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A Beginner’s Guide to Tolkien Studies and Commentary

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CJ Connor

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CJ Connor is a cozy mystery and romance writer whose main goal in life is to make their dog proud. They are a Pitch Wars alumnus and an Author Mentor Match R9 mentor. Their debut mystery novel BOARD TO DEATH is forthcoming from Kensington Books. Twitter: @cjconnorwrites | cjconnorwrites.com

Something I value about the Tolkien fandom is its rich academic legacy. That being said, it can be overwhelming as a fan to know where to start with decades of history and plenty of articles, books, conferences, and lectures released in the present.

The resources included here—podcasts, fan organizations, books, journals, and more—are all good starting points for fans looking to explore Tolkien academia. While the resources included here discuss Tolkien in depth, none are written by him. For a guide to his works, visit the J.R.R. Tolkien Reading Pathway. To avoid repetition with the Guide to Tolkien Adaptations I wrote in 2022, this guide leans more toward commentary and academic works than direct adaptations.

Listen to Tolkien Podcasts

Of the avenues to Tolkien scholarship, I consider this the most accessible in terms of cost and as a gateway. Podcasts are generally free to listeners, and they can introduce you to further reading through their discussions. Plus, many are hosted by experts in the field of Tolkien studies.

The Tolkien Professor, run by Dr. Corey Olsen, is one of the longest-running and most popular Tolkien podcasts. Each episode is a recording of a lecture given by Dr. Olsen that covers a wide variety of Middle-earth topics. The podcast is, as of writing, nearing its 550th episode and still going strong. Dr. Olsen also runs the Mythgard Exploring The Lord of the Rings podcast, which offers a line-by-line deep reading and commentary of LOTR.

While it has more of a lighthearted rather than academic focus, The Sillymarillion is a great entry point for fans looking to explore the legendarium beyond casually reading the books. In it, longtime Tolkien fan Paul and newcomer Tori venture through Tolkien’s legendarium, beginning with The Silmarillion (hence the name) and currently reading through The Two Towers. They often bring in guests to share their own commentary and perspectives on the chapter being discussed. Listen for the jokes and thoughtful chapter-by-chapter insights.

Finally, The Tolkien Experience Podcast run by Dr. Luke Shelton, interviews a different Tolkien scholar every episode on their academic focus and what drew them to it. It’s a great resource for learning more about different facets of Tolkien academia and finding scholars whose work matches your interests.

For more recommendations, including one of my all-time favorites, The Prancing Pony Podcast, visit The Best LOTR Podcasts.

Join Tolkien Fan Organizations

Fan organizations offer not only an opportunity to connect with the community surrounding Tolkien’s work (always valuable) but also to engage with current scholarship through journals, virtual or in-person seminars, and academic conferences. The two largest fan organizations are The Tolkien Society and The Mythopoeic Society.

While The Tolkien Society is based in the UK, it is open to international members, with digital and international mailing options for their bimonthly newsletter, holiday cards, and journals. Its annual conference, Oxonmoot, held every year in Oxford during the weekend closest to Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday on September 22, is a great opportunity to attend lectures by renowned Tolkien scholars. It also hosts smials (or in-person branches) around the globe, and you can search here to see if one is located near you.

The Mythopoeic Society, based in the United States but also welcoming to international members, is founded on a shared love of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and other members of The Inklings literary group. Like The Tolkien Society, it runs academic and fan journals that are available to members digitally or by mail. It also hosts the annual Mythcon gathering in late summer as well as a digital conference called the Online Midyear Seminar in winter.

Subscribe to Journals on Tolkien Studies

Whether you’re looking to read the latest in Tolkien Studies or decades of history, you can’t do better than an academic journal. Both The Tolkien Society’s Mallorn and The Mythopoeic Society’s Mythlore are peer-reviewed, with over 50 years of issues to explore in their archives.

Founded in 2004, the Tolkien Studies journal by West Virginia University Press releases issues annually. Its focus is literary and linguistic criticism.

If you can’t currently afford to subscribe to any journals, try The Tolkien Society’s Mallorn archive. There, members and non-members alike can read decades of issues for free up to 2021. Additionally, The Journal of Tolkien Research is an open-access and peer-reviewed publication, with all volumes published available on the Tolkienists website.

Read Academic Books About Tolkien and His work

Books analyzing Tolkien’s legacy and work have a rich academic history, with publications reaching back as early as 1977 with Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Verlyn Flieger (start with Splintered Light) and Tom Shippey (start with The Road to Middle-earth) are two scholars whose books contributed to the foundations of modern Tolkien Studies, and both are still active and respected in the field.

If you’re interested in annotated commentary on Tolkien’s legendarium, you’ll want to check out The Lord of the Rings: A Readers’ Guide by scholars Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull. By reading LOTR with it as a reference, readers get a deep, line-by-line analysis that leads to a fresh and well-researched perspective on the text.

New books on Tolkien Studies are being published every year, building on and offering new interpretations. A few recent book releases written or edited by Tolkien scholars include:

Subscribe to Newsletters by Tolkien Scholars

Like podcasts, newsletters can be a more accessible option for Tolkien scholarship. Many have free subscription tiers, with paid options available to access more or to support their work.

Rev. Tom Emanuel is a theologian and PhD student at the University of Glasgow whose area of interest is the intersection between Tolkien, religion, and fan studies. His newsletter Queer and Back Again explores these connections, with recent topics including “Tolkien in a Post-9/11 World,” “Tolkien, AI, and the Temptation of the Machine,” and “Is the Lord of the Rings an Allegory?”

Dr. Robin Reid is a Professor Emeritus at the Texas A&M University whose full-time focus is now independent Tolkien scholarship. She runs the Writing from Ithilien newsletter, where she explores Tolkien as a global phenomenon; linguistics and translations of Tolkien’s work; and fan responses to his legendarium over the decades, including fanfiction, musical tributes, and visual art.

While these resources are truly just the start to a rich field of academia, they are all excellent starting points for aspiring Tolkien scholars.

Interested in learning more about the many facets of Tolkien fandom and finding your own corner? Check out this overview by editor and SFF Yeah! host, Jenn Northington.