Greg Harvey, The Origins of Tolkiens Middle-earth for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2003)
True confession time: I initially approached this book with all the enthusiasm that Frasier Crane would have for a bubble gum latte. While Id spent a lot of time sneering at "Tolkien for Dummies" books, I never expected that Id actually see one. When I first saw this book at a Sci-Fi Convention, I clutched my heart and muttered darkly about the end of Western Civilization. The subtitle, "The fun and easy way® to explore the myths and themes of The Lord of the Rings," only added to my trepidations.
Indeed all the trademarked. "For Dummies" accoutrements are here: the cartoons, the icons, the sidebars, the quick tips, cheat sheets and links.
Greg Harvey has taken on the huge and unforgiving task of explaining Tolkiens world of Middle-earth. The good news is that Harvey brings a wide-ranging knowledge of world mythology, religion and languages to the task. It's hard to resist his enthusiasm.
The book covers a huge amount of ground including:
The historical background of Middle-earth
The origins of Tolkiens Mythology in European Follklore
The Geography of Middle-earth
The Races found in Middle-earth
The Languages of Middle-earth
Differences between the books and the movies
Unfortunately, the "Dummies" format gets in the way. The Origins of Tolkiens Middle-earth for Dummies seems to be proof positive of Gandalf's dictum that "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is leaves the path of wisdom."
Tolkien was careful to develop the incredible elements of his world slowly, so that his readers had time to absorb and accept its strangeness. The Lord of the Rings is a carefully constructed work. The slightest alteration to the chronology can cause the entire structure of belief to fold like a house of cards. Because the "For Dummies" format forces Harvey to tell the story out of order (Faramir, for example, is discussed several chapters before his brother Boromir), and very baldly, the beauty and magic of Tolkiens world is leached out and whats left resembles an overblown opera plot.
Also, in his attempts to relate Tolkiens work to world religion and mythology, Harvey sometimes stretches things to the point of absurdity. For example, a sidebar presents a discussion of "Lao-tsus description of an ideal hobbit life." These digressions are often more distracting than enlightening.
Harvey also commits some minor errors of fact. For example, he commits the sin of spurious etymology when he writes that the term "fairy" is derived from the English, "fair race," while both Webster's Dictionary and OED say it's derived from the Latin "fata" or fate through Old French and Middle English. For someone who loves Tolkien, it is surprising that Harvey seems to have trouble remembering the plot of The Lord of the Rings. He frequently confuses Merry and Pippin. At one point, he says that Pippin saw Bilbo use the Ring to escape a visit from the Sackville-Bagginses and also read Bilbo's book on the sly, when it was actually Merry.
The section on Tolkien and Language is where Harvey really comes into his own. He explores a subject that, as far as I know, no one else has addressed -- the role sound played in Tolkien's writing and explains how the primal music of Tolkien's creation myth, The Ainulindalë, reverberates through The Lord of the Rings. Ever wonder why the Orcs wet themselves at the mere mention of the name of Elbereth Gilthoniel? Harvey has the answer, and it all relates back to the music of the Ainur.
Harvey's knowledge of Elvish also enables him pick up linguistic nuances that a non-Elvish speaker would miss. For example, he points out instances in Tolkien's fiction where characters switch from Sindran to Quenya to signal the gravity of what they are saying.
There's good information here, but there's also a whole lot of padding and a bit of misinformation. It's a handy reference, but if you want to understand Middle-earth, you're much better off buying Tom Shippey's two books on Tolkien, The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R Tolkien Created a New Mythology, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century.