Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, The J.R.R. Tolkien
Companion and Guide (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
A well-crafted reference work is not terribly different from a well-prepared repast that you remember a long time after having the pleasure of experiencing it. As Jack Merry, fiddler and a lover of both good food and a fine reference guide once said, 'Ahhh, been muckin' 'bout the Green Man library? What were you looking for? Guides to fantastic literature? Go left by the card catalog, turn down the stone stairs to the right, and you should find the cases that have all of 'em . . . or at least the ones not elsewhere in use by staffers. What are me favourites, you ask? Now there's a good question. . . . Let's grab some tea and sit in the kitchen to ponder that while we watch Fiona and her staff bake bread and other goodies for tonight's repast. After all, a good reference guide is as much magic as a properly made stew with its melange of flavours, or hearty bread with a nose-tickling aroma that makes your mouth water!' I certainly would not disagree and would add that The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide is a very well-prepared feast for any Tolkien reader with a strong interest in knowing more about the works of Tolkien.
At two volumes and some twenty-three hundred pages (!), it is rather obviously designed to be an essential reference work for all readers, particularly those of the more hard-core nature as I doubt that even those who have read The Lord of The Rings trilogy three or four times over a period of time would be interested in this Guide. So who would want this? Well, certainly any Tolkien scholar will want it as will any academic library with an interest in Tolkien studies, as The Reader's Guide includes brief but reasonably comprehensive entries on a wide range of material including a who's who of important persons in the work of Tolkien, a guide to places and organizations in his metafiction narrative, a fair amount of material on Tolkien's source material, the importance of his social circle, and even a look at his military service. Now I know that there dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of more detailed works on specific aspects of all things Tolkien, i.e. John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, Ruth S. Noel's The Languages of Tolkien's Middle-earth, and Michel W. Perry's Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings to name but three of the dozens of reference works that we've reviewed down the years but none are quite as handy as this is. The Reader's Guide, due to length has no listing of topics, but the authors have put it online here.
The second volume is definitely not for the causal reader as it is, I kid you not, a nearly thousand page chronology detailing, as the Houghton Mifflin Web site puts it:
the parallel evolutions of Tolkien's works and his academic and personal life in minute detail. Spanning the entirety of his long life including nearly sixty years of active labor on his Middle-earth creations, and drawing on such contemporary sources as school records, war service files, biographies, correspondence, the letters of his close friend C. S. Lewis, and the diaries of W. H. Lewis, this book will be an invaluable resource for those who wish to gain a complete understanding of Tolkien's status as a giant of twentieth-century literature.
No, I did not read chapter and verse but I did spend several 'fascinating' hours looking through the chronology and I can say without fear of contradiction that Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull really do know damn everything there about the timeline that is the history of Tolkien as a writer.
(You will find the the same preface, list of works consulted, and index in both volumes. As the authors explain on their site, it wasn't really their idea:
The Companion and Guide was conceived and written as a single work, but grew to such a length that it was necessary to bind it in two volumes. If all copies of these had been published as a set, we could have dispensed with duplicate prefaces, etc.; but since our publishers chose to sell the volumes separately as well as together in a slipcase, we had to treat each volume as if it were independent, and include in it all essential features: explanation of scope and method, acknowledgements, full citations to works consulted (cited only briefly in the text), index, and statement of copyright.
Nor are there any maps included. If you really need a good set of Middle-earth maps, I strongly recommend John Howe and Brian Sibley's The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-Earth which Green Man reviewed here.)
Unlike some reference works, such as Brian Stableford's Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature and Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature, which make great intellectual snack food, this is not popcorn literature whose function is to entertain -- much of it is quite dry and more than a bit boring. But if you need to know damn near anything there is to know about Tolkien, his life, and his works, this is simply the best guide I've seen to date. Though I most likely will refer to it from time when I need an answer, I won't ask that it will reside in the collection of essential reference works I keep near my desk here in my Green Man office -- no, Iain Mackenzie, our Green Man Librarian, will get so that it can reside in the Library here amongst the myriad other works on Tolkien.