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David Bratman, ‘The History of Middle-earth’

‘Now it happened on a certain time that a traveller from far countries, a man of great curiosity, was by desire of strange lands and the ways and dwellings of unaccustomed folk brought in a ship as far west even as the Lonely Island, Tol Eressëa in the fairy speech, but which the Gnomes call Dor Faidwen, the Land of Release, and a great tale hangs thereto.’

The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, ch. 1

David Bratman provides an introduction to Tolkien’s legendarium and a brief summary of each volume in the History of Middle-earth series.

The History of Middle-earth, published over the space of thirteen years, between 1983 and 1996, can be an intimidating set of books for the casual reader. Twelve hefty volumes with mysterious titles and the same JRRT monogram are filled with tales, mostly fragmentary, as well as poems, essays, chronologies, maps and charts, and lists of linguistic roots.

Some volumes concern familiar characters such as Frodo and Gandalf, while some feature characters strange and unknown, but all the volumes are supplied with extensive notes and commentary by their conceptor and editor, Christopher Tolkien.

So what is The History of Middle-earth, and what does it contain? J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story Leaf, by Niggle has an answer. It tells of a painter and his great project:

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.

This could be seen as a description of the great ‘mythology’ or legendarium (as he sometimes named it) that was the lifework of the author’s imagination.

The History of Middle-earth is the record, in roughly chronological order of composition, of the trunk and branches of that work and the country that opened behind it, stretching from the leaves in the wind — his earliest poems of the 1910s — to the last touches he made to the twigs — his final notes and jottings of the early 1970s. Almost all of Tolkien’s other creative work including The Lord of the Rings is in some way an offshoot of the work contained in the History, or dependent on it.

To some of these texts Tolkien gave the name ‘Silmarillion’, and it was while examining these with the aim of giving them a publishable form in what would become The Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien formed the basis of the vast study of The History of Middle-earth. Born therefore out of The Silmarillion, which was itself composed from the texts that the History examines!

The author’s at one point avowed goal in creating this work was, to some extent, ‘to restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own’, as he wrote once to a reader, in 1956. Other nations had mythologies — the Greeks, the Celts, the Germans and Scandinavians, but there was ‘nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff’. What there might have been was lost after the Norman Conquest. Arthurian mythology was too mixed with Celtic matter to be purely English, too lavish in style and too explicitly Christian (in his opinion) to serve for what he had in mind.

One model was Finnish mythology, which had been assembled from folk-tales into a coherent epic named the Kalevala by a nineteenth-century scholar, Elias Lönnrot. But though he drew from Kalevala, he was to create his legendarium out of his own imagination, as he explained in the famous letter sent to Milton Waldman in 1951:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen), I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story — the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths.

And that is what he did, though not quite in the manner he expected. Where The Silmarillion begins with the creation of the universe, the first of his works to reach the public, The Hobbit (published in 1937), begins like a fairy tale with a hobbit (what a ‘hobbit’ is, being carefully explained) sitting at his doorstep smoking his pipe. But the hobbit travels from his doorstep into a world of Germanic dwarves and dragons, epic heroes, mighty deeds, and immense history, giving glimpses of the ‘backcloths’ of the ‘Silmarillion’. And the popularity of The Hobbit encouraged Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings, which said more of these matters and eventually drew attention to the ‘Silmarillion’ itself.

Like a genuine folk mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium comes in many forms, with multiple versions in differing styles and levels of detail. The King Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory is unlike the Arthur of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or the Arthur of contemporary novelists. Sigurd the Volsung in the Eddas and the Volsunga Saga has a different tale than does Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied or in Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. (And the same can be said for Tolkien’s own ‘takes’ on these legends: The Fall of Arthur, or Sigurd and Gudrún!)
Names and events vary between tellings, but the basic outline is the same. So it is with Tolkien’s mythology. Changes in names and the meaning of events may be confusing, but they show the mind and imagination of an author at work.

The twelve volumes of the History are a detailed record not intended primarily to be read for story alone; for that, readers should turn to The Silmarillion or The Children of Húrin. However, over the decades of his creation, Tolkien pulled together three disparate sets of stories roughly corresponding to the Three Ages of Middle-earth. The ‘history’ in the title The History of Middle-earth, then, refers to both the ‘internal’ history, the events in the stories, and the ‘external’ history of the author writing about them. To follow the external story, the development of the mythology in his mind, is as complex and interesting as the tales are themselves.

Creation of the legendarium began with The Book of Lost Tales (volumes 1-2 of the History), a set of notebooks Tolkien filled with stories while recuperating from trench fever during the First World War. These were inspired by the poetry and invented languages he had been working on for a number of years, for, as he explained, his stories were written to provide a world for his languages, a people to speak them — the Elves — and stories for them to tell. This is what he meant when he wrote that ‘languages … are a disease of mythology’, and that ‘the “stories” were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse’. [See the more general article on J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented languages.]

