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Michael Martinez's
Visualizing Middle-earth
Xlibris Corporation, 2000 [264 pgs]

Copyright Chris Seeman ©2001

Edited by Joe Mandala for The Guild Companion

This book is a collection of essays first published by Michael Martinez in 1999 and 2000 in his weekly on-line column, Suite101.Com. Most are about the history and cultures of Middle-earth; others contain commentary and speculation about New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings films. The historical essays are indeed "only essays in the craft," for they document the author's evolving thought on various Endorian topics which will one day find fuller and definitive expression in a projected magnum opus which will cover "in great detail the pseudo-history of Tolkien's Middle-earth from the return of the Noldor through the Fourth Age (p. 12)."

Despite the fact that these materials have already been published and read by thousands of readers on-line, their publication in book form deserves notice. A visit to the Tolkien shelf of any well-stocked bookstore will reveal a plethora of reference works about Middle-earth. And yet none of these bestsellers-most of them badly outdated or just plain bad-can hold a candle to the precision and thoroughness of Michael Martinez's scholarship. Visualizing Middle-earth, even as a warm-up, sets a new standard for the reconstruction of the "internal" history of Tolkien's legendarium (as distinct from its literary or linguistic criticism). It is, in fact, the first book of its kind.

Martinez's movie-related postings and his reflections on "the Tolkien phenomenon" as a whole are interesting in their own right (though, of course, only time will tell how prescient some of his predictions are). Even here, however, conversation inevitably gravitates toward scholarly investigation to ground the commentator's views in the primary sources. I should say "primary and secondary sources," since Martinez distinguishes between Tolkien's "finished" and "unfinished" (posthumously published) works. In practice, this translates into a heightened sensitivity to the sometimes imperfect coherence of the Tolkien "canon" and the often formidable challenges this poses to the quest for "authoritative" pronouncements on a whole range of questions to which millions of Tolkien fans and sub-creators would love to have answers (e.g., do Balrogs really have wings and can they fly?).

The majority of topics Martinez broaches are, however, of a broader scope, such as the applicability of "medieval" models for visualizing Middle-earth's cultures, or (that perennial favorite) the nature of magic in Middle-earth, or the location of the Rangers' hidden fastnesses in Eriador. There is a meandering quality to many of Martinez's essays reminiscent of the sort one encounters in Tolkien's own late writings, necessitated by the interconnectedness of so many aspects of the secondary world to any single topic, however miniscule. The ability to navigate the 6,000+ pages of the published (and still growing) Tolkien corpus is an art and a discipline which Martinez has admirably mastered.

At the same time, the essays in this book can (in a constructive sense) reveal the limitations of the scholarly enterprise, properly understood. The aim of a scholarship is to determine what can and cannot be known on the basis of an agreed upon body of evidence. Inference and speculation may be part of that undertaking, but they cannot substitute for evidence. The hardest lesson every historian must come to terms with is that not all questions can be satisfactorily answered. For the investigator of a pseudo-history like Middle-earth, the prospect may be even grimmer: not all questions have answers. In spite of his life-long dedication to achieving "the inner consistency of reality" for his secondary world, Tolkien did not always reach a definitive or even a consistent position on a number of issues-some major, others less so. The quality of a "Middle-earth historian" (for lack of a better term) can be measured by his or her ability to recognize where those grey areas lie and to resist the temptation to dispel the ambiguity by inferring coherence where it may not exist. "Filling in the gaps" is, rather, the task of the sub-creator. Of course, a person may engage in both enterprises; the important thing is to keep the two distinct.

Throughout Visualizing Middle-earth, Martinez's writing is an exemplary model of this principle. Not all will find every inference of his totally persuasive, but that is not to be expected, since everyone's "visualization" of Tolkien's world will be different. To give one example, in his treatment of Tolkien's unfinished sequel to The Lord of the Rings ("The New Shadow," which was published in HoMe XII), Martinez speculates that some kind of communion with one of the Barrow-wights might have underlain the cult of the mysterious "Herumor" (pp. 176-177). A possibility. But not the first that I, as a scholar or a sub-creator, would have explored. Herumor's presumably Dúnadan background would have recalled to my mind Faramir's remarks to Frodo about how the Númenóreans in Middle-earth (though not in Gondor) had practiced the black arts. Moreover, Herumor's Second Age namesake was a Black Númenórean. Was Tolkien turning over such thoughts in his mind while writing "The New Shadow?" Maybe; maybe not. But the associations are at least thematically linked to the setting of "The New Shadow," more so, I think, than the Barrow-wights. But there the scholarly discussion must end and the sub-creator's enterprise begins.

To press the example further, Martinez extends his speculation to the matter of what sort of spirits the Barrow-wights were. While he offers more than one solution, he concentrates on the possibility that they were houseless Elves dominated by necromancy. The inference is understandable, because Tolkien did discuss the mechanics of necromancy in conjunction with houseless Elves (in HoMe X). But just because that is the scenario which Tolkien chose to develop in another context need not make it the most likely candidate for the Barrow-wights. As a sub-creator I could devise a (to me) more satisfying scenario, but as a diviner of Tolkien's intent I would feel more comfortable leaving the matter indeterminate. Tolkien may never have gotten so far in his own speculation as to what they were. These are not meant as criticisms of Martinez's work, merely reactions that serve to highlight the boundaries between what he does so well and what many who read his book will be interested in doing with the results of that work.

I want to wind up this review with some remarks about Martinez's magic essay, since that topic is to me one of the most pressing issues I am currently grappling with in my own work. Its greatest strength lies in the clarity of its formulations of principles. Martinez wisely prefaces his discussion with a careful analysis of Tolkien's cosmology (gleaned from "Ainulindalë" and "Valaquenta") so that the terms of the debate are defined with respect to the actual metaphysical assumptions operative in Middle-earth. This move evades a number of semantic problems that tend to plague treatments of the subject. He also succeeds brilliantly through several concrete examples in calling Tolkien's bluff regarding the inability of Men to engage in magic at some level. Other issues still require clarification. It remains to be demonstrated in detail whether Tolkien's attempts at categorizing magic (e.g., Enchantment vs. Sorcery, magia vs goetia, etc.) are useful for understanding the diversity of supernatural phenomena within the stories themselves. Also absent from the discussion are Tolkien's recently published writings on Telepathy, Mind, Will, Spirit and so forth (i.e., "anthropological" as distinct from "cosmological" factors).

All in all, Visualizing Middle-earth is an important step forward for all of us who are concerned with the inner workings of Tolkien's secondary world. Even if you've read the essays on Suite101.Com, buy the book! Show the publishing powers-that-be that there is a market for this kind of stuff! Then, hopefully, one day we can all enjoy plumbing the pages of Martinez's promised masterwork.

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