Leslie Ellen Jones, Myth and Middle-Earth: Exploring the Legends Behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (Cold Spring Press, 2002)

In the vast and ever-growing mountain of Tolkien commentaries written in the past few years, there’s a great deal of fluff posing as scholarship, but to my knowledge, Leslie Ellen Jones’ Myth and Middle-earth is the first work of scholarship posing as fluff.

Ms. Jones seems to have targeted her book to intelligent readers with very limited attention spans; people who get their information in soundbites. In a breezy, non-threatening style, she puts Tolkien's work in the context of comparative and Celtic mythology and also provides a broad overview of the history and methodology of the disciplines of philology (the history of words), folklore, and mythology. She explains how Tolkien’s creation of Middle-earth’s mythology was profoundly shaped by his training in philology and explores the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, Old Norse, Germanic, Gothic and Celtic myths that inspired him. She also gives all-too brief explanations of the ways in which Tolkien modified this inherited material.

Myth and Middle-earth races through a myriad of topics including:

- An overview of Ring Mythology
- A capsule sketch of Tolkien's life and career
- History and overview of the fields of Philology, Folklore and Mythology
- Tom Bombadil and the 7th-century Welsh bard, Taliesin
- The trickster figure in folklore and The Lord of the Rings. This category includes Gandalf, Myrddin/Merlin and otherworldly messengers such as Hermes/Mercury, and angels in general.
- Influence of Arthurian Legends on The Lord of the Rings
- Dragons, Elves, Dwarves, Shapeshifters, Ents and the Undead
- Riddle contests in folklore
- Tolkien's Wastelands. Jones describes them as a marriage of "the medieval wasteland of the grail romances with the modernist wasteland of the battlefields of World War I and the environmental wreckage of the Industrial Revolution."
- Middle-earth and mythology
- Annotated Bibliography

Jones, who is a folklorist specializing in Celtic and comparative mythology, covers a whole lot of academic ground and then covers up her scholarly tracks with language that is slightly flippant. To give some examples, she writes of how Tolkien used myth to create fiction that "packed all the cosmic wallop for modern audiences that mythical narratives had held for the ancients." Later she writes, "Throughout his novels, Tolkien seems to say that high deeds, the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, and the overthrow of evil are stirring sights and make for exciting stories, but to really get the job done, you need a little guy." Speaking of "little guys," her capsule description of the Dwarves is, "They do not like to share; they do not play well with others."

Jones has an excellent grasp of comparative mythology, folklore and popular culture. Surprisingly, given the fact that she is also the author of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, her grasp on Tolkien's writings is a little shaky. The most noticeable evidence of this is when she erroneously says that Frodo spent his childhood among his Took relatives, not his Brandybuck ones. At another point, she writes, "The devastation of the Shire that Sam sees [in Galadriel's mirror] is the result of the hobbits' 'mercy' in not killing Saruman when there was the chance." I don't think Tolkien intended the Hobbits' roadside meeting with Saruman to be an endorsement of preemptive strikes as Jones seems to indicate. Instead, I think that in this scene (found in the "Many Partings" chapter of Return Of The King), he was attempting to convey the idea that mercy and forgiveness are available to even the most heinous criminals. I think the last lesson he'd want readers to draw from this scene is that the Hobbits should have skewered Saruman.

Perhaps inspired by Tolkien’s dictum that it is the unexplored, barely glimpsed terrain that exerts the greatest hold on the imagination, Jones provides enticing peeks at ideas and then rushes pell-mell off to other topics. In a chapter on shapeshifters, for example, she mentions in passing that the "waking" of the trees in The Lord of the Rings may signal the emergence of a new race in Middle-earth, but instead of elaborating on this, she shifts abruptly to a discussion of bear mythology with a brief digression into werewolves and wargs. Elsewhere, she mentions that Tolkien often uses contrasting pairs of characters to illustrate contrasting responses to life's challenges; one good and one flawed: "Merry and Pippin, one of whom swears allegiance to Theoden out of the love, the other of whom swears allegiance to Denethor out of pride." Other such pairs include Gandalf and Saruman, Faramir and Boromir, Theoden and Denethor. I can see this as fodder for at least a chapter and perhaps even a thesis, but Jones is content to leave it at one paragraph.

The whole book feels very rushed and superficial; a masterful summary that is waiting to be fleshed out. The whole time I was reading it, I could hear Treebeard muttering "hasty, very hasty," while Merry was anxiously asking whether taking so many shortcuts was a good idea.

[Liz Milner]