Elves, and Wizards by Michael
Palgrave Macmillan, Trade: ISBN 1403960259 PubDate Sept 2002
Review by Edward Carmien
208 pages List price $12.95
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Every year since 1971 Lord of the Rings (LOTR)
has been taught in a literature course at the University of Vermont.
Professor Michael N. Stanton created the science fiction and fantasy
course in which it is taught, and he’s taught the book at least once a
year ever since. The first thing a reader will notice about Hobbits,
Elves, and Wizards is Stanton’s great fondness for Tolkien’s
text: “I think it is the finest work of heroic fantasy in the
Stanton has a twofold approach to discussing LOTR. First, he presents a brief biography, followed by a commentary about the narrative. He breaks down the events, the characters, and the themes of the novel and discusses them in the sequence they appear as one would read the text. Second, he discusses the peoples of Middle-Earth, the nature of the enemy, Tolkien’s use of languages in the book, and the themes of mind, spirit, and dream.
This twofold approach is both accessible to non-academic readers and intellectually stimulating, an uncommon trick in the world of contemporary publishing. For example, how many readers of Tolkien have ever thought through the term “Middle-Earth?” Of what is the earth in the middle? For those who have thought long thoughts about LOTR, the literary elements of the novel are well known. For the rest, Stanton sheds light on many of the decisions Tolkien made when plotting and refining his book. Want to understand why Tolkien repeated plot elements, settings, or moral challenges in LOTR? Read Stanton’s book.
Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards is also useful and accessible to a more casual reader. If you’re over-awed by the thousand-plus pages of LOTR, or put to sleep by Tolkien’s high-epic prose style, or a non-reader who was entranced by a certain film released in December of 2001, you, too, can benefit from Stanton’s work. He does the reader the service of keeping his language simple. “Help is not only from the outside: at Weathertop it is Frodo’s own courage or strength of mind—unexpected though it is—that, along with the aid of language, saves the day” is a typical line from Stanton. Solid insight expressed in plain lingo is Stanton’s strength. Sam Gamgee wouldn’t mind drinking a beer with this fellow.
Any serious reader of Tolkien will find some disagreement with the interpretation of any other serious reader of Tolkien—that’s just the nature of the beast that is LOTR. I personally find that Stanton too-closely associates Hobbits and Men (humans, in politically correct terms), but I do not see in this book any radical, far-flung notions that would be certain to alienate everyone.
For students of Tolkien, Stanton’s bibliography is valuable by itself, as it lists what appears to my eye to be every worthwhile Tolkien source ever published, dating back to the mid 1960’s.
At less than 180 pages in length, Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards is a good lever to use on the mountain that is Lord of the Rings. I recommend it for both casual and serious readers of Tolkien.