Wednesday, 9 February 2011

‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a transitionary work

There is a tendency to portray Tolkien's legendarium as a single, coherent and consistent sub-creation when discussing his work: a ‘“usable” and “standard” form’ of Middle-earth and its history. This is the view that underlies the fan discussions about a ‘Middle-earth canon’, but even in scholarly work we can also see this idea that one particular version is some mysterious way more ‘true’ than other versions: an example of this can be seen in Vladimir Brljak's paper, ‘The Book of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist’ in Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review volume VII.

In his excellent paper, ‘Elvish as She Is Spoke’ (published in The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull1) Carl Hostetter discusses the attempt, by some, to make ‘Tolkien’s languages, or more properly newly-minted versions of these languages, into “usable” and “standard” forms (their own terminology)’. Hostetter argues that these forms, precisely because of their attempt to achieve a degree of homogeneity and standardisation, are
characterized by conflation of materials and evidence from often widely separated conceptual phases, and by consequent circularity in reasoning about this evidence.
(p. 241)

The most common strategies when attempting to construct a homogeneous and standardised vision of Tolkien's legendarium are to either focus on Tolkien's last thoughts on any given matter, or to focus on the last version of The Lord of the Rings and require consistency with that.

The former of these strategies suffers from a number of problems: first of all Tolkien's last writings were often inconsistent — what he wrote on one subject in, say, 1961, is incompatible with what he wrote on another subject in, say, 1969. The problem here is that none of Tolkien's last writings can be assumed to be his final word on any given subject: in this way there is no reason to presume that the legendarium as a whole ever achieved a greater degree of fixed finality than did his languages.Another problem is that Tolkien's ‘last word’ on various subjects occur over a very long period, in some cases the ‘last’ words were written in the 1930s or even earlier.

The second strategy is the one that is the main focus of this blog entry. When discussing The Lord of the Rings itself, or even when discussing the greater sub-creation of Arda and its history, many people treats the book (in particular the revised version) as displaying the kind of homogeneity and inner consistency that is the very aim of the attempt to create both a ‘Neo-Quenya’ and a ‘Middle-earth Canon’. This, however, is also an over-simplified view that ignores that the years during which Tolkien actually wrote The Lord of the Rings in many ways represents a period of great transitions in his vision of Middle-earth — possibly in part caused by the writing of the book. This transitionary nature of The Lord of the Rings can be traced in a number of threads, but in the following I will focus on the nature of Orcs and in the underlying cosmogony.


The Orcs entered Tolkien's legendarium in the very begining. They are a part of the first ‘Fall of Gondolin’ in The Book of Lost Tales, where it is said that
all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko.
(The Book of Lost Tales 2 ch. III ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, p. 159-60)
This view of the Orcs as demons created by Melkor stayed valid through the Quenta Silmarillion of the mid-thirties, where it is said that
There countless became the hosts of his beasts and demons; and he brought into being the race of the Orcs, and they grew and multiplied in the bowels of the earth. These Orcs Morgoth made in envy and mockery of the Elves, and they were made of stone, but their hearts of hatred. Glamhoth, the hosts of hate, the Gnomes have called them. Goblins they may be called, but in ancient days they were strong and fell.
(The Lost Road and Other Writings (HoMe 5), part 2, VI ‘Quenta Silmarillion’, ch. 5 §62, p.233)
This view on the origin of the Orcs is essentially what Treebeard is expressing2, and which Tolkien later, in a draft letter to Peter Hastings from September 19543 refuted forcibly. In this early view the Orcs are not ‘demonized’ as such, but rather they are actual demons. This, of course, fits much better as the *reality4 behind the orcneas mentioned together with eotenas and ylfe in Beowulf5 than does the later concept, which in The Lord of the Rings is given voice by Frodo, who claims that ‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own’6 which is of course also the view that Tolkien in 1954 supports in his draft letter to Peter Hastings.

