David Colbert, The Magical Worlds of the Lord of the Rings (Berkeley Books, 2002)

My first thought at looking at the jacket of this book was "Aha! Tolkien for Dummies!" The blurb on the book jacket, that David Colbert is the author of The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter, and the publication date -- 2002 -- seemed to confirm my suspicion that this book was an attempt to milk the popularity of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of the Lord of The Rings for all it was worth. This impression was strengthened by the cover disclaimer: "this book was not authorized, prepared, approved, licensed, or endorsed by the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros., or any other individual or entity associated with the Lord of the Rings books or movie."

The Magical Worlds of the Lord of The Rings is written in a breezy, easy-to-understand style. The information is organized into a series of 36 questions that are arranged alphabetically. Some of the questions are fairly straightforward -- "Who Was Tolkien's First Dark Lord?" and "How Did Tolkien Name Names?" -- while others seem like escapees from David Letterman's "top ten" -- "What's the Worst Thing about Sauron?" and "What Did Tolkien See in Galadriel?" Also included in the book are some spiffy pullouts, retro illustrations straight from Dover Books' copyright-free clip art, and a very useful basic bibliography and list of Web sites.

Colbert provides a workmanlike examination of some of the central and not-so-central issues in The Lord of the Rings. His discussion of parallels between the eye of Sauron and one-eyed sun gods such as Odin and Ra was excellent. I felt that the need for condensation caused him to skip over some key points. For example, in question 2, "Why Is Frodo the Ring-Bearer?" Colbert explains that it was so that Tolkien could portray the process of a small, ordinary creature becoming "noble." In The Fellowship of the Ring, however, Gandalf and Elrond supply two more trenchant reasons. First, hobbit psychology is different. A hobbit's will to power is miniscule compared to that of a man, a dwarf or an elf, so hobbits are less vulnerable to the corrupting influence of the Ring. Second, Sauron naturally would expect the Ring-bearer to be some powerful entity like himself. Therefore, a hobbit Ring-bearer would be the most likely one to "slip under the radar" and enter Mordor undetected.

In the final question, "Did Frodo Fail?" Colbert says that Frodo's failure to give up the Ring at the Cracks of Doom is a "Modern Ending." This could only be true if one defines Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a modern poem. In both The Lord of the Rings and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the heroes yield to overwhelming temptation in the final moments of their quests. In Sir Gawain, Gawain betrays the trust of his host and "fails," by hiding the green sash which he believes would protect him from certain death. Both Frodo and Sir Gawain are forgiven for falling short of their goals. The point was that being perfect would not make Gawain or Frodo great. Their greatness sprang from their ceaseless struggle to perfect themselves despite their frailties. Since Tolkien was the first translator of Sir Gawain, and since his fascination with the Gawain poet dated back to his school days, it's not surprising that elements of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight strayed into Middle-Earth.

It's hard to tell whom this book is targeted to. From the explanations of terms such as "Anglo-Saxon," and "spelunking," I would guess that it was written for a younger audience; but, judging from my own experience, a youngster precocious enough to read The Lord of the Rings will hate being talked down to in this fashion. People with an interest in Tolkien's works will find little here that isn't better stated in Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien and in T.A. Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth. Indeed, Mr. Colbert's debt to Shippey is so great that one can only hope that Shippey gets a cut of the royalty payments. The most likely audience for this book would be people who are curious about The Lord of the Rings after seeing Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring.

I would have given my eyeteeth for a book like this when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time at age 9. Having to piece together the vast world that was the background for the action in The Lord of the Rings, however, was invaluable training for the mind and the imagination and the heart. I believe that a good part of the power of The Lord of the Rings lies in the necessity for each reader to explore Middle-Earth without the aid of a "Hitchhiker's Guide." To steal a march from Treebeard, Colbert's approach is much too hasty. This is pre-digested Tolkien, and as one would expect, a lot of the nourishment has been leached out in the process.

[Liz Milner]