Tolkien's legendarium

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Tolkien's legendarium is the body of J. R. R. Tolkien's mythopoeic writing that forms the background to his The Lord of the Rings, a high fantasy novel which is widely considered to be his magnum opus. Tolkien worked and re-worked the components of his legendarium throughout his adult life, a period of more than 50 years; the earliest drafts, published in The Book of Lost Tales (1983), date to 1916, with poems, paintings and nomenclature related to it going back to 1914.

Colloquially, "Middle-earth" is often used as a shorthand for a "canonical" or mature form of Tolkien's narrative, Middle-earth being Tolkien's term for the inhabited part of the world in which most of his published stories were set. The mythological and cosmological background of Tolkien's published works was sketched in the posthumously-published The Silmarillion (1977), and in the Tolkien studies, a field that has been developed since the 1980s.


Origin of the term legendarium[edit]

A legendarium is a literary collection of legends. This medieval Latin noun originally referred mainly to texts detailing legends of the lives of saints. A surviving example is the Anjou Legendarium, dating from the 14th century.[1] Quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary for the synonymous noun legendary date from 1513. The Middle English South English Legendary is an example of this form of the noun.[2]

Tolkien's use of the term legendarium[edit]

Tolkien used the term legendarium with reference to his works in a total of four letters he wrote between 1951 and 1955, a period in which he was attempting to have his unfinished Silmarillion published alongside the more complete The Lord of the Rings:

  • On The Silmarillion: "This legendarium ends with a vision of the end of the world, its breaking and remaking, and the recovery of the Silmarilli and the 'light before the Sun' ...." (Letter to Milton Waldman, written c.1951)[3]
  • On both texts "... my legendarium, especially the 'Downfall of Númenor' which lies immediately behind The Lord of the Rings, is based on my view: that Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become 'immortal' in the flesh." (Letter written in 1954)[4]
  • On The Silmarillion: "Actually in the imagination of this story we are now living on a physically round Earth. But the whole 'legendarium' contains a transition from a flat world ... to a globe ...." (Letter written in 1954)[5]
  • Encompassing both texts: "But the beginning of the legendarium, of which the Trilogy is part (the conclusion), was an attempt to reorganise some of the Kalevala ...." (Letter written in 1955)[6]

Use of the phrase Tolkien's legendarium[edit]

"Tolkien's legendarium" is defined in the analytical work The History of The Hobbit by John D. Rateliff, as the body of Tolkien's work consisting of:

  • The Book of Lost Tales
  • The Sketch of the Mythology and contemporary alliterative verses
  • The 1930 Quenta Noldorinwa and first Annals
  • The 1937 Quenta Silmarillion and later Annals
  • The later Quenta
  • The final Annals

All of which comprise the different "phases" of Tolkien's Elven legendary writings, posthumously edited and published in The Silmarillion and in their original forms in the series The History of Middle-earth.[7]

While other Tolkien scholars have not seen fit to define their use of the term, it is used in the following contexts:

  • Christopher Tolkien's introduction to The History of Middle-earth series, where he talks about the "primary 'legendarium'" in referring to core episodes and themes of The Silmarillion which were not abandoned in J.R.R. Tolkien's constant redrafting of the work.
  • Tolkien's Legendarium, a collection of critical essays on The History of Middle-earth edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter.
  • The following definition of The History of Middle-earth series in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: "The History of Middle-earth is a longitudinal study of the development and elaboration of Tolkien's legendarium through his transcribed manuscripts, with textual commentary by the editor, Christopher Tolkien."[8]
  • Verlyn Flieger states "... the greatest is the creation of the Silmarils, the Gems of light that give their names to the whole legendarium", equating the legendarium concept with the Silmarillion (which itself is used to denote sometimes the work published under that name and sometimes the larger body of un-edited drafts used to create that work).[9]
  • Dickerson and Evans use the phrase "legendarium" to encompass the entirety of Tolkien's Middle-earth writings "for convenience".[10]

History of development[edit]

Unlike "fictional universes" constructed for the purpose of writing and publishing popular fiction, Tolkien's legendarium for a long period was a private project, concerned with questions of philology, cosmology, theology and mythology. It has been considered a "pure mythopoeia".

