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Collecting reviews and criticism of Tolkien

29 Aug, 2023
2023-8-29 1:53:02 PM UTC

It's admittedly a niche area but I thought some who visit the site might be interested to hear a little more about collecting reviews and criticism of Tolkien's works.


There's a lot of variety in what can be collected - newspapers, magazines, academic journals, fanzines, monographs - and all of these can provide an insight into how people have viewed and reacted to Tolkien over the years. As you can imagine, the breadth and depth of reactions is huge, from decade to decade and from country to country.

Some of the reviews and criticism are famous in their own right - for example, W.H. Auden and C.S. Lewis praising The Lord of the Rings (in the New York Times, and in Time and Tide respectively), and Edmund Wilson's attack in The Nation ("Oo, Those Awful Orcs!"). But if you want to dig any deeper, then by way of orientation, certain reference works are invaluable:

Judith Johnson, J.R.R. Tolkien: Six Decades of Criticism (Greenwood Press, 1986)

Johnson (1).jpg

This work is divided into four separate chronological periods, with each period having a list of works by Tolkien, followed by a list of items of criticism. These include both book reviews as well as more scholarly and/or lengthy analyses. I find it rather helpful that the items are sub-divided by year (and then alphabetically within each year). Some entries have a brief annotation though there is more of this in the work by West.

Johnson (2).jpg

Richard C. West, Tolkien Criticism: An Annotated Checklist (2nd ed, Kent State University Press, 1981)

West (1).jpg

The first section of this work lists Tolkien's own works chronologically, followed by a an alphabetical list of items of criticism for the entire period covered (i.e. no sub-divison by year or even decade). There is a good deal more annotation than in the work by Johnson, so this really helps in getting an idea of whether a particular piece might be of interest.

West (2).jpg

George H. Thomson, "Early Review of Books by J.R.R. Tolkien"

This is published in several parts, in non-consecutive issues of Mythlore - Part I was in Vol 11, No. 2 (Autumn 1984, also known as Mythlore 40). These can be viewed online at SWOSU Digital Commons ( Note too these were published under the name "Thompson" though it appears that this was an error.

The structure is divided according to separate works by Tolkien - thus Part I covers The Hobbit and some of the reviews of FOTR (continued in Part II) with more minor works coming in the later Parts. There is a good level of annotation, sometimes including direct quotes, and also an indication of whether the review was positive (+), negative (-) or neutral (o).


The entries here are somewhat more focused on pure book reviews (rather than scholarly treatment), since most of them are contemporary with the work being reviewed. There are exceptions however - for example, Thomson includes "Hwaet, We Holbytla" by Douglass Parker, in the Hudson Review (Winter 1956-57), which is a 10-page examination of The Lord of the Rings.

All of this won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I really like collecting (not to mention reading!) these reviews and pieces of criticism. An awful lot can admittedly be read online, but from a collecting perspective there is something appealing about old newspapers, magazines and journals, many of which are just as old as the works that they are reviewing.

There are a few quirks to tracking down these items. eBay tends to be quite good for the more mass market magazines and for some newspapers, while sites like Abebooks and Biblio are better for journals or similar literary publications. It's fair to say that items tend not to be very expensive (under $50 is quite common) though there can be exceptions, especially where the Tolkien content or relevance has been identified - a good example being the 1966 issue of Diplomat magazine (with a special section on Tolkien) which sold recently on eBay for $175.

The relative scarcity of many items, which may not have survived in many copies, or which simply don't find their way to market, can make the hunt quite challenging too. Also, there can be a lot of variation in how sellers describe a particular date (e.g. month written in full or as a number?) - while for journals or similar periodicals, there can be more than one way to reference it, both perfectly accurate (e.g. Number 7 of the Tolkien Journal, in 1967, is also known as Volume 3, Number 1). Just as in any other area of collecting, there are little pitfalls for the unwary - I recently bought a copy of Newsweek for the review of The Silmarillion (October 24, 1977) and once it arrived, I couldn't find the review, and the page numbering was off - only then did I realise I'd bought the international edition, as opposed to the US edition, which had an identical cover.

Let me round off with a few favourite items:

The Scotsman, March 9, 1939 - a brief report on the delivery of the Andrew Lang Lecture the previous evening at the University of St. Andrews, by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, on the subject of Fairy Stories.


The New Statesman and Nation, September 18, 1954 - a review of The Fellowship of the Ring by Naomi Mitchison (with whom Tolkien corresponded and who read page proofs of the work).

New Statesman.jpg

The Hudson Review, Winter 1956-57, containing the article "Hwaet, We Holbytla..." which is acknowledged as one of the earliest scholarly treatments of The Lord of the Rings.

Hudson Review.jpg

I hope you found some of this interesting or helpful!

29 Aug, 2023
2023-8-29 2:28:25 PM UTC
Very interesting, well done. Thanks!

29 Aug, 2023
2023-8-29 2:36:26 PM UTC
A very good peek in to the accolades and criticisms towards Tolkien’s works. Nicely done!
29 Aug, 2023
2023-8-29 8:48:30 PM UTC
Thank you for this! I liked it very much. Lokki
29 Aug, 2023
2023-8-29 8:57:56 PM UTC
This was a fun read, thank you.
30 Aug, 2023
2023-8-30 1:52:35 AM UTC
Very, very nice. It's interesting to see the company Tolkien's books were in when they were first released.

The first picture prompts a bit of regret -- I coulda had probably a couple of those at least, when the university library threw out most of its magazine archive in 2010. I had Richard West's book to refer to but missed that New Republic (a cover story!) and that Atlantic.
30 Aug, 2023
2023-8-30 4:52:53 AM UTC
Thanks everyone!

And Dale I sympathise about the ones that got away, but remain impressed by how many items you did save
30 Aug, 2023 (edited)
2023-8-30 11:39:21 AM UTC
Great to see Matt, been looking forward to this post. As a collector i dread another rabbithole to fall into, as a tolkienite it's really interesting to see the stuff you are digging out that really challenges the conception/story that early reviews of LotR were so terribly polarized or unbalanced. Also quite delightful to see how insightful some of these reviews are.
30 Aug, 2023
2023-8-30 2:07:02 PM UTC
Thanks northman.

I like to think that someone writing about those early reviews, not much more than a decade later, is a more credible witness than others writing around half a century later. George Thomson said this in a piece for the Tolkien Journal in 1969: "for the most part the response from Canberra to Los Angeles to London was enthusiastic."

On an unrelated note, but in terms of insightful commentary, Louis J. Halle had some wonderful observations - I rather like how he imagined that some would say that LOTR does not constitute history, but that "students who recognize that history is a branch of literature, however, will take a different view."
23 Nov, 2023
2023-11-23 2:19:44 PM UTC
A small addition to this overview:

As mentioned above, the valuable reference work by Richard West was published in a (greatly extended) 2nd edition in 1981. His fine work continued, and a supplement to his monograph was published in the Winter 2004 issue of Modern Fiction Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press), covering the period from 1981 to 2004.

As an aside, that issue of Modern Fiction Studies was dedicated to Tolkien, and contains 8 articles, alongside the piece by West.

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