Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tolkien Blues

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

I think it was Punch that said it first. Shortly after the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion, reconstructed from Tolkien's notes by his son Christopher, the humorous magazine ran a short skit entitled 'The Tolkien Shopping Lists'. The implication was clear: Christopher Tolkien was engaged in a barrel-scraping exercise; cashing in on his father's reputation by selling insignificant scraps of paper; or diminishing that reputation by publishing works which Tolkien had long-ago consigned to the waste-paper basket.

It's a joke that some people have never stopped finding funny. It is, of course, entirely unfair. Tolkien had worked on The Silmarillion for his whole life. He wrote the very first versions during World War I; in his eighties he was declining to answer fan-mail because it would take time that could better be spent finishing his life's work. And he certainly wanted it to be published, arguing that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were an inseparable whole, and threatening to take the trilogy to Collins instead of Allen and Unwin because the former showed some interest in printing both books together.

The problem is that no such book as The Silmarillion actually existed. When Tolkien died, he left a shed-full of writings about the First Age of Middle-earth, including at least five different versions of the story of Hurin and his children. The-Book-Now-Called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's synthesis of these various works into something which, in a certain light, looks like a coherent whole. It's only gradually become clear just how much work Christopher had to do to create this illusion of completion.

The Children of Hurin is the first new posthumous work by Tolkien to be released since the publication of The Silmarillion in 1977. In this context, "first" means "seventeenth" (*) and "new" means "repackaging of a work first published in 1980".

Christopher Tolkien is quite up-front about his reason for re-publishing The Children of Hurin as a separate book. He says that he hopes that it might provide a "way in" to The Silmarillion for people who know and love Lord of the Rings but have never tackled Tolkien's primary work.

The Silmarillion is a very dense book: it is often compared with the Old Testament, especially by people who haven't read either. One of the reasons for this density is that the main section – the "Quenta", the history of the Elves
was intended by Tolkien to be a synopsis of his mythos, not the final word on it. Some of the stories were summaries of much longer works which he'd actually written; some were outlines of works he eventually intended to write.

Tolkien had written an almost complete version of the story of Hurin in a semi-novelistic form, under the title of "Narn I Hin Hurin". But he had only partly written it in the shorter, summarized style of The Silmarillion. It turns out that the chapter "Of Turin Turanbur" in the-book-now-called-the-Silmarillion is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to summarize the Narn in the style of the Quenta. He now thinks that it was wrong of him to have engaged in this kind of jiggery-pokery with his father's work.

The long version of the story of Hurin was published as part of the Unfinished Tales in 1980. The new book, The Children of Hurin is a fresh presentation of that text. In Unfinished Tales Christopher Tolkien skipped a couple of passages which are more or less word for word the same as passages in The Silmarillion; and for some reason Tolkien himself missed out a passage which would have described what happened to Turin while he was hiding out in the home of the Wagnerianly named Mim the Dwarf. Christopher has restored the missing passages and filled in the dwarf material from other versions of the story. I certainly couldn't see the join.

The story benefits from this new presentation. You read Unfinished Tales with one finger in the back, flipping between the text, the footnotes and the commentary – and, if you are a particularly devout student, diving into The Silmarillion to fill out the missing passages. I am sure that I should care very much that in an early version of the text Saeros is Daeron's brother, but in latter versions he is only his kinsman, but having your attention drawn to this kind of thing tends to make you treat the text as a work in progress. Having it between shiny covers in a nice clear typeface complete with (rather lacklustre, I thought) Alan Lee illustrations definitely encourages you to treat it as a story.

In The Silmarillion the story runs to about 12,000 words: this new volume runs to about 40,000. If we put two passages side by side, we can easily see the difference:

"Then Turin was filled with fear for his mother and sister and in grimness of heart he went before the King and asked for mail and sword; and he put on the Dragon-helm of Dor-lomin and went out to battle on the marches of Doriath, and became the companion in arms of Beleg Cuthalion."
The Silmarillion

"Now Turin grew heavy-hearted, not knowing what new evil was afoot, and fearing that an ill fate had befallen Morwen and Nienor; and for many days he sat silent, brooding on the downfall of the house of Hador and the men of the North. Then he rose up and went to seek Thingol, and he found him sitting with Melian under Hirlorn, the great beech of Menegroth.

