Wednesday, 9 February 2011

‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a transitionary work

There is a tendency to portray Tolkien's legendarium as a single, coherent and consistent sub-creation when discussing his work: a ‘“usable” and “standard” form’ of Middle-earth and its history. This is the view that underlies the fan discussions about a ‘Middle-earth canon’, but even in scholarly work we can also see this idea that one particular version is some mysterious way more ‘true’ than other versions: an example of this can be seen in Vladimir Brljak's paper, ‘The Book of Lost Tales: Tolkien as Metafictionist’ in Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review volume VII.

In his excellent paper, ‘Elvish as She Is Spoke’ (published in The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull1) Carl Hostetter discusses the attempt, by some, to make ‘Tolkien’s languages, or more properly newly-minted versions of these languages, into “usable” and “standard” forms (their own terminology)’. Hostetter argues that these forms, precisely because of their attempt to achieve a degree of homogeneity and standardisation, are
characterized by conflation of materials and evidence from often widely separated conceptual phases, and by consequent circularity in reasoning about this evidence.
(p. 241)

The most common strategies when attempting to construct a homogeneous and standardised vision of Tolkien's legendarium are to either focus on Tolkien's last thoughts on any given matter, or to focus on the last version of The Lord of the Rings and require consistency with that.

The former of these strategies suffers from a number of problems: first of all Tolkien's last writings were often inconsistent — what he wrote on one subject in, say, 1961, is incompatible with what he wrote on another subject in, say, 1969. The problem here is that none of Tolkien's last writings can be assumed to be his final word on any given subject: in this way there is no reason to presume that the legendarium as a whole ever achieved a greater degree of fixed finality than did his languages.Another problem is that Tolkien's ‘last word’ on various subjects occur over a very long period, in some cases the ‘last’ words were written in the 1930s or even earlier.

The second strategy is the one that is the main focus of this blog entry. When discussing The Lord of the Rings itself, or even when discussing the greater sub-creation of Arda and its history, many people treats the book (in particular the revised version) as displaying the kind of homogeneity and inner consistency that is the very aim of the attempt to create both a ‘Neo-Quenya’ and a ‘Middle-earth Canon’. This, however, is also an over-simplified view that ignores that the years during which Tolkien actually wrote The Lord of the Rings in many ways represents a period of great transitions in his vision of Middle-earth — possibly in part caused by the writing of the book. This transitionary nature of The Lord of the Rings can be traced in a number of threads, but in the following I will focus on the nature of Orcs and in the underlying cosmogony.


The Orcs entered Tolkien's legendarium in the very begining. They are a part of the first ‘Fall of Gondolin’ in The Book of Lost Tales, where it is said that
all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko.
(The Book of Lost Tales 2 ch. III ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, p. 159-60)
This view of the Orcs as demons created by Melkor stayed valid through the Quenta Silmarillion of the mid-thirties, where it is said that
There countless became the hosts of his beasts and demons; and he brought into being the race of the Orcs, and they grew and multiplied in the bowels of the earth. These Orcs Morgoth made in envy and mockery of the Elves, and they were made of stone, but their hearts of hatred. Glamhoth, the hosts of hate, the Gnomes have called them. Goblins they may be called, but in ancient days they were strong and fell.
(The Lost Road and Other Writings (HoMe 5), part 2, VI ‘Quenta Silmarillion’, ch. 5 §62, p.233)
This view on the origin of the Orcs is essentially what Treebeard is expressing2, and which Tolkien later, in a draft letter to Peter Hastings from September 19543 refuted forcibly. In this early view the Orcs are not ‘demonized’ as such, but rather they are actual demons. This, of course, fits much better as the *reality4 behind the orcneas mentioned together with eotenas and ylfe in Beowulf5 than does the later concept, which in The Lord of the Rings is given voice by Frodo, who claims that ‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own’6 which is of course also the view that Tolkien in 1954 supports in his draft letter to Peter Hastings.

Apart from being implied in Treebeard's statement about the Orcs being made in mockery of the Elves, this view of Orcs as demons is implicit also in many other scenes such as e.g. the Battle of the Hornburg where both the game of counting Orc-heads between Gimli and Legolas as well as the total annihilation of the Orcs by the Ents (contrasted by the mercy shown to the Dunlendings) speaks of a de-humanized view of the Orcs that befit their demonic nature far better than the later view.7 Indeed, in later years Tolkien felt forced to emphasize that ‘If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost’8 and that they never actually did surrender and ask for mercy because Melkor had succeeded so well in his corruption and indoctrination of the Orcs that they thought that their enemies (particularly the Elves) were even crueller than themselves.


