Monday, January 19, 2009

2009 Tolkien Readstravaganza: The History of Middle-Earth Vol. VI: The Return of the Shadow

I am not quite sure what exactly these posts will look like. I imagine they will have some review-esque qualities, but am guessing they will be more like summaries or simply an overview of the bits I found interesting.

So, here are some thoughts on the first book of the Readstravaganza. The History of Middle-Earth Vol. VI: The Return of the Shadow. This book is also the first volume in the History of Middle-Earth series to deal with the writing of the Lord of the Rings, and that is why it was the first one I picked up. The volumes that focus on the Trilogy are all set up in the same fashion. Christopher Tolkien has edited and arranged the various manuscripts in a mostly chronological order. He has then given us many long texts and provided various note before after and within them so as to fill out the various details. The best way I can explain it, is that each narrative segment is like a fun house mirror. You are reading something which is still recognizable even though it is extremely distorted from what you recognize as 'reality.' With each version the mirror becomes less and less distorted, and Christopher Tolkien moves from giving full texts, to onl providing texts which differ from the final books.

The first thing that should be said about the content of this book is that it covers what Christopher Tolkien considered the first three phases of writing which ran from roughly 1937 - 1939. In these three years he never got beyond the tomb of Balin in the Mines of Moria, and had only just gotten there, when his work on the book was halted for a year or so. These three phases contain many many revisions of the early chapters. With each phase details came closer and closer to the final form, but the major issues Tolkien seemed to be struggling with were time-lines, names, and geography.

From the start there were questions of whether the sequel to The Hobbit would center on Bilbo, his son, or his nephew. The idea of Bilbo getting married did not last very long and the idea of his nephew having adventures was kept. His nephew at the time was not named Frodo however, in fact the name 'Frodo' first emerged as one of the possible companions for Bingo, as the main character was then named. Bingo stayed Bingo through the first two phases of writing, before the name was finally and permanently changed to Frodo.

Also notable is the fact that none of the hobbits started out in the way we finally know them. There was an Odo, a Folco, and a Marmaduke long before there was a Sam, Merry, and Pippin. When pippin did show up, he was still a hobbit, but he was another nephew of Bilbo's who had disappeared as a young hobbit. He would enter into the story as a ranger named Trotter. He was so named because he was the only Hobbit to wear shoes (wooden ones) after he had been tortured within the realm of Mordor. This is the character who we now know as Strider- Aragorn. It seems Tolkien struggled with the race of trotter for a long time because even after this book he remains a Hobbit long into the next volume of the History.

As I have said most of the book isa series of manuscripts given with commentary. They are something that many people will find quite repetitive and probably confusing and boring. However if you have a large amount of appreciation for the world that Tolkien developed, then you may find similar joy in reading how it came to life in his own mind.

Aside from the manuscripts there are some real gems to be found in the various outlines that Christopher provides at various points in the story. It was these chapters that I found the most exciting and interesting. They are generally free flowing passages that include the brainstorming going on in his head. He will write out a question and then immediately you might see his decision to follow. One example of this is in a chapter entitled 'Queries and Alterations' where the nature of Trotter is discussed:

Rangers are best not hobbits perhaps. But either Trotter (as a ranger) must be not hobbit, or someone very well known: e.g. Bilbo But the Latter is awkward in view of 'happily ever after'. I thought of making Trotter into Fosco Took (Biblo's first cousin) who vanished when a lad, owing to Gandalf. Who is Trotter? He must have had some bitter aquaintance with Ring-wraiths &c.

There are many similar notes and I love how they fill in the chunks between the various drafts. Following this list of questions, the identity of Trotter begins to get played with more and more as Tolkien tried out various ideas.

I mentioned that the story was taken up into Moria, but this is really only half-true. The first three phases dealt primarily with the journey from Hobbiton to Rivendell. Only about 80 pages or so are given to the journey from Rivendell to Moria, with the bulk of that journey being worked upon in the next volume.

It is here that I too must pause. I hope to write about the next volume soon, as I finished that one last week. Now however, I must turn my eyes to the pages of my current book, in an attempt to stay on track!