Biography & Canon

Research into the thought of J.R.R. Tolkien now benefits from an enormous wealth of posthumous writings, largely (not solely) the legacy of the editorial work of the late Christopher Tolkien. We may call this collected body of writings the canon. At the same time, such work as well as other studies (e.g. John Garth on Tolkien and the Great War) reveals more of Tolkien’s biography. Putting two and two together here is my biographical reading of the situation of The Lord of the Rings in this canon.

A mid-life crisis of sorts is discernible in the unfinished Lost Road novel of 1936, with its fantasy of a drab and impoverished series of father-son scholars, by turns philologists and historians, who travel back in time to discover the end of myth and the dawn of history in the drowning of Atlantis.

The lasting legacy of the Lost Road was precisely this reworking of Plato’s myth of Atlantis as the story of how and why the world was made round and Númenor drowned beneath the waves. The legacy consists in the fact that Elendil escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores of our Middle-earth (as dimly recalled in modern times in stories of a king, Sheaf, who was sent to his people as a babe in a boat over the ocean), thereby providing the ancestry of Strider, who is Aragorn, heir Elendil and his son Isildur. But the enormous importance of this story for the imagination of The Lord of the Rings obscures, however, its significance to Tolkien at the time of its composition (which I have investigated in depth here). What we fail to register is that this story is intended as a conclusion to the Silmarillion stories – ‘here ends the history of the ancient world as told by the Elves’, as the 1936 myth concludes. In 1936 J.R.R. Tolkien was in some sense putting away his youthful fairy stories by way of making an end in the story of Númenor.

And then The Hobbit was published and they asked for a sequel and at first Tolkien tried to make it into the sequel to a 1934 poem, ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil,’ but in the autumn of 1939 began to think that it might make a continuation of the story of the exiles of Númenor, told in the last pages of the 1936 myth and, as such, an alternative ending to the Silmarillion stories.

An idea that emerges in the wake of a radio announcement on September 3, 1939: Britain has declared war on Germany, and a vision of the tale of the Great War of the Ring begins to unveil itself in JRRT’s mind.

And that, really, was that, as poor Edith must have seen all too clearly. With a world shattering turn to war, Tolkien grasped at that creative imagination vital to his inner survival and found in writing a story, and glimpsed that his new hobbit story might make a fitting (protracted) ending to the Silmarillion stories: a tale of how Three Elvish Rings connected Myth and History in the Third Age of Middle-earth and the hole in reality inadvertently opened out of which Sauron made a back door by incarnating himself in a tiny gold ring. A suitably grand finale. But one has to sympathize with his colleagues, who still hoped the great philologist would produce a definitive tome, not to mention his wife, who must have been hoping her husband would soon spend more time with her in the garden.

On the good side, of course, Tolkien’s fairy-story-making addiction (if one may so put it) gave us The Lord of the Rings.

Seeing The Lord of the Rings as a more elaborate version of the 1936 closure invites especially meditation on the legendary appendage to the myth, which tells of a king of the mortal exiles in history, Elendil, whose people built high coastal towers and who made a last alliance with the Elf-king and confronted Sauron outside his hold in Mordor, and vanquished him but died. And it brings into view, too, the story of a tower built by the sea told also in 1936 by a man who did not yet know that thanks to Bilbo Baggins he would build a tower to rival the Beowulf.