Thingol looked on Turin in wonder, seeing suddenly before him in the place of his fosterling a Man and a stranger, tall, dark-haired, looking at him with deep eyes, in a white face, stern and proud; but he did not speak.

"What do you desire, foster-son?" said Thingol, and guessed that he would ask for nothing small.

"Mail, sword and a shield of my stature, lord," answer Turin. "Also, by your leave I will now reclaim the Dragon-helm of my sires."

"These you shall have, " said Thingol. "But what need have you yet of such arms?"....

The Children of Hurin

Although it is much longer, The Children of Hurin is a much easier read. The Silmarillion is a chronicle: this happened, and then this happened; and then this happened. It expects the reader to do a lot of the work for himself. We are told that Turin asked the king for weapons, but left to imagine where and when this happened, and what they said to each other. (In this respect, it is indeed a little like the book of Genesis.) The Children of Hurin is a story: we see, through the authors eyes, what actually happened. Because the characters are "on stage" for longer periods of time, it is much easier to keep track of who is who. When Thingol is surprised at how much Turin has changed, it reminds us readers that we've skipped over a few years, that the boy Turin of the last chapter is now a youth. The style is relatively formal and archaic ("then he rose up") although no more obscure than, say, the Rohan passages in Lord of the Rings.

Incidentally: Tolkien's first version of the story, "Turanbar and the Foaloke", took this "archaism" a lot further:

"To ease his sorrow and the rage of his heart, that remembered always how Urin and his folk had gone down in battle against Melko, Turin was for ever ranging with the most warlike of the folk of Tinwelint far abroad, and long ere he was grown to first manhood he slew and took turns in frays with the Orcs that prowled unceasingly upon the confines of the realm and were a menace to the Elves."

As a piece of writing, I might cast my vote for the (unfinished, of course) poetic version of the story:

"To assuage his sorrow and to sate his rage
and hate of his heart for the hurts of his folk
then Hurin's son took the helm of his sire
and weapons weighty for the wielding of men
and went to the woods with warlike elves."

The Turin material has never been my favourite section of The Silmarillion: it has always seemed a little anomalous, even un-Tolkienesque. It's as if we've paused after the High Tragedy of Beren and Luthien and focussed down on the life of one single mortal. A heroic mortal, certainly, but killing a dragon – even the Father of All Dragons – is fairly small potatoes compared with stealing a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Hurin, top human hero, is captured by Morgoth the Dark Lord after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Morgoth decides to keep Hurin alive, but forces him to witness the lives of his children, Turin and Nienor. Turin is fostered by the elves and therefore never meets his infant sister. He spends some time as an outlaw, leads the elves of Nargothrond against Morgoth, and slays Glaurung the Dragon. Eventually, Nienor comes looking for Turin, but she gets separated from her mother, and then loses her memory as a result of dragon magic. Turin spends most of his time living under various aliases. So when brother and sister finally meet, they don't know each other. With hilarious consequences.

As a tragedy, I have never found this completely satisfactory. The tragedies of Oedipus, or even, say, Michael Henchard, feel powerful because they feel inevitable: once Oedipus is separated from his birth parents, you feel that the chain of events which is going to result in him marrying his mother has been irrevocably set in motion. In order to maneuver Turin into a situation where he will sleep with his sister, Tolkien has to resort to Glaurung casting a spell of forgetfulness on her. The agency of his fall is not blind fate but malicious trickery by Morgoth and his minions – although Turin has an absolute knack for blundering blindly into whatever trap the powers of darkness set for him.

