An Immensely Long, Complex, Rather Bitter, and Very Terrifying Romance

Since Tolkien has entered a walking montage, we’ve been taking a closer look at the Rivendell chapters in Book Two. We’ve covered the passage where Gandalf explained a bit about who Strider was – one of the descendants of Numenor. When Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, nobody had any idea what a Numenorean was. It wasn’t until the following year, when Return of the King was released, that those who dipped into the Appendices had an inkling.

It wouldn’t be until 1977, over twenty years later, when the Silmarillion was published, that the readers would know more. But this wasn’t how Tolkien wanted it to go.

From even before the publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien wanted to publish his so-called Lost Tales writings. These would later become the basis for the Silmarillion, and would be continued to be revised until his death. The success of The Hobbit gave Tolkien some hope that he would finally have the clout to publish the stories of the Eldar. Mostly, however, it forced him to write a sequel – The Lord of the Rings.

The bulk of the writing for The Lord of the Rings wasn’t complete until Christmas of 1949. It was, in his mind, “a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody); and it is not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion.”

Tolkien’s publisher, Allen & Unwin, had pushed Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings, but he was now thinking of jumping ship. Milton Waldman of Collins publishing house seemed more than interested in The Silmarillion, which Allen & Unwin passed upon. Not only that, Waldman wanted to publish Lord of the Rings along with it – basically Tolkien’s dream.

Stanley Unwin of Allen & Unwin had been close with Tolkien, but the two had fallen out. Tolkien didn’t like him very much (according to his own admission), while Unwin (according to Tolkien’s version of Unwin’s thoughts) saw “no money in it for anyone (so he said); but he is anxious to see the final result all the same.” Tolkien wished “to extract myself, or at least the Silmarillion an all its kin [!!!], from the dilatory coils of A. and U. if I can – in a friendly fashion if possible.”

This was no easy feat. Though he was not legally bound to them, Tolkien seemed to feel a moral binding, which was a bit more tricky to escape. He still maintained a fairly cordial(ish) relationship with Stanley Unwin, writing him from time to time to let him know how the revisions of Lord of the Rings were going. Of course, he rarely failed to mention the Silmarillion.

The calling of his larger arc had “bubbled up, infiltrated, and probably spoiled everything (that even remotely approached ‘Faery’) which I have tried to write since. It was kept out of Farmer Giles with an effort, but stopped the continuation. Its shadow was deep on the later parts of The Hobbit. It has captured The Lord of the Rings, so that that has become simply its continuation and completely, requiring the Silmarillion to be fully intelligible – without a lot of references and explanations that clutter it in one or two places.”

That’s putting it mildly. In so very many places, a working knowledge of The Silmarillion is at least helpful in reading almost any given part of The Lord of the Rings.

Ridiculous and tiresome as you may think me,” continued Tolkien, “I want to publish them both – The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings – in conjunction or in connexion.”

In reply, Unwin asked Tolkien if the two books couldn’t be divided up into volumes and released separately. Tolkien seemed really unsure about this. “The whole Saga of the Three Jewels and the Rings of Power has only one natural division into two parts (each of about 600,000 words).” This would be the two books.

In the same letter, Tolkien wondered if “many beyond my friends” would even read what he had written. He thought that maybe parcelled out and in moderation some would make it through to the end. This couldn’t have given Unwin all that much confidence.

So the Silmarillion wasn’t divisible in the least, and The Lord of the Rings could only be chopped up into “artificial fragments.” But it wasn’t just Tolkien’s stubbornness that made Allen & Unwin drop the Silmarillion. Unwin’s son had made this suggestion while he was studying at Harvard. He liked Tolkien quite a lot and liked Lord of the Rings, but found the Silmarillion not worth publishing.

Unwin himself sat upon the fence until Tolkien threw down an ultimatum in April of 1950: “I want a decision yes, or no: to the proposal I made, and not to any imagined possibilities.” The reply soon came: “As you demand an immediate “yes” or “no” the answer is “no”; but it might well have been yes given adequate time and the sight of the complete typescript.”

And so that was that. Since Allen & Unwin declined to publish both, Tolkien began to look to Collin publishing. Milton Waldman believed that could issue both and hoped to begin laying it all out by Autumn of 1951. But there were delays, and it wasn’t until late in 1951 that Waldman asked Tolkien to submit a friend outline of both books and how they relate to each other.

So what does this have to do with Aragorn and Numenor? Nothing, so far. But soon it would. Tolkien had given his Silmarillion manuscript to a few people, and had shared his Downfall of Numenor story with C.S. Lewis and some others. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how Tolkien related the Numenor story to Lord of the Rings prior to the 1954 publication.

A Few Notes

  • “The Silmarillion and all its kin…” All its kin? Oh if only!
  • As it was published, The Lord of the Rings contained just over 480,000 words. The Silmarillion came in at 130,000 – a far cry from 600,000.
  • If you don’t have a copy of The Letters of JRR Tolkien, you really should pick it up.
Camera: Mamiya C3 || Film: Kodak Ektachrome 64X (EPX) expired mid90s

Camera: Mamiya C3 || Film: Kodak Ektachrome 64X (EPX) expired mid90s

About the Photo
In Lord of the Rings, I don’t get much of a chance to use shots of the ocean. Since I almost talked about Numenor, I thought I’d try one on for size.


  • Day 102
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 505
  • 415 miles to Lothlórien
  • 1,273 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Book II, Chapter 3. Still marching along the western foothills of the Misty Mountains. Third night out from Rivendell. (map)

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5 thoughts on “An Immensely Long, Complex, Rather Bitter, and Very Terrifying Romance

  1. Interesting that he sees it as terrifying. When I first read it as a kid it was definitely intense… Tho it seems tame enough now. I remember (since I naturally read The Hobbit first as a smaller kid) being especially bothered by the fate of poor Balin, and Moria in general. He definitely loved giving crap to the dwarves… Middle Earth ACLU must be flooded with dwarven grievances.

    • Not coming upon Tolkien until I was older, I think I can understand that terror he’s talking about better than I might have if I had read it when I was in middle school. Impossible to say, of course, but you know, maybe.

      Lots of crap to the Dwarves, but he *did* save them from the big ol’ hammer!

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