Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published "Silmarillion"(review)
One of the more perplexing questions about J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumously published The Silmarillion concerns how, and to what extent, Christopher Tolkien changed or advanced the work of his father during the editing process. Typically, there are two main camps of thought: either Christopher merely assembled Tolkien’s relatively finished notes into a publishable form or he wrote the bulk of material himself from what notes from his father existed. Thanks to the publication of Douglas Charles Kane’s Arda Reconstructed, Tolkien scholars and fans alike now have a basis for deciding the issue. Kane’s basic methodology is simple – he compares the text of The Silmarillion with the source material now available in the multi-volume The History of Middle-Earth (also edited by Christopher Tolkien). Kane argues that, while most sentences and ideas come from somewhere within Tolkien’s notes, Christopher exercised a heavy editorial hand that changed the organization, style, and sometimes even meaning of Tolkien’s mythology. A picture emerges of an editorial process both remarkably faithful and lamentably divergent from Tolkien’s authorial intent.
Many previous works have traced the development and themes of Tolkien’s vast mythology. Most of the best insights come from Christopher via his comments in the works he has edited. Otherwise, the most exhaustive account of the development of the mythology comes from the essay by Charles Noad in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on the “The History of Middle-Earth” edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl Hostetter. Also, The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On, edited by Allan Turner, considers the key question on whether the original The Silmarillion has been superseded in the Tolkien canon by the publication of The History of Middle-Earth. Yet neither work manages to comment much on the actual textual choices made by Christopher during his editing process. This is precisely what Kane seeks to catalogue. To that end, every chapter and paragraph in the published 1977 text is cross-listed with its source material. All major changes are noted. Kane uses his prose to explain the tables and to amplify the significance of the changes he notes.
The introduction of Arda Reconstructed is where Kane outlines the design and methodology of his book. Three large sections analyzing the textual changes in The Silmarillion comprise the rest of the book. The first section handles the major editorial changes in the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta. Tolkien continually vacillated on whether his mythology should exist in a flat or a round world – a flat world tended to strengthen the power of Tolkien’s imagery, but he also felt that his mythology ought to be compatible with a scientific understanding. Christopher (rightly, according to Kane) chooses to make the text conform to a flat world, although this did entail excising many lines from the original sources inconsistent with a flat world.
The second section of Kane’s work, however, on the Quenta Silmarillion, demonstrates most clearly Christopher’s editorial tendencies. Here, wide-scale editorial changes push “the limits of editorial intervention.” Material originally from one chapter is freely juxtaposed with material from another. Occasionally, Christopher inserts text from different stories entirely, or removes text to place in another story. At certain points, Kane claims that Christopher’s changes run counter to what Kane deems to be Tolkien’s original authorial intent. One such change occurs in the third chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion. When the Valar summoned the elves to Valinor, Christopher removes an explicit statement from a later reworking of the original manuscript, to the effect that the elves’ summons is a profound error, albeit one of good intent. This sense remains in the published text – except Kane cites a piece of scholarship, unknown to Christopher in 1977, suggesting that Tolkien had decided the summons derived more from anxiety and fear than “good intent.” Without establishing the validity of the new scholarship – a difference exists, for example, between the last change in an uncompleted sequence and a final change – Kane rather confusingly suggests that such evidence “provide[s] a cautionary example of the limitations of comparing the published text with the texts printed” in The History of Middle-Earth. Such a claim undermines Kane’s criticism that “Christopher’s edits appear to seriously change his father’s intentions,” especially if the basis for that claim is scholarship of which Christopher could not have been aware.
The third section, dealing with the Akallabeth, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, as well as the Appendices, is by far the shortest section of the three. These stories, according to Kane, contained the fewest changes. A short conclusions rounds the section off; here Kane outlines five major tendencies of Christopher’s editing. First, the editing process removed too much of Tolkien’s original philosophical speculation. Second, many sections were condensed or eliminated entirely, and this particularly harms the story of the fall of Gondolin. Third, Christopher had “virtually re-created” the story of the ruin of Doriath. Fourth, aiming at absolute consistency within the published text, Christopher had chosen to remove all references to the oral and/or written means of transmission of the many stories in the final published work. Tolkien himself was by no means clear in his own mind about how he wanted such information conveyed, if at all; nonetheless, many of The Silmarillion’s stories appear as if ex nihilo.
On Kane’s view, however, the fifth and most egregious editorial intervention is the systematic reduction of the role of female characters – a reduction which makes the published The Silmarillion “a lesser work.” Kane lists many examples, of which one will suffice. In the fifth chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion, Kane notes that the published text calls Galadriel “beautiful,” whereas the original source text – later published in Morgoth’s Ring and The War of the Jewels – call her beautiful and valiant. Such a change cannot be explained through space restrictions. It seems minor and unnecessary. It is especially concerning to Kane because one of the more frequent complaints against Tolkien was that he ignored women in his writings, and the edits of Christopher Tolkien “unfortunately only serve to exacerbate those complaints.” Yet Christopher had a clear opportunity to lay them partially to rest. What are the reasons for such an action? Careful as Kane is to frame his criticisms in the most diplomatic manner possible, he never raises the question. Some benign hypotheses might have served a good purpose, however.
Kane is also generally content to leave out theoretical questions, even those vital to his argument. For example, all five of his main criticisms center on the concept of authorial intention. What does authorial intention mean, however, in an unfinished work? However much we might pore over the mythology and believe we see the workings of Tolkien’s mind through the years, the fact remains that there cannot be any intention without finality, and Tolkien was infamous for never achieving finality, as least in his mythology, as his late (attempted) incorporation of a round world demonstrates. For my own part, it seems more reasonable to see The Silmarillion as a collaboration between Christopher and his father, rather than a misguided deviation from an original, authoritative, and non-existent text. In this way, we might avoid the even trickier question of the extent to which authorial intention – even when determinable – constitutes a methodologically sound guideline in a text so thoroughly accepted in the Tolkien canon. We might also note that Kane’s criticisms are permanently flawed in that he had no access to Tolkien’s actual notes. These will remain in Christopher’s possession until such time (if any) they are given to some official collection. Until that moment, we cannot with certainty know what unpublished notes or knowledge Christopher may be working with, even as careful as he is to make his editorial decisions transparent.
Nonetheless, the carefully constructed tables cross-listing the text of the published The Silmarillion with its published source texts will be Kane’s outstanding contribution to the study of Tolkien’s mythology. Arda Reconstructed will be an excellent reference text for scholars and Tolkien devotees alike, just as Kane has claimed. Moreover, while Kane’s specific criticisms of Christopher’s editing cannot be wholly satisfactory, the documentation of the systematic reduction in the role of female characters in the texts might prove a valuable insight for extending Tolkien studies along feminist lines.