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Mwm

Why wasn't J.R.R. Tolkien able to finish the Silmarillion, but his son Christopher was?

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Did he just loose interest in compiling the work into a single narrative structure?

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Posted (edited)

Ronald spent over fifty years tinkering with this material.... and he was an absolute perfectionist. By the time he died in 1973, there were multiple versions of the same chapters, countless unfinished rewrites, where he started new ideas... and a couple of cases where he hadn't touched the chapter since the 1920s.

Christopher - who never wrote any fiction of his own - was the guy tasked with putting this mountain of competing and contradictory narratives into a single text. With Guy Gavriel Kay's help. The result was the 1977 Silmarillion.

(Christopher then spent the following four decades giving us the various other versions of the stories).

Edited by The Marquis de Leech

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J.R.R. Tolkien had a daytime job as a professor. He only became a full time writer when he retired. There probably wouldn't have been a market for stuff like the Silmarillion either back in the 1950s.

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Tolkien was too close to the material and he was unable to step back and assess it more critically. He'd been working on it for too long as well, and sometimes spent years without working on it at all, so every time he came back to it he'd forgotten or lost track of some of the things he'd planned. It really needed a coherent Page 1 rewrite, but Tolkien was unwilling to do that for a third time (after the initial c. 1917-24 writing burst and then a less complete one in the 1930s) and kept adding to it piecemeal post-LotR, and the whole thing got very confused. Christopher had a lot of work to do to put together a coherent version of the text, and himself spent many years second-guessing his own choices in the process.

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2 hours ago, Loge said:

J.R.R. Tolkien had a daytime job as a professor. He only became a full time writer when he retired. There probably wouldn't have been a market for stuff like the Silmarillion either back in the 1950s.

Christopher was an academic too. 

As for Tolkien's record as an academic... one monumentally important article on Beowulf, teaching over and above the required quantity, but apart from that, less research output than what was commonly expected from someone in his position. He was, of course, spending his free time with The Lord of the Rings, but his Oxford colleagues didn't know that at the time. 

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12 hours ago, Mwm said:

Did he just loose interest in compiling the work into a single narrative structure?

Perfect is the enemy of the good.  And Middle-Earth was his side job.  He was a full time professor and scholar of Anglo-Saxon.

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10 hours ago, Ser Scot A Ellison said:

Perfect is the enemy of the good.  And Middle-Earth was his side job.  He was a full time professor and scholar of Anglo-Saxon.

Perhaps he just didn't have a C. S. Lewis egging him to finish like the Lord of the Rings.

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On 3/27/2020 at 5:44 PM, Ser Scot A Ellison said:

Perfect is the enemy of the good.  And Middle-Earth was his side job.  He was a full time professor and scholar of Anglo-Saxon.

Not during WWII (when courses were suspended), which is what basically allowed him to complete LotR. In business as normal, there'd have been no chance of finishing the book in a reasonable time frame.

Tolkien also retired in 1957, so had sixteen years of full-time work on The Silmarillion where he could have finished it but did not do so.

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One imagines he didn't want or didn't know how to do it.

Carpenter tells us that after retirement he preferred to procrastinate by playing solitaire (not on the computer) to actually continue to do some writing.

It is a pity, since he effectively had nearly finished it twice over. The Lost Tales were nearly finished, are missing only the Tale of Eärendel and the ending, and the second version was also pretty much completed.

One can see how this whole thing evolved into some kind of monstrous mental load which, to finish, would really take one a lot of hard work. This starts with the basic question what the hell the proper form of those stories should have been. The Silmarillion-style texts as we know it grew out of an outline of the LT mythology writter to illustrate the background of the long poems. The proper way to tell those stories were the LT. They were the longest, most detailed versions, the ones closely resembling the style of LotR.

And then there is the actual content of the stories - which he seems to have continued to be close on a personal emotional level but no longer so much on an intellectual level. His plans to essentially change the entire cosmology and thus take away a lot of the meaning and symbolism of the old stories is another reason.

How problematic a writer Tolkien was can be seen if one looks at the writing process of LotR. That took him over ten years and a lot of rewriting and it still is very much an imbalanced work which could have profited from professional editing and another thorough rewrite.

For myself, I really regret that he never finished the second version of the Fall of Gondolin and that we never got any long version of the story of Eärendil. The latter is the very heart, the beginning, of the entire mythology, and yet that thing is pretty much a complete a blank slate. We just have a very superficial and condensed summary of that story.

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Tolkien liked the idea of "unexplained vistas" as "part of the literary effect" and I wonder if he wanted to keep that even for himself. Tying and pinning down the "history" parts of the setting seemed to be something he relished, with the history of Gondor and Rohan and the Numenorean kings, but in the First Age it seemed there were narratives he really wanted written down and fleshed out (the three Great Tales) and other things he wanted to keep much vaguer.

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