Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review - Tolkien: A Dictionary by David Day

Short review: A small reference volume for Tolkien's fiction.

If you want to know
Something about Middle-Earth
This is a good start

Full review: Although this book is titled Tolkien: A Dictionary, it probably would be more aptly described as a miniature encyclopedia of Tolkien's fiction. The volume offers a reasonably comprehensive set of descriptions of the major people, places, things, and other features that appeared in Tolkien's fiction related to Middle-Earth. The entries consist mostly of descriptions of names and terms found in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, all arranged in alphabetical order for easy reference.

Given that this is a reference work, most people will probably not approach this book the same way I did, which was to start at page one and read straight through all of the entries. I suspect that most readers will use this book in the manner that it is obviously intended, which is as a reference work to be consulted when one needs elucidation about who Mim was, or what Athelas is, or where Ravenhill is. Overall, this book is reasonably useful for that purpose, although there are some puzzling omissions - there is no entry describing the Palatír, for example, even though there are entries explaining what pipe-weed and Mallorns are. The omitted entries may have been oversight, or they might have been the result of the relative brevity of this book when compared to the expansive subject matter it is attempting to cover. In any event, those using this book as their sole reference are likely to be disappointed now and again, although it is still useful for most purposes as a handy pocket guide.

Despite the odd gap here and there in the range of things that this book covers, the entries that are there are generally well-presented. In some cases, the text is quite comprehensive, extended for a couple of pages to describe a particularly notable element of Tolkien's history with a particularly extensive history. On the other hand, some entries are quite brief, giving only the most minimal definition of the person, place, or thing in question and leaving considerable amount of potential material out. I suspect that the brevity of many entries is due to space limitations engendered by the apparent need to keep the book under three hundred pages. That said, the individual entries are interesting reading, and mostly informative. The entries don't quite do justice to Tolkien's own descriptive text, but they have clearly been inspired by it, and seem to be kin to Tolkien's prose in a manner reminiscent of how one's distant cousin is kin to you. If one is ambitious, the book comes complete with a list of sources, giving citations supporting all of the entries in the book.

It must be noted that this is definitely a reference book, and anyone hoping to be able to understand Tolkien's world with just this as a guide will likely be quite confused. Each individual entry is reasonably clear, concise, and informative, but they do not really provide for the larger context that is required for true understanding. This book would probably be best used as a supplement to be consulted in the event that someone reading one of Tolkien's works ran across a term that they did not know. In that capacity, this work would be an extremely useful tool.

As with most other David Day-authored works related to Tolkien, this volume contains a fair number of illustrations, although the book is somewhat disappointing on that score. All of the illustrations are recycled works that appeared in previous books, and none of them are in color. Unlike some of Day's other books, such as An Atlas of Tolkien, or A Tolkien Bestiary, there are no full-page illustrations, but rather all of them are interspersed with the text. Given the quite beautiful presentation of some of Day's other works, this is somewhat disappointing, although it does not impair the functionality of the book.

Overall, Tolkien: A Dictionary is a competently executed reference work. It is not the most comprehensive Tolkien-related reference work one can find, but it is one of the most portable. This book may not be of much use to a die-hard Tolkien fan, as they will probably have access to more comprehensive reference works, but someone who is either relatively new to Tolkien, or who has limited space to keep books will probably find this to be a handy companion volume to have around.

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