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Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings Paperback – September 5, 2003
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About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
J. R. R. Tolkiens great tale, The Lord of the Rings, is wonderfully complex. Within its pages, readers meet a marvelous array of creatures from little Hobbits to giant Ents. Its narrative sweeps across a territory roughly the size of western Europe and draws on events spanning thousands of years. But for most readers, however enthralled, making sense of it all is not easy. Fortunately, there are encyclopedias to help us understand the people and places, as well as an atlas to sort out the geography. This book will do the same for the chronology and should become a must have for all serious Tolkien fans.
No one, however, should see this book as a substitute for The Lord of the Rings. It most emphatically is not. If you are reading this and havent yet read Tolkiens great epic, stop and read no further. Read his book at least once from cover to cover before you even look at this book. Enjoy one of the best-written and most widely popular books of modern times and leave details such as the chronology for later. The first rule in reading is always "Enjoy!"
Only after you find yourself wanting to know more about the intricacies of this complicated tale, should you use this book in tandem with other reference books. Remember that the description of events given here is deliberately terse. It is in no way a substitute for Tolkiens much more engrossing narrative. It intended to give you a concise description of what happened on a particular date, along with chapter references to the places where those events described in books such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Without at least the first two books (and preferably all four), this book is of little value.
Readers would also do well to heed the advice of Gandalf when he rebuked Saruman, warning that "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." Do not focus overmuch on the minutia and forget the wonder of the story as a whole. Use this book as a tool to better understand all that Tolkien is saying.
Like most reference works, you can use this book several ways. The most obvious is as a chronology, letting you go from a date to what happened on that day. This is particularly important if, for instance, you want to know what Merry and Pippin were doing when Frodo and Sam entered Mordor. As careful as Professor Tolkien was about the time line of events that lay behind his story, he rarely gives us an actual date. Events are typically described as the third day after some event or the fifth day of a journey whose start date may not even be given. Here you will find the actual day in the Shire calendar when almost everything happens. Try doing that yourself, and youll discover the work that went into this book.
You can also use this book to go from an event to both a date and a reference to where that event is described by Tolkien. In many cases you will find that the sidebar reference is not to one passage but to several. Tolkien liked to spread his story around. Details about an particular event are often given hundreds of pages apart and even in different volumes. With this chronology, youll be able to put everything together, perhaps for the first time.
In addition, many time-related details have been added to increase the books value. When Sauron darkens the sky, the days of darkness are numbered. When Rohan races to Minas Tirith, the days of their ride are counted. When someone enters the story, his age is given. When one event is closely linked to another weeks or even months later, a reference to that other date is given. A computer-generated calendar of the times when the sun and moon set and rise was consulted and included when useful. The same is true of phases of the moon, which play a critical role in parts of this story, particularly the night journeys.
Finally, because Tolkien placed so much stress on the realism and historicity of his tale, the plausibly of his narrative is repeatedly tested. "If Middle-earth really existed," the book asks, "could what he described have actually happened?" Put another way, "Where there are problems, can a reasonable answer be found?" Tolkien often did that, treating difficulties as if they were discrepancies in ancient historical records.
With this book, I release the fruits of my labor to the world, quite aware that, as the pioneering study, it has at least its share of imperfections. Anyone who thinks they have found a mistake is encouraged to contact me through the Internet web site referenced on the copyright page. Anyone with the proper expertise who would like to see editions brought out in other languages should contact me also.
Finally, there is only one reason why a book like this is possible. Tolkien spent untold hours getting the chronology of his tale just right, making charts and calendars describing where each person was on each day. In my writing, I had none of that to consult. Instead, the chronology was recreated, one detail at a time, from the story on which it is based. In the end, I was left awed the wealth of detail that underlies the narrative and is unseen by most readers. Tolkiens account isnt perfect and there are a few discrepancies that I discuss. But few books this long could survive this level of scrutiny and come out as well. For that, each of us should be grateful.
Michael W. Perry, Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. On J. R. R. Tolkiens Eleventy-First Birthday Friday, January 3, 2003
Top Customer Reviews
That is how I'd sum up the book Untanging Tolkien. Michael Perry has first unraveled all Tolkien's "dates" -- which can be extrapolated from phases of the moon -- and then knit them together again in a cohesive outline, presented in much greater detail than Tolkien's own timeline (found buried in Appendix A of LOTR). By incorporating information from other Tolkien writings, the author of Untangling Tolkien collates additional facts about all the characters and the circumstances surrounding the War of the Ring, folding them all into this detailed chronology. He includes material that sheds light on possible parallels between Tolkien's work and events that were contemporary, and he provides original commentary that suggests some additional motivations for Tolkien's characters. Sidebars offer references to every source for the information presented and for each conclusion the author has drawn.
I found the format, with quick-reference bulleted lists and clearly delineated sections and subheadings, well-organized and easy to use.
NOTE: I read the third printing that was published in May 2004. Apparently the author has corrected many of the errors that David Bratman objected to (below). You won't find a better overview or a more throrough treatment of time and dates in LOTR than Perry provides in this book.
But alas, the book does not stop there. The entries are written as bullet lists like a PowerPoint presentation, and many add pointless little flowcharts such as two-generation family trees. They reduce Tolkien's magnificently complex subcreation into a giant mass of undifferentiated trivia. And each yearly or daily entry comes with its commentary, whether directly relevant, side points, broader considerations, or dogmatic essays in applicability. The unrelieved banality and inappropriateness of these must be read to be believed; as also the author's clumsy, grammatically inept style, and his smug superiority to the characters. (He frequently criticizes the good guys' "blunders," all of them more complex than he implies.)
There's actually some good chronological analysis and speculation hiding in here. But how can someone who knows his Tolkien that well say that the wizards were Valar, or that Rohan gave Isengard to Saruman (it wasn't theirs to give, and Saruman was made its warden, not a freeholder), that Boromir and Faramir had a sibling rivalry (Tolkien specifically says not), or suggest that Galadriel should have sent daily eagles to check up on the Fellowship?
These are not isolated examples: the bloopers and misconceived ideas go on and on. The whole book is like that: it has the soul of a PowerPoint presentation. I can't recommend it on any terms.
The book also contains copious notes inline with the chronology. These vary from informative to tangential, but at worst do not detract from the book's primary function. Mr. Perry is perhaps foremost as Lewis scholar, and so C.S. Lewis, a close acquaintance and friend of Tolkein, makes a number of appearances. Also making appearances in the notes are William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill.
All in all, a unique book which will save anyone who wants to do an in depth study of LotR a lot of time.
In addition to chronology, Perry supplies a lot of background information about Tolkien's themes and sources, as well as biographical tidbits about Tolkien. For example, there are fascinating discussions of Tolkien's views of technology, freedom, and totalitarianism. Perry also discusses Tolkien's stance toward the misuse of Germanic myths by the Nazis.
This is a great resource for Tolkien-lovers everywhere.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Fellow reviewer David Bratman nailed it. This book is just god-awful. His summary that this book has the soul of a PowerPoint presentation is perfect. Read morePublished on August 24, 2012 by J. R. Craig
After several attemps to read it I gave up. For me "Untangling Tolkien" by Michael W. Perry does not untangle anything. A rather uninteresting book. Read morePublished on July 31, 2011 by Arkastar
Having read Tolkien's works when I was a teen and a few times again over the next 25 years, I have have always enjoyed his depth of commitment to literature. Read morePublished on May 18, 2009 by Eric Syler