In october 2006 we saw the publication of Michael Drout's J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. From day one we could read on Michael Drout's blog the news that instead of 2500 there were only made 800 copies of this book. He was very frustrated in the way that the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia was rushed into print without adequate final editing and not happy with the result. Then there where not many reviews on line, except from some contributors. Maybe the book turned out to be too expensive? It seems most people expected the book to be something 'more' for such a lot of money. Ironically if they had printed more copies, the price might have been cheaper. Still, I believe the project was a good one, and so do many people. Especially the on line community has now taken over the project and is starting to turn the book into a very usefell unit after all! There are some interesting projects, of which the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia - A Reader's Diary is by far the most interesting contribution so far. I'm also looking forward to the work that will be undertaken by the Tolkien Gateway who are planning to put all entries of the encyclopedia on line and will edit the articles, if the quality will be high this will be very promising.
Here follows an interview with Squire, one of the contributors of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia and also the man behind the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia - A Reader's Diary.
Q: You have contributed to the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout. How did you become one of the contributors?
I’m an active participant in the online Tolkien discussion forum called the Reading Room on theonering.net. One of the other members was asked to contribute to the Encyclopedia, and although she was unable to do so, she passed her contact on to the Reading Room admin, who in turn asked around if anyone would like to contribute. I expressed an interest, and the next thing I knew I had a contract with Routledge.
Q: Did you follow the project of the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia from the beginning?
I had been vaguely aware of it from Michael Drout’s blog. I never dreamed I’d be writing for it.
Q: What topics did you write?
The entries on The East, The South, and The Treason of Isengard.
Q: How did you pick your topics?
By the time the Reading Room group was involved, I think most of the major articles had been assigned. There were still some left (this was spring of 2005), and Drout sent his list of unassigned topics to the Reading Room project coordinator. We all poked through it. I prudently picked three that had entirely to do with Tolkien’s texts. There weren’t many of those. Most of the topics remaining seemed to require some specialization outside of Tolkien. My colleagues were a lot braver, tackling topics like The Bible, Dante, and Knowledge. I was very impressed by how well most of them did in the end.
Q: How did you qualify to write these contributions?
I’m not sure. There was a bit of a game going on. The Reading Room group is as intelligent and expert a bunch of Tolkien fans as you’ll find anywhere. But most of us had no scholarly credentials or affiliation. We did send Drout some samples of the online discussions we had had, which I think reassured him.
On other hand, I think Drout and his fellow editors were running out of academic Tolkien scholars to ask for contributions. There are over 500 articles, and Tolkien studies is not exactly a huge academic specialty. A lot of major Tolkien scholars are not traditional mainstream academics anyway, but kind of fans gone pro.
Drout had said in the past that he thought online fan scholarship on Tolkien was underrated by the academics, and our group essentially called him on it. I think he was taking a chance with us. We all speculated on whether our pieces would make the cut.
Q: How was your contact with the editor Michael Drout?
I had none. My contract listed salient points about my topics that I was supposed to be sure to include; I think he must have written those. Our project coordinator forwarded him a couple of questions from our group over the summer, I think.
Q: In the process of making the Encyclopedia was it possible to have contact or work together with other contributors?
Yes, it was a great advantage that our group worked together. We set up a separate Yahoo online board, where we could share files, ideas, and fears, and get advice and feedback. We shared sources and bibliographies and passed along references for others’ topics that we had encountered in our own research. At the end, we all proofread, criticized, and corrected each others’ drafts.
However, we often wished we could coordinate our articles with others that we knew were being written, on related topics. We decided that the editors would take care of overlaps or missing information later on in the process. That never happened, I suppose.
Q: Now that the book J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia has been published are you happy with the result?
Yes and no. It’s a magnificent volume, full of incredible subjects, and it’s still a thrill to see my name in it. But the quality of the articles is extremely variable, far more so than I could ever have imagined.
A lot of the articles just ignore the stated purpose of the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, which is to reflect the current state of Tolkien scholarship. To me, that means not just writing about the topic from one’s own knowledge, however profound. Rather, the contributors should be reviewing what other critics have said about the topic too, and putting all the best references in the article’s bibliography to allow further research by the reader.
Some articles are by the “experts” in their Tolkien subspecialty and they never mention anyone’s work or ideas but their own, for better or worse. Others treat Middle-earth as a real world and just recount how a character or a place is involved in the stories. Some forget to focus on Tolkien. And some articles are just very badly written.
Also, the organization by topic and theme is so choppy and detailed that a lot of the articles overlap each other, often quite inconsistently; while other topics you’d expect to find are missing altogether.
Q: We can read on Michael Drout’s blog he ran into some problems with the publishers and the book did not turn out how he had hoped to have it. Is this not sad for the contributors?
