Morgoth’s Ring is Volume X in the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth series. The History of Middle Earth is comprised of the posthumously published stories and notes of JRR Tolkien, collected and edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.
Volumes VI thru IX explored Tolkien’s writings in the block of time from 1937 to 1949. During this time, Tolkien concentrated almost solely on the writing of The Lord of the Rings, abandoning for a time his Silmarillion writings of the twenties and early thirties.
Morgoth’s Ring takes its name from a passage in one of Professor Tolkien’s late essays ‘Notes on motives in the Silmarillion’, in which he surmises that while Sauron invested much of his power in “the One Ring”, Morgoth invested his power (hence his “corruption”) into the very “physicalconstituents of the Earth” (MR pg 394). Hence, “the whole of Middle-earth was Morgoth’s Ring” (MR pg 400).
Many of the Silmarillion legends (for lack of a better name) were incomplete or disorganized, and at the completion of Lord of the Rings Tolkien returned to these early legends with the intention of finishing and collecting them for publication with The Lord of the Rings, since the tales were linked.
Several projects were started at this time: a new Lay of Lethian; a large scale revision of the Quenta Silmarillion; a more in-depth tale of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin. Each of these projects were abandoned fairly quickly and Tolkien soon despaired of ever completing The Silmarillion for publication with Lord of the Rings.
Morgoth’s Ring picks up the History of Middle Earth at this vital transitional phase of Tolkien’s career. The work that would be seen as his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings was complete. Tolkien said in a 1950 letter to Stanley Unwin: “the chief thing is that I feel that the whole matter [The Lord of the Rings] is now ‘exorcised’, and rides me no more” (MR pg vii).
This, for a time, revitalized his work on the early mythologies of Middle Earth. He dove into the revising and rewriting.
Morgoth’s Ring includes:
- Part One:
- Two New Versions of the “Ainulindalë”
- Part Two:
- The Annals of Aman
- Part Three:
- The Later Quenta Silmarillion
- The First Phase
- The Second Phase
- The Later Quenta Silmarillion
- Part Four:
- Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth (“The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”)
- Part Five:
- Myths Transformed
The first part of this volume deals with Tolkien’s renewed attempts at writing the Ainulindalë, Tolkien’s creation story. These three texts – one written before the completion of The Return of the King and the other two written during the intensely creative period from 1950 to 1952 – show the evolution of the created world in Tolkien’s mind and though consistent in many respects are often at variance on some major viewpoints.
Manuscript “D”, as the editor calls the last of these three drafts, seems to be the major source from which the version found in The Silmarillion was drawn.
Tolkien also began, during this same time period, a new version of the Annals of Aman (the first pre-LotR text was abandoned soon after its beginning) giving an account of the Valar’s descent into Arda and their work therein, the coming of the Eldar, and ends at the crossing of the Helkaraxë and the “Doom of Mandos”.
The third (and largest) section of the book is devoted to “The Later Quenta Silmarillion”. This is not a “new text”, but a series of in-depth revisions to a text already in existence that dates from the late 1930. Much of that original version can be found in Volume IV of The History of Middle Earth, The Shaping of Middle Earth.
The First Phase of the “Later Quenta” likely derives from the same time period as the previous two texts that appear in Morgoth’s Ring, that is, 1950-1952. The “Second Phase” likely dates from 1957-1958, where it can be dated by a reference to it in a letter to Rayner Unwin in December of ’57.
These “Phases” expand considerably on the earlier versions of the QS, including a glut of new material on Fëanor and the Silmarils, also enlarging the role of Melkor/Morgoth as the primary source of Arda’s corruption (to paraphrase some of Christopher Tolkien’s foreward).
Tolkien’s work on his early mythologies was slowed throughout the mid and late 1950’s. The success of The Lord of the Rings and its aftermath had left him, in the words of his editor, “absorbed in analytic speculation concerning its underlying postulates…”. This led to the need for the author to “satisfy the requirements of a coherent theological and metaphysical system” (MR pg viii).
This “analytic speculation” was not conducive to creativity, and forced him instead to spend endless hours buried in the minute details and pondering the “underlying postulates” of his created world.
It becomes a case, perhaps, of breaking one of his own stated rules. I recall that Tolkien himself stated in his well-known essay “On Fairy Stories”, “while he is there [in Faërie] it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys lost” (Tolkien Reader pg 33).
This became as destructive for Tolkien as he had anticipated it would be for any other traveler in Faërie. He began to ask too many questions…and they bogged down the creative process. This became a major reason Tolkien never completed some of the legends, and never finished collecting for publication what was completed.
The last two “Parts” of Morgoth’s Ring deal with this theme – essentially, answering questions that Tolkien felt had not been sufficiently dealt with.
“Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth”, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth”, is a text dating from 1959 or 1960 and deals with the question of what happens to the races of Middle Earth when they die.
The final part of Morgoth’s Ring, “Myths Transformed”, deals with some notes and rewritings re-evaluating much of the earlier material. Christopher Tolkien notes they are “concerned with, broadly speaking, the reinterpretation of central elements in the ‘mythology’” (MR pg 369).
These myths are, in many respects, contradictory and theoretical, and create a virtual quagmire of the early writings they address. Tolkien had become somewhat disillusioned, believing that many of the old tales were woefully inadequate and inconsistent.
These “notes” find Tolkien exploring the very nature of the world he had created…questioning the nature of the Ainur, of Melkor, of the Two Trees and the sun and moon.
The next volume in The History of Middle Earth continues the examination of this same time period in the author’s life, but explores the “later” section of the Silmarillion legendarium. Not later in terms of actual composition, but in terms of Middle Earth chronology.
Whereas Morgoth’s Ring contains the post Lord of the Rings writings pertaining to the creation, Arda, and the Annals of Aman, up to the point of the Noldor’s exile and the Doom of Mandos.
The War of the Jewels consists of the Silmarillion history from that point forward, consisting of the Wars of Beleriand, “Beren & Luthien”, “The Fall of Gondolin”, and the legends of “The Children of Hurin” that date from the post-LotR period.