Book Review: A Tolkien Compass

A Tolkien Compass cover

A Tolkien Compass

Edited by Jared Lobdell

Published (paperback): 1975

Read: November 2019

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Partial Synopsis: Contributors analyze Gollum’s character transformation, the psychological journey of Bilbo, the regime set up by Saruman at the end of Lord of the Rings and its parallels to fascism, the books’ narrative technique, and Tolkien’s rich use of myth and symbol.

List of Essays

Contents courtesy of the ISFDB entry for this edition (“Publication: A Tolkien Compass,” n.d.):

My Favorite Essays

I found most of the essays collected in A Tolkien Compass to be intriguing and thought provoking. At least three of them added twenty new books, journals and articles to my to-be-read queue. The notes alone on a couple of the essays were three or four pages in length and sent me down fantastic research rabbit holes. I can’t decide which essay is my absolute favorite, so I’ll list my top five here (in author alpha order):

  • Huttar, Charles A. “Hell and the City: Tolkien and the Traditions of Western Literature”
  • Miller, David M. “Narrative Pattern in The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Rogers, Deborah C. “Everyclod an Everyhero: The Image of Man in Tolkien”
  • Scheps, Walter “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings
  • West, Richard C. “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings

Honorable Mentions include Agnes Perkins’ “The Corruption of Power” and U. Milo Kaufmann’s “Aspects of the Paradisiacal in Tolkien’s Work”

My Thoughts

A Tolkien Companion, originally published in 1975, amazed me with the depth of insight and scholarship gleaned from the then available works published by Tolkien and about Tolkien’s writing. I saw at least one reference to the manuscripts archived at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Yet, these essays still pre-date the publication of The Silmarillion and the volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Unlike Master of Middle-earth, however, I did not gain any new revelations about Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I did experience profound and thought provoking moments. If I had to choose my favorite essay from the collection, it would probably be Richard West’s “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings” because I had to restrain myself from recording the entire essay as an audio excerpt.

I recommend this to people interested in delving deeper into Tolkien’s writing.


I learned many new literary concepts and structures reading these essays. I will provide here a few examples:

Fairy Tale: Deals in moral absolutes, goodness in the fairy tale being associated with the young and the small, wickedness with the old and the big; often a thinly veiled representation of the conflict between children and parents. (Lobdell, 1975, p. 52-53)

Excerpt from “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings” by Walter Scheps (Lobdell, 1975, p. 53)

Medieval Interlace: A narrative mode of such complexity and sophistication that, until recently, modern critics could not detect a coherent design in most medieval romances. Interlace seeks to mirror the perception of the flux of events in the world around us, where everything is happening at once. The narrative line is digressive and cluttered, dividing our attention among an indefinite number of events, characters and themes, any one of which may dominate at any given time, and it is often indifferent to cause and effect relationships. The path does not follow a single line, but crosses, diverges, recrosses and passes from one to another and another. The narrator contributes to the chaos by implying there are innumerable other events occurring which he does not have time to relate; and no attempt is made to provide a clear-cut beginning or end. (Lobdell, 1975, p. 78-79)

Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones.

Richard C. West, “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings”

Monomyth aka the Hero’s Journey (Wikipedia Contributors, 2004): Quoting Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a fabulous victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” The hero’s adventure has three stages: departure, initiation and return; the first two comprise his journey to hell. (Lobdell, 1975, p. 119)

Organic Unity: A modern structural technique which seeks to reduce the chaotic flux of reality to manageable terms by imposing a clear and fairly simple pattern upon it. Requires a progressive, uncluttered narrative line containing a single major theme, with a limited number of subordinate minor themes. The main theme grows naturally (“organically”) from a clear-cut beginning through a middle to a resolution that is a product of all that preceded it. Prefers a limited number of characters, with no more than one or two dominating the action. (Lobdell, 1975, p. 78; The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016)

The principles of organic unity are summed up in the dictum of the Queen of Hearts: begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end, then stop.

Richard C. West, “The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings

Picaresque Novel: a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish, but “appealing hero”, of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.[1] Picaresque novels typically adopt a realistic style, with elements of comedy and satire. (Wikipedia Contributors, 2002)

Portraiture: The imitation of painting is apparent in the name of the genre itself, which is a painting term. The portrait can be realised in prose or in verse. Its objectives vary according to context: sociocultural, sociopolitical, historical, or again according to the subjectivity of the portraitist (the writer). Thus one can speak of a fictional portrait (corresponding to the characters who populate the fictional universe of each author) as much as a realist one (representing real-life people). The portrait oscillates between reality and fiction, between eulogy and satire, between one portrait which imitates its original and another which moves away from it. (Wikipedia Contributors, 2006)


Tom Bombadil, by the way, has been called “the unfallen Adam.”

Deborah C. Rogers quoting Alexis Levitin’s “The Hero in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings” (Lobdell, 1975, pp. 75-76)

Sam Gamgee is without question one of the most lovable characters in Tolkien’s works. He serves as the practical, clear-eyed realist who repeatedly brings any high-flown or overtense situation back firmly to earth. . . . Sam has been described as the only true hero of the book, because he alone gives up the ring willingly, but even he feels some reluctance at the end.

“The Corruption of Power” by Agnes Perkins and Helen Hill (Lobdell, 1975, pp. 66-67)
The red lines are straight lines from the Shire to Mount Doom in Mordor; from the Shire to Rivendell; and, from Rivendell to the Falls of Rauros, with an extension extrapolated to Minis Tirith. The yellow line roughly follows the Ring from Rivendell through Moria and Lothlorien, then from Rauros through the Dead Marshes and finally into Mordor.

It is significant that an extension of the line from Rivendell to Rauros would miss Mordor and pass through Minas Tirith . . . points up the mixed motives of the company and counterpoints . . . had the will of Boromir prevailed, the ring would not have reached Orodruin.

David M. Miller (Lobdel, 1975, p. 99)

I drew lines on the map above per instructions found in David M. Miller’s “Narrative Pattern in The Fellowship of the Ring.”


The Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica. (2016, April 20). Organic unity. Retrieved November 16, 2019, from

Lobdell, J. (1975). The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings by Richard C. West. In A Tolkien Compass: Including J. R. R. Tolkien’s Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings (pp. 75-94). Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing.

Publication: A Tolkien Compass. (n.d.). Retrieved November 16, 2019, from

White, Jr., S. (2007, September 2). A vector map of Middle-earth [A vector map of Middle-earth]. Retrieved from

Wikipedia Contributors. (2002, July 21). Picaresque novel. Retrieved November 16, 2019, from

Wikipedia Contributors. (2004, August 18). Hero’s journey. Retrieved November 16, 2019, from

Wikipedia Contributors. (2006, April 10). Portrait (literature). Retrieved November 16, 2019, from