Saturday 11 June 2011

How Tolkien could/ should have published The Silmarillion


JRR Tolkien died in 1973 leaving The Silmarillion unfinished; and a book of that name was published just four year later in a version made by Christopher Tolkien, assisted by Guy Gavriel Kay.

The 1977 Silmarillion achieved internal consistency, and consistency with The Lord of the Rings, but at the cost of being (in my opinion) an artistic failure.

It was a massive disappointment to me at the time, and I still prefer never to read it - and I get the feeling that many Tolkien lovers agree with this evaluation.


JRR Tolkien failed to publish the Silmarillion during his lifetime precisely because he could not achieve the twin objectives of artistic success and consistency with the Lord of the Rings.

One or the other had to give way - and with the 1977 Silmarillion it was artistry which gave way...

But since 1977, Christopher Tolkien has acknowledged the problems with the 1977 Silmarillion and has made available a treasure trove of his father's work relevant to the Lord of the Rings, including Unfinished Tales and twelve volumes of The History of Middle Earth.


Within these 13 volumes there are works of superb artistry, but in many literary forms; and varying states of finish and completeness; and defective in consistency with each other and (even more) with The Lord of the Rings.

Yet as Christopher Tolkien states in the introduction to volume one of The Book of Lost Tales:

...beyond the difficulties and the obscurities, what is certain and very evident is that for the begetter of Middle-Earth there was a deep coherence and vital interrelation between all its times, places, and beings, whatever the literary modes, and however protean some parts of the conception might seem when viewed over a long lifetime.


So, in principle, Tolkien might have chosen to publish The Silmarillion as a compendium of various modes of writing, varying in finish and completeness and of various fictional provenance - held together by some kind of editorial apparatus.

This would, I think we can now perceive, have been greatly preferable.

We might have had all the most beautiful and suggestive parts of the History of Middle Earth presented as translations of the fragmentary survivals of a pre-historic age, from widely varying times and by many different hands - some good copies, some misunderstood or garbled, some defectively transcribed by various hands - but each piece having some intrinsic artistic value, providing some valuable extra detail, making some distinctive moral or aesthetic point, or deepening the underlying transcendental reality of the whole.

The editor might have made various suggestions for harmonizing the mutual inconsistencies of these histories with each other and with The Lord of the Rings (which could have been presented as almost entirely authoritative - since that was how the public regarded it, by that time).


This mode of presentation might sound fanciful, but it was (e.g. according to TA Shippey, in Road to Middle Earth) almost exactly how Tolkien envisaged presenting his legendarium to the public when he began it (Tolkien's 'mythology for England' idea, a body of writings which could - in principle - be continued by other hands than his).

And there is evidence that he did at various times actually begin the process of doing this: not least during the 1945-6 era when writing the Notion Club Papers, and then again in the mid 1960s when he created some remarkable, deliberately 'garbled' versions of the Numenor legend called (by Christopher Tolkien) The Drowning of Anadune and published with the Notion Club Papers in volume nine of the History of Middle Earth.


The Drowning of Anadune was an artistically fine piece of work (especially considering it was an unrevised draft), something which could stand alone as a story; envisaged as being written by men long after the fall of Numenor and after the departure of the elves.

It was done in the mid 1960s (that is, after the Lord of the Rings had been published, which had included a 'definitive' outline of the history of Numenor) contains many 'errors' of the type which might plausibly have been expected under such circumstances: most strikingly that the Elves and the Valar are conflated into a single category of immortals.

But the Drowning of Anadune contains much vivid detail, and striking writing - better in overall effect, in my opinion, than the dry annalistic style of the equivalent Akallabeth in the 1977 Silmarillion).


Maybe, sometime, someone will be able to take the artistic option to publishing a version of The Silmarillion: that is to present 'the best of' Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle Earth in a reading version with minimal but helpful (pseudo) editorial apparatus; a version that maintains the fictional history, and sustains the sub-created secondary world.

But it will always be a matter for regret that JRR Tolkien did not do this himself.



Wurmbrand said...

Would it be worthwhile to discuss which of JRRT's writings might serve as the best versions of various stories or parts of stories? Do you want to "open nominations"?

For example, where would we find the most artistic version of the Beren and Luthien story? Or would it be the case that, for X episode from that story, the version on pages xxx of History of Middle-earth Vol. [] is the best, while for Y episode the best version is on pages yyy of HoME Vol. []?

We would be looking, I take it, for a compilation of the best available versions of the following material:

The creation, the Two Trees, Feanor, the Silmarils, Earendil

The wars of the Elves

Beren and Luthien

Hurin and Turin (do we now have this, in the 2007 Children of Hurin volume?)

Akallabeth -- the story of Numenor, its rise, its seduction by Sauron, the drowning of Numenor

I'm jotting this down without checking my books.

Bruce Charlton said...

Well, I couldn't do the job - indeed I don't know the material well enough.

But there are several ways it could be tackled. Your idea is chronologically - but another could be by provenance: Elvish legends, Numenorean, later Gondorian, Hobbit sources, Dwarves etc.