A Glimpse of the City

Why wouldn’t the Tolkien Estate want to sell Amazon its older stories?

This will be (I hope) a brief coda to my earlier post, “Tolkien and Amazon’s Fight for a Franchise.” In that post, I claim that J.R.R. Tolkien’s First Age stories, collected in The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin present a more coherent set of fuller-developed stories than the Second Age material on the forging of the Rings of Power and the rise and fall of Numenor Amazon chose to make the basis of its forthcoming television series.

Amazon’s creative problem is a difficult one, but its reasoning is fairly straightforward: it’s buying into the least developed, least zealously guarded material where it has the most room to make up whatever stories it chooses so long as they are broadly coherent with the published texts. Essentially, Amazon has the right to make Númenorean fan fiction. The main problem here is that you actually have to develop coherent characters and stories viewers want to follow along with, which is no easy task, whether your background mythology is a rich or a murky one (in this case, it’s both).

The Tolkien Estate’s reasoning, however, is less obvious. Apart from the already published, already popular books of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, whose TV and movie rights were already sold during J.R.R. Tolkien’s lifetime, the stories of the First Age were seen as central to the legendarium, so much so that J.R.R. Tolkien strongly desired The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings to be published together, perhaps as a single volume. (Then, largely as now, nobody wanted anything to do with The Silmarillion; it was weird, it wasn’t entirely finished, it wasn’t a sequel to The Hobbit, and it didn’t even have any hobbits in it.)

Tolkien knew there were problems with updating his older stories and making them suitable for publication, but he also thought the two books were incoherent without each other. As he wrote in a letter to his publisher at the time, he believed that The Lord of the Rings, far from being a simple sequel to The Hobbit, had actually become a sequel to the unpublished Silmarillion.

After the publication of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien continued to work on these First Age stories, but eventually abandoned them in various states of completion. The evidence suggests that some time before ill health made it difficult for him to continue to work on the stories, he despaired of them ever being published.

It was up to his son Christopher, himself a scholar, translator, and literary editor, to assemble the texts that remained, which he did in different ways. For The Silmarillion, he blended multiple sources to produce a coherent a story as possible. For Unfinished Tales, he combined the texts with scholarly notes to show breaks and inconsistencies in different drafts. And in The History of Middle Earth, he included varying drafts, more or less chronologically across decades, showing the evolution of various parts of the story as they began to click together.

Largely, all of this happened before the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies led to a new wave of interest in the stories, new disputes about money, new deals at the table, and perhaps a sense that at least some business with the family legends remained unfinished.

Finally, near the end of his life, Christopher returned to three of the major stories from The First Age, each of which had been treated in different ways in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-Earth, and repackaged them. These were The Children of Húrin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin, the last of which appeared in 2018, coinciding with Christopher Tolkien’s retirement from the Tolkien Estate and the sale of TV rights to Amazon.

While all three stories are deeply connected to the broader mythology (and to each other), each story is a kind of stand-alone romance in the medieval sense, heroic-tragic tales of love, adventure, magic, war, and betrayal. Indeed, Tolkien seems to have composed each story as a kind of stand-alone yarn, a la The Hobbit, and gradually worked in connecting tissue to tie them more closely together.

If you were going to make three not-yet-seen Tolkien movies, or mini-series, these would be the ones you would make. Why wasn’t the Tolkien estate interested in having Amazon make them?

Here, I think there are some idiosyncrasies at work. First, Christopher Tolkien was broadly dismissive of the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, calling them a gutting of the book and “an action film for 15 to 25-year-olds.” Finally, it’s important to note how protective Christopher in particular was of the First Age material. In his preface to The Fall of Gondolin, he writes:

Looking back over my work, now concluded after some forty years, I believe that my underlying purpose was at least in part to try to give more prominence to the nature of ‘The Silmarillion’ and its vital existence in relation to The Lord of the Rings – thinking of it rather as the First Age of my father’s world of Middle-earth and Valinor.

He also notes that his father, J.R.R. Tolkien, never actually completed the final draft of The Fall of Gondolin, although it was among the first of his stories he ever wrote. His last attempt ends as the hero Tuor arrives at the legendary city itself, and we are left with earlier, more cursory attempts at describing the actual destruction of the city.

It is the remarkable fact that the only full account that my father ever wrote of the story of Tuor’s sojourn in Gondolin, his union with Idril Celebrindal, the birth of Eärendel, the treachery of Maeglin, the sack of the city, and the escape of the fugitives – a story that was a central element in his imagination of the First Age – was the narrative composed in his youth.

His father abandoned the story, leaving only a glimpse of the city.

This is all speculative — maybe in ten years, after the Amazon series is a huge hit, the Tolkien Estate will do a gruesome movie version of The Fall of Gondolin, and I’ll be proven wrong. But I have two theses I’ll put forward, which can’t really be confirmed or denied now that Christopher Tolkien himself has died.

  1. Christopher saw the real work of the legendarium after his father’s death as the scholarly collection and editing of the texts his father wrote. This nicely coincided with both his own interests and his sense that films and television were a potentially lucrative but ultimately disappointing sideshow.

  2. It suited Christopher’s sensibilities that both he and his father ultimately left the First Age stories unrealized, that they did not become fixed in the imagination, despite finally having the movie-making technology to do so.

Ultimately, the deciding members of the Tolkien family were perfectly comfortable that the mythical city never be reached, that its walls never actually fall. There is, indeed, a tragicomic justice to the whole enterprise.

Anyways, that’s my take.