkien-crazed crowds out there, but it's certainly not one that needed publishing. Save your money and go purchase something else, say T. A. Shippey's new biography of Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, which is getting rave reviews, or W. H. Auden's Tolkien Treasury: Stories, Poems, and Illustrations Celebrating the Author and His World, which at least has a sense of humour!
[Jack B. Merry who's really overdue to reread The Lord of the Rings!]