Blind Read Through: J.R.R. Tolkien; The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, Introduction
“As has now been fully recorded, my father greatly desired to publish ‘The Silmarillion’ together with The Lord of the Rings. I say nothing of it’s practicability at the time, nor do I make any guesses at the subsequent fate of such a much longer combined work, quadrilogy or tetralogy, or at the different courses that my father might then have taken – for the further development of ‘The Silmarillion’ itself, the history of the Elder Days, would have been arrested (pg 5).“
Welcome back to another Blind Read! We shift gears a little this week now that the Silmarillion is finished and jump into The Book of Lost Tales.
This week I wanted to review the Introduction, but in doing so, I wanted to check Christopher Tolkien’s words (John’s son and the editor of all of Tolkien’s estate since the publication of The Lord of the Rings). So this week will be a combination of analysis and opinion, even more so than any previous essay I have posted.
I’m going to cover two distinct points Christopher covers in the Introduction (there is more there, but for the purposes and desires of this blog, this is the focus). First, the difficulty of ‘The Silmarillion’ and John’s earlier works, and the novelistic approach versus the historical method through the evolution of ‘The Silmarillion’ from its earlier iterations versus Christopher’s edited publication. This last point is the tread that will bring us through the rest of the book and beyond.
“The Silmarillion is commonly said to be a ‘difficult’ book, needing explaination and guidance on how to ‘approach’ it; and in this it is contrasted to The Lord of the Rings (pg 1).“
In this quote, Christopher is saying what everyone else is already thinking; this is why I chose to do a Blind Read with these books because they are notoriously tricky. The Silmarillion begins with a story similar to the Book of Genesis, which was difficult to swallow after concluding one of the most popular stories in generations. “This produced a sense of outrage – in one case formulated to me in the words ‘It’s like the Old Testament’ (pg 2)!”
Which this book is – at the beginning. Once Tolkien moves beyond the archaic origins of the beings and the world of Ëa, the language softens a bit because it becomes more attuned to exposition instead of an elegiac homily.
I contend that it’s Christopher who makes the language so difficult. He is the son of a language professor and is part of the English academic elite. His language is not the same as the language of the masses, which made the book (even when “stories are being told” like Beren and Luthien) considerably more difficult, as opposed to Tolkien’s The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.
That being said, we get an introduction to the original vision of the history of Middle-earth in “The Book of Lost Tales.”
“The letter of 1963 quoted above shows my father pondering the mode in which the legends of the Elder Days might be presented. The original mode, that of The Book of Lost Tales, in which a Man, Eriol, comes after a great voyage over the ocean to the island where the Elves dwell and learns their history from their own lips, had (by degrees) fallen away (pg 5).”
Tolkien wanted to tell his history, but he knew the difficulty of writing it as a historical book instead of a novelistic approach. But it was the novelistic approach with which he started. Tolkien began writing his histories before anything else (and the myth that the language developed and the book written to display that language is a misnomer. In the development of The Book of Lost Tales, we see the evolution of that language as he develops it over time.) in 1917. Tolkien wrote the history as if it were an oral tradition, which would alleviate some of the dry and dull exposition needed. It would stop the feeling of it reading “like the Old Testament (pg 2).“
So instead of a dry history, we get the Human, Eriol, traveling to the Cottage of Lost Play and meeting Elves (they were Gnomes in 1917, though still called Noldor) who gather around a fire, much like you would expect Hobbits to do and regale Eriol with their story.
That makes The Book of Lost Tales interesting, even though it is a rehashing of The Silmarillion. We get to see the evolution of the design and approach of the work and how Christopher decided to edit it and publish it after his father’s death.
Christopher mentions that his father wanted this story told. The fact that we have so much material that calls back to The Lord of the Rings proves that Tolkien wrote to make the world whole. To be more than what Christopher calls “the mise-en-scéne of the story (pg 7),” Tolkien wanted people to know that there was history and agency behind the action in the book. That history led the characters to where they are when we pick up the events in The Fellowship of the Ring.
But does Christopher take it too far? On the contrary, it looks to me as though he uses his father’s platform to carve out a space for himself: “There are explorations to be conducted in this world with perfect right quite irrespective of literary-critical considerations; and it is proper to attempt to comprehend its structure in its largest extent, from the myth of its Creation.“
I agree with what Christopher is saying here. If he didn’t take the mantle over, there wouldn’t be The Silmarillion, and the world of Middle-earth would have stopped at The Lord of the Rings. However, what he did by taking things over was indelibly stamp his prejudice on the material.
Would The Silmarillion have been better as a story as it is in The Book of Lost Tales? Would that have garnered a more significant audience if it were a more accessible tale?
These are all questions I hope to get a better answer for through the next couple of books. Both The Book of Lost Tales, part 1 and The Book of Lost Tales, part 2, are the earlier iterations of The Silmarillion through the storytelling perspective. So these Blind Reads will be much more analytical than previous Blogs as we follow the creative process of Tolkien as both he and Christopher work to uncover the definitive history of Middle Earth.
January 27, 2023 at 12:22 am