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The Shaping of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Christopher Tolkien begins this volume of his scholarly study of his father's papers with a number of fragmentary manuscripts of uncertain date and dealing with such events as Tuor's leadership of the Gondolinian refugees, the arrival of the Gnomes in Middle Earth and their beginning of the long and bitter battles against Morgoth, and even a revised version of the story of the Kinslaying of Alqualonde. Only one thing can be said for certain: they do not belong to the Book of Lost Tales. Instead, they appear to have been written alongside or between his poetic efforts that were dealt with in The Lays of Beleriand.

In spite of the impression given in that volume, the prose and verse periods of the composition of the stories of the Elder Days were not necessarily clear-cut. Even as JRR Tolkien was still working on his epic poems of Turin and of Beren and Luthien, he returned again to prose in the form of a "Sketch of the Mythology" to accopmany the poems. The idea was to give a reader some kind of framework in order to understand the wealth of background information which was only glimpsed here and there by way of reference. This summary, rather than the old notebooks that were the Book of Lost Tales, was to become the foundation of all his later prose works on the Elder Days. In fact, as Christopher Tolkien notes in his commentary, many turns of phrase survived intact throughout years of reworking to appear in the final published Silmarillion

However, that Sketch was so extremely superficial that it immediately led to dissatisfaction and the desire to rework that would be the plague of Tolkien's entire career. As a result, Tolkien almost immediately set to work expanding and reworking the "Sketch of the Mythology" into a longer and more involved text known as the "Quenta" or "Quenta Noldorinwa." Along with the straight prose narration there are several interesting items which feign to be transcripts of the actual texts prepared by Aelfwine or Eriol (in this version the two names are treated as equivalents, indicating that Tolkien did not see the name change as so much a matter of the replacement of one mediator character by another, but rather as the Anglo-Saxon and Elvish names of a single character) after hearing the stories of the Elder Days directly from the lips of the Elves. There is a brief Old English translation of the beginning of the Quenta (although it is presented as the original of which the Modern English version is a translation) and a list of the Elvish names of the Valar and their Old English equivalents. In addition, there were a number of versions of a list of the Elvish names of persons, places and things in the narrative with their Old English equivalents, but because of the high degree of overlap among them, Christopher Tolkien decided to provide only a summary

To this text is appended one last major poem, "The Horns of Ylmir." This is the last major verse work Tolkien would undertake, and is presented as having been composed by Tuor for his son Earandil (at this time Elros did not yet exist, nor had the lineage of the Kings of Numenor been developed). It is in rhyming couplets (as long as one speaks the same dialect as Tolkien -- at one place I was thrown until I realized that my American accent was to blame, not the poet, since "again" and "rain" do indeed rhyme in British English) and memorializes the assistance of the sea-gods Ulmo (Ylmir) and Osse in his escape from Gondolin.

At this time Tolkien also created the first complete map of the lands in which these stories take place. Although in many places this map was rather rough and retained earlier notions about the mythos which would soon be abandoned, such as the idea of Huan the Hound having an independent territory of his own as Lord of Hounds, the basic landforms are already in place and recognizable. Henceforth all changes would be matters of detail rather than major structural transformations.

In addition to the map, which may well have been made for his own reference as much as for publication, Tolkien also began work on other prose works which visualized visualized as accompanying the "Quenta" in its final published form. Christopher Tolkien includes several important ones, particularly the Ambarkanta and the Annals of Valinor and of Beleriand. The Ambarkanta is of particular interest, as it is feigned to be a non-fiction treatise by one Rumil, a loremaster of the Elves, written within the Secondary World which Tolkien is creating. In it, Rumil discusses the structure of the world as created by the Music of the Ainur and realized by Eru's command of "Ea!" ("Let it Be"). Along with it are a number of diagrams of the relationship of earth and sky, which are fascinating developments from the "world-ship" diagram that appeared in the very first volume, The Book of Lost Tales, Part One.

The Annals of Valinor and of Beleriand are a sort of parallel telling of the events of the mythos in the form of chronicles rather than straight narrative. In their beginning they appear to have been little more than a chronology, rather like the ones that appear in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. However, from this rather modest start, they would ultimately become a full telling of the stories, in tandem with the narrative of the "Quenta Silmarillion."

At this point the Annals of Valinor continue the tradition from the Book of Lost Tales of the Children of the Gods, by which the Valar were considered to have had family relationships similar to those of the gods of Classical antiquity. However, it is clear that Tolkien did not consider the Valar to have the sort of lustful hedonism often displayed by the Classical deities, particularly Zeus and Apollo -- rather, it appears that the conjugal, parental and filial relationships of the Valar were to be understood in a spiritual sense, as a reflection of the ideal of what a good family ought be like which he had imbibed as a devout Catholic.

Another notable feature of the Annals, particularly those dealing with the Flight of the Noldor, is the extraordinary amounts of time that would have been involved in events which appear to have happened relatively rapidly in the Quenta. Particularly given that each Valian year is equivalent to ten years of the Sun, we are supposed to believe that an entire century of present-day time passed between the destruction of the Two Trees and the arrival of Fingolfin in Middle Earth. By contrast, the narrative in the Quenta gives an impression of events unfolding very rapidly, sometimes within a matter of hours or even days. Even if Elves are immortal and thus not subject to the urgency of a limited span of life, it is hard to believe that ten years should have passed between the destruction of the Two Trees and Feanor's rebellion, an event which has all the feeling of the impulse of the moment rather than something worked out soberly over time.

In fact it appears that Tolkien himself had second thoughts about this extraordinary long time span and attempted to break it up by claiming that the Valian years were superseded at this point by Years of the Sun. However, this change only shortens a century into a decade, still an extraordinary span of time for a series of events which feel far more rapid in the Quenta.

The events in the Annals of Beleriand are on a more human scale, and have a more natural chronological feel to them, reminiscent of the chronologies we find at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the fact that mortal humans are now involved in the events may help explain why we no longer see the almost absurdly long periods of time found in the later parts of the Annals of Valinor, in which events that should have happened in rapid succession instead crawl at geological pace.

Just as he did with the Quenta, Tolkien also made translations into Old English of the early parts of both the Annals of Valinor and of Beleriand, placing the dates in Roman numerals rather than the familiar Hindu-Arabic forms (which meant that he had to find something to substitute for the zero at the beginning of the Annals of Valinor). Again these were feigned to be translations made by Aelfwine/Eriol from Elvish originals to which he had access while he visited Tol Eressea, indicating that the concept of the frame story of the mariner to whom the elves told their tales had not entirely disappeared at this point.

Table of Contents

  • Prose Fragments Following the Lost Tales
  • The Earliest "Silmarillion"
  • The Quenta
  • The First "Silmarillion" Map
  • The Ambarkanta
  • The Earliest Annals of Valinor
  • The Earliest Annals of Beleriand

Review posted January 14, 2010

Buy The Shaping of Middle-Earth: The Quenta, the Ambarkanta and the Annals (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 4) from Amazon.com