Tolkien's legendarium

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Tolkien's legendarium is the body of J. R. R. Tolkien's mythopoeic writing that forms the background to his The Lord of the Rings, a high fantasy novel which is widely considered to be his magnum opus.

Tolkien began to develop his legendarium in poems, paintings and nomenclature by 1914, and composed the earliest drafts of its stories by 1916 (published in 1983's The Book of Lost Tales). He continued to work and re-work its components throughout his adult life, a period of more than 50 years.

The "canonical" or mature form of Tolkien's narrative is often referred to as "Middle-earth" after his term for the inhabited part of the world in which most of his published stories were set. The mythological and cosmological background of Tolkien's published works was sketched in the posthumously published The Silmarillion (1977), and in Tolkien studies, a field that has been developed since the 1980s.


Origin of the term legendarium[edit]

A legendarium is a literary collection of legends. This medieval Latin noun originally referred mainly to texts detailing legends of the lives of saints. A surviving example is the Anjou Legendarium, dating from the 14th century.[1] Quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary for the synonymous noun legendary date from 1513. The Middle English South English Legendary is an example of this form of the noun.[2]

Tolkien's use of the term legendarium[edit]

Tolkien used the term legendarium with reference to his works in four letters between 1951 and 1955, a period in which he was attempting to have his unfinished The Silmarillion published alongside the more complete The Lord of the Rings:

  • On The Silmarillion: "This legendarium ends with a vision of the end of the world, its breaking and remaking, and the recovery of the Silmarilli and the 'light before the Sun' ..." (Letter to Milton Waldman, written c.1951)[3]
  • On both texts "... my legendarium, especially the 'Downfall of Númenor' which lies immediately behind The Lord of the Rings, is based on my view: that Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become 'immortal' in the flesh." (Letter written in 1954)[4]
  • On The Silmarillion: "Actually in the imagination of this story we are now living on a physically round Earth. But the whole 'legendarium' contains a transition from a flat world ... to a globe ..." (Letter written in 1954)[5]
  • Encompassing both texts: "But the beginning of the legendarium, of which the Trilogy is part (the conclusion), was an attempt to reorganise some of the Kalevala ..." (Letter written in 1955)[6]

Use of the phrase Tolkien's legendarium[edit]

"Tolkien's legendarium" is defined in the analytical work The History of The Hobbit by John D. Rateliff, as the body of Tolkien's work consisting of:

  • The Book of Lost Tales
  • The Sketch of the Mythology and contemporary alliterative verses
  • The 1930 Quenta Noldorinwa and first Annals
  • The 1937 Quenta Silmarillion and later Annals
  • The later Quenta
  • The final Annals

All of which comprise the different "phases" of Tolkien's Elven legendary writings, posthumously edited and published in The Silmarillion and in their original forms in the series The History of Middle-earth.[7]

While other Tolkien scholars have not seen fit to define their use of the term, it is used in the following contexts:

  • Christopher Tolkien's introduction to The History of Middle-earth series, where he talks about the "primary 'legendarium'" in referring to core episodes and themes of The Silmarillion which were not abandoned in J. R. R. Tolkien's constant redrafting of the work.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium, a collection of critical essays on The History of Middle-earth edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter.
  • The following definition of The History of Middle-earth series in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: "The History of Middle-earth is a longitudinal study of the development and elaboration of Tolkien's legendarium through his transcribed manuscripts, with textual commentary by the editor, Christopher Tolkien."[8]
  • Verlyn Flieger states "... the greatest is the creation of the Silmarils, the Gems of light that give their names to the whole legendarium", equating the legendarium concept with the Silmarillion (which itself is used to denote sometimes the work published under that name and sometimes the larger body of un-edited drafts used to create that work).[9]
  • Dickerson and Evans use the phrase "legendarium" to encompass the entirety of Tolkien's Middle-earth writings "for convenience".[10]

History of development[edit]

Unlike "fictional universes" constructed for the purpose of writing and publishing popular fiction, Tolkien's legendarium for a long period was a private project, concerned with questions of philology, cosmology, theology and mythology. It has been considered a "pure mythopoeia".