Apart from being implied in Treebeard's statement about the Orcs being made in mockery of the Elves, this view of Orcs as demons is implicit also in many other scenes such as e.g. the Battle of the Hornburg where both the game of counting Orc-heads between Gimli and Legolas as well as the total annihilation of the Orcs by the Ents (contrasted by the mercy shown to the Dunlendings) speaks of a de-humanized view of the Orcs that befit their demonic nature far better than the later view.7 Indeed, in later years Tolkien felt forced to emphasize that ‘If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost’8 and that they never actually did surrender and ask for mercy because Melkor had succeeded so well in his corruption and indoctrination of the Orcs that they thought that their enemies (particularly the Elves) were even crueller than themselves.


It is well-known that Tolkien long considered changing his original cosmogonic myth so that the solar system would have been created much as it is described by modern astronomy — the Earth, Arda, would always have been a sphere, the Sun, Anar, and the Moon, Isil, would have been created from the very start and thus not from the last fruits of the Two Trees in Valinor. In part one of Morgoth's Ring which deals with the development of the Ainulindalë after Tolkien started writing The Lord of the Ring we learn that the first attempt at a cosmogonic myth incorporating these ideas, a ‘round-world version’, was created in the mid-forties while Tolkien was still writing and revising The Lord of the Rings. In consequence we see traces of both versions of the cosmogonic myth in the work.9 When Tom Bombadil says that ‘When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. (emphasis added) he is firmly placed in what Tolkien would call the ‘flat-world version’, but when Gimli sings the song about Durin as the Company of the Ring visits the Khazad-dûm, it strongly suggests the round-world version:
The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone.

The Dwarves awoke long before the Noldor returned to Middle-earth, and thus, in the old flat-world version it doesn't make sense to speak of the Moon (stained or unstained) if this cosmogony is used. Similarly Gandalf's riddling poem about the Ents mentions the Moon before it is supposed to have been in existence in the old flat-world version.

Ere iron was found or tree was hewn,
When young was mountain under moon;
Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe,
It walked the forests long ago.

It is curious — even to the point where I suspect intention — that in all cases the passage can be re-interpreted to make sense even in the other cosmogony than the one under which it is written.

I hope with these example to have illustrated that even within The Lord of the Rings there are clear traces of the developing nature of Tolkien's legendarium — Tolkien's views on his own legendarium inevitably developed during the writing of his magnum opus and though Tolkien has done much to preserve the consistency of the work, there are still traces of this development. When we include the greater legendarium, this effect becomes even more obvious, which in its turn shows that any effort to create a ‘“usable” and “standard” form’ of the legendarium: a ‘canonical’ Middle-earth, if you will, is only achievable by
conflation of materials and evidence from often widely separated conceptual phases, and by consequent circularity in reasoning about this evidence.
to borrow Carl Hostetter's words for this context also (as pointed out above, Hostetter applied his statement to attempts to create neo-elvish languages10).

This does not mean that writings by Tolkien from one period can not inform our reading and understanding of what he wrote in another period, but I propose that instead of trying to create the illusion of a consistent and coherent sub-creation we embrace the evolutionary nature of Tolkien's legendarium, including acceptance of the fact that the writing The Lord of the Rings in many ways marks a transition in Tolkien's conception of his legendarium and that this transitionary nature can still be detected in the book.

