Christopher Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth

2 Feb 2005

Paul R. Potts

Christopher Tolkien is the son of J.R.R., and considered Tolkien’s “literary executor.” He’s also the guy that edited, and annotated, the enormous body of material that comprises the 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

This was a labor of love. I’ve heard people criticize C. Tolkien for opportunism, cashing in on Tolkien’s material, but I don’t think that is the case.

First of all, the History of Middle Earth, a 12-volume set, is not blockbuster sales material. Most bookstores don’t even stock the books. I’ve been attempting to acquire all 12 volumes, in hardcover, and four of them have been difficult to get (out of print or scarce). There are separate paperback editions of volumes 1-5 and 6-9, but I think they are targeted at the wrong audience, and not likely to be big sellers. The small format volumes 1-5 paperbacks with fantasy-painting covers will mislead readers into thinking that they are picking up a prequel or sequel to The Lord of the Rings, when in fact they are looking at drafts and notes from the precursors to the Silmarillion, intermixed with various other extant poems of various quality and a strange framework story that is nowhere to be found in the “official” Silmarillion.

Someone who picked up these books because they enjoyed Orlando Bloom in the Peter Jackson films will likely never get past C. Tolkien’s introduction. It is targeted at the kind of person who found the Silmarillion and the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings more rewarding than the story itself – in other words, English major fantasy geeks who have at one time or another studied Beowulf and Canterbury Tales and who are interested in seeing Tolkien in the raw, so to speak, and of watching over his shoulder while he scratched out his drafts and experimented with forms, and storytelling techniques, not always successfully. These narratives are in “high style” – that is, in mythological style – for the most part, although, they are, oddly, in many places much more concrete, detailed, character-driven, and beautifully imagined than the later versions that became the Silmarillion.

No less an authority than Rayner Unwin writes in Tolkien’s Legendarium, about the plans for publication of the _History of Milddle Earth, “This time we knew that the books would not be price-sensitive, that there was a hard core of potential purchasers, and even if they never reprinted they could at least expect gradually to sell out and pay their way… Christopher was under no illusions that the work he proposed to undertake would be rewarding on a purely commercial basis.”

Secondly, if C. Tolkien he had just wanted to make money off of his father’s legacy, surely expanding the licensed properties or authorizing more spin-off works would have netted him a lot more cash. Instead, he put an enormous amount of effort into assembling, annotating, and editing his father’s old notebooks, many often nearly illegible, stuffed with loose scraps of paper and containing rough drafts in faint pencil with ink written over top. He made chronological sense of the drafts, annotated and rationalized the names, and wrote painstaking commentary that illustrates the many ways in which the storyline, naming, geography, and even theology evolved. No, this was a labor of love, by a man who was also a scholar, and who knew Tolkien’s material deeply.

“Cashing in” would have been writing spin-off novels. Fortunately, C. Tolkien was no Brian Herbert.

So, I don’t buy the image of C. Tolkien as a shameless opportunist. However, neither does he seem to be a benevolent ruler of the disposition of his father’s legacy. There are disturbing stories coming out of the Tolkien family, appearing in British newspapers. Apparently, when Simon Tolkien, C. Tolkien’s son and J.R.R.’s grandson, attended the movie and spoke approvingly of it, even allegedly taking on a small cameo as a soldier of Minas Tirith in shining armor, C. Tolkien disowned him, and now communicates with him only via a lawyer. Simon expected to sit on the board of Tolkien family members that makes decisions about J.R.R.’s materials; he’s been kicked off – all for giving apparent aid and comfort to Jackson’s movie project, which C. Tolkien apparently found abhorent, but could not (legally) derail. C. Tolkien’s public statements about the movie are more conciliatory, making this move appear even harder to understand. It makes me wonder whether it might also have had something to do with the younger Tolkien publishing a successful mystery novel The Stepmother, which may have been at least partially inspired by his upbringing in a broken home. These days apparently C. Tolkien is a bit of a recluse, although the stories that he keeps wild boars in his garden to drive off visitors may be an urban legend.

