Michel W. Perry’s Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings

9781587420191_p0_v1_s260x420Many, many books have been written about the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, but Michael Perry attempts, with Untangling Tolkien, to produce the first detailed chronology of the events that take place in The Lord of the Rings. Some events in The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales are also included in this chronology, but only if these events were significant to the development of the trilogy. Perry intends the book to serve as a reference to The Lord of the Rings, enabling the reader to get a better sense of what events happened simultaneously in the story, where in Tolkien’s writings a particular event is described, and a deeper appreciation of the structural coherence of Tolkien’s work. Untangling Tolkien generally succeeds in these regards, especially the latter; this book is essentially an exposition on Tolkien’s attention to chronological detail. Unfortunately, the book also gives every appearance of having been put together in great haste, as though the publishers were more concerned with releasing the book by a certain date than with presenting the best possible book. The book contains so many errors that one cannot help but conclude that nobody bothered to proofread it. The plethora of minor and major mistakes severely mars a reference guide to the trilogy that otherwise does contain some merit.

As most people familiar with the trilogy (in book form) would expect, Perry works with “The Book of Years” from Appendix A of The Return of the King as the base of his chronology, and adds details from the main story, along with other details from Tolkien’s letters and the Unfinished Tales. Each event is described in detail, with an explanation of Tolkien’s motives behind it or the context, within both the story and Tolkien’s actual life, in which the passage was written. Footnotes are presented along the side of each page, identifying the books and chapters where Tolkien describes the particular event. Not being familiar with the Unfinished Tales personally, I found the information derived from that source to be particularly interesting, most notably the part where Saruman had a long-running arrangement with Lotho Sackville-Baggins to obtain large quantities of food from farmlands in the south of the Shire. Also of note is Perry’s description of the Long Winter, 260 years before the action in The Lord of the Rings takes place. Gandalf helps the hobbits survive the winter, and becomes so impressed with their courage and compassion that he decides to make sure that hobbits would play a major role in shaping the future of Middle Earth.

The chronology of Untangling Tolkien begins with very brief descriptions of the first two ages, based mostly on The Silmarillion. Perry only interests himself in details which directly affect the trilogy, but his coverage of Middle Earth’s early history seems a little too sparse. The chronology starts to become more detailed with the establishment of the Shire, and everything after this point is dated by the Shire calendar described in Appendix D of The Return of the King. Perry does an excellent job of setting up the beginning of The Hobbit, from Gandalf’s interest in hobbits and familiarity with Bilbo to his encounters first with the imprisoned dwarf king Thráin and later with Thráin’s son, Thorin Oakenshield. He does not cover the story line of The Hobbit in much detail, however. On an even worse note, this is also the point where the errors in the book start to become grating. During the period between the action in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, many of the events described at Bag End get Bilbo and Frodo mixed up. Experienced Tolkien readers will notice the mistakes, but those who have only read the trilogy once, and otherwise would have benefited the most from using this book as a reference, will likely become very confused by them.

Once the chronology reaches the main story line of The Lord of the Rings, the events are described on a daily basis. As Perry points out, from the time the Fellowship leaves Rivendell to the disposal of the Ring, the current date is explicitly mentioned in the story only once, so significant extrapolation had to be done. The timeline in Appendix A of The Return of the King does not cover everything, so further details had to be gleaned from sentences in the story, along with Tolkien’s letters and notes. Perry does show that Tolkien paid extremely careful attention to the phases of the moon. In the main part of the story, the lunar phases correspond to the actual lunar phases from the years 1941 and 1942, during which much of the story was written. In addition, Perry makes a fairly convincing assertion that the degree of moonlight influences the strategic behavior of the characters in the story, particularly when they choose to hide at night or move. Once again though, Untangling Tolkien gets bogged down by one typo after another. While some are at least amusing, the alarming frequency of these mistakes becomes irritating after a while.

Placing Tolkien’s story into a detailed chronology for reference purposes was a worthwhile endeavor. Michael Perry did put a considerable amount of work into putting Untangling Tolkien together; however, that makes the unwillingness to spend an extra day or two combing the text for factual and typographical errors that much harder to comprehend. Readers who tend to rip their hair out over glaring errors in the text must be advised to stay away from this book. If Perry and Inkling Press bother with another edition, I would also recommend adding more details from the part of Tolkien’s history which predates the action of The Lord of the Rings, because the little that is presented here does provide insight into how Tolkien organized his stories and carefully placed both the trilogy and, retroactively, The Hobbit into the context of his larger mythos. Perry should have included a detailed chronology of The Hobbit as well, to show how Tolkien’s attention to chronological detail in his writing evolved over the years. While very intriguing and insightful at points, Untangling Tolkien ultimately proved to be frustrating, given both a handful of places where more detail would have helped and, especially, an unacceptably large number of easily correctable mistakes in the text.

(Inkling Books, 2003)

About Scott Gianelli

Scott Gianelli is a college professor on Long Island. When not teaching physics or climate, he can be seen carting his guitar and bouzouki around to Swedish folk dances or amusing himself playing games of all sorts. He has a blog on energy and climate called The Measure (http://themeasuregw.blogspot.com), and can be reached at scottgianelli@yahoo.com.