Saturday 9 February 2013

At what precise point did The Hobbit-sequel change into Lord of the Rings


According to Professor Tom Shippey (the greatest-ever Tolkien scholar who is not also Tolkien's son) this point occurred on 9.Feb.1942 and is described on page 424 of The Treason of Isengard (volume seven of the History of Middle Earth edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1992).

Shippey makes this claim in an essay entitled "Tolkien and Iceland: the philology of envy" in the (superb) collection of essays Roots and Branches (2007).


The context is this paragraph:

We know now that Tolkien had great difficulty in getting his story going. In my opinion, he did not break through until, on February 9th 1942, he settled the issue of languages.

Think about the dwarves, with their Old Norse names. Clearly it was not possible for the dwarves really to have had Old Norse names, they lived long long ago, long before Old Norse was a language.

So the names Tolkien had given them, in a work written in modern English, must be there just to show that the dwarves, for convenience, spoke a language which related to the hobbits language in the same sort of way as Old Norse to modern English, or modern Icelandic to modern English - these things do happen in reality.

But if that was the case, then it was possible to imagine, in Middle Earth, a place where people were still speaking English, or even Gothic, a place where the poem Beowulf was still alive. 

Once Tolkien allowed himself to think this - and we can see him doing so on page 424 of The Treason of Isengard - then he could immediately, and with great ease, imagine the society of the Riders of Rohan, or the Riddermark, contrast them with the post Imperial society of Gondor, and allow his story to expand in entirely new and to Tolkien quite unexpected directions. 

The linguistic correspondences freed Tolkien's imagination. They made the book three times as long as it was supposed to be...


So what exactly is written on page 424 of TToI?

Language of Shire = modern English
Language of Dale = Norse (used by Dwarves of that region)
Language of Rohan = Old English

'Modern English' is lingua franca spoken by all people (except a few secluded folk like Lorien) - but little and ill by orcs. 


Thus is answered the puzzle of why the dwarves in the Hobbit had Norse names (they came from near Dale) - and potentially also why Gandalf has a Norse name (taken from the same Icelandic source as the dwarves names - indeed Gandalf was originally the name of Thorin).

Shippey (himself a philologist) was able to intuit how much such apparent inconsistencies in nomenclature bothered Tolkien; and how important it was that they should be resolved. And, as is usual with Tolkien, the language led to the story - new elements in the history of Middle Earth.


So I am pretty confident Shippey is right about this solution releasing Tolkien to let the story flow; although (as I have argued elsewhere on the blog) there remained a more spiritual/ religious problem about the 'purpose' of the story; which - together with a period of Psychological stress or illness - blocked the Lord of the Rings for a sustained period from 1944 until the late summer of 1946; when the experience of working on The Notion Club Papers seems to have finally enabled Tolkien to proceed without further major gaps in composition to finish Lord of the Rings in the form we have it.



Anonymous said...

I think I have finally decided to get a copy of the twelve volume History.

Bruce Charlton said...

@zc - If you don't already have it, you also need Unfinished Tales - which in fact started Christopher Tolkien down that path. But the HoME is a treasure trove in which I graze petty continuously without ever getting through the whole thing or even really comprehending it all - I just lose myself in it.

Wurmbrand said...

Along with the Inklings Reader that you proposed, and which was discussed for a while here, I think the world needs Christopher Tolkien or Tom Shippey or Bruce Charlton (or all three) to compile a one-volume HoME Reader, not as a substitute for the whole set, but as a convenient introduction to it and as a means of highlighting particular treasures that should come to wider attention. Tolkien was one or my two favorite authors for decades before I acquired the whole set (I bought The Lays of Beleriand fairly soon after it was published, but not the others till much later). A great many people think the set is not for them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bruce. I'll get Unfinished Tales too. I've read LOTR more times than I can count, the (rather dark) Children of Hurin and of course the Silmarillion (several times), but your posts have awakened a desire to dig deeper.

Troels said...

I am not sure that I quite agree with the idea presented in the title: I do not think that there is any single point at which the story changed from being imagined as merely a second Hobbit into being imagined on the scale of The Lord of the Rings.

Instead, I would say, this is a gradual change. We can identify a few places where Tolkien had got stuck, and where some idea seems to enable him to move forward, to “free Tolkien's imagination” as Shippey puts it, but in my understanding these are steps along the way — not necessarily more important than some of the steps that came far more easily to Tolkien. The fact that Tolkien had got stuck and needed some idea to move on with the story is, in itself, certainly not an argument for giving that idea a special status.

We might as well argue that the leap that Shippey describes was possible only because Tolkien had already ceased to see his new story as merely a second Hobbit and instead had, in his mind, connected it far more firmly with his mythology, thus reversing cause and effect in the argument.

Troels said...

Sorry - I forgot to add the last paragraph.

None of what I say above refutes that the ideas we speak about here were pivotal to the shaping of The Lord of the Rings as a finished story — these are certainly central ideas for the overall shape of the finished story, but so are many other ideas (the choice of Bilbo's ring and the Necromancer as the link seems to have come quite easily to Tolkien, but is no less important).

What I object to is the implication — possibly not intended — that these points are somehow more important than all others, and further that this is signalled by Tolkien being stuck when having these ideas.