The Tolkien Industry (2009)

Jeremy Rose, ed.: Scooop Review of Books

The Tolkien Industry

For quite some time now I've been meditating an essay on the literary estate of J. R. R. Tolkien. I don't know if I'll ever actually get round to it, though, so I thought I might just put a few of the highlights into a blog post instead.

There's a story (told by C. S. Lewis's literary executor, the egregious Rev - now Fr. - Walter Hooper) that Tolkien once remarked scoffingly to him that his friend Lewis had published almost twice as many books since his death as he'd managed to put out before it! I'm afraid that story rings a little hollow now. The dozen or so books that appeared before Tolkien's own death in 1973 have long since been dwarfed by the ones that have appeared (and continue to appear) ever since.

You don't believe me? Take a look at these two lists, then tell me if there's anything substantial that I'm missing:

Major works published during Tolkien's lifetime:

  1. Tolkien, J. R. R., & E. V. Gordon, ed. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 1925. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.

  2. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Illustrated by the Author. 1937. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975.

  3. Tolkien, J. R. R. Farmer Giles of Ham. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 1949. London & Boston: George Allen and Unwin & Houghton and Mifflin, 1973.

  4. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring, Being the First Part of the Lord of the Rings. 1954. London & Boston: George Allen and Unwin & Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

  5. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers, Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. 1954. London & Boston: George Allen and Unwin & Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

  6. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. 1955. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957.

  7. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 1954, 1954, 1955. Revised 2nd edition. 1966. London: HarperCollins, 2001.

  8. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and other verses from the Red Book. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 1961. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974.

  9. Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf [incorporating the story "Leaf by Niggle" (1947) and the essay "On Fairy-stories" (1939)]. 1964. London: Unwin Books, 1973.

  10. Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” In The Tolkien Reader. 1949, 1953, 1962, 1964. Cover illustration by Pauline Baynes. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.

  11. Tolkien, J. R. R. Smith of Wootton Major. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 1967. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974.

  12. Tolkien, J. R. R., & Donald Swann. The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle. Decorations by J. R. R. Tolkien. 1968. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1974.

[J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973)]

I haven't included any of his prefaces to other people's editions & translations of Old English texts, or his separate periodical publications, but otherwise that should be a reasonably comprehensive list (I've put in details of my own copy of each book after the original date of publication).

Major works published posthumously:

  1. Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl; Sir Orfeo. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. 1975. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1981.

  2. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Father Christmas Letters. Ed Baillie Tolkien. 1976. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1978.

  3. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

  4. Tolkien, J. R. R. Pictures. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1979.

  5. Tolkien, J. R. R. Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. 1980. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

  6. Tolkien, J. R. R. Letters. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

  7. Tolkien, J. R. R. Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode. Ed. Alan Bliss. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.

  8. Tolkien, J. R. R. Mr. Bliss. London: George Allen & Unwin Paperbacks, 1982.

  9. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.

  10. Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth. 12 vols. London & Boston, 1983-96:
    1. The Book of Lost Tales, Part One. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.
    2. The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.
    3. The Lays of Beleriand. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
    4. The Shaping of Middle-earth: The Quenta, the Ambarkanta and the Annals together with the earliest ‘Silmarillion’and the first Map. London: Guild Publishing, 1986.
    5. The Lost Road and Other Writings: Language and Legend before ‘The Lord of the Rings’. London: Unwin Hyman, 1987.
    6. The Return of the Shadow: The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part One. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988.
    7. The Treason of Isengard: The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Two. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
    8. The War of the Ring: The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Three. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.
    9. Sauron Defeated: The End of the Third Age (The History of the Lord of the Rings, Part Four); The Notion Club Papers and The Drowning of Anadûnê. London: HarperCollins, 1992.
    10. Morgoth’s Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One, The Legends of Aman. London: HarperCollins, 1993.
    11. The War of the Jewels: The Later Silmarillion, Part One, The Legends of Beleriand. London: HarperCollins, 1994.
    12. The Peoples of Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

  11. Tolkien, J. R. R.. The Annotated Hobbit: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. 1937. Ed. Douglas A. Anderson. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

  12. Tolkien, J. R. R. Tree and Leaf. 1964. Second edition, including the poem ‘Mythopoeia’. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988.

