I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.
Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point. They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground. This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).
But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad. If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment. Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.
So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago. That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers. It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.
I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings. The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.
Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.
As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying. Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text. Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.
The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.
If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective. The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.
In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.