When Difficult is Beautiful: Christopher Tolkien and the Legacy of Middle Earth

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is often considered a modern masterpiece, an artful construction and the keystone work of a genre. The trilogy is supported not only by several other works that he published during his life like The Hobbit or The Adventures of Tom Bombadil but also by the thousands of pages of writing that his son edited and published after his death. The works that Christopher Tolkien published are in many ways different from the ones that came before, they are not polished, there are gaps and explanatory notes about where editorial decisions had to be made. They lack the definitive deciding vote of the original author but still carry the style and attention to detail that made the original trilogy great. Christopher Tolkien opens not only the world of Middle Earth in the First Age but also the long journey that went into creating it from his father’s early work right through the editorial process to the reader. It is not the kind of effortless beauty that one experiences reading the Lord of the Rings but the level of work that went into creating books like the recently published The Fall of Gondolin make them beautiful.

In her book Grit Angela Duckworth talks about two types of work: flow and effortful practice. The work that seems to happen naturally and the work that happens when a person sits down and puts their mind to something intentionally. For creative works like novels the product that a reader interacts with can often feel like it is a kind of flow, as if the whole novel just came into being at once. When you pick up The Fall of Gondolin or any of the other books that Christopher Tolkien has edited you experience the hard work of creation. Duckworth places a lot of value on the grit that hard work requires and argues that grit will prevail over talent. These concepts are perhaps easier for her to demonstrate with examples like tech entrepreneurs or professional sports coaches, but Christopher Tolkien’s work shows the application of this ideal in the artistic world. As much readers value the quality of a final product, they are distant from the process that resulted in the complexities that are beloved of books like the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The way that Christopher Tolkien lays out both Beren and Luthien and the more recent The Fall of Gondolin is designed to show the development of those stories and their place in the history of Middle Earth. These books show his father’s legacy not just as one of artistic genius but also one of grit and an intense creative process.

One key aspect of JRR Tolkien’s creative process that becomes particularly clear is the iterative nature of his writing process. This is something that Duckworth addresses, the importance of trying small variations on the same action to get the best possible outcome and in the works published by Christopher Tolkien in the decades since his father’s death this is clearly demonstrated with the different versions of a story laid out side by side so the reader can experience the development of the tale. In The Fall of Gondolin there are six versions of the text placed side by side. The versions show how JRR Tolkien’s intention for the story changed, the role of various characters shifting and the weighting of different aspects of the tale differ from version to version. The ultimate result is a story that as Christopher Tolkien presents it gives context to characters in the main trilogy and the references that they make. By revealing the complexities and history of the world of Middle Earth Christopher Tolkien removes the illusion of flow that exists when consuming the The Lord of the Rings trilogy and replaces it with an understanding of the long process that went into the creation of his father’s master work.

The publication of books like The Fall of Gondolin inevitably raise questions about what JRR’s intention for those works were which seems to be a question that his son took extremely seriously. In the preface to many of the works that Christopher has published he discusses the many challenges of interpreting his father’s work and throughout all of these texts he marks the places where executive decisions had to be made in the absence of the word of the author. Even the projects surrounding his father’s work that Christopher did not completely control show the dedication to preserving JRR’s original intention. In the introduction notes to the 50th anniversary edition of The Fellowship of the Ring the editor acknowledges the work of Christopher to preserve his father’s texts in their original state and his push to include the changes that Tolkien had made prior to his death but had not yet been made to the published text. Christopher Tolkien’s work on his father’s estate as the literary executor may take place without the final say of the original author but it is clear that Christopher takes great pains to preserve the artistic integrity of everything that he publishes on his father’s behalf.

The publication of The Fall of Gondolin and the other work of Christopher Tolkien remove the illusion of effortless creation that the literary world wants to present to readers, but it exposes a different kind of beauty to the reader. It shows the power of the creative process to move from the chaotic notes that Christopher Tolkien describes to the polished version of Middle Earth a reader experiences in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The tales, histories, and background that Christopher Tolkien presents us with adds a different kind of beauty to the world his father created, one that is focused on difficulty rather than seamless narrative arcs. It shows the artistic journey and the struggle of an author to develop his vision not only of the plot he will present but also the complex history and context of that plot: a journey that was evidently not simple or easy but is perhaps more valuable because of its difficulty.

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