I think I first read Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s one of those books that you can get something new out of every time you revisit, and despite the fact that it inspired a whole host of less-than-stellar imitations and derivatives that dominated fantasy for decades it remains startlingly great; deeper and more complex than the stale stereotypes it gave birth to would suggest. Famously, Tolkien was a linguist and a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature who wrote fantasy as much for an excuse to create his own language as for the story. Even when not lecturing the reader on the differences between Quenya and Sindarin, Lord of the Rings retains a scholarly air to it. There’s a self-conscious archaism, a deliberate element of throwback. The books are written in the style of the ancient epics Tolkien loved, and that comes through very well. Especially in the degree of metafiction included in the text.
The conceit that Tolkien retained (more or less) throughout his writings on Middle-Earth was that he was not an author, he was a translator. “Middle-Earth” was not another planet or dimension, it was a lost epoch of our history that he was researching. In some ways, this was fairly perfunctory. Maps of Middle-Earth, for example, cannot be made to match maps of Europe by any real means. But Tolkien never gave up on this concept, and metatextual elements are woven throughout his novels to a degree I’m not sure people fully appreciate.
At the end of both the movie and the book version of Return of the King, Frodo Baggins gives Sam Gamgee a book as a parting gift before he travels away into the Undying West. The book is, of course, Lord of the Rings, the story we’ve been watching, and Sam is told that it’s his responsibility to finish it. This isn’t an unusual trope, and it doesn’t play a huge role in the movies. What I had forgotten until my most recent rereading was the book doesn’t just end with a reference to this, it starts with a full material history of Lord of the Rings. Let me explain. The book Sam is given at the story’s end is fully entitled The Downfall of the Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King (Together with Extracts from the Books of Lore Translated by Bilbo in Rivendell). It began as Bilbo’s private diary documenting his adventures in the east, was later expanded by Frodo into a general history of the War of the Rings and his own experiences, and was finally completed by Sam, who added many details about life in the Shire and the history of the hobbits. These volumes became known as the Red Book of the Westmarch, because it was preserved for many years by Sam’s descendants in their library after they became the hereditary Wardens of the Westmarch. It became the most important book of history the in Shire, but unfortunately, the original no longer exists. Many copies were made and can still be found in the Shire today, but most are heavily corrupted or incomplete.
Thankfully, Tolkien has another source. In the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring he explains that he is working from a copy that, while kept in the Shire, was written in Gondor at the request of Peregrin Took’s great-grandson. We can accurately date it because there is a notation at the end reading “Findegil, King’s Writer, finished this work in IV 172”. This is important because this version of the Red Book appears to be an exact copy of the Thain’s Book, which in turn was a copy of the original Red Book made by Thain Peregrin Took at the request of King Elessar in IV 64, meaning that it preserves almost exactly the original writing of Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam, unlike most other versions which are sadly incomplete. For example, Findegil’s copy is the only one including the entirety of Bilbo Baggins’s Elvish translations, a priceless compendium of old myths and legends that would otherwise have been lost (we now know this as The Silmarillion). In addition, this copy has appended to it an abridged copy of “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen”, believed to have been written by Faramir’s grandson Barahir after the death of the king, as well as many detailed notes on Gondorian history.
THIS IS HOW LORD OF THE RINGS BEGINS.
I love this so much, both because it appeals to my love of pointless details, but also because it mirrors so well the actual history of how ancient texts have come down to us. I studied classics in undergrad, and there are so many books that we only have as a copy of a copy of a copy preserved in a monastery somewhere. There are so many books that we only know of because someone quoted them or provided a few excerpts, and they can be enraging in what they tantalize. Vast amounts of ancient knowledge was written down and lost forever. Likewise, The Silmarillion is only a fraction of the ancient compendium of Elvish myths and legends known as “The Books of Lore”. If not for Bilbo translating and transcribing what he could, and Frodo preserving those excerpts, we would today know virtually nothing of the First Age of Middle-Earth!
I really like this material history of the text of Lord of the Rings, but in some ways, The Hobbit is where Tolkien got really meta. This is most notable in the completely wild story of Chapter Five. In the original, 1937 edition of the book, the scene where Bilbo has the riddling competition with Gollum goes very differently. Gollum is much more friendly and actually offers to give his ring to Bilbo if he wins the competition. When he loses and realizes that he can’t find his magic ring, he offers to show Bilbo a way out of the tunnels instead. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never read this scene because it no longer exists. When Tolkien first wrote The Hobbit, he hadn’t planned on writing any sequels, and he just saw Bilbo’s ring of invisibility as a useful tool. But when he started work on Lord of the Rings, he realized this wouldn’t make any sense. So he rewrote the chapter entirely for the 1951 edition, adding the version of the chapter we know and love today, where Gollum is a creepy monster obsessed with his precious ring. THEN, in the forward to Fellowship, he says “Ok, here’s the true story of how Bilbo found the Ring, if you’ve heard anything different it’s because Bilbo is a liar and told everyone Gollum gave it to him because the Ring was already working it’s evil magic on him.” He later worked this into the text of the novel itself, having Gandolf talk about how the first clue he had that this ring might be the Ring was that Bilbo was making up elaborate lies to justify his possession of it. That’s just amazing.
