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Understanding Middle-Earth
Michael Martinez
Vivisphere Publishing, 512 pages

Understanding Middle-Earth
Michael Martinez
Michael Martinez has been active in science fiction and fantasy fandom for many years. He organized the first Hercules and Xena fan programming track for Dragoncon, North America's largest fan-run science fiction convention, in 1998. In 2000, he moved on to organize Dragoncon's Tolkien and Middle-Earth fan programming track. As a widely recognized expert on Tolkien's Middle-Earth mythology, Martinez has been called upon by companies around the world to share his insight for their special Tolkien projects. His research has appeared in numerous Tolkien journals, and he launched the long-running and popular Tolkien and Middle-Earth topic for the Suite101 website in late 1999.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

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'And the winged nature of Balrogs is very much a question of canon. The reason is that Tolkien changed his Balrogs.

So if you're going to talk about Balrogs, it's important to know which Balrogs you're discussing.'

Over the last few years, Middle-Earth has gained millions of new fans around the world, thanks to Peter Jackson's epic movie trilogy. For some the journey of discovery has only just begun, due to the one thing which all who dip into the works of J.R.R. Tolkien have in common; that moment of realisation where the depth and breadth of Middle-Earth is perceived. It's a world so large that it has spawned a small industry of other writers, seeking to define or defile its wonders. Some with great success, others less so. This is a book for seekers of deeper understanding -- in bite-sized chunks -- of the complex personalities, histories, races and themes that make up Tolkien's magical realm.

Understanding Middle-Earth will appeal to a majority who have fallen in love with the place, and want to know more, plus a minority who are studying Tolkien as an academic subject. The book works well from either perspective, being structured in such a way as to present a highly detailed source of knowledge for the student, while also being open and informal enough to not intimidate readers who just want to flip through when the fancy takes them. Many works that attempt to explain Middle-Earth suffer from stuffiness, and as a result can be off putting to the casual enthusiast. Others fail because they're too light weight, or patronising. It's a tricky balancing act, which Michael Martinez pulls off with aplomb. The tone and style of explanation is straightforward, though not in any way shape or form dumbed down. Reading it feels a lot like a pub discussion with someone who knows his Boromir from his Bombadil, but isn't a know-it-all. The book asks almost as many questions as it answers, and that is part of its charm. There's never any sense of it all being over, done and dusted, with nothing further to be said. Indeed, Understanding Middle-Earth accepts that the understanding in question is a perpetual on-going process, with some questions that have no definitive answer.

Something else I liked was that while Martinez shows due respect for Tolkien, he doesn't worship the man. When it comes to telling us that a particular question is unanswerable because Tolkien messed up, he's not scared to say so. However, this is always done in an affectionate manner, which accepts that Tolkien was working in an age long before digital data banks, and was only human. Like all of us he made some mistakes. Among the things discussed are dual identities of the elf Glorfindel, and that old chestnut concerning the winged or wingless nature of Balrogs. Martinez introduces serious and frivolous topics with equal enthusiasm and expertise. From all you ever wanted to know about the magic of the Elves and their relationship with time, to what Middle-Earth would be like if it'd been written by Charles Shultz! What I found most appealing was the amount of stuff that was new to me, little things often of larger significance, which I'd missed. Among these fascinating insights was the revelation that the poem which begins 'Three Rings for the Elven Kings' does not tell the whole story. There were, in fact, sixteen Great Rings of power already made by the Elves, before Celebrimbor toddled off on his own to make the three they have in The Lord of the Rings. So that makes nineteen power rings which are in -- if not actually on -- Elvish hands, when almost 100 years later, Sauron returns to Middle-Earth. What became of these talismans? Were they the same nine Rings of Power that eventually turned mortal men into Ringwraiths, and the seven either possessing or possessed by the Dwarf Lords? If so, how did the Elves manage to lose all sixteen, when they apparently knew exactly what Sauron was up to from the moment he forged the One Ring? The elusive, probably unknowable answer, might be fast food for thought, but it certainly hits the spot.

All of the major and much of the minor that comprises Middle-Earth is covered with meticulous attention to detail. Only occasionally does this sprawl into discombobulating lecture. The one serious flaw is the lack of an index, which would've been very useful for anyone trying to home in on a favourite character or event. For that reason, I recommend that anyone who buys Understanding Middle-Earth also gets a copy of The Tolkien Companion by J.E.A. Tyler, published by Macmillan. Together, the two books can provide an invaluable addition to the library of any Middle-Earth addict.

Copyright © 2005 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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