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A compilation of works of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Christopher Tolkien (1992, Harper Collins)
Book 9 of the History of Middle-Earth

A presentation of the development of the end of the Lord of the Rings, and the later development of the Fall of Numenor through a time travel story.



Read February 2nd to March 11th, 2011 for the second time  

This is probably the most difficult of the History of Middle-Earth books, and if it wasn't for the fascinating story of Frodo and Sam traveling through Mordor to finally destroy the Ring, the rating would be much, much lower.

The first time I read this book, I took time off from it (more than three months) because school work was more important, and the difficult text of the Notion Club Papers was too much of a distraction. During that time, I had no spare time to read, and the middle third of the book was not enjoyable enough to provide a small respite from university studies.

The book can be divided into four sections: the end of the Lord of the Rings, the Notion Club Papers, The Drowning of Anadune, and a philological analysis of the new language of Adunaic.

The first section is the only truly enjoyable part of the book. In here, Sam rescues Frodo from the orcs, though that went through some interesting developments, then they make their way across the dark plains until they destroy the ring (with Gollum's help, of course). Then we get the journey back through Minas Tirith (though the Houses of Healing was very much abbreviated, probably because it didn't differ much from the final published form), the meeting with Saruman on the road back to Rivendell (which was a bit different), and the Scouring of the Shire, which was the most interesting one.

In this series of versions, Saruman is very explicit about his desire to show the Hobbits how trouble could easily be brewed in their own lands, given how smug they are about their victory in the War of the Ring. However, Saruman doesn't appear, really, until the last version. It is simply a bunch of (almost) nameless thugs who have taken over the Shire, and Frodo plays a much more violent part in resolving it.

The Notion Club Papers is divided into two sections. I rather enjoyed Part I, the way the group gathered to discuss various things, especially "storytelling". I could have done without the poetry, but the discussions about the best frame for a science fiction type story were very thought-provoking (a dream sequence for getting to Mars, for example). I had to laugh at the opinions that humans could never survive in space, because when the story was written, that was of course the prevailing opinion, despite the space race. Of course, a story that takes place in the 1980s would become out-of-date quickly, so Tolkien uses few very specific references, except in the discussion about travel into space and to Mars, where he unfortunately mis-steps. Oddly enough, the Notion Club Papers were a story set in a far future, but lost and found again in 2012, only a year away from the moment when I read this a second time. I enjoyed the brief references to Tolkien himself, to C.S. Lewis, and to Oxford, which I visited less than a year ago. The references to Lewis, however, absolutely required the explanations that Christopher Tolkien added, as even then, I was more than casually lost in their discussions.

Part II of the Notion Club Papers is way too complicated for me. It gets into a philological discussion and turns around so many ideas that I could not read (with understanding) more than a few pages at a time. I did not enjoy this turn of events (and even Christopher Tolkien states that the formula for the time travel story was getting too complicated). Essentially, two of the characters have gone in their dreams back to the pre-history of the world, to Numenor, where they witness the last days of the island kingdom. They bring back scraps of language, and obsess about details in the two languages (basically Elven and Numenorian). Fortunately, the text ends at some point, as Tolkien resumed work on The Lord of the Rings.

This isn't the first time Tolkien worked on a time travel story, of course. The Lost Road was equally difficult to get through, though fortunately at that time, he focused more on the story of Numenor than the frame. The Drowning of Anadune was frustrating until the explanation given at the end, after which I was not about to go re-read it. Tolkien, of course, considered all of his stories to be fictional legends. He obsessed about giving them a "weathered" appearance, altering "the true events" by seeing them through other peoples' eyes and lots of time. And that's what he did with the story of the Fall of Numenor. He set it as a re-telling of a re-telling, in which certain things, like the very real distinction between the Valar and the Elves, are blurred. Things fall into place when the reader realizes this.

Unfortunately for this tale, the fall of Numenor is told no less than four times, and though the differences may be significant to the editor, the essence of the story, which is what I am after, didn't change enough in my opinion to warrant the inclusion of all these versions.

Finally, there is the account, by fictional characters in the Notion Club Papers, of the Adunaic languages, in full philological analysis. I didn't understand most of it, and I wasn't inclined to go find additional materials that would enhance my enjoyment of it. Tolkien was certainly enamoured of creating languages, but the full analysis I could have done without. It does shed some light on the evolution of English, for some linguistic ideas I was not aware of explains some things about a few English sounds. But that was certainly not enough to make it enjoyable.

As always in these later books, the whole thing feels bloated, as if the editor wanted to include as much as possible, afraid to leave certain things out. I think it would have been enjoyable if the book was much shortened. Others may disagree, who are more interested in linguistics. But I'm having a lot of trouble with the last couple, at least, and I think the ones coming up are not too much better.



Also read August 28th to December 20th, 1992  

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