Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review - An Atlas of Tolkien by David Day

Short review: A brief illustrated guide to all of Tolkien's mythology from the beginning of the world through the end of The Lord of the Rings.

First, the beginning
Then, all of the histories
End at the Havens

Full review: Suppose you wanted to have an understanding of the mythology Tolkien fabricated as the background to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but found The Silmarillion and the Histories of Middle-Earth too dense for your liking, what could you do? Well, one option would be to read David Day's Atlas of Tolkien, which encapsulates pretty much the entire history of the fantasy world and provides some fantastic artwork to help illustrate its beauty.

In one sense, An Atlas of Tolkien is kind of like a Cliff's Notes version of Tolkien's fiction, summarizing the course of its invented history from the moment that Eru first awakened the Valar and had them sing the world into existence, through the wars against Morgoroth, the creation, theft, and eventual recovery of the Silmarils and the cataclysmic War of Wrath, the rise and fall of Numenore, the battles against Sauron, the forging of the Rings, and finally the events found in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, all contained in a mere 236 pages. From a certain perspective, this comparison is not entirely fair, because Cliff's Notes versions of books are usually vacuous affairs that strip out all of the heart and soul of a book. By contrast, even though An Atlas of Tolkien offers a summarized version of the events of Tolkien's fictional history, it does so in a manner that at least attempts to retain some of the imagery and poetry of the original. The book also includes several genealogies, lists, and charts showing in graphical form how the various elements of Tolkien's world are related to one another, which can be very useful for figuring out such things.

One area that An Atlas of Tolkien shines is in the artwork contained in its pages. The included illustrations are quirky and beautiful, presenting a version of Arda that is unique to Day's productions, and yet captures the essence of Tolkien as well. Much of the artwork is recycled from earlier works by David Day, such as his Tolkien Bestiary, so a reader who has read that book will find much of what appears in this one to be familiar. There is some new artwork, although such original pieces are a relatively small fraction of the total that are found in the book. Even so, the artwork is as beautiful this time around as it was the first time it appeared in a book by David Day, so the reader is unlikely to be disappointed on this front. Oddly, for a book that is described as an atlas, the maps are by and large mediocre at best, providing a reasonably accurate depiction of the region highlighted, but doing so in an uninspired, dull, and frequently almost featureless manner. In comparison to the illustrations, the maps seem almost like they were mailed in, with only passing attention given to their creation and execution. Fortunately (or unfortunately), actual maps are few and far between in this volume, so their seemingly perfunctory nature doesn't encroach on the book too much.

The volume does have some flaws, although they are small. For example, one of the charts included in the book is a chronological listing of battles of the War of the Ring, but it rather conspicuously leaves out the siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennore Fields. which seems like a rather glaring omission. Perhaps the author felt that those conflicts were detailed well enough in The Return of the King that including them in this account would be unneeded, but the listing includes the Battle of Hornburg, which is the subject of much of The Two Towers, so that explanation doesn't really hold up. In addition, many of the descriptions are fairly brief, which raises the question as to whether someone unfamiliar with the source material would be able to understand the importance of some of the events that are described in this book, or how they relate to one another. This is a difficult assessment for me to make, as I have read all of the books that this atlas draws upon, so take this criticism with a grain of salt.

Overall, An Atlas of Tolkien is a nice little book that would be a useful addition to anyone's Tolkien library. For a newcomer to Tolkien's fiction who simply wants an overview of the professor's fictional world, this volume would serve as just that. For a dedicated fan, this book won't supply any new insights, but it could serve as a useful reference work for looking particular elements up when the need arises - the book even comes with a well-organized index just for this purpose. There isn't anything in this book that I would call new scholarship concerning Tolkien's work, but it is a well put-together and beautifully illustrated summary of his fictional history, and that makes it a book worth having and a book worth reading.

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  1. This sounds like a fascinating resource for people who want to read Tolkien but still haven't ventured into it yet.

    1. @fredamans: It might be. I just wonder if the descriptions are so brief as to make them opaque to someone who has not read the source material.