Tolkien first began working on the stories that would become The Silmarillion in 1914,[11] intending them to become an English mythology that would explain the origins of English history and culture,[12] and to provide the necessary "historical" background for his invented Elvish languages. Much of this early work was written while Tolkien, then a British officer returned from France during World War I, was in hospital and on sick leave.[13] He completed the first story, "The Fall of Gondolin", in late 1916.[14]

He called his collection of nascent stories The Book of Lost Tales.[15] This became the name for the first two volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which include these early texts.[16] Tolkien never completed The Book of Lost Tales; he left it to compose the poems "The Lay of Leithian" and "The Lay of the Children of Húrin".[15]

The first complete version of The Silmarillion was the "Sketch of the Mythology" written in 1926[17] (later published in Volume IV of The History of Middle-earth). The "Sketch" was a 28-page synopsis written to explain the background of the story of Túrin to R. W. Reynolds, a friend to whom Tolkien had sent several of the stories.[17] From the "Sketch" Tolkien developed a fuller narrative version of The Silmarillion called Quenta Noldorinwa[18] (also included in Volume IV). The Quenta Noldorinwa was the last version of The Silmarillion that Tolkien completed.[18]

When Tolkien did publish The Hobbit in 1937 (which was itself not originally intended for publication but as a story told privately to his children),[19] the narrative of the published text was loosely influenced by the context of the legendarium, but not designed to be part of it.

In 1937, encouraged by the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien submitted to his publisher George Allen & Unwin an incomplete but more fully developed version of The Silmarillion called Quenta Silmarillion,[15] but they rejected the work as being obscure and "too Celtic".[20] The publisher instead asked Tolkien to write a sequel to The Hobbit.[20] Tolkien began to revise The Silmarillion, but soon turned to the sequel, which became The Lord of the Rings.[21]

Writing The Lord of the Rings during the 1940s, Tolkien was attempting to address the dilemma of creating a narrative consistent with a "sequel" of the published The Hobbit and a desire to present a more comprehensive view of its background. He renewed work on The Silmarillion after completing The Lord of the Rings,[22] and he greatly desired to publish the two works together.[23] When it became clear that would not be possible, Tolkien turned his full attention to preparing The Lord of the Rings for publication.[24]

With the success of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien in the late 1950s returned to The Silmarillion, planning to revise the material of his legendarium into a form "fit for publication", a task which kept him occupied until his death in 1973. Much of his later writing from this period was concerned more with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the work than with the narratives themselves. By this time, he had doubts about fundamental aspects of the work that went back to the earliest versions of the stories, and it seems that he felt the need to resolve these problems before he could produce the "final" version of The Silmarillion. During this time he wrote extensively on such topics as the nature of evil in Arda, the origin of Orcs, the customs of the Elves, the nature and means of Elvish rebirth, the "flat" world, and the story of the Sun and Moon. In any event, with one or two exceptions, he made little change to the narratives during the remaining years of his life.[22]

Ælfwine framing device[edit]

The stories in The Book of Lost Tales employ the narrative device of a mariner named Eriol (in later versions, Ælfwine) who finds the island of Tol Eressëa, where the Elves live, and the Elves tell him their history.[16] Tolkien envisaged Ælfwine as an Anglo-Saxon who visited and befriended the Elves, and acted as the source of later mythology. Thus, he is given as the author of the various translations in Old English that appear in The History of Middle-earth series. The unfinished The Lost Road was intended as a tale of "time travel" where descendants of Ælfwine experience memories or visions of their ancestors, connecting the present time with the mythological, back to the fall of Númenor.

In the continuity of The Book of Lost Tales, the character's name was Ottor Wǽfre (called Eriol by the Elves). He set out from what is today called Heligoland on a voyage with a small crew but was the lone survivor after his ship crashed upon the rocks near an island. The island was inhabited by an old man who gave him directions to Eressëa. After he found the island the elves hosted him in the Cottage of Lost Play and narrated their tales to him. He afterwards learned from the Elves that the old man he met was actually "Ylmir". He was taught most of the tales by the old Elf named Rúmil who is the lore master living on Eressëa. Eriol became more and more unhappy as a man and yearned constantly to be an Elf. He eventually finds out that he can become an elf with a drink of Limpë which he is denied by the leader of Kortirion (Meril-i-Turinqi, great-granddaughter of Ingwë) on multiple occasions.[25] In these early versions Tol Eressea is seen as island of Britain near a smaller island of Ivenry (Ireland). He earned the name Ælfwine meaning "elf-friend" from the elves he stayed with.