The Book of Lost Tales Parts I and II comprise a story cycle telling of an Anglo-Saxon mariner named Eriol (later changed to Ælfwine) who travels to Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle. There he hears the history of the Gnomes (later called the Noldor) told by their own storytellers. Tolkien was concerned with how his stories were fictionally to be brought to England, and the implication is variously that Eriol will carry them back or that Tol Eressëa itself will become England.

The stories that Eriol hears are, in essence, those of the Silmarillion: the creation of the world, the exile of the Noldorin Elves from Valinor to mortal lands, their valiant but failed struggle against the Great Enemy, the heroism of warriors such as Beren and Túrin, and the voyage of Eärendil.

As with most of his stories, J.R.R. Tolkien never completed the Lost Tales. During the 1920s he turned to epic narrative verse, retelling two of the major tales of the cycle as The Lays of Beleriand (volume 3 of the History). These were The Lay of the Children of Húrin in alliterative verse and The Lay of Leithian in rhymed couplets. Neither was completed. Typically for Tolkien, he returned to The Lay of Leithian many years later and began rewriting it from the beginning. This version is also included in The Lays of Beleriand.

At the same time he continued to work in prose. The Shaping of Middle-earth (volume 4 of the History) includes maps, cosmological descriptions and sketches, annals, and prose versions of the stories, all increasing the depth and significance of The Book of Lost Tales on which they are based. The title Quenta Silmarillion was attached to the prose versions, which are the earliest drafts of all later works with that title.

The Lost Road and Other Writings (volume 5 of the History) further develops the annals and the Quenta Silmarillion; it includes an etymology of Elvish language stems, and the earliest forms of the tale of Númenor, an entirely new addition to the legendarium, eventually to be dubbed in the Second Age. Tolkien created this Atlantean mythos as a supplement to The Book of Lost Tales under the title The Fall of Númenor. But he also began a very different kind of novel, The Lost Road, a tale of modern men who through their dreams receive visions of vanished Númenor and memory of its languages.

This takes Tolkien up to 1938, when he put aside all his previous work to tackle a new project, a sequel to his children’s story The Hobbit. This work (not covered in The History of Middle-earth, but amply developed in John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit, and Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit) had been drawn into the existing mythology in the course of its writing. These links were to be made firmer in The Lord of the Rings, which became a sequel to the Silmarillion material as much as to The Hobbit.

Volumes six to nine of The History of Middle-earth form a sub-series (The History of The Lord of the Rings) tracing the composition of the new book from its first sketches in 1937 to the completion of the full text in 1949. This was a very complex and non-linear process. The story evolved in phases as he went back to earlier work to rewrite and expand, looked ahead in outlines and notes to himself, drew maps and compiled chronologies.

Very roughly speaking, The Return of the Shadow (volume 6 of the History) covers the drafts of Book I of the finished work; The Treason of Isengard (volume 7) goes forward into Books II and III; The War of the Ring (volume 8) completes Book III and covers Books IV and V; and The End of the Third Age (part one of Sauron Defeated, volume 9) covers Book VI of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron Defeated also includes the substantial reworking of the Númenor story that the author wrote in the mid 1940s. The Drowning of Anadûnê is a new ‘mythological’ version of the fall of Númenor, while The Notion Club Papers, like The Lost Road but using different characters is a tale of language dreams and story-telling among modern men who have visions of Númenor. This story, too, was sadly not completed.

After completing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien desired to bring the Silmarillion material into consistency with the back story as developed in that work. Morgoth’s Ring (volume 10 of the History) and The War of the Jewels (volume 11) form a sub-series: ‘The later Silmarillion’, recording Tolkien’s work on this in the late 1940s and 1950s.

He redrafted the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ and the ‘Annals’. He tried reconstructing the entire cosmology from the beginning. He wrote long ancillary works, both stories and essays, exploring the implications of his sub-creation.

Morgoth’s Ring consists largely of pieces set in the first half of the story, in Valinor, and The War of the Jewels includes pieces set in the second half of the story, in Beleriand. Some sections of text of the Quenta Silmarillion are not included here, for they were reproduced nearly unchanged in the 1977 volume titled The Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien brought that work to publication by taking texts from this period, supplementing them with 1930s texts where later material was lacking, and bringing the whole into closer consistency with the tale as recounted in The Lord of the Rings.

The Peoples of Middle-earth (volume 12 of the History) covers the writing and development of the Prologue and Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, deferred from the earlier History of The Lord of the Rings volumes, and also includes various shorter writings of Tolkien’s later years, the 1960s and early 1970s, among them a very fragmentary beginning of a sequel to The Lord of the Rings: The New Shadow!

Longer and more polished writings of this period appear in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, a volume published in 1980 prior to the commencement of the History series.