1: Also available on-line from the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship at
2: ‘But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.’ The Lord of the Rings, book III chapter 4 (The Lord of the Rings has been published in such a great number of editions that giving page numbers is not very useful, so I refrain from doing that).
3: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153 p. 190-1
4: See e.g. Tom Shippey The Road to Middle-earth ch. 1 (in particular under the sub-heading ‘Asterisk-Reality’ p. 17)
5: See e.g. Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century ch. II p. 88 and also Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner, The Ring of Words ch. 3, the entry for ‘Orc’ p. 174ff.
6: The Lord of the Rings, book IV, ch. 8
7: Tom Shippey, ‘Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien's Images of Evil.’ in Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien and also Robert T. Tally Jr. ‘Let us now praise famous Orcs: simple humanity in Tolkien's inhuman creatures’ in Mythlore issue 111/112
8: Morgoth's Ring (HoMe 10), part 5 ‘Myths Transformed’, text X, p. 419
9: Examples are from The Lord of the Rings book I chapter 7, book II chapter 4 and book III chapter 8
10: It is with some trepidation that I thus use the words of a highly respected Tolkien scholar in a different context from what he wrote them for — I can only hope that Hostetter, given that I make it clear that the application to this particular context is mine alone, will forgive my presumption.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tolkien Transactions IX

January 2011

So, we have now reached the ninth issue of my attempt to extract the best (in my highly subjective estimate) of Tolkien related ‘goings-on’ on the 'net. This issue is a little delayed, for which I apologize: an unfortunate combination of business both in the on-line Tolkien world and in my own work and private life — there are, after all, times when, against all rational logic, other things must be prioritized before Tolkien . . .

All the usual disclaimers apply about newness, completeness and relevance (or any other implication of responsibility) :-)

= = = = Sources = = = =

John D. Rateliff (JDR) — “Sacnoth's Scriptorium”

Jason Fisher (JF) — “Lingwë — Musings of a Fish”

Michael Drout (MD) — “Wormtalk and Slugspeak”

Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull (H&S) — “Too Many Books and Never Enough”

Pieter Collier (PC) — “The Tolkien Library”

Douglas A. Anderson (DAA) et Al. — “Wormwoodiana”

Corey Olsen (CO), “The Tolkien Professor”

David Bratman (DB), “Calimac”

Larry Swain (LS), “The Ruminate”

‘Wellinghall', “Musings of an Aging Fan”

Various, ‘The Northeast Tolkien Society' (NETS), “Heren Istarion”

Bruce Charlton (BC), “Tolkien's The Notion Club Papers”

Andrew Higgins (AH), “Wotan's Musings”

Various, The Mythopoeic Society

Troels Forchhammer (TF), “Parmar-kenta”

Mythprint — ‘The Monthly Bulletin of the Mythopoeic Society'

Amon Hen — the Bulletin of the Tolkien Society

— and others

= = = = News = = = =

Tuesday, 4 January 2011, “Iran to celebrate J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday”
Just a curious little bit of information out of a country that is not exactly known for its openess to Western culture. Iran's Association of Children and Teenager's Authors celebrated Tolkien's birthday, and the Fantasy Academy of Iran held its first session this winter on assessing Tolkien's work.

DB, Thursday, 6 January 2011, “Words by JRRT”
David Bratman discusses music that is not only inspired by Tolkien's work, but which actually sets music to Tolkien's words. It appears that the Tolkien Estate has adopted a policy of not allowing anyone to do this any longer (apparently this was done ‘some years ago'), leaving the Danish/English Tolkien Ensemble to be the last to set music to Tolkien words and publish — at least for some time.

H&S, Sunday, 9 January 2011, “The Tolkien Collector no. 31”
Wayne and Christina announce that issue no. 31 of The Tolkien Collector is ‘almost ready for posting to subscribers.'

JC, Thursday, 20 January 2011, “A new trend on Youtube — Reading the books by JRR Tolkien”
Apparently fans reading out of Tolkien's books has become a new trend on YouTube. Pieter gives some examples and some background.

PC, Sunday, 23 January 2011, “Overview of JRR Tolkien related news from last week”
Pieter Collier has begun to make a weekly overview of Tolkien-related items in the news. Some of these items will also appear on my list, but most probably will not. You can find these, and other articles that I do not include here, in the archives of Pieter's Tolkien Library website:

‘Trotter', Sunday, 30 January 2011, “Year's Work and Review of English Studies”
Links to a number of articles by Tolkien in various Oxford publications — unfortunately one does need to have access rights (and I don't know how to get that).

