Very rarely does one man’s genius receive the benefit of two lifetimes’ work. Christopher Tolkien has devoted himself to transcribing and editing his father J. R. R. Tolkien’s working papers for the immense imagined universe of Middle Earth. His enormous labor of love (not to mention considerable scholarship) was completed in 1996 with the publication of the final volume of The History of Middle Earth.Christopher has had no easy task. In many ways, Tolkien’s fairy tale “Leaf by Niggle” is autobiographical. Like its protagonist, Tolkien “niggled” at his ideas constantly, expanding and changing them. From the leaf of an idea, Middle Earth grew into a mighty tree, sending out deep roots and vast branches. His best-known The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were merely one branch of the mythology he spent his life developing, and The Hobbit itself went through several revisions after its first publication. Tolkien’s papers, then, are a tangle of scribbled thoughts, multiple versions of stories — some of them written in pencil, then written over in pen on the same sheet of paper — and detailed notes and explanations sent off hither and thither in letters to family, friends, and fans. In the twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth, Christopher has painstakingly teased out the tangle and presented his father’s mythology, or “legendarium,” thematically and chronologically throughout its evolution.
Tolkien’s Legendarium is a collection of scholarly essays honoring the completion of The History of Middle Earth and commenting on it at length. The collection is divided into three sections. Section One covers the development and structure of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth itself; Section Two deals specifically with Tolkien’s invented languages; and Section Three treats aspects of Tolkien’s craft as storyteller and worldmaker.
Rayner Unwin, son of Tolkien’s publisher and friend Charles Unwin, begins Part One by recounting the development of The History of Middle Earth from the publisher’s viewpoint. After the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien tried to interest his publisher in a form of The Silmarillion, which would be a working-out of some of the mythology of the world in which The Hobbit was set. Instead, Unwin asked Tolkien for a sequel to the popular Hobbit, and Tolkien began what eventually became The Lord of the Rings. The elaborate and extensive languages, history, romances, and philosophy that Tolkien had developed gave The Lord of the Rings the depth and complexity that made it a classic, but as a whole they themselves remained unknown until Christopher Tolkien, as literary executor of his father’s estate, began quietly publishing volume after volume of the complete legendarium, beginning with The Silmarillion in 1977.
Part One continues with essays by Christina Scull, Wayne G. Hammond, and Charles E. Noad about the content of The History of Middle Earth and how Christopher Tolkien has organized and presented his father’s ideas. Together they raise an interesting issue: was Tolkien’s “niggling” a weakness that prevented him from completing and publishing more of his work, or was it an integral part of the creative process that enabled him to conceive an intricate, multi-layered world? David Bratman completes Part One with an essay on the literary value of The History of Middle Earth, in which he raises — and answers — the question, “Why all this bother? Why take all these years and all these volumes to present work that Tolkien never published in his lifetime?”
J. R. R. Tolkien was first a linguist, and he once admitted that he invented Middle Earth and its stories largely as a way to play with the languages he loved to invent. Part Two of Tolkien’s Legendarium is for Tolkien’s fellow linguists and would-be linguists. Christopher Gilson and Carl F. Hostetter may work with computers to pay the bills, but they are also the editors of Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar respectively, two journals devoted to Tolkien’s languages. Gilson has spent thirty years studying Tolkien’s languages, Hostetter fifteen. I have attended Mythcon with these two, and was delighted and awestruck to hear them recite poetry, converse, and even argue in various Elven dialects. They are “the real McCoy.” Together with fellow linguists Arden R. Smith and Patrick Wynne, they present three essays, one on the evolution of the Elvish language Sindarin, one on Tolkien’s use and invention of runes, and one on Elvish verse modes. The essays are intensely academic, but also intensely enjoyable.
Part Three is the most diverse in subject matter. It is also perhaps the most accessible. Rather than looking at The History of Middle Earth as a whole, these essays deal with different aspects of Tolkien’s writing. Joe R. Christopher writes about Tolkien’s lyric poetry, Marjorie Burns traces Tolkien’s use of Odin in the development of Gandalf and other characters, and FRichard C. West shows how Tolkien drew on the Norse concept of “ofermod” or “overweening pride” to flesh out his heroes. John D. Rateliff recounts Tolkien’s exploration of the notion of time-travel in two unfinished stories, and explores how the stories’ themes enhanced Tolkien’s other work. Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger writes about the ambiguous figure of Aelfwine — the “elf-friend” — and his role in Tolkien’s stories. Frodo, Sam, and Aragorn are all named elf-friends in The Lord of the Rings, and as such they serve as links between the fading world of the elves and our world. They also, by the same token, represent Tolkien himself, embodied in his work.
I find most interesting the essay in Part Three by Paul Edmund Thomas. Thomas writes about Tolkien’s use of narrative voices, particularly in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The narrator of The Hobbit is chiefly an “interpretive guide” and an “attentive companion.” He tells the story self-consciously, with many asides where he speaks directly to the reader; the effect is familiarly intimate and often lighthearted and amusing. When Tolkien began the “sequel” to The Hobbit, he attempted to employ the same sort of narrative voice. However, through the course of several revisions, the narrator of The Lord of the Rings gradually became more impersonal and removed from the narrative. This shift is in keeping with Tolkien’s creation of a tale that is ultimately far more serious and broader in scope and complexity than The Hobbit.
Tolkien’s Legendarium is not light reading. It is also not intended for anyone who doubts that J. R. R. Tolkien’s work merits such extensive and serious study. This is a book for the converted, for the serious Tolkien scholar, or for the student. Part One in particular will mean little to someone who has not read Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth — at twelve volumes admittedly quite an undertaking. And Part Two assumes an educated layperson’s working knowledge of linguistics, as well as a fascination with imaginary languages (any card-carrying Esperanto speakers out there?) But Part Three offers several interesting studies even for the reader who has only read the books Tolkien published during his lifetime. The contributors to this substantive collection are all clearly able and conscientious scholars as well as lovers of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
(Greenwood Press, 2000)