I’ve finally done it. All twelve volumes, all 4,730 pages (not including Indices, Appendices, or Glossaries.) Christopher Tolkien’s incredible achievement in literary archaeology, The History of Middle-earth, has been read.
Back in January of this year I set myself that challenge: after reading The Lord of the Rings once a year since I was 15 or so, and finally making it through The Silmarillion (thanks, Tolkien Professor!) and Children of Hurin, and better yet understanding and appreciating those more esoteric works, I vowed to read all twelve in the History series prior to year-end.
By July I was already on Volume 9. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘this’ll be a snap.’ I didn’t know it yet but I’d hit the wall. When December 1 came around the last 40 pages or so in Volume 12 were still unturned. But just like the other 4,690 pages, those last words – literally some of the last things penned by JRR Tolkien in his final few months of life – succumbed, and I was through.
So now what?
There’s plenty of Tolkienite literature to be had out there, but had I exhausted the supply of things written by the great man, or his equally erudite offspring?
Turns out I hadn’t.
So next up is The Letters of JRR Tolkien, a large book that’s an apparently very small representation of the thousands of letters he wrote to friends, family and business associates, all related to Middle-earth and its denizens.
So I’ve got that going for me.
But what to make of the overall achievement of finishing The Histories itself?
In the first part of this recap, which took us up to volume 9, I’d just gotten past the middle set of four that described the notes and deep background of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, which remain the most impactful volumes of The Histories for me. I’d seen some Tolkien’s earliest writings already, many of the so-called “Lost Tales” and what was essentially the framework for what would appear in all of his future works, large and small. Many or most of these earliest stories would be written and re-written, edited and re-edited over the course of some sixty years, as Tolkien realized he had to make some of this extensive History fit the major pieces of the canon, namely The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings itself. That he wrote all of that back story at all, much less that he took the time to rework it so many times over the years, knowing that in all likelihood nobody would ever read it, is simply astonishing.
What remained after those four volumes was in most ways similar to what had come before: extremely scholarly dissections of relatively short bursts of actual stories and explanations from JRRT himself. But, also like the earlier pieces, there were gems that shone brighter than the very Silmarils themselves, and when I turned those pages I practically had to shield my eyes. There were plenty of goose-bump moments, plenty of, “No way! Really?” asides from yours truly, that made all of the other knowledgeable but sometimes dry diatribes more than worth it.
I had been anticipating reaching volume 10, Morgoth’s Ring, as it had been mentioned on numerous occasions in the good Professor’s podcasts, both the in-class sessions and the subsequent Silmarillion discussions. Volumes 10 and 11 were subtitled (one thing Christopher was not at all leery of was subtitles. . .) “The Later Silmarillion, parts 1 & 2,” and dealt mostly with either further, deeper explanations of the underpinnings of that critical work, or corrections of items appearing in the earliest volumes, which Christopher had made more sense of through new findings – again, sometimes only scribbles on small scraps of re-used paper.
The last volume describes The Peoples of Middle-earth, their origins, their genealogies, and their languages. There were also a few odds and ends that Christopher tacked on that were written in the very last months of his father’s life.
Examples of the previously mentioned brightness and goose-bump inducing passages abound. Here are a few.
From Morgoth’s Ring, volume 10, this touching excerpt from a letter JRRT wrote to a friend in 1963:
Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over the Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil. – Morgoth’s Ring, History of Middle-earth, vol X, pg 366
Volume 11, The War of the Jewels, yielded these gems, the first an almost biblical who’s-who of the lineage of Man, and the beginning of the line of Numenor: (This also gives a bit of the flavor of some of the more impenetrable paragraphs; while full of useful and interesting information, it really does feel like reading one of the Old Testament books of the Bible at times.)
The sons of Hador were Galdor and Gundor; and the sons of Galdor were Hurin and Huor; and the son of Hurin was Turin the bane of Glaurung; and the son of Huor was Tuor, father of Earendil the Blessed. And the son of Boromir [not that one. . . ed.] was Bregor, whose sons were Bregolas and Barahir; and the daughters of the sons of Bregolas were Morwen the mother of Turin, and Rian the mother of Tuor; but the son of Barahir was Beren One-Hand who won the love of Luthien Thingol’s daughter and returned from the dead; from them came Elwing the wife of Earendil and all the Kings of Numenor after. – War of the Jewels, pg 224
Now that may not seem or sound all that exciting to the casual reader, but for someone who’d not long ago finished The Silmarillion as well as the preceding ten volumes just about all of these names hold great weight and importance in the larger tales. These include additional clarity around Hurin, some of whose tragic story I provided in the last post, and his line; Barahir, whose ring ends up on Aragorn’s finger as proof of his claim to the throne of Gondor; Beren and Luthien, whose long story runs throughout nearly everything Tolkien wrote; and Earendil, who not only played a crucial role in these early stories by convincing the all powerful Valar to come back to Middle-earth and help vanquish the evil there, but who then ascended into the heavens to become “our most precious star,” the one whose light was captured in the phial given to Frodo by Galadriel thousands of years later.
