Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Red Book of Westmarch

This post goes out to my friends who are fans of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Those of you who know me really well, who "knew me when," know that I my fascination with all things relating to Middle-Earth knows no bounds.  Not only do I love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I have read and taken real pleasure in every last unreadable page of posthumously published material as well, from The Silmarillion, through Volume 12 of the seemingly endless History of Middle-Earth.  Through the willfully archaic language and arcane textual notes, Tolkien's genius as a mythmaker and world-builder still shines through, if you have sufficient patience to find it.

A few years after the critical debacle and financial success of the published Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien ruefully reflected on that book's weaknesses in his preface to The Book of Lost Tales: "it is certainly debatable whether it was wise to publish in 1977 a version of the primary 'legendarium' [this was always Tolkien pere's preferred term for the totality of his work on Middle-Earth] standing on its own and claiming, as it were, to be self-explanatory.  The published work has no 'framework,' no suggestion of what it is and how (within the imagined world) it came to be.  This I now think to have been an error." [p. 5. emphases added].

Although, as CJRT points out, his father never explicitly set about creating such a framework, the evidence seems plentiful that he meant to do so (something Tolkien fils also admits). The central conceit of "The Red Book of Westmarch" from which everything in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is supposed to derive, is explicitly constructed to embrace materials outside the scope of either of the two published novels.  We are told in the preface (and shown in the main narrative) that Bilbo has spent his time in Rivendell immersed in the lore of the elder days, producing three volumes of "Translations from the Elvish."  Through the character of Findegil "The King's Writer" there is also an avenue prepared for the inclusion of "mannish" materials relating to the Dúnedain, and probably the Rohirrim as well.  Really the umbrella is large enough to include almost anything.

Among the many critical banners that can appear across the top of a flawed Wikipedia article, my favorite is the one that warns that an article (usually about something fictional) has been written in an "in-universe" style.  It seems to me that that is the problem with Tolkien's posthumous works.  Christopher Tolkien took to providing a framework, but it is one that usually makes the works less accessible, not more.  What we need is an editor, or editors, from inside Middle-Earth. And we already know from published texts what this book is—The Red Book—and who those editors should be (or were) and (in the main) what their voices are like: Bilbo—fond of humor and simple jokes, scholarly, distracted, perhaps slightly arrogant about his own accomplishments and abilities; Frodo—humbler, and more serious-minded, even grim, haunted by his own quest and its sacrifices; Sam—folksy, practical, admiring of his Baggins patrons, and of the elves and the Dúnedain, but late to the game of scholarship; and Findegil—a functionary of King Elessar, a scholar and archivist, steeped in Gondorian lore and folklore, probably somewhat baffled by the Hobbits, and aware of the disconnect between Gondor's traditions about the elves, and the renewal (however brief) of actual contact with them.  We might imagine too the contributions of Pippin and Merry, of Sam's daughter Elanor Fairbairn.

These voices and perspectives could give a frame to a wide range of Tolkien's materials, provide a means for reconciling the divergent forms of the tales produced over a period of almost sixty years: a version of the "Fall of the Gondolin" translated from eyewitness accounts by Bilbo in Rivendell (perhaps the 1950s version found as the first chapter of Unfinished Tales) could naturally vary radically from a version of the same story collected by Findegil from the oral or literary traditions of Gondor (represented by the very early version that was one of the "Lost Tales.")  Bilbo's own character and age could explain the tendency of his translations of the "purer" versions of stories to be unfinished, whereas the vast differences in style and substance of the earliest (but often most complete) versions of the stories could be explained by their passing through the oral traditions of the Dúnedain for many thousands of years.

Part of me really wants to DO this.  Tolkien's works will probably not enter the public domain in my lifetime, but who knows?  Anyone want to collaborate?

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