History Volumes 2 and 6

18 Feb 2005

Paul R. Potts

I have finished reading the early versions of the story of Beren and Luthien, in volume 2 of the History of Middle Earth. This draft is interesting in part, as I have said, because of Huan’s nemesis, the evil cat Tevildo, and because Beren is apparently also an elf, but one of a different social class and community. The great love between elf and mortal man apparently had not become part of Tolkien’s mythology yet.

The Tevildo material is interesting – it seems that Tolkien may have been a dog person. One of the cats is actually killed and skinned. Tevildo’s lieutenants act like cats, making enormous leaps and twitching their tales. Some of the story borders on comic fable. It is hard to decide whether Tolkien included the comic element wtih full deliberation, or whether he found himself distracted by writing an “origin” fable of the antipathy between cats and dogs in the midst of telling the story of Beren and Luthien. I tend to think the latter is true.

Intentionally, or not. I think he may have eliminated the entire Lord of Cats component of the storyline because it generated that comic feel, and in the later versions of the Silmarillion, he wanted to maintain that high mythological air. This is, I feel, a slight loss. Tolkien famously hated allegory, but the story of Tevildo is not allegory but fable, and I think Tolkien enjoyed writing fable. He may have come to feel that the form was unworthy; if so, that’s a shame. I feel that a truly integrated Silmarillion, with “lost tales” framework story intact, could have subsumed both the mythological style and the fable style, though broken down by complete story, perhaps; the combination of styles within the story of Beren and Luthien perhaps did not serve that story well. The storytellers are actually different characters, so it would make perfect sense that they would tell the tales with very different voices.

I received the last two outstanding orders from Amazon: volumes 6 and 8 of the History. Volume 6 was apparently the hardest for Amazon to get, but get it they did. Although all the rest were in mint condition, this one looks a bit shopworn – not abused, but the cover is scuffed. The binding on this one is a bit distorted, but that is a manufacturing issue and hardly Amazon’s fault. Still, it makes me wonder what various and sundry means they use to procure their books – this volume looks like it came off the shelf of a retail store.

There also was no discount on this volume. Sadly, they also have raised the price of all the available volumes slightly now, although most of them are still far below list.

Anyway. I began reading Return of the Shadow last night. There are a couple of remarkable things about Tolkien’s drafts. The first is that many of the ideas and phrases really did spring full-blown from J. R. R. Tolkien’s mind in the first draft. Sometimes they are the most clever and recognizable bits, such as when Bilbo tells his assembled guests “I don’t know half of you half as well as I would like, and less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” Indeed, the whole structure of the party, the speech, and Bilbo’s disappearance did not change much.

The second remarkable thing is that Tolkien had no outline. The party was a set piece that he put down on the page, but there was as of yet no vision behind it. In several of the succeeding drafts he tried to get up some momentum for the story, but wound up repeatedly writing himself into a corner. Bilbo goes off and gets married and lives happily ever after. No, that pretty much derails the story before it gets off the ground. Bilbo goes off to Rivendell and lives happily ever after. Same problem. Hmmm. Maybe it isn’t Bilbo who gives the speech – Bilbo is a little too fat and happy to be the protagonist at this point – but Bingo, his son. Or maybe Bingo isn’t his son, but his second cousin. How old is Bilbo, anyway? How many years have gone by? Is this his party, or Bingo’s party?

At this point Tolkien had only some very sketchy ideas about where to take the story. There was no deep history behind the ring. He had some vague ideas about Bilbo wanting to go acquire himself some more dragon-gold, or see a live dragon again, or travel across the sea, as part of the ring’s curse, but it was not connected to his more ancient and rich mythology. He wanted to re-create the success of the Hobbit, and satisfy his fans, but he also didn’t have a lot of interest in telling another children’s story. His heart lay in his “Lost Tales,” the over-arching legendarium of Middle Earth. The Hobbit was not really connected to this existing body of material at all. The challenge that Tolkien had before him, in order to get himself interested in the story, was to find a way to connect it to that deeper world.

It took him many chapters and many revisions before this began to happen; prior to this, he was mainly “writing his way into the story,” as Tom Shippey described the process.

This is unintentionally a great encouragement to writers everywhere. Tolkien proved it: you don’t have to know just what you are doing, before you start. If you are truly a writer, the process itself will generate the interesting ideas.

It also reveals the fault lines in The Lord of the Rings. Clearly, there was room for a progressive series of plot outlines in Tolkien’s process. Ideally, a writer would use both techniques.

It is now much more clear why the early parts of the story feel so uneven. This long story, generated by repeated revisions and in fits and starts, also suffered, in some sense, from incomplete revision. The process of discovery of the plot is still visible. The seams show. The ringrwaiths, for example, in the early chapters, are not very terrifying, because Tolkien, like Frodo, didn’t know what the ringwraiths were, and what terror they represented. And once he knew, he did not rework all the older scenes to fit the ringwraiths as they became later.

There are other places where the seams show. The Bombadil and Old Man Willow episodes, for example, really don’t fit into the story arc. Tolkien included them because he had already imagined these characters in his comic rhymes, and thought it would be fun to give the hobbits something to do on their journey to Rivendell. He was right, and this recycling gives us an interesting and enigmatic episode in the story, but only because he was such a gifted writer. Lesser writers should take this as an encouragement that writing itself is the primary tool needed to generate ideas, but that a little planning can go a long way in producing a finished product with a more integrated and unified feel to it, especially if you are not a Tolkien yourself.

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