  13. Tolkien, J. R. R. Bilbo’s Last Song. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

  14. Tolkien, J. R. R. Roverandom. Ed. Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

  15. Tolkien, J. R. R. Narn I Chîn Húrin: The Tale of the Children of Húrin. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee. London: HarperCollins, 2007.

  16. John D. Rateliff. The History of The Hobbit. 2 vols. London & Boston, 2007:
    1. Part One: Mr. Baggins. 2007. London: HarperCollins, 2008.
    2. Part Two: Return to Bag-End. 2007. London: HarperCollins, 2008.

  17. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2009.

[J. R. R. Tolkien: The Children of Hurin, ed. Christopher Tolkien (2007)]

Now don't get me wrong. The last thing I want is to be a wowser about what is, in essence, harmless fun. The very fact that I have first editions of most of these books should tell you that I bought them the moment they came out. What's more, I've read them all pretty attentively (with the exception of the last one listed above, which I'm working my way through right now). I am, in short, as big a Tolkienophile as you're likely to find.

That mention of "first editions" brings me to the first part of my gripe, though. By all means get Tolkien's unpublished work out into the public domain, but does it have to be done quite so slowly, and with quite such maniacal academic attention to manuscripts and warring textual traditions? He has been dead for 36 years , after all. Why don't we (yet) have accessible editions of long poems such as "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" (1945) or "Imram" (1955), published in periodicals during his lifetime? Why is the (fascinating) “Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” relegated to old paperbacks such as the Ballantine (US) Tolkien Reader (1966), or the combined Unwin (UK) reprint of Tree and Leaf & Smith of Wootton Major together with other miscellanea (1975)?

These things take time. I quite see that. And Christopher Tolkien, the main actor in the drama of Tolkien's "posthumous productivity," was himself a teacher of Old English and Old Norse at Oxford before he retired to take on the editing of his father's archives fulltime. It's a positively Victorian tale of filial devotion and of following in one's father's footsteps. Or is it? More on that subject later.

I guess it's the plethora of "second, expanded editions" which really bugs me most. There's now a second, expanded edition [s.e.e. for short] of The Silmarillion (1977 / 1992), an s.e.e. of the Pictures by J. R. R. Tolkien (1979 / transformed into J.R.R.Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, ed. Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull (1995)), an s.e.e. of the Letters (1981 / 2000), an s.e.e. of Tree and Leaf (1964 / 1988) [not to mention a special annotated reprint of all the variant versions of the essay "on Fairy-stories" edited by a couple of American academics (2008)], an s.e.e. of The Annotated Hobbit (ed. Douglas A. Anderson, 1988 / 2002), even - for the love of Mike - an s.e.e. of the infantile (but entertaining) Father Christmas Letters (1976 /2004) ! Not to mention a special facsimile edition of the children's picture book Mr. Bliss (1982 / 2007). What's a poor collector to do? A poor completist collector, that is.

But then maybe collectors don't deserve any special attention. Maybe they ought to be taunted with endless variant versions of the same basic cycle of works. That may very well be. But the trouble is that many of these s.e.e.'s contain vital extra information which greatly influences one's reading of the texts themselves.

Of course it's a traditional publisher's ploy to multiply "revised" and "definitive" editions in this way in order to renew the copyright on works which would otherwise gradually fall away from notice. And in the case of an author with as many die-hard fans as Tolkien, this is clearly a multi-million dollar undertaking. But I can't help feeling that it shows a certain lack of consideration for readers, which is part and parcel of the second section of my complaint.

I suppose I'm also a natural inhabitant of the fantasy world of absurdly complicated and circumstantial annotations and elucidations of essentially frivolous popular texts. Sherlock Holmes is , of course, the classic case. Ever since Fr. Ronald Knox invented what he referred to as the "higher criticism" - writing essays about the Holmes canon which assumed as a basic convention the actual existence of its central characters, and the subordinate role of Arthur Conan Doyle as Dr. Watson's literary agent - a great many people have found a good deal of entertainment in exploring such dilemmas as the "two (or three) Watsons" problem (originating from the fact that Watson's first name seems to shift from John H. to James Watson as the canon unfolds).

