Twenty-First-Century Tolkien: What Middle-Earth Means to Us Today by Nick Groom - review by Keshava Guha

Keshava Guha

Old Hobbits Die Hard

Twenty-First-Century Tolkien: What Middle-Earth Means to Us Today


Atlantic Books 448pp £20

Like many epics, The Lord of the Rings has a framing conceit. J R R Tolkien presents himself not as its original author but as a translator – of the hobbit-composed Red Book of Westmarch, part of which is a memoir by Bilbo Baggins. In the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings, ‘A Long-Expected Party’, Bilbo is looking to get away from the Shire to a quiet place where he can finish this memoir. He has thought of an ending: ‘He lived happily ever after to the end of his days.’ ‘Nobody will read the book, however it ends,’ comes his friend Gandalf’s bantering reply. Gandalf, first the Grey, later the White, would have made a poor publisher. Through Tolkien, Bilbo’s book has been read by more people than almost any other in human (or hobbit) history.

The Lord of the Rings was the first book I ever bought. I was eight and had just won a book token in a local quiz. That green paperback may have been one of the last editions of The Lord of the Rings with a cover containing no reference to Peter Jackson’s films. It carried, instead, a quote from the Sunday Times: ‘The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them.’

Nick Groom’s new book is explicitly pitched to the second of these two groups, but it is more likely to appeal to the first. Its publication is timed to coincide with the release of The Rings of Power on Amazon’s streaming service. ‘The huge anticipated global audience’ of this series, Groom writes, ‘may well benefit from a book on Tolkien’ that identifies ‘why the books and media adaptations have been so popular.’ He promises a ‘non-hierarchical’ overview of the Tolkien universe, in which the author’s own writings have no canonical status within the corpus of Tolkien-inspired works.

There are two books here – one a rigorous, omnivorous exercise in scholarship, the other a gratingly modish argument for Tolkien’s relevance. I think of one book as ‘Tolkien’, the other as ‘Twenty-First Century’. The former contains almost all the best material and all the best writing; the

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RLF - March