In one paragraph Tolkien has laid out the lineage of thousands of years of Middle-earth’s history, Men and Elves combined, that ties in seamlessly with his more popular works. I say again: astonishing.
Added to the long list of things I never knew about the people of these histories was that Celebrian, wife of Elrond and mother to Arwen, was Galadriel’s daughter. Nor did I know of what befell her in the forest one day when she had left Rivendell to visit her mother in Lothlorien:
… but she is taken by Orcs in the passes of the mountains. She is rescued by Elrond and his sons, but after fear and torment she is no longer willing to remain in Middle-earth, and she departs to the Grey Havens and sails over the sea. – The Peoples of Middle-earth, pg 236
No wonder Elrond is so concerned about Arwen and her decision. Of their parting, Tolkien wrote:
… bitterest of all the sorrows of (the Third) Age was the parting of Arwen and Elrond. For they were sundered by the Sea and by a doom beyond the end of the world. For when the Great Ring was unmade the Three Rings of the Elves failed also, and Elrond was weary of Middle-earth at last and departed seeking Celebrian, and returned never again. - The Peoples of Middle-earth, pg 266
There is more – so much more – like that. An even more tragic retelling of the end of Hurin’s days; little things like the very brief story of the five Wizards that came to Middle-earth and became Saruman, Gandalf, Radogast, Alatar and Pallando (and the alternative and much more cumbersome names of the last two); an amazingly heartfelt description of the last days of Legolas and Gimli’s unprecedented friendship; and perhaps most movingly, descriptions of the days of Aragorn and Arwen, and their own parting.
After too many words here, about a work that some might say includes too many words itself, I can only say this: I’m very glad I read it. It’s given me an even deeper and richer understanding of Tolkien and his world than I ever thought possible – this coming from someone who’s already ready The Lord of the Rings 25+ times, The Silmarillion thrice, and Children of Hurin twice. I can’t recommend it for everyone, simply because it’s not for everyone. For someone who wants to pick and choose which bits may be of interest, however, I can recommend the middle four volumes on the History of The Lord of the Rings, though even its style makes The Silmarillion look like, well, The Hobbit, almost.
I’ll close with as good a description of how all of these stories tie together as any I’ve found. It’s from The War of the Jewels, volume 11.
In these versions my father was drawing on (while also of course continually developing and extending) long works that already existed in prose and verse, and in the Quenta Silmarillion he perfected that characteristic tone, melodious, grave, elegiac, burdened with a sense of loss and distance in time, which resides partly, as I believe, in the literary fact that he was drawing down into a brief compendious history what he could also see in far more detailed, immediate, and dramatic form. With the completion of the great ‘intrusion’ and departure of The Lord of the Rings, it seems that he returned to the Elder Days with a desire to take up again the far more ample scale with which he had begun long before, in The Book of Lost Tales. The completion of the Quenta Silmarillion remained an aim; but the ‘great tales’, vastly developed from their original forms, from which its later chapters would be derived were never achieved. - The War of the Jewels, pg 245
So Christopher did what any good son would try to do, and he did it in the spirit and with the reverence it deserved: he finished it, and published it, and shared the first, last and greatest visions of his father with the world.
When I started these books one of the questions I hoped to answer was, “Why are the Elves in the Third Age so solemn and sad, and why do most of them want to leave Middle-earth?” After reading The Silmarillion and now The Histories, I know. The weight of all those years, and all that evil, and all the tragedy that accompanied the (usual) triumph would make the hardiest of beings tired, and ready to return to a brighter, more promising place. I won’t be able to see them in the movies or encounter them in the books without thinking of the nearly crushing weight of their own history.
One last personal point. To commemorate the completion of the series, I wanted to do something unusual, something lasting – and something slightly unexpected. So I got a tattoo:
That sigil is on the cover and/or the title pages of every Tolkien book I’ve ever read, so I wanted it to be on me, too, as a symbol of how much a part of my life – young and old, serious and not-so-serious, in times both troubled and good – these stories have been and will continue to be. I can only hope to read them to my grandchildren one day.