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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (14) Tolkien’s Decision to Split LotR from The Silmarillion (1952)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Cirith Ninniach, the Rainbow Cleft," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Cirith Ninniach, the Rainbow Cleft,” Ted Nasmith)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & Literary Middle Ages (14) Tolkien’s Decision to Split LotR from The Silmarillion (1952)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Here’s a question: can the market bear true “epic fantasy” anymore?  That is, in this blog series about the importance of medieval language and literature to Professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis back in the early to mid-20th century, I’ve focused both on the literature of late antiquity and the medieval period that so influenced them, but I’ve also begun to assess how Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were initially received by the literary community and public when the novels were published.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Gandalf arrives in Hobbiton," by Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Gandalf arrives in Hobbiton,” by Michael Kaluta)

I think that they hold up remarkably well, but the point I’m curious about is whether or not they would sell if they were presented as from a first-time author in today’s marketplace?  Tolkien himself couldn’t get The Silmarillion published; his son, Christopher, succeeded in getting the work printed posthumously in 1977, some four years after his father’s death, in the wake of a demand for more work by the beloved author.  And, even publishing what we’ve come to know as The Lord of the Rings was difficult for J.R.R. Tolkien during the years 1949-1953, when publishers simply wanted a continuation of The Hobbit and didn’t know what to make of the the 600,000 word LotR manuscript that Tolkien submitted.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Gandalf at Weathertop," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Gandalf at Weathertop,” Ted Nasmith)

Michael White, "Tolkien: A Biography"

Michael White, “Tolkien: A Biography”

After bouncing between a couple of houses, Allen & Unwin finally published the book, but demanded (because of paper costs in a rationed industry) that the work not include The Silmarillion and that it be divided into the three volumes we know today.

As I draw near the end of this series on the crossover between Tolkien’s specializing in medieval literature (Anglo-Saxon) and himself contributing to a modern version of it (saga/epic), let’s look at part of the creator/publisher interaction in the modern age.  Here’s an excerpt from Michael White’s work, Tolkien: A Biography:

[begin White excerpt] …Tolkien wrote to Unwin [the publisher of The Hobbit, some 16 years prior] explaining that his new book had run out of control. Combined with The Silmarillion, he told him, his mythology now ran to over a million words, and he had begun to wonder whether anyone would actually be interested in such a monstrous thing. Unwin asked if it could not be split into several volumes, and in reply Tolkien made it clear that he could never allow such a thing.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("The Burning of the Ships")

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“The Burning of the Ships”)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Beleg is Slain," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Beleg is Slain,” Ted Nasmith)

[Michael White excerpt continued]
But Tolkien had miscalculated. By playing so hard to get [so he could move to another publisher], he had merely succeeded in making [Stanley] Unwin more interested … Rayner Unwin had already seen some of The Lord of the Rings a few years earlier and understood the potential of the book. In a letter to his father, he suggested that The Lord of the Rings was complete enough on its own and did not need The Silmarillion as a companion volume and that there may be material in the latter that could enhance the former. He went on to point out that a competent editor could work with Tolkien to extract such appropriate material, that they could publish The Lord of the Rings, and then, after a reasonable amount of time, drop The Silmarillion altogether.

Sir Stanley Unwin (published "The Hobbit" in 1937 after 10-year-old son, Rayner, read & approved of it!)

Sir Stanley Unwin (published “The Hobbit” in 1937 after 10-year-old son, Rayner, read & approved of it!)

Rayner had not meant for this letter to be seen by Tolkien, but Sir Stanley included his son’s comments in a letter he sent to the author a few days later. Naturally, Tolkien was furious and had to draft and redraft his reply several times before he could frame his anger sufficiently well. Barely keeping his cool, he gave Unwin an ultimatum; either take both books or neither.

Faced with such a choice Unwin could do nothing but let Tolkien go. He wrote expressing his genuine regret that they could not come to an understanding and that the author had forced him into turning down his work … it was clear to all that the relationship had fallen apart. Tolkien wanted to be free of George Allen and Unwin so he could follow through with the interest shown by Waldman [at the publisher, Collins]; Unwin did not want The Silmarillion and could not be forced into accepting it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Elrond recalls the hosts of Gil-gilad," by Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Elrond recalls the hosts of Gil-gilad,” by Michael Kaluta)

[Michael White excerpt continuedTolkien was now free both contractually and, he believed, morally, and so he now gave a commitment to Milton Waldman and William Collins [the publishers of Agatha Christie’s first six novels, and also of C.S. Lewis’s works] that they could publish his work.  But then he immediately confused the matter by informing Waldman that he expected the completed version of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings to come in at around one million words.  A puzzled Milton Waldman pointed out that the manuscript for LotR was about half a million words in length and The Silmarillion was only about 125,000 words long. It was then that Tolkien dropped the bombshell — that he considered The Silmarillion only partially finished and that it would require a huge effort to prepare it for publication, an effort requiring the addition of more material. This was not quite what Waldman had had in mind; he was about to tell Tolkien that LotR needed substantial cutting.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring" ("Gandalf and the Balrog," by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring” (“Gandalf and the Balrog,” by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien,"The Silmarillion" ("Luthien," by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien,”The Silmarillion” (“Luthien,” by Ted Nasmith)

[Michael White excerpt continuedWhen Tolkien was told this, he was genuinely shocked. He had believed that he had found a sympathetic publisher who understood how he worked and appreciated that his mythology could only be adequately explained if there were no restrictions on the length of the books and the level of detail he demanded. But, rather than trying to reach a compromise with his new editor, Tolkien decided it was the right time to send Waldman several new sections of The Silmarillion, which he posted to the London offices of Collins without explaining either where they were to be placed in the main manuscript or how they linked with the rest of the book.

