An alternate history: Tolkien lives to be 100.
One of my interests is Alternate History: taking historical “what ifs” and running with them. I actually have a (still unfinished) 20,000 word exploration of a New Zealand where Harry Holland, rather than Michael Joseph Savage, wins the 1935 general election. The key thing about these sorts of stories is that, by definition, they are highly speculative: they may be rooted in historical factoids, but they cannot be seen as any sort of hard science. Which suits me: as I have said elsewhere, I have a fondness for speculative fiction.
I recently decided to try my hand at a shorter alternate history, this time on a less political and more literary bent. Namely, what would have happened if J.R.R. Tolkien had lived to be 100? I have already written something about a world where his life was cut short – what about a world where he gets another couple of decades? What follows is an “article” based on that premise: again, purely speculative, so apply liberal quantities of salt as needed.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1992)
Academic, author, and awkward celebrity J.R.R. Tolkien died 25 years ago today. Much has been written about his influential masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), and just as much has been written about the following decades, when “Tolkienesque” became a byword for creative insanity. There is little in literature to compare to the tangle of The Silmarillion, a work that consumed the last 75 years of his long life; the abbreviated “Three Tales” version (1982) is but the tip of a vast and contradictory iceberg. Meanwhile, his famous legal dispute with publisher Del Ray from March to October 1978 attracted much media publicity, and arguably killed a sub-genre in its cradle.
Our article today looks at Tolkien’s final two decades, from the health scare of August 1973, to his peaceful death in May 1992.
An Old Man in a Hurry (1973-1978)
Tolkien’s life was one marked by turning points, none more so than his narrow brush with death in August 1973, when he underwent treatment for a perforated stomach ulcer. The author benefited from a prompt diagnosis; a week later, and the resulting infection may have killed him.
Bedridden for weeks after the operation, recovery was slow. Tolkien took the opportunity to jot down some renewed plans for his Silmarillion mythos, together with further ideas for Middle-earth essays (Comments on Noldorin Heraldry was composed entirely during this period). His daughter Priscilla, who visited him in hospital, noted that Tolkien seemed to possess a new energy, as though he felt he could not leave his life’s work unfinished. It is interesting to consider that the next five years saw Tolkien pursue The Silmarillion with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation, yet all this work only took him further from his goal: rather than one unfinished version of his mythos, he ended up with two.
His mid-1970s work gave effect to some of his more radical ideas of the 1960s: gone was the mythical Tale of the Sun and Moon, and the notion that Arda was in origin flat. Rather, the Sun and Moon were created at the same time as the Earth, and the world was round to begin with. Orcs were no longer derived from Elves, but from Men, and Elvish paranoia led to attempted genocide when the two races met. Galadriel, already being ‘whitewashed’ into a Virgin Mary figure as of late 1972, was further rewritten to deal with this: she plays a key role in persuading the Eldar that not all Men are evil.
The opinions of Tolkien fans on these changes remain mixed. Some prefer the older, more mythic versions, and argue that since the updated material was never published, it is non-canonical (Three Tales can be read either way). Others argue that since we are no longer dealing with outlines, but rather completed stories, we must accept Tolkien’s final verdict on the matter. This latter group also point to his explicit commentary in the posthumous Letters and Essays (1995). Only the BBC’s 2005 attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings to television has sparked more fandom controversy.
In addition to building off the 1960s material, this period also saw Tolkien revisit pieces he had not touched in over half a century. The Voyage of Eärendil, included in Three Tales, was turned from mere outline into novella during the summer of 1975 – though the hero’s encounter with Ungoliant has attracted criticism that it is too similar to Sam Gamgee’s defeat of Shelob. Voyage is also filled with more religious imagery than other Middle-earth stories, to the point where one commentator has called it Tolkien’s Grail Quest. Then there was the attempted 1976 rewrite of The Fall of Gondolin, which cuts off at the beginning of the battle – thereby forcing its eventual exclusion from Three Tales. When asked about this in a 2007 BBC interview, Christopher Tolkien explained that the problem was the Balrogs: his father struggled to portray a creature on the scale of Durin’s Bane that would fit with the necessities of the Tale. Even the author living to be a hundred could not help.