DAA, Sunday, 30 January 2011, “Wormwood indexed, also Avallaunius, Faunus and Tolkien Studies”
Douglas A. Anderson announces an on-line database of magazines that has now indexed some journals that he is involved with, including Tolkien Studies. The database is available at

= = = = Essays and Scholarship = = = =

ArwenAmidala, Saturday, 1 January 2011, “Survival of the Tolkienist.”
A collection of four ‘reaction papers' addressing some very different aspects of Tolkien's work, The Lord of the Rings, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Húrin, The Silmarillion and probably other stuff that I have already forgotten ;) Quite interesting — there are some things that I don't necessarily agree with, which I consider a high quality, since, at least in this case, it shows that the analysis and opinions are not merely indifferent.

BC, Monday, 3 January 2011, “Tolkien and the sea-yearning — the meaning of Earendil”
The two key passages, in my opinion, are
I think Tolkien regarded the sea longing as an aspect or representation of saintliness, where sainthood is conceptualized as being a link between the earthly and heavenly realms, the saint as intercessor for humankind with God.
He [...] wrote about those individuals (and races) who were subject to this sea-yearning, and seemed to accord them the highest esteem — yet I would guess Tolkien himself did not directly share this yearning, which is why he wrote comparatively little about the sea itself, and even less about the experience of sea-going.
It is a very interesting idea, and I should very much like to hear your comments on this.

AH, Monday, 3 January 2011, “Wagner and Tolkien Thread: Strange Ring Fellows”
Andrew continues his investigations into similarities, parallels, or whatever we wish to call it, between Wagner and Tolkien. Personally I don't like Wagner, and I am aware that this makes me more sceptical than I would probably otherwise be, but I do try to keep an open mind, and Andrew's posts are generally quite interesting.

BC, Friday, 7 January 2011, “The essential meaning and purpose of the Notion Club Papers”
Bruce Charlton is moving on from the specific to the general. Admitting that he has been brooding obsessively (his own words!) over the Notion Club Papers (NCP), he takes a stab at the ultimate intention behind the text. In essence he thinks that the NCP was supposed to establish the link between the mythical world of his legendarium and the modern world: a replacing of the Eriol / Aelfwine figure.

DB, Saturday, 8 January 2011, “the Inklings in fiction”
Announcing an update of his list of fictionalisations of Inklings, either individually or as a group, David Bratman has a list that is much longer than I had thought, currently ranging from 1933 to 2010.

BC, Saturday, 8 January 2011, “Curing the ‘vulgarization' of England — from Smith of Wootton Major”
Continuing from his entry on “[t]the essential meaning and purpose of the Notion Club Papers”, Bruce Charlton here combines his ideas on what Tolkien was trying to achieve with the Notion Club Papers with what is know about Tolkien's thoughts on his short story ‘Smith of Wootton Major'. As usual Charlton's observations are interesting and non-obvious.

BC, Friday, 21 January 2011, “An imaginary completed Notion Club Papers — form and character”
This was a busy day on Bruce Charlton's blog. In this first entry on this day he shares some ideas and thoughts on what a the Notion Club Papers might have looked like if Tolkien had ever finished them — the ideas presented here are then built upon in the following entries published on this Friday.

BC, Friday, 21 January 2011, “Who is Dolbear? A wizard/ angel/ messenger from Faery”
A good thing about Charlton's Notion Club Papers blog is that he normally uses a title that actually tells you what he is discussing in the entry — an old-fashioned virtue, I know, but I like it ;-) Dolbear is a character in the Notion Club Papers, and Charlton here ponders the significance of this character, speculating that he may be a kind of messenger from Faërie or a human link to Faërie. This links to some of the things that Charlton said in earlier entries this month about the inhabitants of Faërie actively seeking to renew the links between Faërie and the world of humans.

