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The History of Middle-Earth

Tolkien's Manuscripts Examined

At the time of his death, J.R.R. Tolkien left a mass of unpublished manuscripts, the work of a lifetime of struggling with a vast corpus of invented languages and mythology. Even in his last days he had been struggling to put these into some format which could be presented to the public at large, since the success of The Lord of the Rings had created an intense interest in the stories of the Elder Days, tales which were only hinted at in those volumes.

His son Christopher Tolkien took up the work of bringing this into print. His first act was to impose a sort of artificial order upon them and produce a single narrative line which was published under the title of The Silmarillion. However, this action left him with an intense sense of dissatisfaction, of having created certainty and finality where in fact no such thing existed. Furthermore, he had left out a number of interesting but unfinished manuscripts simply because he did not wish to try to manufacture text to fill the gaps and produce completion where his father had not.

At the same time, the younger Tolkien had a sense that many fans of Middle Earth would enjoy, even appreciate, being able to read these stories his father had never finished. Thus he produced a volume containing some carefully selected stories under the title Unfinished Tales.

With the success of this work, Christopher Tolkien undertook the immense effort of presenting his father's work in its entirety, beginning with the oldest writings. These battered notebooks from the era of World War I, given the title of The Book of Lost Tales and feigned to be the writings of a mariner who wandered into elfland, show the earliest forms of what would ultimately become the Silmarillion.

From there the collection grew steadily to twelve volumes, including four that dealt with the writing of The Lord of the Rings and how it grew from merely a sequel to The Hobbit to an epic of the end of an age.

The Book of Lost Tales, Part One

This slender volume covers the first half of Tolkien's original manuscript of the Book of Lost Tales, introducing the human mariner Eriol who discovers the Lonely Island of the Elves and there is told the tales of their ancient history. The tales presented begin with the creation of the world through the song of angelic beings and continue through the destruction of the bliss of Aman by Morgoth and the elves' rebellious departure to recover them. It also includes a fair amount of material on the earliest forms of Tolkien's linguistic works in relation to the Elvish languages.

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The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two

The second volume of the Book of Lost Tales gives the central tales of the earliest proto-Silmarillion, which were in fact the first written. Although many are in exceedingly rough form, the basic structures of the stories of Beren and Luthien, of Turin, and of the fall of Gondolin can be recognized. The volume concludes with Tolkien's struggles to tell the story of Earendil the Mariner and of the final battle between Morgoth and the Valar. Sadly, he never found a final solution for that problem, and the lack persisted throughout his life. In addition, there is an extensive reworking of the "framing story" of Eriol, who subsequently becomes an English mariner, Aelfwine. However, this too was never brought to a satisfactory form and exists only in a confused tangle of notes and jottings rather than a coherent narrative.

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The Lays of Beleriand

In this volume Christopher Tolkien presents his father's attempt to write several of the major tales of the developing Silmarillion in poetic form. Two of the longest and most fully developed are the alliterative poem of Turin and the Lay of Lethian, the story of Beren and Luthien in rhyming octosyllabic couplets. Sadly, both poems were never completed, and stop just as the narratives are reaching their respective climaxes. In addition, there is a lengthy critique of the Lay of Lethian, written by C.S. Lewis and couched in mock-scholarly form that softens many of his harsh observations of the flaws of the manuscript.

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The Shaping of Middle Earth: The Quenta, the Ambarkanta and the Annals

After his forray into verse, Tolkien returned to his efforts to tell the story of the Great Jewels in prose form. This began as a "Sketch of the Mythology" which accompanied an early submission of a partial of the "Lay of Lethian" to a publisher. From this it was steadily expanded to tell the tales more fully. At the same time Tolkien worked on various background materials, many feigned to be non-fiction written by scholars within his imaginary world. Among these was an account of the structure of the world and a chronology known as the Annals

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The Lost Road and Other Writings

