Reviewed by Holly Ordway
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:11 (#352) in November 2011.]
In Arda Reconstructed, newly available in paperback, Douglas Kane takes on a difficult but worthwhile task: documenting the changes made to Tolkien’s vast body of unpublished work by his son and editor, Christopher Tolkien, as he prepared The Silmarillion for posthumous publication. Arda Reconstructed is a useful and (for the right reader) fascinating book, though with a limited audience.
Although the book’s subtitle, “The Creation of the Published Silmarillion,” suggests it might cover the literary history of The Silmarillion more broadly, in fact the book is tightly focused on the editorial changes. Kane notes that there are two different mistaken assumptions about The Silmarillion. One is “the impression that it was essentially written by the editor from the author’s notes”, and the other is “the impression that they are basically reading what Tolkien himself wrote, with only minor editorial interference” (24). Kane sets out to demonstrate that the reality is somewhere between the two — and is perhaps all the more mysterious for it.
The work of Arda Reconstructed can best be summed up as painstaking: each chapter of The Silmarillion is evaluated, usually paragraph by paragraph, with source material cross-referenced to the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth. Kane is specific about the changes, indicating where multiple sources have been combined; where one source was preferred over others; and where material has been moved, deleted, rephrased, or expanded with editorial additions. Detailed charts are provided for each chapter, listing primary and secondary sources for each paragraph, cross-referenced by page number to The Silmarillion and to the other texts.
Kane’s approach for coding the changes looks cumbersome but turns out to be highly effective. I was able to cross-reference easily between Arda Re-constructed, The Silmarillion, and Morgoth’s Ring (and in the process confirm the accuracy of a sample of Kane’s comparisons). As tedious as the numbering and repetition may seem to the casual reader, they are invaluable to anyone who wishes to use Arda Reconstructed as a guide for further work.
Kane provides a running commentary on the effects of the edits, summing up in a final chapter the patterns which have emerged: the “reduction of the importance of female characters in the story,” (252), “the elimination of much of the philosophical speculation” (252); the “condensing” of portions of the tales (253); the “virtual re-creation of the story of the ruin of Doriath”; and “removing the contexts in which these stories were placed” (253). Because Kane’s closing assessment of the changes is uniformly negative, it is worth noting that he does praise certain specific editorial decisions, even when that decision meant abandoning a more recent revision in favor of an older version of the story, as with the setup for Fingon’s death in “Of the Fifth Battle” (190).
Arda Reconstructed abounds with examples of changes that seem to shift the Silmarillion away from JRRT’s original vision. For instance, in the chapter “Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor,” Kane notes the removal of twelve paragraphs dealing with Finwë’s desire to remarry after the death of Míriel. Not only does this deleted section develop the characters, but it “also introduces the critical concept of Melkor’s ‘marring’ of Arda and how death first entered into the world as a result of that marring … and provides a good example of the interplay between fate and free will” (80–2). The narrative is weakened as well, since the edited text now shifts abruptly from Finwë to Fëanor, and from Finwë’s grief to (now only three paragraphs later) Finwë’s remarriage.
In addition to noting numerous smaller cuts, Kane documents the total omission of the Athrabeth, which JRRT had specifically labeled for inclusion as an appendix to The Silmarillion (250). The Athrabeth, a dialogue on death, immortality, and hope that includes references to the Incarnation, is a fascinating piece that shows JRRT’s ability to explore Christian theology through fantasy. It is a shame that it was not included in the published Silmarillion, but since it can now be read in full in Morgoth’s Ring, Kane has done readers a service by calling attention to its existence.
Kane’s careful comparative analysis suggests a possible reason for a problem that I experience with The Silmarillion: that although it is beautiful, it is not as engaging as The Lord of the Rings. Kane documents extensive manipulation at the level of word choice and phrasing, including frequent modernization of JRRT’s archaic vocabulary and sentence structure (261)—a type of change I find particularly baffling—and the removal of descriptive detail. For instance, Kane shows the significant loss of detail in a passage in “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”:
In the first sentence, ‘Fëanor strode into the chamber’ is reduced from ‘suddenly Fëanor appeared, and he strode into the chamber tall and threatening,’ and ‘A fire of anger was in his eyes’ is removed before ‘and he was fully armed.’ The last sentence — ‘Then turning upon Fingolfin he drew his sword, crying “Get thee gone, and take thy due place!”’ — is reduced from “‘He would not wait for the council, where all words would be heard by all, and answered. He would speak against me in secret. This I will not brook!” he cried, turning upon Fingolfin. “Get thee gone, and take thy due place!” Then as a flash of flame he drew his sword. “Get thee gone and dare my wrath no longer!’ (90)
Could the cumulative effect of these edits have been sufficient to change JRRT’s prose style for the worse? Kane’s answer seems to be yes.
The only real criticism I have of Kane’s useful book is that it has a slightly amateurish feel. Although Kane had to address the problem of referring to two Tolkiens, his solution (to call Christopher Tolkien by his first name throughout) feels inappropriately casual. A few typesetting errors also appear in the text. I also felt that the illustrations, though technically competent, had a “fan-fiction art” style that detracted from the seriousness of the book. These are small flaws but unfortunate ones, given that fantasy literature is not always taken seriously in the academic community.
Overall, Kane makes a convincing case that the published Silmarillion is best described as a posthumous collaboration between JRRT and his editors. How then should we evaluate The Silmarillion, given this new understanding of the process of its creation?
Immediately after reading Arda Reconstructed, I was ready to declare that the published Silmarillion was too compromised to be a genuine example of JRRT’s work, and that we should instead read and study the original texts (The History of Middle-earth). A period of cooling-off, however, led me to wonder whether the relentless focus in Arda Reconstructed on editorial changes might have influenced my judgment. I do hope for a new edition of The Silmarillion, revised with less intrusive editing, but I also think that the question of the published Silmarillion’s literary merit (as compared to the original versions) remains open; we need a study that assesses the work as a whole, in context. Arda Reconstructed is not that work, but it is a necessary precursor to it.
In the meantime, thanks to Christopher Tolkien’s ongoing editorial work, more and more of JRRT’s original material is available to the public; thanks to Douglas Kane’s labor of love in Arda Reconstructed, we have a useful guide to help us critically re-examine both the published Silmarillion and the sources behind it.