ArwenAmidala, Friday, 21 January 2011, “In which I argue against the Professor with great fear and trepidation.”
ArwenAmidala discusses the Battle of Maldon and Tolkien's interpretation. Taking into account Tolkien's propensity for rhetorics[*], I am not convinced that she is actually arguing so much against Tolkien. It appears to me that Tolkien's main point was that the use of ofermod is meant negatively, and it does not appear that she disagrees with this. (Of course, to a Dane it is very hard to imagine that the word could be positive: the Danish word overmod does mean excessive pride / self-confidence / courage).
[*] See for instance also the essays by Michael Drout and Tom Shippey in LotR Plaza's Scholars’ Forum:

BC, Friday, 21 January 2011, “The Notion Club Papers — why England, why Oxford?”
It will not have escaped the notice of the observant reader that I am rather fond of Bruce Charlton's Notion Club Papers blog. A part of this is that he often comes up with ideas and thoughts that I would not have thought of myself. Of course that also means that I am often not convinced by his arguments, but it is nonetheless interesting to see his ideas. This entry, in which he discusses the reasons why the Notion Club Papers are set in Oxford, England, is a good example of ideas that are interesting and thought-provoking even though I don't think he is entirely right.

AH, Saturday, 29 January 2011, “Langon — The Mouth of Melko — Some Etymological Detective Work”
An interesting piece of analysis by Andy Higgins — Langon, the Mouth of Melko, indeed!

= = = = Reviews = = = =

Remember to keep an eye on where the Mythopoeic Society is publishing review — many of which have previously appeared in either Mythprint or Mythlore. This month we got, among others, Jason Fisher's review of Dimitra Fimi's 2009 book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits that first appeared in Mythlore 111/112 (Fall/winter 2010).

Wednesday, 5 January 2011, “Tolkien's Double Worlds and Creative Process by Arne Zettersten”
Not so much a review, actually, but rather a bit of reminiscing about meeting Arne Zettersten (and others) along with an announcement of Zettersten's upcoming book.

AH, Saturday, 15 January 2011, “Looking for the King — An Inklings Novel By David Downing — A Review”
There has been a bit of attention for this particular book. The author is professor of English at Elizabethtown College and a well-known Lewis scholar, and the dialogue he gives to the inklings is drawn from what they have actually said or written. Andy Higgins is positive about the book, though not as overwhelming as Pieter Collier was (see the transactions for November 2010).

JF, Monday, 24 January 2011, “Middle-earth and Beyond — first look!”
More information on the upcoming collection edited by Kathleen Dubs and Janka Kašcáková, Middle-earth and Beyond: Essays on the World of J.R.R. Tolkien. Another collection of critical essays on Tolkien's work, arguing that it is different because the editors say so. Thinking of the volumes that sit unread on my shelves, I think it's going to take a couple of positive reviews to convince me to buy this volume.

JF, Friday, 28 January 28 2011, “The Bones of the Ox”
Following in the tradition that I have established of including announcements of books in the review section, we have here Jason Fisher's announcement that his book (as editor and contributor), The Bones of the Ox”: J.R.R. Tolkien and Source Criticism is forthcoming. This is one book that I am fairly sure that I will buy, if nothing else then because Jason describes its purpose as being in part ‘to explain and justify source criticism as a valid critical approach to Tolkien’s works'. Being somewhat wary of source criticism myself (it can be done very well, I think, but there are many examples where it is not), a book that sets out to justify it, and to ‘lay out a systematic methodology for how it ought to be conducted' will be a good opportunity to get a vocabulary to express what I think is good and useful about source criticism and to express my own critique of source criticism (the bad kind).

= = = = Interesting discussions = = = =

AH, Saturday, 8 January 2011, “The History of Middle Earth — A Chapter by Chapter Exploration”
This is not the discussion in itself, but it inspired by a kind of ‘Chapter of the Week' concept sprung from the Tolkien course given by Dimitra Fimi. Unfortunately they have chosen to use Facebook for this extremely interesting project, and the discussion interface on Facebook is abominably bad, so my expectations for this are not too high (already the amount of posts for each chapter seem to be petering out). Still, there is some intersting comments in some of the first chapters, and Dimitra Fimi has contributed some comments.

