What happens next?

Christopher Tolkien has probably now reached the end, in terms of publications at least, of his life-long project to edit and clarify his father’s huge opus of unfinished writings. He says that this book, Beren and Lúthien, will be the last, and as he is now 93 this seems plausible. This seems like an appropriate moment, then, to say something about what he’s done, and where this book fits into that. J.R.R. Tolkien liked the idea that other writers might make use of his world, and that it could continue to grow and develop after he had relinquished it: his son was less keen, and preferred to keep a fairly tight reign on the intellectual property he inherited. His own work was not to augment and extend his father’s, like Brian Herbert has with Frank Herbert’s Dune franchise, but to produce a scholarly account of what his father wrote and how he wrote it. The many books he has edited have largely consisted of transcriptions of the many notes and manuscripts left by his father, accompanied by his commentary. He has painstakingly reconstructed the order of composition and the development of the various narratives and themes that run through the vast archive of which he is the custodian. His father never even began to prepare most of this material for publication (although Tolkien fils has also done a great deal of work on the textual history of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), so the work involved, as well as the achievement embodied in the many published volumes that have resulted, is considerable. Only twice has Christopher Tolkien beaten his father’s notes into a seamless form and published them as though they were a finished work: first in The Silmarillion, for which additional material had to be written (with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay), and in 2007 in The Children of Hurin, in which only bridging passages were added. I had imagined that Beren and Lúthien might be similar, but it more closely resembles the scholarly presentations of The History of Middle Earth, with the important difference that it focuses on a single narrative thread, and brings together the various treatments that Tolkien gave to it, between the second decade of the twentieth century and his death early in the eighth.

‘What happens next?’ is a question that will have occurred to many Tolkien aficionados. Will those who control the residual rights in the Tolkien archive (which do not include film and TV rights) be as particular as C. Tolkien in deciding what uses should be made of it? It seems unlikely, and there will come a time when all the published material falls out of copyright and becomes fair game for anyone who wants to mutilate it, or to publish their own half-arsed heroic fantasy using Tolkien’scharacters and locations. Had C. Tolkien prepared for this moment by developing an ‘official’ version of Middle-earth’s history and languages, and beginning to invite select, respectful creators to participate in its development (perhaps outlining the events of the Fourth Age, after the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings), we might expect to see an ongoing thread of material in the aesthetic spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien, in among the inevitable dross. Sadly, I think we’ll just see a proliferation of the latter. I can’t really fault Christopher Tolkien for his choices: he was faced with an extraordinary legacy in the form of his father’s papers, and I can imagine that soon after he began to go through them, he realised that it would be a lifetime’s work to set them in order. If he has now more or less finished, this last book is emblematic of the choice he made: unlike The Children of Hurin we are not presented with the book that his father might have written, but with precisely what he did write. As such, it’s pretty much all material I’ve read before, in The Book of Lost Tales, The Lays of Beleriand, Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion, but there is still value in bringing it together in one place. Presented in this way it seems less like a set of textual fragments, and more like a single grand theme that we are able to glimpse through the windows offered by these various pieces of unfinished verse and prose. And what a theme it is! Beren and Lúthien is epic fantasy of the kind that doesn’t find its way into print very often, owing more to mythology or medieval romance than it does to the genre of fantasy fiction. As such, it will be of interest to relatively few of those readers who enjoyed The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but it has a compelling narrative power, that comes from dealing in archetypes, and from the religiously inspired Manichaean morality that infuses it. It is also uniquely central to Tolkien’s life and work, forming a sort of key narrative that enables the reader to understand how the author’s concerns unfold throughout his work. This tale is the portal through which Tolkien himself entered his Middle-earth. The moment that Beren first sees Lúthien, dancing in a woodland glade filled with hemlock flowers, is a moment from Tolkien’s courtship of his wife Edith. Below their names on the grave they share in Oxford, are written ‘Beren’ and ‘Lúthien’.

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