Tolkien first began working on the stories that would become The Silmarillion in 1914,[11] intending them to become an English mythology that would explain the origins of English history and culture,[12] and to provide the necessary "historical" background for his invented Elvish languages. Much of this early work was written while Tolkien, then a British officer returned from France during World War I, was in hospital and on sick leave.[13] He completed the first story, "The Fall of Gondolin", in late 1916.[14]

He called his collection of nascent stories The Book of Lost Tales.[15] This became the name for the first two volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which include these early texts. The stories employ the narrative device of a mariner named Eriol (in later versions, an Anglo-Saxon named Ælfwine) who finds the island of Tol Eressëa, where the Elves live; and the Elves tell him their history.[16] However, Tolkien never completed The Book of Lost Tales; he left it to compose the poems "The Lay of Leithian" and "The Lay of the Children of Húrin".[15]

The first complete version of The Silmarillion was the "Sketch of the Mythology" written in 1926[17] (later published in Volume IV of The History of Middle-earth). The "Sketch" was a 28-page synopsis written to explain the background of the story of Túrin to R. W. Reynolds, a friend to whom Tolkien had sent several of the stories.[17] From the "Sketch" Tolkien developed a fuller narrative version of The Silmarillion called Quenta Noldorinwa[18] (also included in Volume IV). The Quenta Noldorinwa was the last version of The Silmarillion that Tolkien completed.[18]

When Tolkien did publish The Hobbit in 1937 (which was itself not originally intended for publication but as a story told privately to his children),[citation needed] the narrative of the published text was loosely influenced by the context of the legendarium, but not designed to be part of it.

In 1937, encouraged by the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien submitted to his publisher George Allen & Unwin an incomplete but more fully developed version of The Silmarillion called Quenta Silmarillion,[15] but they rejected the work as being obscure and "too Celtic".[19] The publisher instead asked Tolkien to write a sequel to The Hobbit.[19] Tolkien began to revise The Silmarillion, but soon turned to the sequel, which became The Lord of the Rings.[20] Writing The Lord of the Rings during the 1940s, Tolkien was attempting to address the dilemma of creating a narrative consistent with a "sequel" of the published The Hobbit and a desire to present a more comprehensive view of its background. He renewed work on The Silmarillion after completing The Lord of the Rings,[21] and he greatly desired to publish the two works together.[22] When it became clear that would not be possible, Tolkien turned his full attention to preparing The Lord of the Rings for publication.[23]

With the success of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien in the late 1950s returned to The Silmarillion, planning to revise the material of his legendarium into a form "fit for publication", a task which kept him occupied until his death in 1973. Much of his later writing from this period was concerned more with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the work than with the narratives themselves. By this time, he had doubts about fundamental aspects of the work that went back to the earliest versions of the stories, and it seems that he felt the need to resolve these problems before he could produce the "final" version of The Silmarillion. During this time he wrote extensively on such topics as the nature of evil in Arda, the origin of Orcs, the customs of the Elves, the nature and means of Elvish rebirth, and the "flat" world and the story of the Sun and Moon. In any event, with one or two exceptions, he wrought little change to the narratives during the remaining years of his life.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Anjou Legendarium".
  2. ^ As legendary in contemporary English is mostly used as an adjective, the Latin form reduces ambiguity, but legendary as a noun remains in use in specialist (medievalist) vocabulary. The Ring of Words pp. 153–154
  3. ^ Letters, #131
  4. ^ Letters, #153
  5. ^ Letters, #154
  6. ^ Letters, #163
  7. ^ Rateliff, John D. The History of the Hobbit, p. 607
  8. ^ J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, entry "The History of Middle-earth".
  9. ^ Flieger, Verlyn Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World p. 107
  10. ^ Dickerson, Matthew T. and Evans, Jonathan Duane: Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J. R. R. Tolkien p. 277
  11. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #115)
  12. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #131, 180)
  13. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #165, 180, 282)
  14. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #163, 165)
  15. ^ a b c Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales, 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Foreword, ISBN 0-395-35439-0
  16. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Book of Lost Tales, 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Chapter I, "The Cottage of Lost Play", ISBN 0-395-35439-0
  17. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1985), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lays of Beleriand, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Chapter I, "The Lay of the Children of Húrin", ISBN 0-395-39429-5
  18. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1986), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Shaping of Middle-earth, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Preface, ISBN 0-395-42501-8
  19. ^ a b (Carpenter 1981, #19)
  20. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Part II, Chapter VI, "Quenta Silmarillion", ISBN 0-395-45519-7
  21. ^ a b Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Foreword, ISBN 0-395-68092-1
  22. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #124)
  23. ^ (Carpenter 1981, #133)

Works cited[edit]