christopher tolkien

Advancing the Middle-Earth Story

The War of the Ring - JRR Tolkien - Christopher Tolkien

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.

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Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

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.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

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.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

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.