History of Middle Earth

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The History of Middle Earth is a twelve-volume series of previously unpublished (and generally unfinished) writings of JRR Tolkien pertaining to his created world of Middle Earth.

Art by John Howe.
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The books were published between 1983 and 1996, beginning the The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 and ending with The Peoples of Middle Earth. 

Emboldened by the surprising success of the posthumously published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien undertook the immense task of bringing to light all of his father’s unfinished writings.

When JRR Tolkien died in 1973 he had left behind a plethora of disorganized and incomplete poems, stories, notes, and scribblings. Tolkien began working on his “mythologies” of Middle Earth as early as 1914 and continued writing and revising right up to his death nearly sixty years later.

Given Tolkien’s tendency to abandon stories and poems mid-creation – and his further tendency to create numerous versions and drafts of the same tale – this led to an astounding accumulation of unfinished and unpublished writings on the author’s death.

These “unfinished writings” consisted of everything from nearly complete stories and poems to hastily scribbled notes.

Many of these tales and poems were gathered, distilled, organized, and published by his son Christopher Tolkien as The Silmarillion in 1977.

Several of the more complete and “consistent” writings were gathered and published (with editorial commentary by Christopher Tolkien) as Unfinished Tales in 1980.

Those writings that remained were a large mix of early handwritten tales, different versions of previously published tales, poems (which had not appeared at all in either of the previous published posthumous works), notes pertaining to the background of The Lord of the Rings and early, discarded versions of the Lord of the Rings manuscript.

I’m not sure that Christopher Tolkien understood the breadth of task he was undertaking when he began. As he uncovered more and more of his father’s manuscripts, the project grew, until it finally encompassed twelve books.

The books were released approximately annually between 1983 and 1996.

The organizational idea behind The History of Middle Earth was to move roughly chronologically, with the first five books comprising Tolkien’s writings on Middle Earth up until the writing of The Lord of the Rings, the next four comprising his writings during LotR, and the final three comprising Tolkien’s return to his earlier mythologies after Lord of the Rings.

EARLY SILMARILLION

The first five books are comprised of early tales, sketches, and ideas of the early history of Middle Earth, much of which contributed to the writing of The Silmarillion and its related stories. They deal with early concepts of the elves, the Ainur, the elvish languages, Tolkien’s unfinished poetry (The Lays of Beleriand) and many other things.

HISTORY OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS

Books six through nine are collectively known as “The History of the Lord of the Rings”, and track the early stages of writing, editing, rewriting, and story-building of The Lord of the Rings.

These four books actually provide a very unique prospective on the creative process at work, and how different ideas that came together seamlessly in the end product were often late additions or afterthoughts. Without Tolkien’s constant rewritings and revisions, the world might have seen an entirely different work.

LATE SILMARILLION

The final three volumes are known as the “Late Silmarillion”, and are comprised primarily of Tolkien’s return to his Silmarillion mythologies after the publication of Lord of the Rings.

These volumes find Tolkien rethinking and revising some of his earlier mythologies. He realized that the Lord of the Rings had posed many unanswered questions, and set out to answer those questions to his own satisfaction.

Tolkien was also very concerned with the “cohesiveness” of his mythologies, and much of what he had written in his earlier tales did not entirely correspond with the published stories.

Books X and XI explore these rewritings and revisions, dealing with the expansion of Morgoth’s role in history of Middle Earth and moving onto the wars of the Silmarils in the First Age.

The final volume of The History of Middle Earth, The Peoples of Middle Earthcomprises a full-length appendix, much like those at the end of The Return of the King.

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