Perhaps (as someone else suggested) the latter name was Mrs Watson's pet-name version of "Hamish," one of the possible candidates for the good doctor's middle name ... But then there's the question of how many wives Dr. Watson actually had? Or the heraldry and antecedents of the name "Holmes"? Or exactly which continents are included in Watson's boast of "an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents" ...? You get the general idea. The Bible of these maniacal speculators is the monumental Annotated Sherlock Holmes (arranged in an eccentric "chronological order" of his own devising) of the late lamented William S. Baring Gould (1967).

Now Holmesian (UK) - or "Sherlockian" (US) - "higher criticism" is an essentially tongue-in-cheek affair, conducted by learned, but frivolous-minded sages such as Christopher Morley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Vincent Starrett (for more, far more, see the wikipedia article on Holmesian speculation). The original impulse was, presumably, to parody the ponderous Germanic Biblical criticism of the nineteenth century, with its love of multiple authors, contaminated textual traditions, and teasing remnants of ancient solar myths behind the superficial trapperies of the Yahweh cult.

Tolkien criticism has, it seems to me, taken another, darker path. The fact that Tolkien was himself a professor of Anglo-Saxon, and loved to mix in elements (particularly linguistic ones) from his professional field, has led to a mass of learned (and pseudo-learned) commentary on the intricate relationships between the two.

So far so good. Old English scholars such as Tom Shippey, in his excellent The Road to Middle-Earth (1982) and subsequent related works, has illuminated Tolkien's practice in this respect with a certain restrained aplomb.

But when it comes to treating Tolkien's own works as a kind of holy writ, requiring endless revision and recasting to fit ever more recondite revelations about the topography and chronology of his imagined Dreamland, I fear that the same could not be claimed of compilations such as Christopher Tolkien's monumental (and monumentally frustrating) 12-volume History of Middle-earth (1983-96). Here all proportion has been lost. Speculations worthy of the fantasy-world of Sherlock Holmesian higher criticism are woven into the actual detail of the evolution of a group of revoltingly-cloying Edwardian fairy tales (The Book of Lost Tales) into the ever-vaster heroic canvas of the unfinished (and unfinishable?) Silmarillion, issued in a clipped and stilted version shortly after its author's death by Christopher himself.

Christopher's own saga, developing in his father's image from a downtrodden and disillusioned soldier in World War II (his father, a veteran of the trenches of the First World War, claimed in a letter that he might best regard himself as a "hobbit among the Uruk-hai"), to a professional scholar in his father's own discipline of Germanic philology, to an accomplished translator (the Saga of King Heidrek the Wise (1960): a work of deep erudition and poetic value in its own right), to a fierce guardian of his father's literary legacy (and an influential critic of Peter jackson's films), deserves retelling on a larger scale sometime. He is clearly a man of great talent, and considerable scholarly expertise. I would say that his work on editing the manuscript versions of The Lord of the Rings (in particular) might be thought to justify that immense 12-volume history by itself. It's certainly (by far) the most interesting section to read. But it does constitute only three and a bit volumes of the whole tottering edifice.

His most noticeable legacy, unfortunately, seems to be a ragtag and bobtail (to use a Tolkienian term) of mostly American scholars who specialise in ever more recondite and fatuous explorations of the implications of the papers and manuscripts which Tolkien himself sold them so long ago. Is a two-volume History of the Hobbit really necessary, for instance? Especially on top of Douglas A. Anderson's magnificently-illustrated (and basically light-hearted) Annotated Hobbit of 1988 [s.e.e. 2002]?

[John D. Rateliff: The History of the Hobbit (2007)]

The History of the Hobbit is fun to read, mind you. I enjoyed it greatly. But it's not as much fun as it should be. Because it's 900 pages long. Because it's immensely repetitive and overly detailed on points of no consequence. Because its author, John D. Rateliff, has no sense of proportion. Because its publishers know that anything with Tolkien's name on the spine will sell in gazillions (take the recent reprint of parts of Unfinished tales under the stand-alone title of The Tale of the Children of Húrin, for instance). Rateliff, alas, is no Christopher Tolkien.

