The Tolkien Encyclopedia & Reader’s Diary: A Look Back

J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical AssessmentThe J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment is now available in paperback and Kindle version, making this reference work much more affordable than the $100-plus Canadian and US hardback edition (with similar pricing in the UK). The Encyclopedia, edited by Michael D.C. Drout, includes entries by well-known critics such as Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and so many more. I think that the Encyclopedia contains a great deal of valuable information, though I agree with some reviewers who point out that the entries can be uneven in quality. I hope, though, that readers will find my contributions to the Encyclopedia useful — I wrote the entries for “Gender in Tolkien’s Works,” “Sexuality in Tolkien’s Works,” and “History, Anglo-Saxon” (as it applies to Tolkien’s works). I’m also very proud of the fact that one of my students, Aline Ripley, wrote “Feminist Readings of Tolkien” and that her entry was singled out for praise in a Tolkien Studies review (the reviewer did not know that Aline was an undergraduate student at the time she wrote her entry).

The Encyclopedia almost didn’t make it into print at all, having been caught in the turn-over in publishers from Routledge to Taylor & Francis. Michael Drout explained some of the resulting editing and publication difficulties in a 2006 blog post. I, however, was happily unaware of what was going on behind the scenes and had a marvellous experience participating in an online Encyclopedia working group consisting of several contributors from’s Reading Room discussion board, where I used to be a regular. (And just saying that makes me nostalgic for those days and puzzled why I can’t get back to the Reading Room more often). I had never experienced more rigorous fact-checking and editing in any other previous scholarly endeavour than I had in that working group, which had no official ties to the Encyclopedia editors or publishers. Although a few of us in the group were professors and librarians, the rest consisted of well-informed Tolkien readers with an interest in research and, often, many years of experience in the close reading of Tolkien’s works. The Encyclopedia working group was further proof to me — my time in the Reading Room had already taught me this — that any attempt to set up boundaries between professional academics and general readers or fans or independent scholars — use what term you will — can lead to a false sense of the knowledge and skills of one group or the other. In the online working group, we would share our rough drafts and wait for comments, corrections, or just corroborations that we were on the right track and weren’t omitting anything important. I was grateful for the intense scrutiny.

It was also fun for me to work with other people on a project, since in my field it is more usual to work alone. Well, I say “fun” now, though I’m sure I must have complained about having to meet deadlines and get the work done. I discovered that writing encyclopedia entries was not easy: yes, they are short, but into that brief space you have to cram all of the available knowledge on your topic. In any case, our collaboration in the working group paid off because the contributions of group members were generally well researched and well written — and if this sounds like boasting, read Michael Drout’s May 2006 blog post “Who is Really a Scholar” in which he mentions “Squire,” one of our group, and compares one of his entries that did not need a single correction to a piece written by a “big name” in the field that was full of errors. Two or three of our group members dedicated a great deal of time to commenting, editing, and proofreading everyone’s entries, and anyone who was willing to listen to their feedback benefitted from their relentless attention to detail. As Drout pointed out, “Squire and his compatriots are [scholars]. Maybe they are scholars with day jobs, but they are scholars nonetheless.”

Once the Encyclopedia was published, that same Squire launched a massive online project, The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader’s Diary, in which he planned to review every entry in the Encyclopedia. Joined by another of our Encyclopedia group members, “N.E. Brigand,” and by Jason Fisher, the three worked their way through the Encyclopedia commenting on the research, writing, and editing in each piece. (Squire and N.E. Brigand did not review the entries of the TORn working group; they were left for Jason Fisher as the outside eye). They ended up producing a valuable supplement to the Encyclopedia for professional scholar and general reader alike.

Their systematic commentary examines each entry far more carefully than any general review can; in fact, I believe that the Reader’s Diary should be read in conjunction with the Encyclopedia. The reviewers sometimes add information about other sources or comment on different approaches to the subject, thus expanding the ways in which each topic can be viewed. Take Jason Fisher’s commentary on my entry, “Gender in Tolkien’s Works” — he suggests, for example, a fascinating idea about the gender of Eru which had not occurred to me at that time but which could provide further ideas for anyone interested in the topic. If you want to look further and read other opinions, the Reader’s Diary site also contains links to other reviews of the Encyclopedia, including a long excerpt from the one that appeared in Tolkien Studies.

In spite of the difficulties in getting the Encyclopedia edited and printed, it is nevertheless a valuable resource that summarizes information and suggests further readings on many topics.* Here you can read Verlyn Flieger on “Barfield, Owen” or Tom Shippey on “Old Norse Language.” If you read Tolkien scholarship or belong to a Tolkien scholarly association you’ll recognize many of the contributors’ names: John Garth, Thomas Honegger, Marcel Bülles, Janet Brennan Croft, Merlin DeTardo, Leslie Donovan, David Oberhelman, Dimitra Fimi, Marjorie Burns, Carl Hostetter, Douglas Anderson, Gergely Nagy, Brian Rosebury…the list is over 100 names long, and I’m sorry I can’t acknowledge everyone. But you should also take a look at entries by people whose names you might not recognize, such as Don Anger’s “Report on the Excavation of the Pre-historic, Roman and Post-Roman Site in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire” or Alice Campbell’s “Maps” or John F.G. Magoun’s “The East.”

Now that the price has dropped, the Encyclopedia is finally more accessible to a wider audience — which is appropriate, given that parts of it were written, edited, and then meticulously reviewed by “scholars with day jobs.”

* I always recommend the Encyclopedia along with Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull‘s J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide as two essential reference works for anyone interested in the scholarly study of Tolkien. This post is already long enough without going into the considerable merits of the Hammond and Scull text — but maybe another time.

2 responses to “The Tolkien Encyclopedia & Reader’s Diary: A Look Back”

  1. With the price drop, I picked this up a few weeks ago. I am loving it. Thanks for your work. I’ve actually read your entries on gender last week when having a discussion about sexism in Tolkien’s works. It was incredibly helpful. Thank you for that.


    • Thanks, Eric. It’s always nice to know when someone reads your work. I hope I didn’t cause an argument about sexism in Tolkien’s works — usually quite a tricky topic of discussion!


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