Various, “Master of Words, by Words Mastered”
The thread is started in December, but I have not become aware of it before January. The overall theme is to explore the relationship between Tolkien's philological work and his fictional work. One of the things that seem to be emerging is a view of Tolkien not as a family man, a philogist, a poet and an epic author, but as one whole person whose personality found outlets in various ways. The main focus, however, is Tolkien's relationship to words and language and how this has influenced all his work.

= = = = Other Stuff = = = =

Comments, idle thoughts, curious articles and what-nots that don't really fit in any of the other categories that I have created.

3 January 2011, “Becoming J.R.R. Tolkien”
A nice enough little piece on about some of Tolkien's sources of inspiration. There is nothing new or controversial here (though it is not entirely precise in all details), and I include it mostly as an example of the tributes to Tolkien on the occasion of his birthday.

BC, Wednesday, 5 January 2011, “A superhero Fellowship of the Ring”
Charlton is playing with the idea of creating a more high-powered fellowship to take the Ring to Mount Doom. Personally I disagree strongly with his assessment of Sam, but it's a funny idea in any case.

Justin Olivetti, Friday, 7 January 2011, “The Road to Mordor: The Professor”
A tribute to the Professor from a gamer of ‘The Lord of the Rings On-line' game, detailing for other gamers a quest-chain within the game that is a tribute to Tolkien. Perhaps one ought to try out this game one day . . .

JDR, Friday, 7 January 2011, “A Tolkienian Puzzle”
In essence John Rateliff is asking what made Tolkien choose to abandon the prose format of The Book of Lost Tales and adopt the narrative poetic format of the The Lays of Beleriand. He spends a bit more thought on it, but doesn't come up with any suggestions. Any takers?

PC, Friday, 7 January 2011, “Avoid Bying Fake Tolkien Signatures on Ebay”
Sound advice from Pieter Collier, who not only advises you to avoid the fake signatures (I could have done that), but also on how you can go about at least reducing the risk of buying a fake Tolkien signature.

BC, Sunday, 23 January 2011, “Free-will, purpose, prophecy and providence in Tolkien”
Quoting from ‘The Quest of Erebor' as published in Unfinished Tales, Bruce Charlton makes the following statements:
The Lord of the Rings is permeated by a deep understanding
of the Christian concept of how free-will is compatible
with with purpose, prophecy and providence.

When such matters seem seem paradoxical, or merely muddled,
this is well worth pondering.
I agree on this (obviously — I have myself spent quite some time pondering this), and though I don't really think that a blog is an appropriate medium for that discussion, I do hope that Charlton will take up the thread in another blog entry.

AH, Sunday, 23 January 2011, “To Have and To Have Not”
Andy Higgins is learning Finnish and in that connection he shares some thoughts on how the idea of ‘to have' is phrased in some non-Germanic languages.

PC, Monday, 24 January 2011, “The amazing art of bookbinding”
Pieter Collier has made a series of articles on bindings for Tolkien's books, where he looks at some absolutely fabulous bindings — the good thing is that the price of these is so high that it is likely to stay outside my reach forever: that way I can read the articles without getting any ‘my precious' urges ;-)
So far this series comprises:
“The Lord of the Rings — Part 1”
“The Lord of the Rings — Part 2”
“The Hobbit”
“The Silmarillion”

PC, Monday, 31 January 2011, “The most expensive copies of The Hobbit in the World — Association Copies”
Following up on his articles on rebound (and very expensive) copies of Tolkien's books, Pieter here goes through some of the most expensive copies of The Hobbit that have been sold on auctions — the top scorer being sold at a staggering £60,000!

Troels Forchhammer

Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.
- Reaper Man (Terry Pratchett)