This last great burst of activity petered out in March 1978, as the 86 year old Tolkien suddenly found himself sidetracked by a vicious legal battle…
The Second Battle for Middle-earth (1978-1981)
Tolkien’s attitude towards his world became far more protective over the course of his life. Long gone was his youthful dream of a mythology for England – one where contributions from other hands and minds were to be welcomed with open arms. Rather, after the Ace Books pirating controversy of 1965 (a controversy that, ironically, had caused his sales to skyrocket in the United States), he began to develop a suspicion of others who might wish to use his work for their own gain. “Lothos and Lobelias everywhere,” he lamented in a November 1976 letter to his son Christopher. “And I fear it is only getting worse.” By now, he had had multiple dealings with “fans” who wished to write sequels to The Lord of the Rings, which only hardened his stance as he grew older.
This was to come to a head with the publication of The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks. A young American lawyer, Brooks had written this book between 1967 and 1974, with heavy “influence” from The Lord of the Rings. Ballantine Books, under editor Lester Del Rey, decided that there might be a market for Tolkienian-flavoured Epic Fantasy, and published the book in 1977. Unfortunately, neither Brooks nor Del Rey had sought Tolkien’s opinion on the subject. If they had, much ugly controversy may have been averted.
Tolkien’s reaction was not immediate. Since the death of his wife Edith in 1971, and more particularly since his own health scare in 1973, Tolkien had become increasingly isolated in his day-to-day life, eventually retreating into the comforts of gardening, Mass, and writing. So lost was he in his expanded rewrite of the Second Age story, Aldarion and Erendis, that despite notifications from American fans, he did not get around to reading Brooks’ book until March the following year. When he did so…
“I read Mr Brooks’ book in the space of three days,” Tolkien wrote to Rayner Unwin, “taking notes in pencil as I went. I was in a cold fury that has barely dissipated. Never have I have encountered such cold-blooded theft. It is not enough to call the work derivative, for that would be to give it credit it does not deserve…”
At Tolkien’s urging, Unwin (Chairman of Tolkien’s publisher, Allen & Unwin) wrote a sternly worded letter to Del Rey, asking that The Sword of Shannara be removed from sale. Del Rey, who had found Brooks’ book an excellent earner, declined, attaching a legal opinion that Sword did not constitute plagiarism. A real-world Battle for Middle-earth had begun.
“American copyright law was devised by Mordor, I fear,” Tolkien wrote to Unwin in May 1978. “First Ace in 1965, now this. The war has been renewed, and at 86 years old, I intend to ride out like Théoden. Thus shall I sleep better.”
Tolkien’s eventual solution resembled his response to Ace a dozen years earlier – he wrote to his large American fanbase, urging them to boycott Del Rey. Unlike the Ace Books controversy, however, the fans were now much more divided. Some sided with Brooks and Del Rey, feeling that Tolkien had overstepped the mark, and that while Sword may have been a “rip-off” at least it was fun. In any case, the media controversy had the effect of increasing Brooks’ sales, much to Tolkien’s own frustration. Meanwhile, he had dropped his own writing, spending hours working with Allen & Unwin’s lawyers to lodge a court injunction, thereby preventing the publication of Sword in the United Kingdom. A temporary injunction was granted in June 1978, but only led to an appeal. Tolkien, discovering that the cost of the action was starting to eat into his finances, began to consider settling out of court. “I fear I have bitten off more than I can chew,” he wrote to Christopher. “But according to Rayner, something is in the works.”
An out of court settlement was reached in October. In return for a large, undisclosed, sum, Tolkien agreed to stop opposing Del Rey’s publication of The Sword of Shannara. Tolkien had come out ahead, but barely, and many who had followed the dispute had begun to lose good-will. A Daily Mirror cartoon in the aftermath of the announcement went so far as to portray Tolkien as a dragon sitting atop his hoard. The man himself felt nothing but gloom:
“I am the victim of all of this,” he wrote to Christopher, “yet I have received at least one letter quoting Thorin Oakenshield: ‘If more of us valued food and cheer and song over hoarded gold, it would be a happier world.'”
The effect of the struggle between Tolkien and Del Rey on the wider genre can only be speculated at. One thing is clear: Lester Del Rey explicitly decided against asking Brooks for any further Shannara books. This publishing experiment had proved to be more trouble than it was worth, and as a result publishers (and by extension, authors) steered clear of anything that could be construed as stepping on Tolkien’s shoes. At least one commentator has speculated that the 1980s Swords in Space boom might have been an Epic Fantasy boom instead – as it was, Tolkien’s works has remained influential, but a certain distance has been encouraged. Author Stephen Donaldson, whose Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had achieved moderate success in 1977, has said in interviews that the Battle for Middle-earth caused him to abandon his plans for a second trilogy, leading to his decision to focus on writing mystery novels instead.
