Katie de Koster (editor), Readings on J.R.R. Tolkien (Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000)

In the forward to this book, published as part of The Greenhaven Press Literary Companion to British Authors series, we read the following:

Designed for young adults, this unique anthology series provides an engaging and comprehensive introduction to literary analysis and criticism. The essays included in the Literary Companion Series are chosen for their accessibility to a young adult audience and are expertly edited in consideration of both the reading and comprehension levels of this audience.

Ever since I was a "young adult" myself (although I'm never entirely certain what that age range is supposed to be — 8 to 18? 13 to 21?), I've been suspicious of books "designed to be accessible to a young adult audience." At best, they tend to be earnest and useful, "with no pictures or conversations," to quote Alice. At worst, they are either dull, pedantic and heavily condescending; or arch, full of unobservant adults' attempts at adolescent humor and heavily condescending.

Readings on J.R.R. Tolkien is a pleasant surprise. I was biased against it from the beginning, demanding that it prove itself to me, and it more than met the challenge. I don't know if the editors of the Literary Companion Series are using entirely different criteria for "young adult accessibility" than anyone I've ever encountered before, or if they just decided to throw out all the well-intentioned, laboriously-yet-ludicrously ill-judged standards that are coming out of university education departments around the world, and to just design a book that they'd like to read themselves. Whichever, it works.

The language here is not in the least dumbed-down. Neither are the ideas. Yes, the essays in this anthology have been shortened in certain spots, but when I went and checked a few of the original articles (or sections of books), I agreed with de Koster and her fellow editors that the condensation is appropriate, tightening the thematic flow of each essay. In addition, each selection has on its beginning page a citation for its source, so curious readers can go and find the unabridged original for themselves, if they are so inclined.

De Koster and company go one brave and forthright step further. Rather than choosing selections and presenting them in such a way as to carefully guide "young minds" toward appropriate conclusions about Tolkien as an author of note, they present a wide range of opinions in this anthology. Some of the critics included applaud Tolkien, some scorn him. For example, "The Lord of the Rings Is Greatly Overrated" is condensed from the famous pan "Oo, Those Awful Orcs," written by American critic Edmund Wilson for The Nation in 1956. "Psychological Themes in The Hobbit" by Dorothy Matthews gives readers a taste of how certain scholars have chosen to analyze the significance of Tolkien's work. "A Jungian Interpretation" by Timothy R. O'Neill offers another taste — but O'Neill's interpretation differs markedly from Matthews'. Both are offered side by side, contradicting and complementing one another. I am a life-long devoted fan of Tolkien myself, and have long since thought I'd read everything original there was to read about his work, and heard and sifted through all the opinions for myself. But seeing these particular opinions here, collected in three simple but not constrictive categories — "The Hobbit," "Meaning in The Lord of the Rings" and "The Writer's Art: Style and Sources in The Lord of the Rings" — juxtaposed with one another, I found myself making new connections, seething afresh over something I disagreed with, and generally enjoying the process hugely.

There are fifteen essays in this collection, which is obviously a mere iota of all that has been written about Tolkien. But the editors made the sensible decision to focus solely on critical opinions about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's most well-known books (although several of the essays do refer to his other works). They also present a broad spectrum of the most noted Tolkien scholars, including Paul H. Kocher, Katharyn F. Crabbe, Robley Evans, W.H. Auden and T.A. Shippey — as well as the negative opinions of Edmund Wilson, mentioned above, and Kenneth McLeish, both noted critics.

Readings on J.R.R. Tolkien opens with a short biography. At eighteen pages, it skims over the high points of his life, but it does so without feeling like a bulleted list of events. Throughout, the biographer (unnamed, but if it is de Koster herself, brava!) emphasizes occurrences that would directly affect Tolkien's writing, such as the fact that he was bitten by a tarantula as a young child, a terrifying memory he drew upon to create the giant Mirkwood spiders in The Hobbit and the ghastly Shelob in The Lord of the Rings.

The book also contains a short but sufficient chronology of Tolkien's life, focusing on publication dates and the events that influenced them; a list of sources for further research, including sources on the Internet; and an index. All of this in a slim (175 pages) sturdy paperback with a clear font, enough white space on the pages, and a well-organized, easy-to-navigate presentation.

In sum, I recommend this book highly for "young adults" and their teachers and librarians, but also for adult readers who have an interest in Tolkien, even if that interest is modest. The opposing views about his significance and writing ability are refreshing, and the wide scope of opinions make this either a good starting point or a handy summary reference for Tolkien scholarship.

[Grey Walker]