The Shaping of Middle-Earth – J. R. R. Tolkien

(HarperCollins 2002, originally published 1986)

The History of Middle-Earth – Vol. 4 (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

The only works of Tolkien’s legendarium to have been published in a completed form during his lifetime were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. After his death, his youngest son Christopher edited The Silmarillion into a finished form for publication, though he later admitted that Tolkien’s writings weren’t always consistent and that the editing process sometimes produced events which weren’t correct. Christopher Tolkien then produced a set of books from the mass of unpublished material which summarised and commented upon the development of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the stories which eventually became The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings.

This book is the fourth in that series, following the two Books of Lost Tales, and The Lays of Beleriand (the earliest prose poems of the stories of Beren and Lúthien and of the children of Húrin respectively). In it, the earliest versions of the Quenta Silmarillion are shown and commented upon, together with the earliest maps of Beleriand (amusingly, drawn on exam paper of the University of Leeds, where Tolkien taught), and various other writings in which Tolkien developed his concept of Middle-Earth and its history.

The book interestingly feels like non-fiction, since most of it consists of rather scholarly commentary on Tolkien’s work; for example, Christopher Tolkien doesn’t speculate as to his father’s intentions where these were unclear. It’s hard to imagine other such works of literary detective work having a market, enough for any publisher to consider them worthwhile publishing, but Tolkien’s work is endlessly fascinating. The depth in which his imagination constructed these histories is quite astonishing, and explains, I think, the reason why his books are so popular today – it’s the sense that this was a real world he was writing about, with its own customs and cultures.

This book also shows how Tolkien’s ideas changed, and how characters invented for one episode gained motivations and appeared earlier in the narrative: Gwindor, for example, appears first as ‘Flinding’, having escaped from Angband in time to help Beleg rescue Túrin from orcs. Only later did Tolkien deepen his connection with the story by having Gwindor precipitate the Nirnaeth Arnoediad by seeing his brother, captured earlier, brutally hacked to death in front of the Elvish armies, and himself later be captured and enslaved.

Also interesting is to see how Tolkien’s conception of the role of Fëanor’s sons changed over time, and their behaviour towards other characters who had hold of the Silmarils. Other characters, such as Elros and Galadriel (the latter of whom is so important to The Lord of the Rings) did not appear in the narrative until much later in the process of creation.

One, amusing, conceit was that an Anglo-Saxon, Ælfwine, had managed to travel to Tol Eressëa and had translated a number of Elvish texts into Old English: some of these are presented in the book (though if you can’t read Old English, don’t worry – modern English versions are also presented).

I found this book very interesting, both as giving more light on the world of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth as well as his conceptions of the place and its history, and how these changed and developed over time. I wouldn’t, however, recommend you read it unless you’ve read The Silmarillion: it would probably help to have read the Lays and the Books of Lost Tales, if only to have a clearer conception of some of the very earliest versions of the story which Tolkien wrote, and to which Christopher Tolkien refers in his commentary.

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This entry was posted in 2011 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Shaping of Middle-Earth – J. R. R. Tolkien

  1. One amusing conceit was that an Anglo-Saxon, Ælfwine, had managed to travel to Tol Eressëa and had translated a number of Elvish texts into Old English: some of these are presented in the book (though if you can’t read Old English, don’t worry – modern English versions are also presented).

    I’m studying the history of the English language at the moment, and, naturally, we’re starting with Old English—it’s actually giving me more and more of an appreciation for Tolkien. I’ve always loved his linguistic conceit about Middle-Earth; it both feels like he had enormous amounts of fun creating it and wholly cohesive.

    • Ela says:

      Actually I think what ‘The Shaping of Middle-Earth’ makes clear is that Tolkien did make things up so as to fit in with things he’d already written. In the first edition of ‘The Hobbit’, for example, Bilbo’s story of how he came by the Ring is different to that in later editions, because by then Tolkien had written the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and had to re-write that bit of ‘The Hobbit’ to fit.

      I agree that it sounds like he had a lot of fun drawing maps and creating his world.

  2. Andrew R. Davidson says:

    Prose poems? The Lays of Beleriand are in verse.

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