I’ve been reading the History of Middle-Earth series for a few years now – and have recently read The War of the Ring. As I mentioned before, it’s a fascinating look into the thinking and process that went into the most influential modern fantasy work.
Today, everyone in the fantasy genre is defined by Tolkien. Most obvious are books like the Wheel of Time or the Shannara series which in greater or lesser measure build on the Tolkien formula (the Brooks books do so more transparently, but almost every quest-based, journey-of-the-hero fantasy series does so in greater or lesser measure).
The rest of the genre, of course, is desperately trying to break away from the Tolkien tradition. They hate high fantasy with a passion, either for silly “political” reasons (it is western-based and non-inclusive) or for more understandable artistic reasons; when a writer says they dislike the subgenre because the characters, far from acting like real people, fit into the roles that legend assigns them, makes a valid point. But even those who break with the tradition do so self-consciously, always trying to define the exact limits of the shadow of the colossus they’re trying to escape.
And for people outside the genre, fantasy is essentially synonymous with Tolkien.
Yeah, I think understanding what went into creating this giant is worthwhile. But more than just an academic pursuit for writers, it’s also a fascinating one.
As I mentioned earlier, the true, grinding world-building went into the Silmarillion. This project was Tolkien’s passion, a labor of love that he knew would likely never see the light of day. Dismayed as he was by the lack of an English mythology (Romans and 1066 saw to its destruction), he set out to create one from scratch.
From short texts and poems set in this mythology grew the story and world that we love today… but it grew in layers that would make an onion feel inadequate. A lot of the fun of the History of ME books comes precisely from reading Christopher Tolkien’s descriptions of the scraps of paper his father used to compose the original drafts. One comes to have a great admiration for the editor’s work in this case. Actually it became the world we met in The Silmarillion.
So when he decided to write a children’s book, The Hobbit, he simply (what a deceptive word, that “simply”) layered it over what he’d already spent decades building.
And LotR built on that, another layer to the cake.
This particular installment deals with the destruction of Isengard, and comes, as should be evident, at a time when many of the bones of the mythology were already in place. It is in near-final form, and reads very smoothly, unlike some of the early texts which were intentionally written in an archaic style. As always, the true fanatics will love mining the text for differences with the final version while less-obsessed readers will enjoy revisiting the world and reading about how Tolkien built his masterpiece, as revealed by Christopher.
I can’t really recommend this series to everyone, of course. But I will happily do so to writers who enjoy a window into another writer’s craft and also to OCD fanatics. It is an effort, but it does have its rewards.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist. His novel The Malakiad, far from trying to escape Tolkien’s shadow, would likely make Tolkien attempt to disavow the fantasy genre. Also, it’s a very funny book. You can check it out here.