You could say that his literary presence is as resilient as the One Ring’s will to conquer Middle-earth. More than 40 years after his death, J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished manuscripts are still being discovered and dusted off for public consumption. Last year, in an article entitled “An Unexpected Journey: Hobbits in the Heartland,” New York Times reporter Lawrence Downes let everyone in on the secret that all of Tolkien’s archives—from notes to original manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings written in longhand—have been living peacefully in the Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, since 1957.
This year, Tolkien’s son Christopher will publish one of his father’s many unfinished manuscripts he has “squirreled away” in his home: a book-length poem called The Fall of Arthur, about the king’s last days. The poem, which will be published under J.R.R. Tolkien’s name and listed as edited by Christopher Tolkien, is highly anticipated.
But if the excerpt of the poem that accompanies Sarah Sloat’s Speakeasy article is any indication, such anticipation may not be warranted. Which leaves the question: Why exactly are people so excited?
Whether you’re a fan of Middle-earth or not, the educational benefits Tolkien’s books cannot be denied. Their all-ages appeal stems from their complexity: they’re epic fantasy adventures that present good and evil in a unique and thought-provoking way. But Tolkien’s distinct, heavily academic writing style adds another layer of meaning to his work. Some people, especially children, find his tone prohibitive to read, but regardless of how unappealing his writing may be, he demonstrates that it’s possible to approach intellectual pursuit with any attitude you want. Myths and legends don’t always have to be Disney-fied to have widespread appeal; you can write about whatever you want to, in whatever style best suits you, and if you do it well enough, it won’t matter whether you use practically indecipherable slang or are so formal you refuse to use contractions in your writing.
However giant a literary figure Tolkien may be, his work still does not all occupy a single tier of readership ability: The Hobbit, originally written for children, is the most accessible installment of his Middle-earth saga, and, therefore the most appealing; The Lord of the Rings, with its overextended genealogies and many languages, is a history or language nerd’s dream, but plenty more people would rather watch the movies; The Silmarillion, probably the least well-known of his well-known books (and also edited and published by Christopher Tolkien), doesn’t even have a narrative, but is rather a collection of stories offering deeper insight into Middle-earth’s history.
Yet, with the rediscovery of Tolkien’s yards of unpublished, unfinished manuscripts, the academic community and, more enthusiastically, The Lord of the Rings fandom, seem to have forgotten one of the most important rules of considering the full breadth of any author’s work: whenever you come across the extra stuff that was left out of the final published product, there is a reason the extra stuff was left out in the first place.
Of course we shouldn’t limit public access to Tolkien’s work. There are good reasons to publish The Fall of Arthur and any other manuscripts the Tolkien estate sees fit to make available. But within all the enthusiasm for these new manuscripts lies an important lesson about appreciating an author’s work: each piece should be treated on its own terms and never assumed to be equally good. It’s unfair to both reader and writer to hold every new manuscript up to the standards of the gems in Tolkien’s (or anyone’s) rather large repertoire, and to forget that for every genius idea on center stage, there are one hundred extra ideas waiting in the wings, where they should probably remain.
“An Unexpected Journey: Hobbits in the Heartland,” New York Times, accessed February 12, 2013.
“J.R.R. Tolkien Moves From Middle-Earth to Camelot,” Wall Street Journal, accessed February 12, 2013.
“J.R.R. Tolkien Collection,” Marquette University, accessed February 12, 2013.
“How the Hobbit Came to Milkwaukee (Excerpts from the Q&A),” YouTube, accessed February 12, 2013.