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The LOTR Histories: A Review

Posted on 2013.09.01 at 11:17
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Last fall, I read the first two books in the History of the Lord of the Rings, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow and The Treason of Isengard. It's part of the immense History of Middle-earth, known as the HoME books. I know all my fellow geeky friends have probably read these. (I own but haven't yet read the third book in the HoLoTR series, need to get the 4th. When I do, I will own all 12 volumes in the HoME series) Here are some thoughts about Return of the Shadow (my review on Goodreads).

In The Return of the Shadow, the first of four volumes, J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher laboriously sifts through his father's myriad handwritten manuscripts, notes, and scribblings on the backside of exams with their many changes and emendations, in an attempt to recreate J.R.R.'s process in writing his masterpiece, Lord of the Rings. What emerges amongst the maddening detail (each change is meticulously documented) is a fascinating look at the creative process.

J.R.R. Tolkien began his epic simply as a sequel to the Hobbit in response to his publisher saying fans would like more about hobbits. The earliest draft concerns Bilbo and later his nephew, who has the terrible name of Bingo Bolger-Baggins (JRR himself wrote in a margin that it was a terrible name)along with several relatives (later to become Pippin and Merry) setting out on another light-hearted adventure. In the process of following these characters (who change names numerous times) the story slowly emerges. As elements solidified, such as the reason for leaving was actually the Ring rather than a desire for adventure, Tolkien would then circle back and rewrite the beginning, which he did about five times.

Much of the depth and changes to the story came about from Tolkien figuring out why things happened. For example, why didn't Gandalf meet Bingo (Frodo) when he first set out from Hobbiton? What kept him? That led to the whole story of Saruman's treason. Aragorn starts out as a hobbit named Trotter (a name he keeps through much of the first drafts even once Tolkien determined that he was, in fact, a man). But clearly this character gnawed at Tolkien's imagination. He wrote several times in the manuscript. Who is Trotter? The answer to that, found in the backstory J.R.R. created for the Silmarillion added an epic quality to the tale.

From a writer's perspective, watching the evolution from the rough beginnings of a rather mediocre children's adventure to the epic tale of heroism against dark forces with its backdrop of numerous cultures and languages, landscapes, and sweeping history is a fascinating slog. It was encouraging to see that the genius came not so much from inspiration (although that's clearly there in a host of smaller decisions) but more through sheer hard work until he finally arrived at the story we know and love.

This is not a book for anyone wanting a light read or for discussions of Tolkien's thought process. Christopher Tolkien never attempts to guess at anything that wasn't present in his father's notes. So, when a change is made, there is no explanation for it. I ended up skimming over portions of the manuscript because one can only dwell so much in minutiae. But sometimes the best insights could be gleaned from one of the footnotes. Recommended for those fellow geeks who are hopelessly fascinated by Middle-earth.


heartofoshun at 2013-09-01 18:29 (UTC) (Link)
I tend to focus more on the HoMe series of books relating to The Silmarillion than those related to Lord of the Rings. Actually, I do not think I ever sat down and read any of them, cover-to-cover. I think I skimmed them each when I bought them and refer to what is in them constantly to the point of having worked through all of them several times by now. Settling down to read them in a cozy chair with a cup of tea--no way! I am looking forward to all of them in Kindle so they are more easily searchable and citing them is more convenient.

This is not a book for anyone wanting a light read or for discussions of Tolkien's thought process.

They are indispensable and I am very happy the facts are presented instead of a thought process.

I did learn that he writes from the complete opposite perspective than I do. I imagine a beginning, middle, and end, and then create scenes which will illustrate those events and carry the reader through them. He apparently, at least part of the time, wrote scenes without knowing how they fit into his history or the specific tale he was telling at the time and creating a plot and/or history to support the scene.
elfscribe5 at 2013-09-01 18:41 (UTC) (Link)
They are indispensable and I am very happy the facts are presented instead of a thought process. Yes, me too, even though that's certainly what I'd like to have, but being scholarly in his approach to his father's work, it seems, and rightly so, that Christopher didn't want to guess at what his father was thinking at any given point.

I was very encouraged in seeing J.R.R.'s writing process because it's much like mine. I often have an idea of the end, i.e. my destination, but sometimes not. Usually, I start out with interesting characters and a situation and see where it takes me. I also end up rewriting my beginning numerous times before I can finally head off on the rest of the story. I have to say that it makes the writing process probably more laborious and scary because I don't want to make a wrong decision and so writing the first draft is agony. I think I could profit from some more planning ahead, but then sometimes that way, you lose the inspiration that comes from setting out on an adventure and seeing what happens. I've learned everyone has a different way of approaching it and no way is right or wrong, it's whatever works.
heartofoshun at 2013-09-01 18:47 (UTC) (Link)
Especially with my fanfic, I am simultaneously a real heretic and a stern canatic--I have to know everything before I make the tiniest alteration. As far as storytelling goes I think I am a worldbuilder. I build the entire world and then play in it--its rules are set, as are the main characters' personalities, their histories and their futures. This is the reason I do not take well to prompts or what-ifs.

