A Tolkien Bestiary Revisited

Last week I found a first edition of A Tolkien Bestiary at my local used bookstore. “Perfect Christmas present for my son,” I thought and snatched it off the shelf. I had originally bought the Bestiary when I was twelve years old (a year after it was published in 1979). It quickly became ensconced in the stack of Tolkien-themed books that I kept in a special place by my bed for late night flashlight reading—books like J.E.A. Tyler’s The Tolkien Companion (which I recently wrote about here for The Huffington Post) and Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle Earth.

Coincidentally, David Day—the author of A Tolkien Bestiary—started following me on Twitter a few days after I bought that copy of his classic. So I decided to reappraise this tome that I  (and many other Tolkien fans) have loved for over three decades.

Day’s book is a true “bestiary” and was based (as he states in his preface) “…on the Greek-Egyptian ‘Physiologus’ of the second century AD. It codified the ancients’ knowledge of magical and monstrous animals and races.” In it you’ll find entries for things like “Vampires” and “Horses”—generalized entries that do not appear in other Middle-earth dictionaries (like The Complete Guide to Middle-earth). This makes delving into the Bestiary more like reading a fascinating novel than a tedious lexicon.

A Tolkien Bestiary is filled with stunning artwork that was created by a team of 11 artists, and these illustrations still seem fresh and interesting even after all these years. Look at how the Halfling in this image brings to mind Elijah Wood as Frodo. (Remember: the book was published two years before the actor was born!)

I used to pore over these paintings and drawings for countless hours, marveling at a Dürer-like line drawing of a Dunlending warrior’s wicked looking armor; or gazing at a beautiful painting of a verdant and sunny Hobbiton as seen from a soaring bird’s POV (see photo at the top of this blog); or a dynamic action scene of Smaug the Golden attacking Lake-town, the Dragon’s belly encrusted with gemstones. (Don’t be surprised if you see a shot exactly like this in The Hobbit 3.)

Day wrote the book when he was thirty years old (still a tween by Hobbit standards), but he was obviously already a Tolkien expert. You only have to read his entries on Dragons or Ents or the Noldor (wonderfully long and enlightening essays) to know that here was a Middle-earth scholar—someone capable of gleaning information from all of Tolkien’s works and consolidating the stories into highly readable yet purposefully antiquated prose.

This slightly archaic style makes you feel as though A Tolkien Bestiary could have been compiled by an inhabitant of the Shire (or even of Gondor): a companion piece to the fabled The Red Book of WestmarchA Tolkien Bestiary reads like an exciting artifact from Middle-earth.

The two charts placed at the start of the book, provided by the author for “chronological orientation” of Middle-earth, are terrific visual aids created long before the PowerPoint era. They are graphic timelines that take the events from The Silmarillion to the end of The Lord of the Rings and assemble them into coherent and easily understandable diagrams.

A Tolkien Bestiary really stands the test of time. It’s a classic in its own right and the perfect companion for Tolkien’s Middle-earth canon. I had the pleasure of corresponding with David Day via Twitter and he told me that he wrote the entire book in a coffee house that had once been the bookstore of the great Orwell. Most of us have heard the story of J.K. Rowling writing her first Harry Potter book in The Elephant House coffee shop in Edinburgh. Well, David Day beat this writerly feat by over twenty years!

Day has a new a new book called Nevermore. It’s about how the fates of animals are wholly linked to the history of humankind. Ex-Python and author Michael Palin said Nevermore is “a beautiful and timely book.” I ordered a copy and can’t wait to read it.

You can buy a copy of A Tolkien Bestiary from almost any online retailer. And if you’re lucky enough, you might find a perfect first edition at your local used bookstore.

Ronald & Rayner

This blog was first published last year (2012) on the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

September 21st is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien, as the story goes, scribbled the first line of his now famous book while taking a much-needed pause from grading English papers. The words came to him in a flash of insight—an epiphany that would change literature forever and create a whole new genre of serious fantasy, leaving behind “the gimcrack of conventional modern fairy-tales” that Tolkien so despised (think early Disney films).

But The Hobbit would never have been published if not for the recommendation of a ten-year-old. Rayner Unwin, son of the publisher Stanley Unwin, was handed a manuscript of The Hobbit by his father and paid a shilling to write a report on it (one shilling was decent pocket-change for a kid back in the 30’s). Rayner enjoyed Tolkien’s book and wrote, “…it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.” And that was enough for his father. It is one of the great ironies of publishing history that an Oxford professor’s book was given the go-ahead based simply upon the vanilla recommendation of a schoolboy.

In 1937 Hitler was on the rise in Europe. The Japanese invaded China. The Spanish Civil War raged. The inaugural NFL game was played. Charlie Chaplain’s first “talkie” motion picture came out in theaters. And The Hobbit was printed with an initial run of just 1,500 copies—predating the release of Disney’s Snow White (a film with seven whistling “Dwarfs” as opposed to thirteen ferocious “Dwarves”) by exactly three months.

The next year Tolkien started work on his unnamed “sequel” to The Hobbit. He sent the first chapter to his publisher who, of course, passed “A Long-expected Party” to none other than young Rayner who was now eleven. The publisher-in-training enjoyed the chapter but complained there was too much “hobbit-talk.” Ha!

Nearly fifteen years went by. Tolkien worked diligently on The Lord of the Rings all that time, typing out the entire 600,000 word manuscript by himself. Twice. (And typing with only two fingers) He found a publisher, and then became furious when the publisher kept stalling on the release date, and he withdrew the manuscript in a fit of pique that he soon regretted most terribly. Thankfully Rayner—now an adult and working for the family publishing company—reappeared on the scene with the good timing of a wizard, and asked if he might see the manuscript. The rest is publishing history. (Christopher Tolkien, by the way, still uses his father’s typewriter and composed all twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth on it and even The Silmarillion.)

Rayner shepherded Tolkien through the arduous process of getting The Lord of the Rings ready for publication. It was Rayner’s idea to divide the massive book into three parts, much to Tolkien’s annoyance (Peter Jackson is not the first to split one of Tolkien’s books into a trilogy). The author’s exchanges with Rayner (in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) during this period are a wonderful and amusing window into their fascinating relationship. Tolkien is like a cantankerous but lovable Bilbo dealing with Frodo, arguing about the titles for the books (he did not like the name The Two Towers one bit), and complaining comically about finalizing the map of Middle-earth, “This map is hell!”

About a year and a half before Tolkien died he sent a letter to Rayner saying, “Everything you do for me fills me with gratitude.” He asked Rayner to please start addressing him as “Ronald”—his Christian name. This was a great honor and a mark of respect coming from someone brought up in Tolkien’s world, where even dear friends called each other by their initials: an ingrained holdover of Victorian formality. Rayner was not only Tolkien’s very old friend, he was also his literary champion and, fortunately (for all of us Tolkien fans) he had had the good sense as a ten-year-old to approve of The Hobbit. If he had not, the manuscript might have spent the last seventy-five years collecting dust, rather than living all this time in the hearts and minds of tens of millions of fans around the world.

UPDATE (9/21/13): Read my review of the new edition of The Hobbit with 150 new illustrations by artist Jemima Catlin.