The episode may also have killed off any attempt to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film. Director Ralph Bakshi had begun exploring an animated version around this time, in the form of a three 90 minute movies, but while Tolkien had sold the film rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1968 (thereby ensuring that there were no overt legal obstacles), Bakshi lost his financial backing in mid-1978, just as the storm over The Sword of Shannara was picking up. Bakshi has long blamed bad timing for this, but in light of Tolkien’s own personal hostility to the animated Rankin-Bass Hobbit of 1981, he might have escaped lightly.
Tolkien, now aged 89, emerged from the shadows to publicly label the 1981 adaptation “a bad joke” and “infantile”. He was not alone: reception of The Hobbit has been broadly negative, with much audience hatred being reserved for the handling of Lake Town. “The Master is corrupt,” wrote Tolkien, “but he is no fool. He is certainly no figure for slapstick. Dressing as a woman indeed!”
It would be another 24 years before anyone dared adapt Tolkien’s work again, this time for the small screen. But with the toxic atmosphere slowly dissipating, and with Tolkien’s 90th birthday approaching, the author realised that The Silmarillion was once again calling…
The Return of the King (1979-1982)
The controversy of 1978 had disrupted Tolkien’s work on The Silmarillion, to the point where he really only returned to the project in late 1979. However, when he did return, it was with the sentiment that he needed to produce something, even if it was only abbreviated. After a lengthy discussion with Christopher, and a sorting of papers that took several months, he settled on the three stories he deemed most complete: Beren and Lúthien (“the most important of my tales,” he wrote, “all the more close to me since Edith died”), Túrin Turambar, and The Voyage of Eärendil (this last having been written during his 1975 burst of activity). These were to become the Three Tales of 1982. He also seems to have spent several weeks in September to October 1980 attempting yet another rewrite of The Fall of Gondolin, this time substituting the word “demon” for “Balrog”, before becoming dissatisfied with it – the prospect of rewriting all the other First Age battles appeared too daunting.
So it would be three, not four tales. But how were they to be presented? He toyed with the idea of greatly expanding each story, so as to make each one worthy of its own book – an expansion that would have also involved much insertion of new verse into the narrative. This was still Tolkien’s plan as of January and February 1981, when he a sketched a new and detailed outline of Túrin in Nargothrond, placing much more emphasis on Finduilas and her unrequited love for him. After further deliberation, however, Tolkien seems to have realised that this ambitious expansion was a recipe for not finishing anything at all. For a period in early 1981, he remained stuck: it felt wrong to present these stories as mere novellas, without extensive bridging material, but there was insufficient material for each one to stand on its own. Then in May 1981, just as he was venting to a Daily Telegraph reporter about Rankin-Bass and The Hobbit, he had an idea.
“Eureka,” he wrote to Christopher. “I should have realised this earlier. I will revive an old and long forgotten plan… an Anglo-Saxon mariner comes to Tol Eresseä, and hears these stories straight from the horse’s mouth as it were. I have come full circle!”
For the rest of 1981, Tolkien spent his energies writing (or rewriting) the tale of Aelfwine, the human sailor who somehow finds himself washed up on the Lonely Isle. He encounters the local Elvish population – reassuring them that he does not come for conquest – and stays for three days, on each day hearing a different story. Aelfwine returns to the lands of mortals, joins a monastery, and records his adventures. Thus Tolkien had the framing narrative for Three Tales – the last significant work he produced in his long life.
Having spent October to December 1981 revising the manuscript with assistance from Christopher, Tolkien personally delivered Three Tales to Rayner Unwin a week after his 90th birthday celebrations. He confided that he felt both relieved and despondent. Relieved that the stories he had worked on for so long would at last see the light of day – “I am free of a terrible burden,” he said – but Tolkien nevertheless expressed gloom that so much material remained in shoe-boxes and drawers. His hope of an extended edition of Aelfwine’s adventures among the Elves felt futile. “I shall write what I can,” he told Christopher. “The rest shall fall to you.”
