This website reflects an ongoing project to trace the genesis of The Lord of the Rings. If it is ever completed the result will probably be a book, albeit one that it takes me nearly as long to complete as it took Bilbo Baggins to write his memoirs.
For the last year my blog posts have traced my slow progress through the first drafts of Tolkien’s great story, and (with various side steps and distractions) will continue to do so.
But it proves impossible to work through these early drafts without grasping various earlier elements that enter into the story in one way or another. The static pages of the website summarize my research into three main background elements: The Hobbit, ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ and On Fairy-stories.
The Lord of the Rings was begun as the sequel to The Hobbit. But after some years writing the sequel Tolkien rewrote a central passage in the original – the riddle game. The revised version appeard in the second edition of 1951 and all subsequent editions and is the story we all know and love. But it is a story reshaped in the image of its sequel.
The very first step in tracing the genesis of the sequel must be to restore the original story. Once this is done the story of Bilbo Baggins appears quite differently to that which we thought we knew so well…
This page is at present just a marker.
The concluding chapter of Tolkien’s unfinished story of time travel (composed 1936-7) was titled ‘The Fall of Númenor.’ It became the second story – after The Hobbit – of which The Lord of the Rings was the sequel.
Three pages are dedicated to the ‘The Fall of Númenor’:
While the first page on Sulis includes some digressions on the genesis of Sauron and Galadriel in two Celtic divinities who had their homes in the Avon valley, the main point is to show how, through the work of his colleague at Pembroke College, R.G. Collingwood, Tolkien came to understand how the Arthur story originated as a memory of a now vanished age of the world (Roman Britain).
The page on Freawaru shows how Tolkien found on the periphery of Beowulf a story that recalled the now vanished world of the ancient English prior to their migration to the British Isles. But where Tolkien took Arthur to be an historical figure to whose story had been added fairy elements, he saw that the story of Freawaru was all about fairy elements and their disenchantment.
Finally, ‘Tower‘ shows how Tolkien projected the tragedy of Freawaru into a cosmic myth that told of the origin of the ancient cycle of English history of which this Danish princess found herself a symbol of the end. The key idea is that Tolkien’s vision of history as progressive disenchantment was tempered by his notion of recovering and telling the lost traditions as redeeming that vanished past – so far as is possible in a fallen world.
Tolkien’s image of this redemption of the vanished past is a tower looking over the sea – an image that he used as a metaphor for the Old English poem Beowulf and then made a landmark of Middle-earth that spawned the various towers (or their ruins) around which the action of The Lord of the Rings takes place.
This impossible essay – or rather the lecture of March 1939 out of which it developed – is where it all came together.
It is in this essay that we learn the magical art of enchantment illustrated in the pages of The Lord of the Rings. Here Tolkien worked out what the One Ring was, in doing so establishing the elvish arts of Galadriel and the Seeing Stones or Palantíri.
For a taster of what I mean, see this essay. But at present I have not even put up a marker.
When I do get round to this it will probably generate two pages.
One tracing the way the lecture and essay allowed Tolkien to move from The Hobbit to a quite different sequel by way of transferring the fairy element of the nameless thief (and his material sign, a magic ring of invisibility) from Bilbo Baggins to Sauron.
The other showing how the theory of enchantment at the heart of this essay relates to Tolkien’s earlier stories of disenchantment. In other words, my reading of Tolkien’s essay must allow a definitive reading of his vital image of an eye in a tower.
I’ve been reading Tolkien for as long as I remember, but several years ago I began to study him from the perspective of an intellectual historian (my vocation).
In 2013 I wrote an essay that connected Tolkien’s idea of English mythology with his undergraduate reading of H.M. Chadwick’s Origin of the English Nation (1907).
The 2014 publication of Tolkien’s commentary on Beowulf confirmed my basic thesis but introduced a wealth of unexpected detail concerning Tolkien’s idiosyncratic reading of the ancient history of the English. I’ve since dedicated many hours to tracing the curious and often unstated connections that Tolkien discerned between the stones of Beowulf.
Slowly, I came to realise that Tolkien’s reading of this history cannot be separated from his ideas of art. Indeed, the more general point that cuts to the heart of all of Tolkien’s thought is that art and history can never be sundered. I’ve therefore spent a few years now battling with that most impossible of essays – On Fairy-stories.
Then, in the week before Christmas, 2016, I wrote an idle post about when The Lord of the Rings began (the week before Christmas, 1937). I did not realize at the time, but this marked the beginning of a big project… A year later, it has become the exclusive subject of my research and the sole topic of my blog posts.
Consequently I’ve revamped this Ye Machine site – putting away all unrelated material. The blog posts are by their nature piecemeal and so I’m putting up this page to provide an overview of the project and several other pages to provide background to the posts. These pages will be updated from time to time, but this first incarnation – put together in the week before Christmas 2017 – sets out where I find myself a year on.
Most straightforwardly, it means that when I read the above texts I am searching for the ideas that I believe stand at the core of The Lord of the Rings.
But the project as a whole arises out of my longrunning work on what I regard as the lost history of pre-WWII English scholarship. The generation of English scholars born around the mid-twentieth century established a completely false yet today universally accepted notion that English scholars had always dealt in facts and never in theory and that all theory came from the Continent. Why they did this is another story, but the result is a state of shocking ignorance about English intellectual life in the first part of the century. I’ve been working on restoring this lost English theory for a long time now, with this paper on the later nineteenth-century discovery of prehistory paving the way for this paper about anthropology in Edwardian Cambridge. To tell related stories about Edwardian and interwar Oxford is to establish the context of Tolkien’s thought, and to unveil Tolkien’s thought is to put into place another (and important) piece of the greater puzzle.
If Tolkien’s Middle-earth today seems to come out of the blue this is not simply a reflection of one man’s imaginative genius. Tolkien was without doubt an original master of both art and scholarship. Nevertheless, we have today forgotten and lost the world of ideas that he lived and breathed. To reconstruct those ideas so that we may think about them for ourselves is to open a hoard of learning and wisdom of far greater value and power than anything you are likely to discover in a university today.