Book review: “The Nature of Middle-earth” enhances Tolkien’s world


J.R.R. Tolkien hated to waste paper. Having lived through the rationing of two World Wars, the impulse to recycle was part of his nature. So whenever he needed to jot down a note, he would reuse the back of an old calendar or a blank sheet of exam paper. Or he would squeeze his impossible handwriting into a corner of paper already covered in his hasty scrawl.

At the time, these notes could not possibly have been of interest to anyone else. They concerned Tolkien’s musings on his fantasy world; the gestation period of Elves, the agricultural techniques of Dwarves and the beards of Wizards.

But in the years after his death, these scraps have become like holy scrolls as the fandom around Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium — composed chiefly of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) — has grown and grown. A whole publishing industry has been built around posthumous Tolkien works, with scholars poring over his scattered notes and deciphering his “exceedingly difficult scrawl” to take us on more trips to Middle-earth.

At first, this monumental task fell to Tolkien’s son Christopher, who edited The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980) and The History of Middle-earth (1983-96), a 12-volume series that analyzed Tolkien’s notes from his earliest conceptions of Middle-earth through to the final years of his life. Now, a new book titled The Nature of Middle-earth collects the remainder of Tolkien’s writings that haven’t been given a wide release before.

The Nature of Middle-earth is the most important Tolkien publication in a quarter century

This volume is edited by Carl F. Hostetter, who has taken up the mantle following Christopher’s death last year. But Hostetter has been working on this project for much longer than that. In his introduction he states: “I have in a sense been working on this book – though for long I had no awareness or notion that I was doing so – for nearly 25 years.”

As an expert in Tolkien’s invented languages, Hostetter spent those years as the editor of Elvish linguistics journal Vinyar Tengwar. The Nature of Middle-earth collects several Tolkien writings previously edited by Hostetter and published in that journal.

While bringing these pieces to a wider audience is a worthy enterprise, The Nature of Middle-earth also contains a vast amount of material never seen before. Enough, in fact, to make it the most significant publication on Tolkien’s legendarium since the final volume of The History of Middle-earth appeared 25 years ago.

But while this new volume will be an essential addition to the bookshelves of Tolkien fans and scholars alike, it nonetheless feels like a bit of a hodgepodge. One can’t escape the feeling that the materials collected here are the leftovers that couldn’t quite find a home in any of the previous Tolkien collections.

Hostetter seems to acknowledge this with his catch-all title — The Nature of Middle-earth — which covers both the physical aspects of the world and its inhabitants, as well as the metaphysical qualities of its characters and its creator. While Christopher Tolkien’s books generally followed a logical structure based on a specific theme or time period, the material available to Hostetter doesn’t allow him this luxury. His book is divided into three broad sections, and within these the content shifts wildly. One moment we might be scrutinizing Tolkien’s precise calculations on the aging of Númenóreans and the next reading a rejected passage on the consumption of mushrooms in Middle-earth.

Highlights of The Nature of Middle-earth

But perhaps this is a book that needn’t be read in precise order from cover to cover. Rather, it is a book to dip in and out of. And if one takes this approach there is an abundance of fascinating material to enjoy, both for those who want more writing from ‘within the world’ of Middle-earth as well as those who are interested in learning about Tolkien’s creative process.

For readers in the former category, the Ósanwe-kenta will surely be a highlight. This 10-page essay is written from the perspective of an unnamed character who is summarizing a longer piece by Middle-earth loremaster Pengolodh. Narrative framing devices are a recurring feature of Tolkien’s writing and the technique is particularly effective here. Reading the Ósanwe-kenta, one can almost imagine being in the dusty archives of Minas Tirith. And the essay’s content is equally fascinating, revealing several details on telepathy in Middle-earth that sheds new light on scenes from The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

At the other of the spectrum, The Nature of Middle-earth offers a plethora of writings that pull back the curtain on Tolkien’s creative process. What is particularly fascinating about these is how they reveal Tolkien’s thinking on paper. In several of the texts, Tolkien poses himself a question about some inconsistency within his legendarium. Then he begins a new paragraph with a phrase like, “The answer, I think, is this,” before outlining his solution.

One of the most surprising revelations from the book is that Tolkien had an aptitude for mathematics. Getting the details right was important to Tolkien; at one point he goes so far as to calculate Elvish population growth across 29 generations. This table of numbers take up six pages. At another point, one of Hostetter’s editorial notes informs us that Tolkien has worked out a number to 360 decimal places, and this in an era before the widespread use of calculators. Mercifully, Hostetter resists the impulse to provide us with the complete set of digits.

As these examples suggest, the diversity of material in The Nature of Middle-earth means it can offer something to Tolkien fans of all kinds, from those who are simply curious about the appearances of characters in The Lord of the Rings to those who want to see the mathematical calculations on how many Valian years are in a solar year. And while there may not be a unifying theme within the book, there is nonetheless a clear theme around what this book represents: the last of Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings.

In a recent interview, Hostetter suggested as much himself. “I can’t say for sure, but my own sense is that there is very little writing pertaining to Middle-earth that hasn’t been published.” With the book releasing on the 48th anniversary of Tolkien’s death and dedicated to the late Christopher Tolkien, Hostetter and the publishers seem to be emphasizing this idea. Even the book’s twilit cover, which shows the light of the Two Trees of Valinor obscured by the mountains at Calacirya, gives off a sense of finality.

But as always, it is Tolkien himself who provides the best summation of this theme. In one of the most perceptive passages in The Nature of Middle-earth, Tolkien comments on the inconsistency of language describing time. He notes that we sometimes talk about a son following in his father’s footsteps, as if “those born later are behind.” Yet at other times, we talk as if new generations are “ahead of us and will in each generation will go further forwards.”

For nearly half a century, Christopher Tolkien lived this paradox: following in his father’s footsteps even as his father fell further behind him into the past. With Christopher’s death last year, Hostetter is picking up where he left off with a book that shows us more clearly than ever that the more we uncover and learn about Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings, the further we get from any definitive answers. Even as a book like The Nature of Middle-earth enriches our understanding of Tolkien’s world, it also shows us just how unfinished it is, and how we can never fully catch up with the imaginings of a man who every day falls further behind us into the past.

But perhaps this is a fitting ending for Tolkien’s legendarium. One of his ambitions in creating Middle-earth was to build a mythology for England. And mythologies are never finished. They are full of holes and inconsistencies to be debated and speculated upon. And there is always the possibility — no matter how slim — that more could be discovered. So even if they are composed of finite material, these great tales can never really end.

In this way, The Nature of Middle-earth proves, once again, that Tolkien’s tales are truly among the greatest.

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