cu sith mythology dogMaps of the Mind of J.R.R. Tolkien

I recently picked up a copy of the Atlas of Middle Earth at a used bookstore for $10.00. The jacket indicates the original price at $16.95 and a previous used bookstore price of $25.00. To me, the wide range of prices indicates a separation between two different kinds of readers of the Atlas: Tolkien fanatics and folks who enjoy Tolkien's books, but don't let themselves get swept away into obsession.

If you're a member of the first group, the Tolkien fanatics, you'll enjoy the Atlas of Middle Earth. It certainly is comprehensive, depicting through maps a huge number of scenes from The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion. For example, there's a cross-section of Smaug's Lonely Mountain, a map of Minas Tirith, and diagrams of patterns of vegetation over the whole of Middle Earth. In addition to the maps there are extras such as a chart showing the descent of Middle-Earth languages through the ages and a chart listing the lengths of all the major rivers in Tolkien's lands.

Sure, the book isn't colorful. Only black, white and brown are used in all of the illustrations. Still, the pictures are clear, and the simplistic color scheme gives the book an authentic look as well as a reasonable price tag. There are also extensive textual explanations of each illustration, showing the relationship between the diagram and the original text.

For those of us who take a less-than-religious approach to reading Tolkien's books, the Atlas of Middle Earth proves to be a little bit over the top. For example, a discussion of Tolkien's intentions in the planning of Beorn the bear-man's home sounds disturbingly reminiscent of chatter about the real meaning of episode 14 at a Star Trek convention. In spite of Tolkien's own careful studies of mythology, I don't think that J.R.R. intended his books to be dissected and studied in such a way.

On the other hand, while reading one of Tolkien's books, I've often wanted to be able to look at a map to get a clear picture in my mind about where exactly the characters have been traveling. For such a purpose, this Atlas is quite valuable.

It seems to me that the trick is to use the Atlas of Middle Earth sparingly. It's nice to get a graphic to go along with one of Tolkien's stories sometimes, but it's also important to preserve one's own repertoire of visual imagery inspired by reading the texts. It would be an unfortunate mistake to confuse the maps in this atlas with the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien themselves.
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