Fantastic Metropolis

Rescued from Oblivion

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Forgotten Masterpiece

Jeff Topham

In the corpus of modern Fantasy, few works have been as unjustly neglected as Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings. Originally published in three volumes from 1954 — 55, this wonderful fantasy has languished in obscurity for nearly five decades now, a fate that former playwright Randolph Driblette hopes to remedy with Rescued from Oblivion (San Narciso University Press; 304 pgs., $26), his new study of Tolkien and his masterpiece. Whether this new book will in fact draw new readers to Tolkien and his work, however, is sadly open to question. Its publication last month by the tiny San Narciso University Press was completely overshadowed by the simultaneous publication of Volume VII of Peake’s collected letters, and given the disparate critical receptions accorded to each of these new releases, it seems certain that Peake’s reputation and readership will continue to outshine and outnumber those of the less fortunate Professor Tolkien. If there is a benefit to this obscurity, it is that Tolkien has not suffered the posthumous indignity of having even his most trivial notebook jottings published to feed the insatiable appetite of his fans.

As the novel will likely be unfamiliar to most readers, it seems appropriate to summarize a bit of the plot of The Lord of the Rings, although the originality of Tolkien’s creation involves many races and creatures that will be unfamiliar to even the most ardent of fantasy readers. The Lord of the Rings is set in a fantastical land called Middle-Earth and deals in great part with a race of diminutive creatures known as hobbits. One of these, called Frodo Baggins, has come into possession of a most peculiar ring, which proves to be a talisman of great and evil power. Frodo and several of his hobbit companions eventually find themselves joined to a company of elves (lithesome creatures of a peculiar beauty and magic), dwarves (like hobbits, diminutive creatures, but whereas hobbits are simple creatures of field and stream, dwarves live in great mines beneath the earth), wizards (humans endowed with magical powers), and human knights in a quest to destroy the talisman before it can be recaptured by its evil master.

Some of the most striking insights in Driblette’s study come from his exhaustive research into Tolkien’s letters and journals, most of which still reside in a sadly neglected state in the scattered basements and attics of Tolkien’s surviving relatives. Of particular interest is Driblette’s discovery that Tolkien cut as many as 100 manuscript pages from the published work, apparently at the insistence of his friend and colleague C. S. Lewis. This material is, for the most part, comprised of erotic — indeed, by the standards of the time, nearly pornographic — passages describing liaisons between several of the book’s major characters. Most of these involve the elf queen Arwen and her lover, the exiled king Aragorn. In the novel, Aragorn’s broken sword must be reforged before he can claim his kingdom; needless to say, this business of Aragorn’s sword is prominently deployed as a rather crude double entendre in these excised passages. Driblette also unearths a rather tantalizing snippet from a letter in which Lewis urges Tolkien to expurgate two characters’ predilection for — in Lewis’ words — “the Greek crime.” Lewis’ attitude is typical of the sexual Puritanism of the time, and it is a matter of no small regret that Tolkien acceded to his friend’s counsel and removed from the final version of the novel a relationship that would have constituted a ground-breaking step in fantasy fiction.

No hint of this elusive relationship has survived, even in the excised material, and Driblette offers thoughtful speculation as to which of Tolkien’s characters may have been the object of Lewis’ censure. Driblette rejects the obvious choice of Frodo and Sam and, citing the combination of loneliness and intense emotional bonding that often affects men on the field of battle, speculates that the close friendship between the hobbits Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took may originally have been conceived as something quite different. While cogent, Driblette’s argument is hardly conclusive. Although I can offer no firm textual evidence for my own hypothesis, I believe that in the growing friendship between the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas we can still see echoes of what was initially something far more tender.

Driblette also offers what is one of the most comprehensive and sympathetic biographies of Tolkien yet published, and his account of Tolkien’s disappointments in the years following the publication of The Lord of the Rings is quite poignant. Initially lost in the clamor surrounding the ongoing publication of Mervyn Peake’s wildly successful Gormenghast novels, The Lord of the Rings was received by the public in a decidedly lukewarm fashion. Tolkien’s muse, however, would not let him rest, and in 1956 he turned in the manuscript for another novel, The Tale of the Silmarils (which, sadly, has not survived), also set in Middle-Earth. Among Tolkien’s surviving papers is a letter from Stanley Unwin, then Chairman of the publishers George Allen and Unwin. In the letter, Unwin courteously but firmly informs Tolkien of his feeling that The Tale of the Silmarils is “simply not viable commercially.” Unwin, however, does urge Tolkien to have a go at another novel, “perhaps something more Gormenghastian in tone” (Driblette 215). However much we may fault Unwin in hindsight for his lack of vision, it seems clear that he was essentially right in his appraisal. With readers everywhere infatuated with the darkness and baroque complexity of Peake’s trilogy, Tolkien’s work stood little chance of winning widespread public acceptance.

Tolkien did submit one more novel to Unwin in 1959, and although this manuscript has also been lost, surviving letters reveal that Tolkien had taken Unwin’s advice to heart and had written an intricate, dark novel simmering with a barely-suppressed violence and sexuality. In the crowning misfortune of his ill-starred career, Tolkien’s submission of the manuscript coincided with a brief upsurge in the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and in what must have been a crushing irony for Tolkien, Unwin’s readers returned the manuscript along with the suggestion that he undertake something closer in spirit to his first novel. Specific suggestions include “The Further Adventures of Strider the Ranger;” “Gandalf: Wizard for Hire;” and “The Revenge of Sauron: The Return of the Dark Lord” (Driblette 278). It was the last straw for Tolkien, who immediately renounced writing and spent his remaining years pouring his creative energies into perfecting his imaginary language. In a further irony, Tolkien’s invented language enjoyed the very popularity that had eluded his novels, and “French,” as Tolkien called it, is now spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Rescued from Oblivion is small but important effort to stem the tide of neglect and disinterest that has unjustly plagued a writer of singular talent and ability, but Driblette himself points out that it seems unlikely that Tolkien’s work will ever capture the imagination of the reading public. In his afterword, Driblette makes the ironic observation that his study constitutes the single critical examination of Tolkien’s work, while in the last six months millions of words of analysis and criticism have been devoted to James Cameron’s recent film The Swords of Lankhmar and its stars, Russell Crowe and Willem Dafoe. Such, it appears, are the vagaries of fate.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeff Topham.