In sagas, it matters who is related to who, and nearly every minor character has a significant back story. This means that you are going to have to look at maps and family trees whether you want to or not, and navigate sentences which go:

"Lord we were of Angrod's people, and we have wandered far since the Nirnaeth, but of late we have dwelt among Cirdan's following by the Mouths of Sirion. And on a day he called us, and bid us go to you for Ulmo himself, the Lord of Waters, appeared to him..."

People who are intimidated by this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing that they are intimidated by. But on the whole, the book showcases the best features of Tolkien as a writer. He's the master of the understated snippet of dialogue, the telling remark left hanging in mid-air:

"Then I think that my father is dead," said Turin, and before his mother he restrained his tears "For no-one could keep him from coming back to help us, if he were alive."

"I do not think that either of those things are true, my son," said Morwen.

And of course, the story has lots of scope for soaring rhetoric. Turin's nickname, Turanbar, means "master of doom", in the sense of "master of my own fate" – which, of course, is the one thing he isn't. When Nienor realises that she has inadvertently married her own brother she cries "Farewell! Oh twice beloved! A turin turambar turun ambartanen: master of doom by doom mastered! Oh happy to be dead!" and throws herself in the sea.

But I wonder whether the tale of Turin and Hurin loses a lot of its point when taken out of context and asked to stand as a story in its own right. Tolkien started – but inevitably, didn't finish – a follow up work called "The Wanderings of Hurin", which would have followed the aging Hurin's life after Morgoth set him free. At the beginning of The Children of Hurin, Hurin spends some time in the utterly secret elvish city of Gondolin. During his wanderings, he would have tried to find the city again, and thereby revealed its location to Morgoth. In the present book, we see how Glaurung the Dragon sacks and destroys the elvish city of Nargothrond, and ends up living in the caves on piles of elvish treasure. We also see how Mim the dwarf betrayed Turin. But we don't see Hurin returning to Nargothrond after the dragon is dead and discovering that Mim has retired there in order to spend more time with the treasure. So there is a sense that we have read the beginning of the story of Hurin, but not it's end. Christopher Tolkien's introduction isn't, I thought, especially clear, getting bogged down in questions about what "to see with the eye of Morgoth" philosophically means, when what newbies presumably needed was a bluffers guides which said:

Morgoth – Dark Lord. Former god. Has a servant called Sauron.
Menegroth – Place where the Elves live. Lots of caves, hidden in a forest.
Thingol – Elf. King of Menegroth. (Father of Luthien, but that doesn't matter right now.)
Melian – Goddess. Wife of Thingol.

That said, I am pleased to have one of the Great Tales on my shelf in a format that says "This is a story in its own right" rather than "This is part of an enormously complicated textual puzzle". One wonders whether some more of the Good Bits of the History of Middle-earth could be published in an accessible format? Imagine a handsome illustrated edition of "The Ley of Lethian" with a short paragraph on page 268 that said "Tolkien went no further with the poem, but he subsequently completed the story of Beren and Luthien in prose..." Tolkien worked for years and years on some of this material, and "the epic fragment" is a venerable literary form.

The secular press gave quite a bit of coverage to Hurin in the mistaken belief that it was a new book by the author of Lord of the Rings. John Rateliff's monumental – indeed, if we are honest, rather too monumental – History of The Hobbit was largely ignored. Which is a shame because, in the esoteric world of posthumous Tolkien writings, this is a rather more exciting book.

The Hobbit turns out to be almost as much of a textual muddle as The Silmarillion itself. As everyone knows, the 1951 second edition (the one you have on your shelf) was substantially different from the original 1937 version (the one that sells on Ebay for tens of thousands of dollars.) In the original, Gollum had been more or less willing to give the Ring to Bilbo. In the revised version, Gollum never offered his precious as the stake in a riddle-game. He only offers to show Bilbo the way out of the goblin caves if he lost the bet; Bilbo found the the Ring where Gollum had dropped it. (Tolkien, of course, provided a story-internal explanation for this inconsistency: the first version of the story was a fib made up by Bilbo in order to make his claim to the Ring more secure.)