There is no such framework in the published version of The Silmarillion (though in some cases Christopher Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Kay edited out references to external narrator "voices" such as in the Akallabêth, which was written in mid-late 1960s).[26] However, the later writings of Tolkien indicate that he didn't fully abandon the idea of a framework akin to the Ælfwine-tradition, far into the latter years of his life. There is some evidence that, even after the Red Book concept was introduced, Ælfwine continued to have some role in the transition of The Silmarillion and other writings from Bilbo's translations into Modern English. For example, the Narn i Hîn Húrin, which Christopher Tolkien dates to the period after the publication of The Lord of the Rings,[27] has this introductory note: "Here begins that tale which Ǽlfwine made from the Húrinien."[28] J. R. R. Tolkien never fully dropped the idea of multiple 'voices' (such as Rumil, Pengolodh, Dírhavel) collecting the stories of both Mannish and Elvin sources over the millennia of the world's history. According to Christopher Tolkien, the Akallabêth, which was written in the voice of Pengolodh, begins:

Of Men, Ælfwine, it is said by the Eldar that they came into the world in the time of the Shadow of Morgoth ...

He admits in the History of Middle-earth series that this removal made the whole source lose its anchorage in Eldarin lore, and led him to make incorrect changes to the end of the paragraph. Christopher also points out the last paragraph of the Akallabeth as published in The Silmarillion, still contains indirect references to Ælfwine and other 'future mariners', which he never chose to alter or remove.

This later Ælfwine was from England, and traveled west to reach the Straight Road where he either visited the Lonely Island (Tol Eressëa) or only saw its Golden Book with the stories about the Elder Days, the time before the rule of Man, at a distance, or dreamed about the Outer Lands (Middle-earth). He was born in either the 10th or 11th century and had some connections to English royalty in some versions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Anjou Legendarium".
  2. ^ As legendary in contemporary English is mostly used as an adjective, the Latin form reduces ambiguity, but legendary as a noun remains in use in specialist (medievalist) vocabulary. The Ring of Words pp. 153–154
  3. ^ Letters, #131
  4. ^ Letters, #153
  5. ^ Letters, #154
  6. ^ Letters, #163
  7. ^ Rateliff, John D. The History of the Hobbit, p. 607
  8. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, entry "The History of Middle-earth".
  9. ^ Flieger, Verlyn Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World p. 107
  10. ^ Dickerson, Matthew T. and Evans, Jonathan Duane: Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien p. 277
  11. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #115)
  12. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #131, 180)
  13. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #165, 180, 282)
  14. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #163, 165)
  15. ^ a b c Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales, 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Foreword, ISBN 0-395-35439-0
  16. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales, 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Chapter I, "The Cottage of Lost Play", ISBN 0-395-35439-0
  17. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1985), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lays of Beleriand, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Chapter I, "The Lay of the Children of Húrin", ISBN 0-395-39429-5
  18. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1986), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Shaping of Middle-earth, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Preface, ISBN 0-395-42501-8
  19. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R.; Carpenter, Humphrey (1981). "Letter #163". Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien : a selection. London: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-04-826005-3. OCLC 8628512.
  20. ^ a b (Carpenter 1981, #19)
  21. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Part II, Chapter VI, "Quenta Silmarillion", ISBN 0-395-45519-7
  22. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Foreword, ISBN 0-395-68092-1
  23. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #124)
  24. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #133)
  25. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1992). The Book of Lost Tales. Ballantine Books. pp. 103. ISBN 978-0-345-37521-6.
  26. ^ History of Middle-earth, Peoples of Middle-earth, pg
  27. ^ The War of the Jewels p. 314
  28. ^ The War of the Jewels p. 311

Works cited[edit]