It is worth pointing out that C. Tolkien and the Tolkien estate didn’t even own the film rights to the Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien signed away the rights decades ago. For his part, he approved of the idea of a film, but the scripts he was shown during his lifetime were bizarre and completely lacked any sense of the material. In his writings J. R. R. Tolkien made the interesting and pragmatic distinction between “art or cash” – that is, he was willing to license his property for film adaptation in exchange for either his direct involvement and artistic control, or his disinterest and a pile of money.

In the end, although he did not live to see Jackson’s film, he got a respectful, if not literal, adaptation that in my opinion retained well the “split personality” of the books, in which the high-and-mighty artistic, noble, and mythological coexists very nicely with down-to-earth, populist, and pragmatic hobbits. But C. Tolkien, rather than engaging in a public debate over the movies or maintaining an honorable silence, seems to have taken on the role of an embittered and despairing Denethor, perhaps moved to anger by his inability to keep popular culture and his father’s legacy far away from each other. If so, I think his palantir must be on the blink. Tolkien’s work was remarkable in blending high and low, noble and silly, and appealing to a wide audience. The films, whether they are as true to the storyline or not, can only widen that audience. Adaptation and translation for new generations is what keeps literary work alive. History will judge in the long run whether Jackson’s film version of the story was a worthy one. But it certainly won’t be the last one.

In any case, I am slowly working my way through the 12-volume history. I’ve purchased the first five books, and the rest will arrive soon. Some of the volumes have proven more difficult to get; I’ve had to order them from Amazon zShops as old/new stock. Amazon has taken several weeks to track down some of the middle four.

It has taken me many years to make the decision to buy these books. I’ve seen the various volumes in bookstores over the years, usually unsold battered copies, but never bought them. They also listed at about $30 each, while the in-stock volumes at Amazon run me $18 each. It seems reasonable just to get the hardcovers, which will still be readable even if it takes me 20 years to finish them.

I’ve now finished the first volume. It is even more fascinating than I expected, especially the “framework story” the Cottage of Lost Play, and the “bridge” material that ties it to the pieces of work that became the first few parts of the Silmarillion. It is a shame that the Silmarillion could not have been structured with the framework in place, and a consolidated, organized, and revised Silmarillion interwoven with it. It would have made the material more approachable, but Tolkien seemed to reject this approach in favor of a more abbreviated, formal, and Biblical style.

It is hard to say whether these early tales are better or worse than the versions they eventually became. The tone and style is all over the place. The first version of the story of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel is notable in part because of the details of Luthien’s magic, and because of the inclusion of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and his cadre of evil feline dog-hating lieutenants. This turns the storyline involving Huan into an expression of long-held rivalry between cats and dogs, which is funny but seems to belong in a different story. Beren also seems to be an elf himself, which does not make a lot of sense in comparison with the later version of the story. I am curious to see how this version ends… perhaps with chaos, floods, plagues, and cats and dogs living together?

I am disappointed in one aspect of the book. In several spots Christopher Tolkien has snipped out and paraphrased sections of the work which he apparently felt did not deserve reproduction in full. But these wordier versions of some of the parts of the Silmarillion, such as the story of the origin of the sun and moon, are interesting precisely because of their longer, more character-driven and detail-driven form. I’d at least like to see the original paragraphs in an appendix. I bought these books to “drink from the fire hose” – I resent having Christopher Tolkien turning off the spigot while I’m still thirsty. Significant chunks of the story – the tale of the coming of men, for example – don’t even exist in complete drafts, but only in fragments, This makes it seem all the more inappropriate to arbitrarily cut out chunks of some of the stories that do exist in complete form. Perhaps C. Tolkien was embarassed by the quality of the draft text. But it is precisely the process of improvement that is so interesting and inspiring. Tolkien’s early poem, Goblin Feet, is godawful, as he himself acknowledged. (Google for Tolkien and “Goblin Feet” if you don’t believe me). Not all of his poems are great. But what is amazing to me is how much better he became. Showing the early drafts in full, warts and all, tells that story.

But despite these problems I am still glad to have these stories in their early form, which J. R. R. Tolkien did not get to polish. I’m glad to have the jewels in the rough.

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