There are other more minor, but interesting changes between the two published versions, as:

"...What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) small people, smaller than dwarves, (and they have no beards) but very much larger than Lilliputians"


"....What is a Hobbit? They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded dwarves. Hobbits have no beards."

The '37 version is still very much in the realm of a children's literary fairy tale; the '54 version is much more like Lord of the Rings. We can see why the '54 author suppressed the reference to "Lilliput". The Hobbit is effective because it pretends to be a work of history: that illusion is exploded by comparing Bilbo with characters from a work of fiction like Gulliver's Travels. The anachronistic references to steam-trains and post-offices don't blow the illusion to the same degree: they may even enhance it.

It turns out that there is an extant copy of Tolkien's first draft of the first edition, which is substantially different from the published version.

"....What is a hobbit? I meant you to find out, but if you must have everything explained at the beginning, I can only say that hobbits are a small people, smaller than dwarves (and they have no beards) but on the whole larger than Lilliputians"

Rateliff has edited this first draft, and associated outlines, with a Christopherian attention to detail; lovingly drawing attention to every crossing-out and smudge. If you think that looking over a writer's shoulder while he is creating a much-loved classic is going to take away the magic then you probably ought to avoid this book. If you find it fascinating that Tolkien wrote that Thorin said that Bilbo possessed "Wisdom in good and blended measure" and that struck it out and wrote "valour and wisdom and little greed" than this book will provide hours of amusement. I'm certainly interested to know that Gandalf was originally going to be called "Bladorthin" (which Rateliff tries, not very convincingly, to gloss as "Grey Pilgrim") and that Thorin was going to be called, enormously confusingly, "Gandalf."

But the real fun is in seeing the different directions that the story might have veered off in. Tolkien had originally intended that Bilbo would stab Smaug with Sting while he slept – an obvious and rather vulgar ending compared with the elegant one he eventually came up with. And I am glad that he dropped the idea that Bilbo would lose all his gold on the way home and be left only with experience to show for his adventure: those kind of sardonic fairy-tale endings used to irritate me no end as a child.

I'd always assumed that Tolkien had initially intended The Hobbit to be a stand-alone work, and only gradually came up with the idea that The Silmarillion should provide an ancient history backdrop to Bilbo's world. In the published version, it is mentioned in passing that The Necromancer (who is not very nice) lives in a Dark Tower in Mirkwood. Thorin suggests that they should challenge him, and Gandalf responds:

"Don't be absurd. He is an enemy far beyond the powers of all the dwarves put together."

But the first draft contains the jaw-dropping variant reading:

"Don't be absurd. That is a job quite beyond the powers of all of the dwarves, if they could be gathered together again from the four corners of the world. And anyway, his castle stands no more and he is fled to a darker place: Beren and Tinuviel broke his power."

So Tolkien knew from Day 1 that "the Necromancer" of The Hobbit and the "Sauron" of The Silmarillion were the same person. If this reading had stayed in the final text, Bilbo would have been more or less contemporary with Beren, and the whole idea of the Third Age would never have come about. On the other hand, where the published text has Bilbo saying:

"Tell me what you want to have done and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East",

the draft had him saying:

"Tell me what you want me to do and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the great desert of Gobi".

This is consistent with the "fairy tale" idea that Hobbits are creatures who live in our world, here and now, but have a Womble-like capacity not to be seen; but not very consistent with the idea that Hobbiton can be located on a map of "Middle-earth" on which the Gobi desert is notable by its absence.

Rateliff is very good at pointing up thematic links between The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. The King of the Wood Elves is awfully reminiscent of King Thingol: both of them live in caves in forests which it is almost impossible to find your way through; and both of them play a villain-like role even though they are really on the side of the goodies. It fits in well with the history of the elves in The Silmarillion that those we meet in The Hobbit particularly dislike spiders. The Arkenstone behaves, and makes other people behave, a lot like one of the Silmarils. And while Tollers hardly came up with the idea of dragons who sleep on piles of gold, the story of Smaug, Erebor and Thorin has notable points of similarity with the story of Glaurung, Nargothrond and Mim.