Even as Tolkien was trying to put the legends of what would later by the First Age in order, he was involved in a sort of "novel dare" with his old friend C.S. Lewis. They would each produce a science fiction novel, one about space travel and the other about time travel. Lewis' novel of space travel is well known -- Out of the Silent Planet. Tolkien's attempt foundered in an inability to find a final form, and has been unknown until his son presented the fragments in this volume. In addition this volume contains new workings of the Quenta Silmarillion and the background material associated with it. Of particular interest to students of Tolkien's invented languages are the Etymologies, in which Tolkien attempted to set forth the vocuabulary of his various Elven languages in a coherent historical form, arranged around the roots of the ancestral language spoken by the first Elves to awake by the waters of Cuivienien.

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The Return of the Shadow

When The Hobbit, a story originally written to amuse his sons, became an unexpected success, Tolkien was soon begged to write a sequel. He reluctantly set aside the materials of the First Age and set to work on one, only to have it grow under his pen into something far greater. This volume investigates how those first fumbling workings developed into the beginning of a major epic. However, it did not come all at once, and numerous false starts preceded the final product. This volume contains those early beginnings, through the version of the narrative that stopped for a long pause at the tomb of Balin in Moria.

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The Treason of Isengard

As the "hobbit story" continued to grow under Tolkien's pen into an epic quest to destroy the One Ring before its maker Sauron could recover it and destroy the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, it was necessary to go back to the beginning and re-develop the first chapters to harmonize them with the later materials. From there Tolkien continued to write, developing both the story and the background as he went. This volume carries the story through to Fangorn Forest, along with copicious notes showing Tolkien's struggles to develop the story beyond that point.

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The War of the Ring

By this point in the writing of what would ultimately become The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had no doubt that he was producing a major work. The two major threads were in place and he needed only develop them to their logical conclusion. Now there were far fewer fumbles and false starts, although there are a few places where he paused and considered where to take the story next. This volume carries the story from the destruction of Isengard to the opening of the Black Gate, just before the climax of the novel.

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Sauron Defeated

Although Tolkien had started with the intention of writing a brief sequel to The Hobbit, he ended up creating a far larger work. Now he had to bring it to a successful closing. However, as he wrote, he found that he could not find an appropriate stopping point. Here for the first time we can read the epilog Tolkien originally wrote, but discarded on the advice of various first readers. In addition, as he was putting the final touches on The Lord of the Rings, he made another attempt to tell the story he had begun in The Lost Road, of the fall of Numenor. This time he abandoned the time-travel idea for a less ambitious one of a scholar who had the peculiar ability to look back into the remote past. Unfortunately, like so much of Tolkien's work it too never found a successful form and foundered before its completion.

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Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One: The Legends of Aman

After the completion of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien returned his attention to the legends of the First Age in an effort to bring them into some sort of publishable order. However, the lengthy hiatus while working on The Lord of the Rings proved fatal to the impetus to work on the story of the Silmarils. Doubt had begun to creep in, and he seriously began to question whether he could even hope to present them in their original form, as a set of very primitive legends of a flat earth lit only by the stars, and of the Sun and Moon as the last stupendous fruits of the magical trees that had once illuminated Aman. In this volume we see Tolkien's struggles with these deep background issues, trying to bring the world of his creation into some kind of coherent, believable form.

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The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion, Part Two: The Legends of Beleriand

Tolkien's struggles to find a new form for the stories of the First Age after the completion of The Lord of the Rings continue in this volume. The Grey Annals represent the final attempt to complete the chronicles of the First Age, while the Wanderings of Hurin are a prose narrative of a part of the story of Hurin and his ill-fated family which never reached a satisfactory form in Tolkien's mind. Finally, the scholar of Tolkien's created languages will enjoy the etymological speculations contained in the essay "Quendi and Eldar."

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The Peoples of Middle-Earth

Here are the last of Tolkien's writings, including an attempt to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Read some of his final musings on various thorny problems of etymology and the interrelationship between the various languages of his fictiona peoples.

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Updated December 28, 2000

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