Three Tales was published in July 1982, to warm reception. Those who had expected another story of hobbits were disappointed at the more archaic and remote passages, and some readers found The Voyage of Eärendil too heavy on the religious symbolism, but after nearly three decades, most fans were excited at finally seeing First Age material. “If it has one weakness,” wrote one reviewer, “it is that the reader is still all-too aware of what was left out.”
The Fading of the Elves (1982-1992)
The publication of Three Tales ensured Tolkien received an upsurge in media attention during 1982-1983, though the author himself avoided the spotlight when he could. He declined an offer from Humphrey Carpenter to collaborate on a biographical project. “Make a fuss of the stories if you like,” he told Carpenter in good humour. “But leave me out of it!”
Now aged 90, he was still, however, willing to answer the ever-increasing piles of fan-letters, enquiring about the apparent gaps in his First Age stories. “I am unsure if I will ever know the answers to these mysteries,” he wrote. Genuinely unsure about what to do with the stories that had not made it into Three Tales, he contented himself with tinkering with his 1960s and 1970s essays on Middle-earth, but otherwise, he seems to have considered himself in a state of semi-retirement. The rest of his new post-1982 work involved further work on Elvish linguistics – it has been suggested that he was thinking of producing a specialist volume on Quenya.
A brief health scare in December 1983 saw Tolkien temporarily hospitalised with a heart condition. Put on a diet by his doctor, he even (reluctantly) decided to give up smoking. “The world moves on, it seems,” he wrote, “with little care for the pleasures of an old man.” His sense of gloom was only accentuated by politics – always hostile to what he saw as the iniquities of the Labour Party and socialism, he now regarded the brash new conservatism of Margaret Thatcher with distaste. “Worship of money is just as bad as worship of machinery and state,” he wrote. “I fear Mrs Thatcher is Americanising us.”
His last significant public appearances came in 1985. January saw the funeral of his younger brother, Hilary, an event that distressed Tolkien greatly. “It is a curse to live so long,” he confided afterwards. “I am losing those close to me.” Still, as he later noted, it could have been worse: his second son Michael was successfully cleared of suspected leukaemia about the same time. The Easter holidays saw Tolkien travel to Leeds to attend the 1985 British Science-fiction Convention as the Guest of Honour (“I thought I needed to get out the house more,” he said). This Convention was also notable for being the first and only time Tolkien came into contact with role-playing games, when he accepted an offer to play a session of Martians & Mayhem with some of the attendees.
“I disliked it,” he wrote to Christopher. “Too many silly names and sillier monsters. One is forced to go around slaughtering things and stealing money like some sort of murderous tramp. I hated this business with the dice rolling too: too many 1s ruin everything. When one is a Moon-Elf with a laser cannon, one should not err by shooting a companion in the knee!”
After that, Tolkien returned to the quiet life. In August 1987, he formally gave Christopher permission to go through the remainder of The Silmarillion material in an editorial capacity, with he himself lending his own advice and commentary as needed. “Perhaps I made a mistake with the Round World rewrite,” he confided to Rayner Unwin. “A mythic story need not conform to scientific understanding. Oh well. After 95 years, one makes mistakes.” One of the first bits of material uncovered was the Notion Club Papers of the 1930s, which Tolkien cited wryly during the Great Storm of October 1987: “I was barely out, I see.”
As the 1980s drew to a close, Tolkien began to take pride in his longevity, recalling to a friend how his own maternal grandfather had barely missed out on 100. “He would have made it, but he mowed his lawn on a cold day without his coat.” Now largely retired from writing, except for the occasional tinkering with Quenya vocabulary, Tolkien pottered about in his garden whenever possible. “There are, alas, few pleasures left for me,” he told a neighbour, “so I grip them all the tighter.” He also maintained his hostility towards technology, refusing the offer of a VHS machine from his grandson in 1989.
In the event, Tolkien made it to 100 on 3rd January, 1992, taking particular delight in his telegram from Queen Elizabeth II. “The century and I have grown older and shabbier together,” he told gathered friends and family. His 100th birthday also saw Allen & Unwin launch special illustrated editions of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Three Tales; Tolkien declined to sign any, but he was appreciative of the artwork. “I could have done without them all singing Happy Birthday in Elvish though,” he said afterwards. “It moved me deeply. Too deeply.”
Beloved of many, J.R.R. Tolkien passed away peacefully in his sleep on 25th May, 1992.