Saturday 22 November 2014

Christopher Tolkien's reflections on The Silmarillion of 1977 in the Introduction to The Book of Lost Tales

Christopher Tolkien published The Silmarillion in 1977 as a single volume work; but just six years later he explicitly stated that he had made a mistake in the way that work was presented. is certainly debatable whether it was wise to publish in 1977 a version of the primary 'legendarium' standing on its own and claiming, as it were, to be self-explanatory. The published work has no 'framework', no suggestion of what it is and how (within the imagined world) it came to be. This I now think to have been an error. 

He says this in one of the most interesting and enlightening pieces of JRR Tolkien criticism and discussion I have encountered - the Introduction to the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales.


The acknowledged problem is that The Silmarillion of 1977 is presented as a free-standing, and supposedly self-explanatory volume; with no context or framing. The reader does not know how to read it; especially in relation to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

So, the reader jumps straight into an Old Testament-like account of how the world was made by the One Creator God and his many minor gods - yet there is no indication of who is telling us this - and how do they know about it? How is it that we hold in our hands a purportedly true account of the making of the world, and the first doings of elves and men within it?


What Christopher Tolkien reveals, which is amply confirmed throughout the multi-volume The History of Middle Earth, is that this question of the provenance of these ancient (feigned) histories had been a matter of deep and lasting concern to JRR Tolkien - he had never ceased to worry over it, but had not reached any clear conclusion - which was why Christopher Tolkien decided to just say nothing.

However, by 1983 Christopher had decided that this was an error, and that he should have framed The Silmarillion to indicate that the book had been written by Bilbo Baggins as one of his Translations from the Elvish during his residence at Rivendell, with presumably some indication of where Bilbo had obtained his information (eg. Elrond, the resident and visiting Noldorin High Elves from Valinor, and Aragorn) and how Bilbo's book had come down to us in modern times.

...apart from the evidence cited here, there is, so far as I know, no other statement on this matter anywhere in my father's writings; and (wrongly, as I think now) I was reluctant to step into the breach and make definite what I only surmised.

This provenance is sketched-out in the Prologue to the second Edition of The Lord of the Rings as having been a copy of The Red Book of Westmarch etc., made by a Gondorian scribe called Findegil in Fourth Age 172 - and this feigned MS has (somehow) come into the hands of JRR Tolkien (and then presumably his son Christopher) and used as the basis for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and - now - The Silmarillion of 1977.


So, the reader of The Silmarillion (1977) should read it as a modern editor's presentation of one of Bilbo Baggins's Translations from the Elvish - done in Rivendell and handed to Frodo Baggins for safe keeping just before he returned to the Shire after the destruction of the One Ring.

It should not be regarded as a 'God's eye view' of what happened; but as a summary and synthesis by one well-informed Hobbit; gathered from the partial and only-partially-reliable manuscript resources of Rivendell, supplemented by oral evidence - many, many years (sometimes many thousands of years) after the events described.


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