As well as editing the early draft, Rateliff provides a general commentary on The Hobbit, which will almost certainly tell you more than you wanted to know. Did we really need the complete text of the passages from which Tolkien stole the dwarf names (both the Prose Edda and the Elder Edda version)? Did one passing reference to Radagast merit a 12 page discussion of the development of the idea of wizards in Middle-earth, the character of Radagast in Lord of The Rings, and where Tolkien may have got the name? But some of his literary archeology is fascinating: the story about Tolkien having been stung by a tarantula when he was a toddler in South Africa can't be true because tarantulas don't sting and anyway there aren't any in South Africa. Probably he was thinking of some kind of scorpion. And there is a fascinating appendix on the origin of the word Hobbit, including the full, maddening text of an 1848 article which lists "hobbit" as one of the 198 kinds of fairy....

The most interesting section of the book comes at the end, where Rateliff reveals that Tolkien had started to work on a third revision of the text, with a view to further harmonizing The Hobbit with The Lord of the Rings. Rateliff reproduces Tolkien's draft re-write of Chapter 1 ("A Well-Planned Party") which skilfully removes all the charm and humour from the familiar book:

"How astonishing this was will be better understood by those who know something about Hobbits, and some account of them is really needed nowadays for they are becoming rare, and they avoid the Big People, as they call us. They were a small people, about half our height or less, often smaller than the Dwarves of those days, to whom they were quite unrelated: hobbits never have beards."

What was Tolkien thinking? In a fannish way, it is amusing to know that before the encounter with the Trolls, Bilbo's party "spent their last comfortable night for many a day to come, in the great inn of Bree, the Prancing Pony" and we can look forward to hours of fruitful arguments about whether the detail that Gandalf had a horse called Rohald should be regarded as "canon". But this ill-conceived re-write seems to have broken down over the question of chronology: Tolkien found that there was simply no way that the various dates and traveling-times given in The Hobbit could be made consistent with the map of Middle-earth as it developed for Lord of the Rings, and that the phases of the moon (which are relatively important to the story) don't add up either. (Oh, and he became worried about the fact that the dates given in The Hobbit are in the Gregorian calender, as opposed to the rather complicated Hobbit calendar in the appendix to Lord of the Rings!) As Rateliff says, The Hobbit is really written in a "once upon a time" world, where a journey takes precisely the amount of time which is dramatically appropriate, and the moon is full on those days when it would be dramatically appropriate to have a full moon. The Lord of the Rings, which tells us which way the lane went behind Farmer Maggot's house and the rough dates when Hobbits migrated from the Shire to Bree, is simply a different kind of thing from The Hobbit. During the re-write, Tolkien becomes worried about where the Dwarves got their musical instruments from, and what happened to them when they set off on their journey: has any reader ever noticed or worried about that kind of detail?

Did The Hobbit lose some of it's Hobbitness when it was retrospectively pasted into the saga of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings? Look at the progressive neutering of the remark about Bilbo's ancestry:

Draft: "It had always been said that long ago some or other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (goblin family said severer critics); certainly there was something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

First edition: "It had always been said that long ago one of other of the Tooks had married into a fairy family (the less friendly said a goblin family), certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Second edition: "It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. This was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them."

Proposed revision: "It was often said (in other families) that the Tooks must have some elvish blood in them: which was of course absurd, but there was undoubtedly something queer about them..."

The first version places us in a world which is delicately balanced between the mundane and the supernatural. There are fantastic, magical creatures like fairies and goblins; but they are a subject for local gossip. Marrying a fairy or a goblin is talked about in the same tone of voice that country folk might discuss any other marriage to an outlander or furriner. If we are thinking of the terrible servants of the Enemy in Lord of the Rings then "goblin family" is almost a contradiction in terms; but because we are seeing the world through Hobbit eyes, both the Eldar and the Orcs have become domesticated.