In summary, then, I think the Tolkien industry began pretty well, with solid editions of his principal unpublished works, and handsome new reprints of the others. Right now, though, it threatens to be swallowed up by its own insane momentum, a victim of its own success. The Holmesian "higher criticism", too, had its rise and fall. There have been few worthy successors to such masterworks as Starrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933), or Baring Gould's Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World's First Consulting Detective (1962) or even such jeux d'esprits as Nicholas Meyer's The Seven Percent Solution (1974).

Why do we no longer see works of the calibre of Barbara Strachey's delightful Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1981), or Karen Fonstadt's Atlas of Middle-earth (1981 / s.e.e. 2001), in the (potentially) far less circumscribed (one would have thought) field of Tolkienian "higher criticism"? There are certainly exceptions. John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003) was a valuable successor to Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 biography and its even more interesting sequel The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (1978). For the most part, though, what we tend to see now are compendiums of essays by ghastly Academic second-raters, dictionaries and grammars of Tolkien's various made-up languages, and other ever more po-faced and dreary reponses to the simple delights of Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

I remember my PhD supervisor at Edinburgh, Mr. Colin Manlove, author of a number of critical books on Modern Fantasy, remarking of the appearance of yet another volume of posthumous gleanings in the (then) seemingly-interminable History of Middle-earth, that he was beginning to wonder if they were coming through from spirit messages. At the time I suspected he was just too lazy to read any of them, but as the years go by and the works keep on mounting up, I begin to wonder if he didn't have a point.

This is, I have to say, starting to resemble more and more a publisher's production-line (the shady kind who commission obscure hacks to produce works "in the manner of" V. C. Andrews or Alistair Maclean) rather than a bona-fide attempt to do justice to J. R. R. Tolkien's admittedly impressive literary productivity.

I'm reminded of some remarks made by the young Henry James, in an 1872 review of a volume of Nathaniel Hawthorne's French and Italian Note-Books, edited by his own son (and literary executor) Julian:

Mr. Hawthorne is having a posthumous productivity almost as active as that of his lifetime. Six volumes have been compounded from his private journals, an unfinished romance is doing duty as a “serial,” and a number of his letters, with other personal memorials, have been given to the world. These liberal excisions from the privacy of so reserved and shade-seeking a genius suggest forcibly the general question of the proper limits of curiosity as to that passive personality of an artist of which the elements are scattered in portfolios and table-drawers. It is becoming very plain, however, that whatever the proper limits may be, the actual limits will be fixed only by a total exhaustion of matter.

[Henry James, Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers, ed. Leon Edel and Mark Wilson (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 307.]

With a few minor variations, the same passage might serve equally well to characterise the even more impressive “posthumous productivity” of the almost-comparably "reserved and shade-seeking genius" J. R. R. Tolkien.

James, characteristically, saw the issue as centring on the proper limits of curiosity about the private life of an artist - a theme treated in more depth in stories such as “The Aspern Papers” (1888) or "The Private Life" (1891). As he went on to remark, the principal result of Hawthorne's executor's filial labours has been that “critics, psychologists, and gossip-mongers” have been left free to “glean amid the stubble.” Is that what Hawthorne (or Tolkien) would really have wanted? Almost certainly not.

Many of his contemporaries were deeply shocked to read what the comparatively short-lived Hawthorne had had to say about them in what he must have regarded as the safe repository of his private journal. The revelations in Tolkien's papers are not of so scandalous an order, but there can be little doubt that many reams of indifferent verse would have been consigned to the fire if he'd known they'd eventually be coming out in immense annotated editions, with their imperfections made glaringly and cringe-makingly apparent.

What's certain is that, "whatever the proper limits may be, the actual limits will be fixed only by a total exhaustion of matter." Not even the death of Christopher can halt it now. His father's legacy has long since fallen into the burning cancerous hands of the Adversary [the professional Anglo-American Academic establishment], and from that dark Mordor there is, I fear, no escape.

All we can do (I suppose) is welcome any light that has been cast on the works written in his lifetime, and try and draw a decent veil over any that should really never have seen the light of day.

Jack Ross teaches English Literature at the Albany branch of Massey University. He is one of New Zealand’s leading literary critics, as well as a poet, novelist, short story writer and translator. Visit his blog at


Scoop Review of Books (16/6/09)
[Reprinted from: The Imaginary Museum (24/5/09)]

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