Volume 8 of The History of Middle-Earth
Every time I read a volume in The History of Middle-Earth (Christopher Tolkien’s compendium of his father’s writing), I puzzle over who the audience is supposed to be. It reads like a scholarly work, with copious footnotes, and yet it is targeted at fans of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR).
I just completed Volume 8: The War of the Ring (1990), which is the third book to address the writing of LOTR. It covers the battle for Helm’s Deep, the Ents’ destruction of Isengard, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields outside of Minas Tirith. There is also a section on Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Emen Muil Mountains, their encounter with Faramir, and finally the fight with Shelob the spider.
I read The History of Middle-Earth as much for its insight into the writing process as for being a Tolkien fan. There is a feeling of completeness to LOTR, as though the story could not unfold in any other manner. So, to see the extent of Tolkien’s struggles makes the final version all the more impressive. So many times he could have gone down any number of roads – and probably would have made it work out fine – and yet the way the story does unfold seems right.
Tolkien: "Behind me are my notes for Chapter One."
Tolkien had a history of tinkering with his stories. The tales from The Silmarillion were revised and rewritten countless times, and even still he never reached a final version that satisfied him. (My favorite take has Sauron as a giant-sized black cat guarding Morgoth’s fortress). But in his relentless combing through his stories, typically he did untangle the most gnarled knots. At least for LOTR, he got where he wanted to go.
As evidenced in The War of the Ring, Tolkien wrote many outlines, notes, and drafts, and to make it even more complicated, he often wrote over earlier drafts. His handwriting at times was incomprehensible (even to Tolkien himself), so that his son had quite a job to identify words out of the crabbed handwriting.
There are interesting glimpses into alternative takes on certain events, such as Eowyn dying during her fight with the Nazgul, and Denethor not being a completely atrocious father. But you can also see Tolkien working it out – going over plot points, trying to determine what the smoothest course will be. If you have the patience, the various versions of episodes gives a curious insight into the creative process.
The War of the Ring, admittedly, has its tedious moments. There is excessive attention to the chronology of events. Given that the Fellowship has fractured by this point – Frodo and Sam heading to Mordor, Pippin and Merry captured by Orcs, and Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli in hot pursuit – Tolkien had his work cut out for him in terms of keeping the events in line. For example, one of the Nazgul flies west out of Mordor on its way to Orthanc. Tolkien had to keep redetermining what date that occurred, given that all his characters are in motion. If Frodo and Sam are at the crossroads, where would that put Aragorn? And when the Nazgul flies overhead, which day is it? And let's not even get into Tolkien's obsession with the phases of the moon.
Ultimately, I’m not sure I cared to drill down into that much data. I was more fascinated by the nuggets of information about Faramir, Eowyn, and Shelob (who at one point was a whole pack of spiders).
The next volume in the 12-volume history is Sauron Defeated, which covers the completion of LOTR. The remainder of the series continues with later versions of The Silmarillion.