Of course. One sees Drout struggling to clean up a million little problems, at the end of years of hard work, and suddenly he’s bulldozed by a dying corporation. And the contributors are left wondering which flaws are the publisher’s fault, and which are the editors’.
To me the biggest shame is that they cut the printing from 2500 copies to 800. I’m not sure the high cost of the book is solely the result of that decision, but it practically guarantees that no one outside the core Tolkien studies community will be using it. I often wonder how it’s selling, now that the contributors have probably bought as many as they’re going to buy.
Q: What is your hope for the J.R.R Tolkien Encyclopedia?
I hope that major libraries get their copies. Later on perhaps there can be a second edition. And the idea of an online project is appealing.
Q: The book is really expensive, do you recommend this book? And to whom?
I’d recommend it to anyone who finds himself or herself doing academic research on Tolkien. The better articles and the bibliographic references can be very helpful for that kind of work. It’s not worth it if you just like to read about Tolkien and his books.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your current project, the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia Reader’s Diary.
I got very upset when I got my copy of the Encyclopedia and began reading it, for the reasons I outlined above. Drout has explained the reasons for the sloppy copy editing, and we can be sure that he would have fixed that had he been allowed to; but there are deeper issues with the editing than typos and missing references.
Anyway, very soon I found myself wanting to write down my impressions and critiques as I browsed randomly around the book. I felt kind of guilty about being negative so often, and I began posting my writing on a “diary” website for my fellow Reading Room encyclopedists. I wondered if they would think I was really off base. But they gave me a lot of support and some of them began sending in reviews too, and I decided to launch it as a public project. Drout very kindly promoted it on his blog.
After I finish reading an article I try to write a few paragraphs of criticism, whether positive, mixed, or negative. And I very subjectively “grade” the article by listing each new review in one of three columns on the home page, which are symbolically headed by Gandalf, Denethor, and the Balrog respectively. Early on it was clear that many more articles were in the middle “so-so” column, than were in either the “hero” or “villain” column. Lately the bad ones have been falling behind, which is a positive trend, but I’m nowhere near done.
I enjoy doing it. I open to a random page and start reading an article in the hope it will be one of the good ones. When it’s not, I try to explain to myself and my readers what’s wrong with it.
Q: I believe your project is very constructive in effect. What are the reactions of others, for example other contributors?
I set up an email account to get feedback and reviews when I publicized the Diary. I’ve gotten a few emails from people whose articles I’ve reviewed, asking for minor corrections. But only one of the contributors has started sending in his own reviews, though of course the Reading Room group is still participating. I think this is especially valuable because these other writers’ areas of knowledge about Tolkien are somewhat different from mine. I was hoping for more of that, frankly. I really think very few people are buying the book.
On one Tolkien discussion group I saw a comment that more people will be reading the Diary than will ever read the Encyclopedia, which was something I never imagined! The reviews in the Diary may be entertaining because they’re brief and opinionated, but they only really make sense if you’ve read the articles.
Q: Where can people contact you to send in their personal reviews to help you out?
Any communications sent to email@example.com will be welcome and promptly answered. Reviews will be posted in the Diary. I won’t be reviewing my own articles or those that I helped edit from our Reading Room group, so I especially hope some other readers will pitch in on those.
Q: Do you know that there is another project going on with the Tolkien Gateway website, who are putting each topic on line. Probably they will correct typos and people will edit the original articles (in wiki systems anyone is free to edit). How do you feel about this?
I think it’s potentially a very positive project. I’m not sure that a pure wiki model is smart. There’s too much danger to the reputation of the site, especially since they’re starting from the Encyclopedia with all its known flaws.
The site editors should certainly accept suggested edits or adds from anyone, no matter his or her credentials, but then they should exercise very rigorous standards like fact checking, and I would hope even some kind of peer review, before allowing the material online. Lacking that, perhaps all material could be explicitly sourced to its contributors and their references, line by line or word by word if necessary, taking advantage of the hypertext format.
The standard of research and prose that Drout set for his journal Tolkien Studies is a high one, but the result is academic respectability and usefulness. The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia aspired to that same standard, at least I thought it did, but somehow it missed the mark.
An online version could correct that, and could conceivably become the core resource for all of Tolkien studies around the world, but only if it establishes and maintains a reputation for top quality from the very beginning.
Q: One final question, where do you place the Encyclopedia in comparison to the Tolkien Companion and Guide by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond?
I haven’t gotten the Companion yet (still recovering from buying the Encyclopedia!) but I hear it’s really great. I understand the focus is much more on Tolkien himself and his books, and doesn’t branch out into all the wonderful academic topics that make the Encyclopedia unique. It was written and edited by just two people, which makes it more consistent in tone, and because those two are Hammond and Scull, the quality of the research and writing is by all reports very high.
Tolkien scholar John Garth reviewed both books and pointed out their strengths and weaknesses, for the Times Literary Supplement.
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