The Literary Afterlife of J.R.R. Tolkien

Updating the legacy of renowned author of books on Middle-earth are books expanding Tolkien’s world.
The Literary Afterlife of J.R.R. Tolkien
The book that started it all: J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." (Erman Gunes/Shutterstock)
11/4/2023
Updated:
11/4/2023
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When Sir Stanley Unwin, founder of the Allen & Unwin publishing firm, requested that J.R.R. Tolkien write a sequel to the hit children’s book “The Hobbit,” the world did not know what it was in for. After waiting almost 20 years, Unwin received a massive tome containing invented languages and explanatory appendices—clearly not what he had asked for.

Unwin only published “The Lord of the Rings” because Tolkien agreed to renounce royalties in favor of a profit-sharing agreement: Tolkien would get nothing until Unwin recovered his costs.

J.R.R. Tolkien, circa 1925. (Public Domain)
J.R.R. Tolkien, circa 1925. (Public Domain)

After 70 years and 150 million copies, Unwin’s reluctant determination has spawned an industry. With six movies, an Amazon series, video games, and countless other merchandise, it shows no signs of abating. Arguably, in terms of his influence on popular culture, Tolkien’s only rivals are George Lucas, Stan Lee, and J.K. Rowling.

Popularity is often fleeting, though. Is there another metric we can use to gauge Tolkien’s greatness? As it turns out, yes. His oeuvre has received more scholarly attention in the past few decades than it ever did in his lifetime. As a result, a tidal wave of new works, both by and about Tolkien are popping up on bookshelves annually.

Posthumous Writings on Middle-earth

Many authors have written works that were only published after their deaths. Virgil, Emily Dickinson, and Franz Kafka are three names that come to mind. In sheer prolific output, though, Tolkien almost certainly occupies the number one place in this field.
The largest body of these writings belongs to the Middle-earth mythology. The first two, and most important, posthumous publications are “The Silmarillion” (1977) and “Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth” (1980). Edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, they tell the backstory of the world in which the “The Hobbit” and “the Lord of the Rings” are set.
Cover of "The Silmarillion" by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Carlos P Photos/Shutterstock)
Cover of "The Silmarillion" by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Carlos P Photos/Shutterstock)

Next, Christopher edited “The History of Middle-earth,” a 12-volume collection that delves even deeper into this world. For a hefty price, it is now available in a three-volume slipcase edition. Reader beware: it comprises a staggering 5,500 pages.

Astonishingly, this does not exhaust Tolkien’s unpublished materials about his legendary world. In the 21st century, more volumes have appeared. In “The Children of Hurin” (2007), “Beren and Luthien” (2017), and “The Fall of Gondolin” (2018), were compilations of tales from the “First Age” of Middle-earth before “The Lord of the Rings,” published separately, and all edited by Christopher. “The Fall of Gondolin” and “Beren and Luthien” are compilations of tales and various writings. The “Children of Hurin” has a main text with others added in to form a narrative. Even more recently, “The Nature of Middle-earth” (2021), edited by Carl Hostetter, and “The Fall of Numenor: and Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth” (2022), edited by Brian Sibley, further expand on the mythos.

Tolkien the Poet

In addition to these and other works on Middle-earth, some of Tolkien’s further posthumous publications include children’s books, academic collections, and books of poetry.
While Tolkien is world-famous for his novels, most people are not aware that he wrote poetry before finding success in prose. Two notable products of this youthful period are “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” (2009) and “The Fall of Arthur” (2013). As Middle-earth contains echoes of Norse myth and Arthurian legends, it may come as no surprise that he took up these subjects early in his literary career.
First two lines of the poem "Namarie" by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Public Domain)
First two lines of the poem "Namarie" by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Public Domain)
“The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” retells stories about the gods and heroes of Norse mythology, shaping them into a clear narrative framework. It is written in the style of Old Norse verse, of the type found in the “Poetic Edda.” Each stanza contains eight lines, with two stressed syllables in each line. To get a flavor of this, here is the opening of Chapter 5:

The forge was smoking in the forest-darkness; there wrought Regin by the red embers. There was Sigurd sent, seed of Volsung, lore deep to learn; long his fostering.

The story that follows, about the hero Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir for his gold, will sound familiar to audiences of “The Hobbit,” where Bilbo Baggins finds himself in a similar situation.

The “Fall of Arthur” is about the titular hero’s final military campaign. Tolkien wrote this one in the style of Old English verse (also known as Anglo-Saxon). Those who have read “Beowulf” may be familiar with its standard features. Like Old Norse, Old English poetry employs alliteration instead of rhyme. But in addition, there is a “caesura,” or pause, in the middle of the line. As a sample, here are the opening lines from “The Fall of Arthur”:

Arthur eastward          in arms purposed His war to wage          on the wild marches, Over seas sailing         to Saxon lands, From the Roman realm           ruin defending.

“The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” and “The Fall of Arthur,” taken together, constitute significant literary achievements in their own right. J.R.R. Tolkien may, in fact, be the greatest modern author of medieval poetry. J.R.R. Tolkien was a scholar of English literature, a philologist, and medievalist interested in language and poetry from the Middle Ages, especially that of Anglo-Saxon England and Northern Europe.  There is, admittedly, not a lot of competition in this field today. But it is unlikely he would have become a pioneer of the high-fantasy genre if he had not first mastered these early undertakings.

Greatest Author of the 20th Century?

When T.A. Shippey wrote his influential study of literary criticism, “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century,” he observed that the hostile “professionals of taste” had hitherto given Tolkien little critical attention and played no role in his establishment as a classic author.
The Modern Library, publisher of reprints of European and American modernist titles, echoed this judgment when, in 1998, it published its rankings of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. The rankings were separated into two lists: one compiled by a board of editors, and one by readers. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” topped the editors’ list, while Tolkien did not even appear. “The Lord of the Rings” did rank highly on the readers’ list, though, weighing in at number four (with the top spot going to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”).
Cover of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun." (William Morrow)
Cover of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun." (William Morrow)

Joyce, the darling of the avant-garde, was also an important innovator and wordsmith like Tolkien. As his writing career progressed, however, Joyce’s work, like so many modernists, became increasingly unreadable. Tolkien moved in the opposite direction, from obscure scholarship to mass-market success.

The professional literary industry that once centered around Joyce has now largely shifted to the formerly snubbed Tolkien. 2023 has been another triumphant year for the popular author. A new book about his life by Holly Ordway, “Tolkien’s Faith: A Spiritual Biography,” explores the central impact of the author’s Christian beliefs on his writings. A “Revised and Expanded” edition of Tolkien’s “Letters,” containing 150 previously unpublished ones, appears this month. A new edition of the alliterative verse-play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth,” further solidifies Tolkien’s status as the preeminent archaic poet of the technocratic age.

If this combination of popular and scholarly enthusiasm constitutes the most objective barometer of greatness, then J.R.R. Tolkien is indeed the “author of the century,” but of our century rather than his own.

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Andrew Benson Brown is a Missouri-based poet, journalist, and writing coach. He is an editor at Bard Owl Publishing and Communications and the author of “Legends of Liberty,” an epic poem about the American Revolution. For more information, visit Apollogist.wordpress.com.