Virtually every fan of J.R.R. Tolkien has been to Theonering.net, the massive fan website that contains far-reaching news, rumors, info and discussions about Middle-Earth. Now the webmasters of that site have compiled essays, film reviews, much-asked questions into the "People's Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien," both for and by "the people." (Meaning the fans)
After a foreword by the foremost Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey, the book launches into a series of essays by the very kind Tehanu, Anwyn, Quickbeam, Ostadan, and Turgon. They examine charges of racism and sexism, explore the relationship between Sam and Frodo, defend escapism, study the effects of 9/11 and Tolkien's world, Christianity's indirect impact on Middle-Earth ("Wake up and Smell the Dogma" being one of these), its relationship to Arthurian legend, its mythological roots, analyzing Tolkien's "Letters" book, the real hero of "Rings", nature's place in Middle-Earth, and many other ideas and concepts.
And, in keeping with what's going on now, there is movie analysis. First they handle the ghastly Rankin/Bass film and mediocre Bakshi film. Then they go over the new live-action Peter Jackson trilogy, and the multiple viewpoints on the films themselves are great (Anwyn's is probably the most in-depth). Among the essays is Quickbeam's visit to New Zealand in 2000 where he checked out sets, filming, and actually met Jackson himself (as well as talented actors Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Bernard Hill and Orlando Bloom). The end of one section gives us an unusually sweet, romantic glimpse of Jackson and Fran Walsh. (Too many interviewers treat them just as coworkers, and not as a loving couple with two kids. Both sides can be seen here)
That's not to say that it's all serious analysis: There is the "Merchandising Hell" chapter, full of nightmare cash-in merchandise ("lembas" nutrition bars sold at health clubs, Gollum toothpaste), gaming, a C.S. Lewis-inspired "Screwtape" letter, and the reclaiming of the word "geek." (Geek pride!) Finally there is a Q&A section handling questions like why hobbits aren't inclined to use the Ring's power, or Elf astronomy. (Not to mention the extremely cute "Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf!" letter)
The "People's Guide" benefits both from the authors' knowledge of Tolkien, and their knowledge of who they're talking to. The book isn't overly complicated or nitpicky, but it's far from dumbed-down. It's conversational, but instructive. Even people well-acquainted with Tolkien's work may come away with new perspectives on it, and new fans will find insights for the first time.
Perhaps one of the best qualities of this book is the sense of familiarity it provides. Readers (assuming they've been to the website) will already be acquainted with the authors. You know they're not going to pull anything deranged out of their hats or show any scholarly contempt; you know they're genuine fans, not just analysts. Oh yes -- they're geeks too, the best kind of fan. ("Are we not geeks?")
Whether you have been a fan for years, or watched the new movies and were hooked, this is a must-read. If you buy one nonfiction Tolkien book this year, this should probably be the one.