I’m writing a long series on The Lord of the Rings for Part Time Monster. If you’d like to catch up on the series, I have an index page for it. I’m doing a close-reading analysis of the text, but rather than read it as a work of fiction and talk about things like narrative structure and characterization, I’m doing a little thought experiment with it. I’m reading it as a work of history.
Every part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth writings have specific authors in the continuity, and Tolkien himself wrote these stories as though he were translating a set of old books into English. This brings up an interesting, and important, question. Just who is the third person narrator of The Lord of the Rings? It’s complicated, and the short answer is: lots of people, many of whom weren’t even alive when the events of the story take place.
The thing you need to understand about it, first and foremost, is that it is written from the perspective of Hobbits. The Wiki description doesn’t quite capture the nuances, but it gets the chain of authorship correct. The big Wiki’s description contains more details. We’d need to really dig into Tolkien’s drafts to be more specific than this, but here is how I understand the narrative history of LOTR.
- Bilbo writes original version of The Hobbit as a memoir.
- Bilbo later writes down a lot of material related to the War of the Ring, much of it while the war is going on.
- After the defeat of Sauron, Bilbo gives Frodo the book. Frodo organizes it and adds a lot of material of his own, but the poems and things that are obviously translated from the Elvish or taken from deep lore are Bilbo’s.
- When Frodo sails into the West, he entrusts the book to Samwise, who makes further alterations and eventually leaves it in the possession of his daughter Elanor. That is the the last we see of the original book, and it is not preserved.
- Copies are made before the original is lost, the first at the behest of King Elessar (Aragorn). It is annotated and corrected (this is where most of the info in the appendices come from). Faramir writes the tale of Aragorn and Arwen that tells their endings. At some point, the descendants of Merry and Pippin have it copied and archived.
- And this is important – from there it survives, in the original languages, to Tolkien’s day. He translates it somehow. So, Middle Earth is not some alternate universe. The story of LOTR is something that happened in our very own world in prehistoric times, which makes it even more surreal than it would be if it were set in another world entirely. Logically speaking, Proto-Indo-European must be descended from Tolkien’s constructed languages. That is a delicious claim for a fiction writer to make, especially when they pull it off.
This is all stuff to keep in mind, as we discuss Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam. The Lord of the Rings was written by Hobbits, filtered by scholars of Gondor, re-copied by Hobbits as a cultural artifact, then finally translated thousands of years later by Tolkien.
(This is a revised version of a section of The Death of Isildur. Posted today because I need to be able to refer to this info without linking to that longer post in the future.)