While the Anglosphere clearly has an unending hunger for all of Prof. John Tolkien’s imaginative works, we do not seem to know how to properly appreciate or exploit that work. Or rather, we exploit it poorly because we do not appreciate it for what it was. The years after The Professor’s death were spent in anticipation for the publication of the backstory of sorts to his wildly popular The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Christopher Tolkien bravely took up the work of sorting through his father’s messy mass of manuscripts, and in 1977 finally published The Silmarillion to the delight and confusion of countless readers. The younger Tolkien even admits this work’s deficiencies in his preface to the more recently published The Fall of Gondolin:
There was indeed The Silmarillion that I published in 1977, but this was composed, one might even say ‘contrived’ to produce narrative coherence, many years after The Lord of the Rings. It could seem ‘isolated’, as it were, this large work in a lofty style, supposedly descending from a very remote past, with little of the power and immediacy of The Lord of the Rings. This was no doubt inescapable, in the form in which I undertook it. (11)
The “Silmarillion” material was not originally intended to be a part of Tolkien’s other published stories. The Hobbit had no connection at first to the world of the Valar, Melkor, and the Silmarils that he had been tinkering with for many years; no more than other lighthearted stories like Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wootton Major. However, the popularity of his little hobbit novel drove Tolkien’s publisher to demand a sequel, and he found himself unable to continue the story of Bilbo Baggins without absorbing the entire narrative into the far more detailed legendarium he had been manufacturing for decades. The Hobbit was revised to accommodate the larger “Saga of the Jewels and the Rings” (12) that Tolkien had begun to structure, and the result was perhaps the greatest unplanned-for literary sequel ever written. Casual references to ancient kingdoms and heroes abound in The Lord of the Rings, leading the reader to feel the weight of history as much as might an ancient Anglo-Saxon poet wandering amidst Roman ruins after the death of his lord.
However, the fragmentary narratives that Tolkien had been writing since the Great War were also a source of constant frustration. He had a handful of powerful stories set in the same notional universe but lacked a great deal of connective tissue. The stories of Melkor and Ungoliant stealing the light of the trees, of Túrin Turambar’s tragedy, of Beren and Luthien’s sacrificial love: these are all powerful stories clearly set in the same world but which stand very well on their own as satisfying, complete works.
The poor reception of The Silmarillion seems to have been something of a blow to Christopher Tolkien. He acknowledges that it is an imperfect work that required forcing many ill-fitting pieces together to make a misshapen whole. His father had never found a way to make the pre-Hobbit history of Middle-earth work as a coherent and engaging story. One might interpret Christopher’s multi-volume The History of Middle-earth as an extended explanation (or excuse) for why The Silmarillion could not be made better than it was, what with its endless and pedantic slog through his father’s manuscripts.
But in 2007 a standalone edition of the story of Túrin Turambar was published as The Children of Húrin. This powerful story truly found its footing in a novel format. There is a brief introduction by Christopher Tolkien for those unfamiliar with relevant context from The Silmarillion, numerous watercolor illustrations by the great Alan Lee, and then simply the story in all its glory and tragic weight.
It was ten years later when The Professor’s favorite story from these histories was published in its own volume: Beren and Lúthien. Many expected this publication to be a narrative pieced together from the various manuscripts and complete, like The Children of Húrin before it, but in this respect Tolkien fans were much disappointed. Instead of a complete and satisfying story, readers were treated with a compilation of versions and revisions of the Beren legend in the same pedantic fashion as in the History and Lost Tales volumes.
And now we are “treated” with The Fall of Gondolin, a story overbrimming with unrealized potential. This is again a collection of manuscripts, summaries, and notes from the elder Tolkien… and so much pedantic padding from his son that it sucks all the life from the narrative.
The reader can mentally cobble together a totality from the fragments in Fall, but not without ignoring some things and inventing others. The first major version of the story skims lightly over the early part (the journey to find Gondolin) and is dense with the climax (the attack of Melkor on the hidden city). The second major version expands greatly on the early part, adding in some retroactive continuity to tie it into other stories, and simply ends before the arrival of the protagonist in Gondolin. Minor versions and fragments are interspersed throughout, again with no shortage of editorial commentary. Readers are subject to storytelling whiplash, being forced to read the end of the story before its expanded beginning, when they could have been delighted with a unified whole if the editor had thought it worthwhile to put an effort into retelling one of his father’s greatest stories.
The story of Tuor the unheard prophet has a mythic might. Many people have seen illustrations from this story, especially of the sea-god Ulmo rising from the storm-whipped sea to send the untamed Tuor as his messenger to the hidden Elven city of Gondolin. He commands the elf-king Turgon to leave the comfort of his valley stronghold and take up arms against the orc armies of Melkor. The king listens to the advice of his nephew Meglin and trusts in his wealth and vigilance to protect him while Melkor rules the surrounding lands with an iron fist. But Melgin is kidnapped by an orc band and betrays Gondolin to Melkor to save his life and to steal the elf-wife Tuor has taken for himself. The siege and fall of Gondolin to an army of orcs, balrogs, and dragons is nearly as terrible and weighty as the Fall of Troy. So too is the flight of the few survivors into the surrounding wastelands. There is more than enough material to have published a satisfying novella with a small section of notes about the evolution of the story in an appendix.
Sadly, we are left instead with this hodge-podge of versions and fragments, of tedious notes and a thirty-dollar price tag. It is unlikely that Christopher Tolkien will publish any more collections, being at the ripe old age of 94. I do not say that he has wasted his talents as a curator of manuscripts, but I think perhaps that he could have also worked with professional storytellers to bring his father’s unfinished tales into a more finished and publishable state. There seems to be little point in writing academically at length about stories that have never had the opportunity to sink into the popular imagination. And this brings me around to my original point: that Tolkien’s writings, especially his unpublished writings, have never been properly exploited.
Sure, the film rights to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have been exploited in the cynical sense of the word. The coming exploitation of the larger history of Middle-earth by Amazon Studios is likely to be even more cynical than Peter Jackson’s efforts, but at least he had some respect for the source material. There is a way of exploiting the raw materials—Tolkien’s fragmentary manuscripts—in a way that honors and completes them. He would have completed them in his own way, of course, but without some attempt at completion by others they will never be more than curiosities for fanatics, rather than the powerful myths he wished them to become. There is some tragedy in that Christopher Tolkien has not heeded the word from another great text: “The letter killeth, but the spirit bringeth alive.”