It’s possible that even at this stage something could have been salvaged from this disastrous new beginning, but it was not to be. In the summer of 1950, Waldman left for Italy where he spent most of each year. He left Tolkien in the hands of others in the London office of Collins, but they had no understanding of what had transpired and could make neither head nor tail of the strange bundle of papers pertaining to Professor Tolkien. Waldman was due to return to England for a few months in the autumn of 1950, but the trip was postponed when he fell ill in Italy.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("Zirikzigal," by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“Zirikzigal,” by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("Earendil the Mariner," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“Earendil the Mariner,” Ted Nasmith)

[Michael White excerpt continuedAnd so, Tolkien’s relationship with Collins fell apart … to exacerbate the situation further, the price of paper had increased dramatically in 1951, making the publication of a Middle-earth mythology an even greater gamble for a publisher than it had been two years earlier. In frustration, Tolkien wrote to Collins offering them a similar ultimatum to the one he had imposed upon Stanley Unwin — they must either accept his work as it was and completely unexpurgated or return it forthwith.

A few days later, Tolkien’s manuscripts were on his desk once more and the first time since the late-1930s, he was without any form of relationship with a publishing house. The time had come, he now realised, to shift his perspective … A few months earlier he had celebrated his sixtieth birthday and his work was no more nearer publication then it had been when he had finished writing LotR almost three years earlier. He thought of his own creation, the character, Niggle, and how he had only seen his work completed in heaven; if he was to see published the mythology to which he had devoted so much time and energy, he must act now. He must eat humble pie, and for once, must accept compromise.

The Gambler & The Dreamer: Rayner had believed in Tolkien since age 10 -- at age 28 took a chance with Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and the rest is history! (Rayner Unwin & J.R.R. Tolkien)

The Gambler & The Dreamer: Rayner had believed in Tolkien since age 10 — at age 28 took a chance with Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and the rest is history! (Rayner Unwin & J.R.R. Tolkien)

In June, Tolkien wrote to Rayner Unwin explaining the way his book had become entangled and wondering if he and his father Sir Stanley would still be interested after so long. Rayner Unwin replied immediately to arrange a meeting in Oxford, and in September he picked up the manuscript from Tolkien’s house in Holywell Street.

Now there was no question of publishing the entire mythology and Tolkien agreed that LotR would have to be split into three separate volumes and published over a period of at least twelve months. But even then Rayner was concerned. His feeling was that George Allen and Unwin must definitely publish the book, he considered it a work of genius, but he also had no confidence in its commercial potential. Although The Hobbit was still selling, Tolkien had lost any cachet he once had from the initial burst of enthusiasm for hobbits and Rayner Unwin thought that a book as dark, as detailed and as long as LotR, a book he could visualise fitting into any existing genre, would only appeal to a very small section of the market.

Lime Cottage of Rayner Unwin (frequented by Roald Dahl & J.R.R. Tolkien; Daily Mail, UK)

Lime Cottage of Rayner Unwin (frequented by Roald Dahl & J.R.R. Tolkien; Daily Mail, UK)

[Michael White excerpt continuedRayner was now deeply involved with the family business … after doing some calculations … [he explained to his father] that he believed the book would lose the company up to £1,000, but that they should still publish it as a prestige title that would gain great literary kudos. Stanley Unwin agreed and between them they decided to offer Tolkien a deal in which they would pay no advance for the book and no royalty, but they would enter into a profit-sharing scheme. This meant that George Allen and Unwin would cover the costs of production, distribution, and advertising and if there was any profit to be made it would be split fifty-fifty with Tolkien.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers" ("The Entmoot," by Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers” (“The Entmoot,” by Michael Kaluta)

[Michael White excerpt continuedTolkien accepted the offer immediately. By this time, he had come to the conclusion that he was never likely to make very much money from his writing and he simply wanted to see his book in print and given due attention … In August 1954, The Fellowship of the Ring finally reached the bookshops. [End of Michael White excerpt, from Tolkien: A Biography, pp. 188-196]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("Arwen & King Elessar," Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“Arwen & King Elessar,” Michael Kaluta)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Silmarillion" ("The Eagles of Manwe," Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion” (“The Eagles of Manwe,” Ted Nasmith)

So, Tolkien’s works were finally published, thanks to the unwavering belief of Rayner Unwin who from age 10, when his father had him read the original manuscript of The Hobbit to see if it was publishable — & having also banked on Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — showed remarkable perspicacity in supporting authors whose works didn’t immediately conform to proven genres.

It would take another decade before the reception enjoyed the kind of success we associate with the hugely popular, semi-cultic Middle-earth fan base we know today (a base largely created by college student followings in the 1960s), but Unwin’s belief in the books, and Tolkien’s willingness to divest his original vision of a Silmarillion/LotR combo, made for a winning strategy.

What do you think? If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, do you think they’d have a chance in the publishing world and marketplace today?  I’ve posted a poll below, with positive and negative criticisms from the 1950s serving as possible responses.

Please let me know what you think & let’s start a conversation!

Next time:  Why Rayner Unwin Gambled & Won:  Reconciling Tolkien’s Works as Faux-Medieval Literature with the Fears of the Modern Publishing World


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