The Shaping of Middle Earth is the fourth volume of the twelve volume History of Middle Earth series by JRR Tolkien. The twelve volumes were collected, arranged, and edited by the author’s son, Christopher Tolkien, many years after the author’s death.
The History of Middle Earth series consists of the unpublished (and generally unfinished) writings of JRR Tolkien relating to his “legendarium” of his created world of Middle Earth.
The volumes have been arranged roughly chronologically. The first two volumes of the series, The Book of Lost Tales, Part I & Book of Lost Tales Part II were comprised of Tolkien’s earliest sketches of the mythology dating from 1915-1919.
The third book, The Lays of Beleriand contains the verse writings dated from roughly 1918-1930, including the two large epic poems Tolkien undertook during this period, “The Lay of the Children of Húrin” and “The Lay of Leithian”.
The Shaping of Middle Earth overlaps some of this time frame, dating from approximately 1926 to the mid-1930’s, but it reproduces Tolkien’s prose writings from this period.
The Shaping of Middle Earth represents an important transitional phase in the writing of the “Silmarillion mythologies”.
The tales found in The Shaping of Middle Earth are far more developed (both structurally and ideologically) than the earlier tales appearing in The Book of Lost Tales. These tales are much nearer to the versions we see in The Silmarillion. The names and histories are reaching a somewhat less fluid stage.
Tolkien has also begun to abandon, at this stage, his attempts at verse renderings (lays) of the legends, and begins to concentrate on prose alone.
The Shaping of Middle Earth is broken into seven sections:
- I – Prose Fragments Following the Lost Tales
- II – The Earliest ‘Silmarillion’
- III – The Quenta
- IV – The First ‘Silmarillion’ Map
- V – The Ambarkanta
- VI – The Earliest Annals of Valinor
- VII – The Earliest Annals of Beleriand
Sections II and III are closely related…“The Earliest ‘Silmarillion’” is a long sketch of the legendarium and “The Quenta” is a more developed recounting of that sketch.
In these we begin to see the development of many of the tales that appear in The Silmarillion, and the slow disappearance of the “framework” supplied in The Book of Lost Tales, of Eriol and “The Cottage of Lost Play”.
Included in the center of the book are several hand-drawn maps, the “First ‘Silmarillion’ Map” and several diagrams, illustrating the geography and layout of Middle Earth and its relationship to Arda.
Also included, and of primary interest, is a fairly short study on the nature of the created world, “The Ambarkanta”, its early shaping and its character.
The final two sections of the book, “The Annals of Valinor” and “The Annals of Beleriand”, give the earliest version of Tolkien’s year-by-year accounts of events. This shows Tolkien’s mind organizing and developing a chronology and a consistent time frame for the events of his tales.
Tolkien was a very detail-oriented individual, and minor details were of intense importance to him. One way in which he organized his legends was by creating “Annals”, annual accounts of the major events, births, deaths, and happenings of the created history.
The Shaping of Middle Earth provides us with a window into the development of the legends within the mind of the author, and portrays a rapidly growing system of stories and myths.
The tales presented here would be developed upon more yet, but are the sprouts of the tales that would eventually comprise The Silmarillion.
Book V of The History of Middle Earth, The Lost Road and Other Writings, takes Tolkien’s writings up to late 1937, when Tolkien began work on The Lord of the Rings, at which point the ‘Silmarillion’ legends were laid aside for many years.