How big a Tolkien fan are you?
Sure, you’ve read The Lord Of The Rings. But have you taken in appendices A through F? Have you pored over the genealogies, including all eight generations of Samwise Gamgee’s family tree? Have you dwelt on the formation of the Feanorian letters? And do you know your Noldor from your Vanyar?
The big test of a Tolkien fan for me has always been how deeply one has delved into the supplementary materials that flesh out the details of Middle Earth in incredible detail. The appendices of The Lord Of The Rings, although adding 151 pages to the run-time of the trilogy, are just the tip of the iceberg. Christopher Tolkien shaped his father’s notes and unfinished material into a long sequence of books of supplementary material and notes.
But is it possible, if I may borrow a phrase, to delve too greedily and too deep?
My own bona fides as a Tolkien fan are easy to establish. I’ve read The Silmarillion. The whole thing. Cover to cover. And I can even remember some of it.
The Silmarillion was the closest thing in the craggy mountain of notes left by J.R.R. Tolkien that actually approached a full-formed narrative. Sure, it’s heavy going in places, and the millennia whiz by in a blur of unpronounceable names. But there’s some amazing writing in there. And if they ever want to make another Tolkien movie (other than a better Hobbit movie) then my first pick for a story arc would be the tale of Beren and Lúthien. Tolkien himself said it was the ‘chief of the stories of The Silmarillion‘.
The plot is classical; a suitor is sent on a suicidal fetch-quest by a disapproving father-in-law-to-be. Beren, the suitor in question, must get a silmaril (a magical jewel… but you knew that) from the crown of the dark lord Morgoth, in order to impress Lúthien’s old man Thingol. The story could have been directly inspired by the Grimm’s fairy tale ‘The Devil With The Three Golden Hairs’ in which the hero has to pluck the hairs from the head of the devil himself in order to win his bride.
But for those who tire of moving their eyeballs from left to right, and would rather have someone do the heavy lifting of turning the pages of the book, Christopher Tolkien conveniently cut this tale onto vinyl in 1977. I picked up this little gem in a record shop on Smith Street, Collingwood, a few years ago. Listening to Christopher Tolkien’s plummy Oxbridge voice reading from The Silmarillion is a treat. He reads it beautifully and with reverence.
The depth of detail in Tolkien’s world is staggering. Far more is known about Middle Earth than about many actual ancient civilizations. And yet, beyond containing story archetypes, none of it is real. Reading The Silmarillion, the endless genealogies and battles and histories, I’m reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in which a fictional world becomes real, and begins to intrude into and disintegrate our own world. As Borges writes, ‘the teaching of its harmonious history, so full of stirring episodes, has obliterated the history that presided over my childhood; in our memories a fictitious past has now replaced our past’. He could be talking about the Tolkien legendarium.
And now another artefact has emerged in our world, like a new volume of the encyclopedia of Tlön. Christopher Tolkien has released the evolving manuscripts of Beren and Lúthien as a single volume this month, forty years after the publication of The Silmarillion, and 100 years after his father conceived of the story in the trenches of World War 1. In the preface, Christopher, now ninety-three, concedes this volume will probably be his last. I tip my hat to him for the work he has done.
But is there a problem with immersing oneself in the minutiae of Middle Earth? Does is come at the expense of learning of our own history, our own reality?
Probably not. In any event, the tale of Beren and Lúthien is a ripping yarn that deserves to live on.
Sam Gamgee had thirteen kids, by the way.