What’s also interesting is how you can see the changing shape of Tolkien’s world-building throughout The Hobbit. As I’ve said, Tolkien conceived of his stories taking place in some ancient epoch of our own world, and much of the narration in “The Hobbit” seems to be in line with this; for example, mentions of why we don’t see Hobbits anymore, references to Goblins inventing weapons of mass destruction, etc. But you can also see the broad outlines of what would become the mythology of The Silmarillion. It’s very vague, but there’s mentions of “The wars between Elves and Evil Goblins in the North, back long ago” (i.e, the War of the Jewels between Morgoth and the Noldor in the First Age), or the story of how “the High Elves went to Faerie in the West while the wood elves stayed here” (i.e, the Noldor, Teri, and Vanyar traveling to Aman to dwell with the Valar while the Sindar and Silvan remained in Middle-Earth). There’s even the occasional specific references to the old city of Gondolin and the mines of Moria, notable mainly because of how specifically vague most of the geography in “The Hobbit is. Places are refereed to as “The Wild” or “The Lonely Lands” or “the South”.
Here’s my question. What I have is the 1966 edition, which Tolkien edited even further. How much of these references are the shadowy forms of The Silmarillion already present in his mind, and how much are they he rewriting the story to pull it into line with his later works? I would really like to get my hands on a copy of the 1937 edition and compare them one of these days.
Something else I love is the way the language shifts. Obviously, all of Tolkien’s prose is fairly stylized. But in the parts of The Return of the King detailing the events of the War, he starts getting really archaic, both in the narration and the dialogue. He starts throwing ‘Behold!’ into the middle of sentences all over the place, and at the Battle of Pelennor Fields characters stop and declaim heroic verses every few pages. For example, when Eomer finds the body of Theoden, he tells his warriors: “Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen, meet was his ending. When his mound is raised, women then will weep. War now calls us!” It gets almost Homeric. Meanwhile, the chapters with Frodo and Sam in Mordor feel so much more modern. It’s still recognizably Tolkieny prose, but Sam and Frodo talk like ordinary people. Even the Orcs just talk like common soldiers.
Now, I have no idea if this was intentional, but this actually makes sense given the metatextural context. Remember, the original Red Book of the Westmarch was written mostly by Frodo. So presumably, the chapters retelling his journey to Mount Doom are based on his memory, while the parts about the War of the Ring were based on what he heard from Merry, Pippin, and Aragorn after he got heard. But the version of the Red Book that Tokien is using as a source was transcribed and heavily edited in Gondor almost two centuries after the events of Lord of the Rings took place. It’s unsurprising that a degree of mythologizing would creep into the descriptions of the battles that saved Gondor, while the chapters detailing Frodo’s personal experiences would be copied as closely as possible, given that Frodo becomes a Gondorian national hero. (His birthday becomes the holiday of “Ringday” and they rearrange the calendar to make the day he reached Orodruin the start of the New Year. This is all in the appendices folks!)
All that said, my absolute favorite aspect of Tolkien’s conceit is the part of the appendices where he gives his notes on translation. Obviously, the Red Book of the Westmarch wasn’t originally written in English! It was written in Westron, the Common Speech, and it was up to Tolkien to translate it. What’s amazing about this section is the amount of detail he puts into explaining his methodologies and schema. For example, he tells us that he took the unusual step of translating place names from Westron into English equivalents. For example, contemporaries of Frodo and Bilbo, speaking in the Common Speech would have refereed to Rivendell as “Karningul”, the Shire as “Sûza”, and the Brandywine River as the “Bralda-him”. Tolkien explains his reasoning as follows:
“It seemed to me that to present all the names in their original forms would obscure an essential feature of the times as perceived by the Hobbits (whose point of view I was mainly concerned to preserve): the contrast between a wide-spread language, to them as ordinary and habitual as English is to us, and the living remains of far older and more reverend tongues. All names if merely transcribed would seem to modern readers equally remote: for example, if the Elvish name Imladris and the Westron translation Karningul had both been left unchanged. But to refer to Rivendell as Imladris was as if one now was to speak of Winchester as Camelot.”
Or, in short, Tolkien was trying to create a deliberate archaism, contrasting the simple, English names bestowed on the world by the Hobbit country-folk with the ancient and powerful names still used by the Elves and their friends. He takes a similar approach with the names of the Hobbits, explaining that Samwise Gamgee’s real name was actually Banazir Galbasi. Banazir meant “halfwise or simple”, just like the Old English word “samwis”, which he modernized into Samwise. Galbasi was derived from the name of the village of Galabas, in which “galab” meant “game” and “bas” was essentially equivalent to the English suffix “wich” which is how he translated it originally as “Gamwich” and then shortened that to Gamgee to represent the way in which the surname had been reduced over time.
On one hand, this is amazingly stupid. Tolkien is making up this world. There’s no reason you can’t just have his name be “Sam”. You don’t have to justify it! But I think that the layers and layers of thought and detail that went into Lord of the Rings help explain why it’s outlived so many of it’s imitators. You don’t need to know all the backstory and lore and metatextual analysis to enjoy the books, and there’s a whole thematic core to the story that is totally separate from them. But the mere fact that all of this exists, that all of it informs the stories subconsciously lends a weight and depth to the books that a lot of epic fantasy lacks. It feels old, in part because Tolkien spent so much time making it feel old. Throughout the books you are constantly reminded that what you are reading is Tolkien’s interpretation of a copy of a copy of a compendium of stories written over the course of nearly a century by many different people. It’s a simple idea that Tolkien took far past it’s logical conclusion, and I’m so glad he did.