Some books are best-suited to a general audience, some for the specialist. In the case of The Worlds of JRR Tolkien, it's definitively the latter - although this beautifully presented hardback would appeal to everyone on a purely visual level at least.
Subtitled 'The Places That Inspired Middle-Earth', it's a Mines of Moria-esque treasure trove of information, colour and context for devotees of Tolkien's deathless series of Middle Earth books. But unless you're reasonably au fait with his self-styled "legendarium", much of it will be incomprehensible.
And I don't just mean having watched the (great) Lord of the Rings film trilogy and (kind of awful) Hobbit trilogy. You'll need to have read some of the source material, and even then might find yourself floundering a little. Personally I've read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion - the last-named only a few years ago - and even at that, a lot of this book was unfamiliar and required frequent Googling for assistance.
You simply won't know who and what the author is referring to half the time; names of characters and legends, battles and kingdoms will often be meaningless. A certain amount of foreknowledge is expected.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, by the way; there's nothing wrong with challenging your audience, and nothing worse than those dumbed-down books that explain every last thing as if talking to a small child.
Besides, it's not as if there's a shortage of well-versed readers: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings haven't been out of print since 1937 and 1954 respectively, and have cumulatively sold a quarter of a billion copies. These would be the sort of books that people tend to reread throughout their lives.
Plus, in contrast to too many writers of literary biographies or histories, John Garth has an appealing prose style. This reads like a proper book, using normal English, not a dense and jargon-filled academic tract. And it looks gorgeous, with dozens of photos, maps, illustrations and Tolkien's own artwork.
Garth, who wrote the award-winning Tolkien and the Great War, does a deep subterranean dig into the places, events and cultural influences that would later shape those immortal novels and The Silmarillion's faux-history. It's broken into sections: the Shire, the woods, lake lands, military battlements and other settings for Tolkien's story.
The author's inspirations are hugely diverse. Vague memories of his early childhood in Africa; the horror of trench life (and death) in World War I; the bucolic surrounds and elegant architecture of campus life at Oxford; youthful holidays in Cornwall; the dirty industrialisation of Birmingham; England's rich archaeological history; the Old English languages and legends that Tolkien studied and taught. Ireland gets a look in, too: although claims that the Burren inspired some of the legendarium's landscapes are sadly untrue, he read widely across Celtic mythology, and his elves are based on our Tuatha Dé Danann.
Indeed, mythology in general comes across, for me, as his strongest influence. While beloved forests or buildings and childhood reminiscences helped shade and shape the narratives, their foundation stone, ultimately, stands on folklore and legend. Greek and Roman, and Celtic - even a little Native American - but primarily those of northern Europe: the Saxons, the Vikings, the Danes. The lands of ice and snow.
Tolkien always insisted that Lord of the Rings was not an allegory for the present day, no matter how neatly it seems to fit (Sauron as Hitler, Mordor as Nazi Germany, Sam Gamgee as the doughty Tommy and so on). He wanted, rather, to invent a mythology specific to England, some alternate past timeline.
His books, so richly detailed and immersive, do just that: they sweep the reader along on a grandly realised adventure, but also capture the melancholy, dreamlike essence of great legend. This book, as a piece of scholarship, is a really fine addition to the Tolkien canon; aficionados will lap it up.