Everyone works differently.
elfscribe5 at 2013-09-01 20:34 (UTC) (Link)
I'd say we're similar in our approach. Before I start on a new story, particularly if it's about characters or a place in Middle-earth I haven't written before, I have to do the research to find out what the canon actually is. Both Codpiece and Black Sword required lot of research -- your bios are always marvelous for that, btw. But then I that the canon and put it in my own world -- as Pande says, the tertiary world in Tolkien's secondary one. I would venture to say that Elegy is in a rather different place than Tolkien would have imagined, even if I tried to be careful not to diverge too much from what we known in canon. (Well, there are folks who would say I screwed it up completely. lol)
heartofoshun at 2013-09-01 20:45 (UTC) (Link)
(Well, there are folks who would say I screwed it up completely. lol)

People without imagination perhaps. True, it is not Tolkien's or even mine necessarily, but marvelous and unique and you convince me within the store to suspend all other beliefs or opinions and completely enjoy the ride.
chaotic_binky at 2013-09-01 19:11 (UTC) (Link)
I have the HOME series and skim through them for details. I don't think I could read them cover to cover - probably because my mind flits all over the place when I am reading :)

Edited at 2013-09-01 07:11 pm (UTC)
elfscribe5 at 2013-09-01 20:37 (UTC) (Link)
These two were the only ones I did read cover to cover, or almost as I had to skim over large parts. The rest of them I use as reference material. I sometimes wonder if JRR would have been appalled at all his earlier material out there for the world to see. I certainly wouldn't want my rough drafts shown to anyone. But I'm glad Christopher did it.
spiced_wine at 2013-09-01 19:44 (UTC) (Link)
I got Return of the Shadow years ago, secondhand, and I remember skimming through it then, and got the rest of the HoMe books later. I tend to dip into those, like open it anywhere and read.

I did think his writing process was laborious, and yes, it was encouraging; it really sounded like a hard slog.

I think my main problem with the HoMe books is simply that by the time I got them, I'd already formed a headcanon from years of the Silmarillion and to a lesser extent Unfinished Tales, and basically didn't care. I found Atrabeth Finrod ah Andreth in Morgoth's Ring the most interesting. I was also pleased with the round Earth theory, as the flat earth and ancient starlight made something in me itch. In general though, I can't get massively interested in HoMe. Oops. :)

elfscribe5 at 2013-09-01 20:40 (UTC) (Link)
It was when he delved deeper into his own creation that he found depth in the story that he hadn't set out to find. All that backstory he created for the Silm found its way in and the story was so much richer for that. In addition, by putting things he loved into it, it became richer, a real place. Daunting though to think of the years of work to get that effect.

spiced_wine at 2013-09-02 11:49 (UTC) (Link)
Daunting though to think of the years of work to get that effect.

Absolutely - didn't he begin his Great Tales during WWI? And LOTR was published in the fifties. But that's what makes Middle-earth seem real where many fantasy worlds don't - they just don't have that weight.
salixbabylon at 2013-09-01 20:33 (UTC) (Link)
Sounds really interesting. I'm reading a book called Mindsets right now, and it's all about what you say here: "It was encouraging to see that the genius came not so much from inspiration (although that's clearly there in a host of smaller decisions) but more through sheer hard work."

Right on! :)
elfscribe5 at 2013-09-01 20:42 (UTC) (Link)
Mindsets, who wrote that? What's it about? As the saying is, genius is more application of the backside to the chair than something that wafts from the heavens. Although I'd sure vote for the wafting if I had a choice. lol.
salixbabylon at 2013-09-01 21:18 (UTC) (Link)

It's about the problems that a rise from thinking people are a set or fixed amount of smart/talented/athletic/etc and how to reframe that. While it's focused so far on children, sports, and business, I definitely see direct parallels to my childhood, academics, and writing struggles. It's been really interesting so far.

I think many of us would rather it be easy - but I'm seeing that for me, some of that comes from the belief that if it's not easy, I'm not smart/talented. Definitely food for thought. :)
aglarien1 at 2013-09-02 21:00 (UTC) (Link)
I think I've read all of the HoME, but not straight through. I moved back and forth as the whim moved me - for instance, reading all the variations of the creation story I could find. I actually found it helped me understand things more clearly. the man was simply a genius.
elfscribe5 at 2013-09-03 17:45 (UTC) (Link)
I never even knew HoME existed until I got into fanfic. Then I kept hearing about this Laws and Customs of the Eldar, usually in the context of "According to LaCE, elves would never . . . ." Had to see what the heck people were talking about. I now own 11 out of the 12 volumes and have read most of them in bits and pieces, as research. So, I for one am proof positive that fanfic has increased the Tolkien Estate's bottom line. lol.
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