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on 8 December 2009
"The monsters and the critics and other essays" is a treat both for those among Tolkien's fans with a more literary approach to fantasy, and for medieval literature lovers. The essay by the same title is a beautifully written piece of criticism, the one essay that took Beowulf, the powerful Old English epic, out of the cupboard for good - and Tolkien manages to convey his love for this difficult yet wonderful piece of germanic mythology, so that we could understand the world of pagan heroes looking for a glorious death, instead of pointlessly comparing it to classical epic as it had been done till then. The essay "On translating Beowulf" and that on "Sir Gawain and the Green knight" are more technical, but they explain the difficult alliterative poetry in a way non-expert readers can understand. A real jewel is "On fairy stories", which is also included in "Tree and leaf": it is a terse defence of the rights of imagination and fantasy, of the role of imaginary (secondary)worlds in real people's lives. The remaining two essays, a comparison of English and Welsh and a paper on imaginary languages, are maybe less interesting, but on the whole, this small book is a really good collection.
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on 4 September 2011
I suppose all Tolkien fans know that, for decades before Lord of the Rings was published, he was an Oxford professor specialising in Old and Middle English. This volume brings together his most important work in the fields which were (eventually) the twin mainsprings of Middle Earth: philology and mythology. For him the two naturally went together: the `northern' epics which fed his imagination were in relatively obscure or forgotten languages like Anglo-Saxon, Finnish and Icelandic. The title piece here is a good example, with its thesis - groundbreaking at the time and surely obvious today - that the monstrous, mythological element in Beowulf is what gives the poem its power. In other cases they're treated separately, as with the seminal `On Fairy Stories' (originally published in Tree and Leaf) on the one hand, or `English and Welsh' on the other. The first is a brilliant piece of analysis which goes a long way to explaining why LotR has such power. The second certainly does not demonstrate, as it claims, that a knowledge of Welsh is important to English philology; but it does record Tolkien's interest in and appreciation of Welsh, seemingly based on the fact that it is `the senior language of the men of Britain'.

Such a comment is typical of a man whose interest in language was that of, not a communicator, but (as he might have put it) a student of ancient lore: a man who habitually gives the written precedence over the spoken. He valued words as much for their sound and form as their meaning. There are a lot of people who will understand his idea that Celtic is `the native language to which, in unexplored desire, we would still go home' - though probably in relation to Gaelic more often than Welsh - but you feel that his knowledge of it, and perhaps of some others, does not run terribly deep. Still, he was certainly wide-ranging, and always remembered the fact (obvious but easily forgotten) that literary expression is inseparable from the actual language used. He turned his aesthetic interest to good account in constructing `Elvish' and other invented languages, a hobby which is the subject of the ingenuously-titled `A Secret Vice'.

His preference for the written, though, is the weakness of this collection. Despite the title, most of the pieces were not originally essays but lectures: written to be performed rather than read. I think Tolkien was at his fluent best when he felt he was addressing himself to a single, particular reader; with a larger audience, present in the room with him, he seems to have become uncertain of how to pitch it. The lecture form also brought out a certain arch donnishness which is a little irritating at times. Nevertheless I think these writings are more interesting in themselves, and more illuminating in relation to Middle Earth, than your books of Lost Tales etc.

It's inexplicable, in a book for a general readership, that the editor did not think it necesssary to gloss the numerous non-English expressions in the text. Naturally this does not help enjoyment of the Beowulf material, especially; although I don't think overall understanding is too much impaired.
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on 11 January 2008
I first chose to read this book in preparation for an interview in which I thought I would need all the information I could get on Beowulf. I understood the respect and intrigue Tolkien held with the Old English poem, and with this book named after his essay upon it, I was preparing myself for a solid induction into the hidden subtleties in the language and context of the poem. Though I received this with The Monsters and the Critics I was also deeply fascinated with the other essays in the collection. Written at various points in his life they all focussed upon a medium Tolkien devoted the greater part of his life to: language.

Within the essays could be detected the shrewd mind of their author as he contemplated the many aspects of language which entranced him. From syntax to the sound and measure of individual words, the thought process in some of Tolkien's works can be clearly discerned in his writings. His stark enthusiasm for language is infectious and I couldn't help but have deep admiration for the clear devotion and respect Tolkien has for language.
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on 5 October 2001
This is a magnificent collection of speeches and essays from Tolkien's academic life. It can be a little difficult for those without a signifigant amount of linguistic training or familiarity with Old English vocabulary. However, it is still highly readable if you are interested in Old English literature, Welsh, or just love Tolkien. This collection provides a glimpse of his life outside of his novels, and will certainly strike a chord with those who are sentimental about the author.
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on 26 December 2012
It's really great to be able to read a selection of Tolkien's essays in one neat book. Getting a personal insight into his own opinions about his work - rather than from a biographer or critic - is something I found particularly interesting (it's the first time I've read a text of his that wasn't fiction), and the topics he discusses are made all the more interesting thanks to his distinctive voice which, as ever is methodical, engaging and thoughtful. I've really enjoyed reading what he's had to say. The presentation of the book is particularly good, although the print is rather small it's not difficult to read and the essay's are divided up so it doesn't feel like a slog getting through them all. As they're all about different topics you can skip to one or another without hindering what you're reading. For fans of Tolkien and of Literary/Fiction Theory I'd recommend this book.
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on 21 April 2013
So important. The meaning of fiction and fantasy in a world of self-obsessed "true-story"-tellers can not be overestimated. Read this.
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on 8 January 2015
While I have been a Tolkien fan for nearly 50 years, and studied Beowulf at Uni, I had previously failed to spot this collection of Tolkien's lectures and essays. Reading them, opened my eyes to a whole range of thinking about what Tolkien was doing with Lord of the Rings. For the first time I was able to enjoy the various poems and songs which had seemed, in the past, to interfere with the action.
The other thing to read with this is Seamus Heaney's poetic translation of Beowulf.
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on 8 June 2014
It's interesting to read such a sturdy defence of myth and monsters as literature, such a long time before Tolkien, before writing LOTR, made it a widely accepted cultural fact. And of course his use of language makes it a joy to read, whatever it's about!
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on 11 July 2014
Lectures and essays Tolkien gave and wrote over the course of decades.
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on 29 July 2014
Classic and pellucid
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