In the second version, the whimsical "married into a fairy family" has become the more high-romantic "taken a fairy wife". We might possibly say that Beren took a fairy wife; we certainly would not say that he married into a fairy family. In the proposed revision, this has become even more vague – instead of an individual liaison, we are merely asked to imagine "some elvish blood".

Or again, in the draft version, Bilbo accused Gandalf of encouraging young Hobbits to "stow away aboard ships that sail to the Other Side". In one sense, this is precisely what Bilbo and Frodo do at the end of Lord of the Rings; but the language seems to call up images of naughty little hairy-footed Edwardian children hiding away on fairy ships. This is a very different world from that of the Grey Havens, but not too far removed from The Book of Lost Tales, where children who have been unfairly punished may travel along "the path of dreams" and find themselves in the "cottage of lost play" on the edge of the Undying Lands. In the published edition, this idea is suppressed: Gandalf has merely encouraged Hobbits to "sail in ships to other shores". But disconcertingly, in the proposed revision the older idea pops up again:

"They used to send many quiet lads and lasses, off on adventures, it is said: any mad thing from climbing tall trees to visiting elves, and even trying to sail in ships." Bilbo's voice fell almost to a whisper "To sail, sail away to the Other Shore. Dear me!"

This romantic sehnsucht feels very different from "stowing away" on elf ships; but it's interesting that Tolkien wanted to re-insert the idea of Hobbits somehow getting to the Undying Lands. In one sense, Tolkien is trying to "set up" the end of Lord of the Rings on the very first page of The Hobbit. Are we being asked to think that, before he's even set off on his Adventure, that Bilbo already had the sea-longing? And does that suggest that the idea that the Tooks had elvish blood in them is not quite so absurd after all?

I don't think that one version is necessarily better than the other; or that we should regret the coming into being of the final Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings. But it's worth being aware that there were different and contradictory versions running around Tolkien's head; and that in order to create the heart-breaking, bitter world in which Galadriel could say "All shall love me and despair!" he had to partly suppress an earlier world where elves still said "tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley". (NOTE: Never, ever, mention Tinfang Warble.)

It was impossible for Tolkien to finish The Silmarillion: if he had lived another ten years, he might have finished "The Wanderings of Hurin" or written a narrative version of the Voyage of Earendal; but you can bet that he would have then spotted some new inconsistency with the "Quenta" and decided that he needed to start all over again. I think that we can now see that The Hobbit was also doomed to be a process, rather than a finished work.

Bilbo and Frodo are torn between the Tookish and the Baggins side of their personality; Gollum is both Gollum and Smeagal; and Sam, at the end of Lord of the Rings, is "torn in two" between Rosie and Frodo, Hobbits and Elves, the Shire and the Undying Lands. (The rejected epilogue reveals that Sam never completely resolved this.) I think that we can now see that Tolkien also was "torn in two". He was both the hyper-romantic public school boy, drinking tea in a department store with three close friends (two of whom won't live to see their 20th birthdays), producing ecstatic, hallucinatory poetry:

"East of Moon west of the Sun
There stands a lonely hill
Its feet are in the pale green sea
Its towers are white and still
Beyond Taniqueitil
In Valinor..."

But he was also the old scholar, desperately chipping away at a book which is already a bestseller in order to make the phases of the moon fit together. It's as if the young schoolboy and soldier had seen Middle-earth and the old academic was struggling to make it real – even if that meant pulling the whole thing down and building it up again in order to make it consistent with geography, astronomy, catholic theology...oh, and to make sure that the half a dozen made-up languages all interrelated according to established philological rules. He never finished: because he was trying to do the impossible.

My edition of The Silmarillion has a quote from a contemporary review on the back: "How, given little over half a century of work, could one man become the creative equivalent of a people?" The answer, pretty obviously, is that he couldn't.

(*)Mr. Bliss, Roverandom, Letters from Father Christmas, The Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales (2 volumes), The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, The Lost Road, The History of The Lord of the Rings (4 vols) Morgoth's Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth.

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