It is well-known that Tolkien long considered changing his original cosmogonic myth so that the solar system would have been created much as it is described by modern astronomy — the Earth, Arda, would always have been a sphere, the Sun, Anar, and the Moon, Isil, would have been created from the very start and thus not from the last fruits of the Two Trees in Valinor. In part one of Morgoth's Ring which deals with the development of the Ainulindalë after Tolkien started writing The Lord of the Ring we learn that the first attempt at a cosmogonic myth incorporating these ideas, a ‘round-world version’, was created in the mid-forties while Tolkien was still writing and revising The Lord of the Rings. In consequence we see traces of both versions of the cosmogonic myth in the work.9 When Tom Bombadil says that ‘When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. (emphasis added) he is firmly placed in what Tolkien would call the ‘flat-world version’, but when Gimli sings the song about Durin as the Company of the Ring visits the Khazad-dûm, it strongly suggests the round-world version:
The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone.

The Dwarves awoke long before the Noldor returned to Middle-earth, and thus, in the old flat-world version it doesn't make sense to speak of the Moon (stained or unstained) if this cosmogony is used. Similarly Gandalf's riddling poem about the Ents mentions the Moon before it is supposed to have been in existence in the old flat-world version.

Ere iron was found or tree was hewn,
When young was mountain under moon;
Ere ring was made, or wrought was woe,
It walked the forests long ago.

It is curious — even to the point where I suspect intention — that in all cases the passage can be re-interpreted to make sense even in the other cosmogony than the one under which it is written.

I hope with these example to have illustrated that even within The Lord of the Rings there are clear traces of the developing nature of Tolkien's legendarium — Tolkien's views on his own legendarium inevitably developed during the writing of his magnum opus and though Tolkien has done much to preserve the consistency of the work, there are still traces of this development. When we include the greater legendarium, this effect becomes even more obvious, which in its turn shows that any effort to create a ‘“usable” and “standard” form’ of the legendarium: a ‘canonical’ Middle-earth, if you will, is only achievable by
conflation of materials and evidence from often widely separated conceptual phases, and by consequent circularity in reasoning about this evidence.
to borrow Carl Hostetter's words for this context also (as pointed out above, Hostetter applied his statement to attempts to create neo-elvish languages10).

This does not mean that writings by Tolkien from one period can not inform our reading and understanding of what he wrote in another period, but I propose that instead of trying to create the illusion of a consistent and coherent sub-creation we embrace the evolutionary nature of Tolkien's legendarium, including acceptance of the fact that the writing The Lord of the Rings in many ways marks a transition in Tolkien's conception of his legendarium and that this transitionary nature can still be detected in the book.

1: Also available on-line from the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship at
2: ‘But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.’ The Lord of the Rings, book III chapter 4 (The Lord of the Rings has been published in such a great number of editions that giving page numbers is not very useful, so I refrain from doing that).
3: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153 p. 190-1
4: See e.g. Tom Shippey The Road to Middle-earth ch. 1 (in particular under the sub-heading ‘Asterisk-Reality’ p. 17)
5: See e.g. Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century ch. II p. 88 and also Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner, The Ring of Words ch. 3, the entry for ‘Orc’ p. 174ff.
6: The Lord of the Rings, book IV, ch. 8
7: Tom Shippey, ‘Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien's Images of Evil.’ in Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien and also Robert T. Tally Jr. ‘Let us now praise famous Orcs: simple humanity in Tolkien's inhuman creatures’ in Mythlore issue 111/112
8: Morgoth's Ring (HoMe 10), part 5 ‘Myths Transformed’, text X, p. 419
9: Examples are from The Lord of the Rings book I chapter 7, book II chapter 4 and book III chapter 8
10: It is with some trepidation that I thus use the words of a highly respected Tolkien scholar in a different context from what he wrote them for — I can only hope that Hostetter, given that I make it clear that the application to this particular context is mine alone, will forgive my presumption.


  1. This posting prompted some reflections at my blog -

    Bruce Charlton

  2. Hostetter does. (And he's flattered by it, too!)


  3. This is excellent Troels, I feel we all have to learn to let go of the desire to pin everything down and say 'This is it' - no-one's writings and ideas are static, that is if they are any good at writing and thinking!