Review: Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion (25.06.09 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion by Douglas C. Kane was published in March 2009 and I conducted an interview with the author, which you can read here.

Today I'm very happy to say that a reader from has contributed a review of this book.

I hope this review will not only provoke people to leave a comment at the bottom of the page, but also to inspire them to sent in there own reviews of Tolkien books. It would be a big honor to publish them here.
Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion

Douglas Charles Kane
Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion
Lehigh University Press 2009

In Arda Reconstructed Douglas Kane reveals, in even more detail than has previously been available, the complexity of The Silmarillion; and in doing so, also brings into focus the intractable problems Christopher Tolkien faced in making its publication a reality in a form that reflected the “Silmarillion” material in all its breadth and depth.

For the most part, divorced from its subject matter, Arda Reconstructed is an analytical, dissection of a text; and examination (with noted limitations) of the material that was used to construct a published work, with comment on the decision making of the editor(s). Despite the unappealing picture this may paint,  Arda Reconstructed is highly illuminating and very enjoyable to read, shedding much light on The Silmarillion and “the scope of what creating that ‘constructed text’ entailed” (AR, 25).

In the preface to Arda Reconstructed Kane states that the purpose of the work is “to document the major changes, omissions, and additions that were made to Tolkien’s work by Christopher (and Guy Kay) in preparing The Silmarillion for publication, and to trace how the disparate source materials were used to create what is in essence a composite work” (AR, 24). Kane’s work could almost be viewed as a direct response to Christopher Tolkien’s statement in The War of the Jewels that (with the availability of almost all of the material used in the published Silmarillion) “a criticism of the ‘constructed’ Silmarillion becomes possible” (WotJ, xii).

Kane describes the “often tedious work” of analysing the available published work on Tolkien’s legendarium. Having no access to the Tolkien manuscripts held at the Bodleian Library, he has been limited in his research to an analysis of the material contained within the published Silmarillion, The History of Middle-earth, Unfinished Tales, and The Children of Hurin.

Kane takes each chapter of the published Silmarillion in sequential order, giving a general introduction on the construction of the chapter followed by a more detailed commentary on significant changes; edits, additions, omissions and the like between the source material and the published text. Chapters (of Arda Reconstructed) are well served by a table giving details of the source material for each paragraph of The Silmarillion.

At several points in The History of Middle-earth, and in other publications, Christopher Tolkien makes statements that both support and refute the idea of authorship on his part; with the distinction between parts of The Silmarillion, and The Silmarillion as a whole, not always made clear. In The War of the Jewels, for example, Christopher is at pains to point out that The Silmarillion is “not in any way a completion, but a construction devised out of the existing materials” (WotJ, xii).

Several commentators have alluded to the inaccuracy of statements of this nature made by Christopher Tolkien. In his paper From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lonnrot, and Jerome, Jason Fisher says “I think Christopher’s assertion that the ‘The Silmarillion is emphatically my father’s book and in no sense mine’ is not altogether accurate” (Thirty Years On, 135).

As cited by Fisher, in The Silmarillion: A Brief Account of the Book and its Making, Christopher Tolkien states that he had to “develop the narrative out of notes and rough drafts” and that in places he had to “modify the narrative to make it coherent” (Brief Account, 4). In a statement from The War of the Jewels specifically discussing chapter 22 Christopher Tolkien (in the context of a larger discussion) uses the phrase (also highlighted by Fisher) “in this work Guy Kay took a major part, and the chapter that I finally wrote owes much to my discussion with him” (WotJ, 356).

Yet despite the explicitness of some of these statements most Tolkien scholars seem reluctant to explicitly discuss Christopher’s role as author (not editor) in respect to some passages/chapters of The Silmarillion. Jason Fisher clearly cites passages which suggest that Christopher (and Kay) wrote most, if not all, of chapter 22 Of the Ruin of Doriath, inventing not just passages of text, but elements of plot and motive.

He frequently falls back (perhaps advisably; and probably deliberately) on less decisive, safer terms of description. Christopher Tolkien “elaborated”; he was “in some cases even (re)writing portions of the narrative”; he was “even embellishing his father’s scattered writings”; “Christopher Tolkien was required in some cases to take a more active hand in the narrative”; and passages “had to be rewritten, at least in part” (Thirty Years On, 126-131).

Like many commentators, Fisher seems unwilling to take the final step of stating that Christopher ‘wrote’ parts of the published work; and that he is the ‘author’ of  sections of The Silmarillion. Statements seem to require qualifying, defensive language; else the Tolkien Estate be offended. The example above is an attempt to illustrate the careful wording that seems to be required in any critique of Christopher’s role as editor of The Silmarillion, in the absence of a detailed reference work such as Arda Reconstructed.

Kane is far more forthright, leaving us in no doubt as to his view of Christopher Tolkien’s contribution to The Silmarillion. In his introduction Kane states “readers make the assumption that they are basically reading what Tolkien himself wrote, with only minor editorial interference. This assumption is [equally] mistaken” (AR, 24).

This “mistaken” assumption that the text is all Tolkien’s own words is convincingly put to bed by Kane. The published text is described by Kane as a fascinating and unique “collaboration”. But the language Kane employs goes further with no question of ambiguity.

In the detailed discussion of chapter 22 Of the Ruin of Doriath Kane describes the passages telling of Hurin’s coming to Nargothrond, and his slaying of Mim, as “complete editorial invention” (AR, 214); Christopher creates “a whole new history for the Nauglamir” (AR, 215). Some of the material is described as “outright editorial invention” (AR, 218).

In Tolkien studies this kind of explicit statement is unusual. However it is supported by Christopher Tolkien’s own statement in The War of the Jewels where he describes the story told in The Silmarillion as in a form “for which in certain essential features there is no authority whatever in my father’s own writing” (WotJ, 354). 

Kane’s work (especially in regards to chapter 22) highlights like no other (except perhaps The History of Middle-earth itself) the complexity of the published Silmarillion. “The tapestry that was woven by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Kay from different portions of Tolkien’s work is often quite mind-boggling” Kane comments (AR, 24-25). Editorial changes were “endemic throughout the book” and “hardly a sentence goes by without at least one small change, or several” (AR, 262). Passages in the published Silmarillion are often shown to be “cut and pasted” from different sources. Kane describes (in a somewhat exacerbated tone) that he didn’t know “what to make of such constant switching back and forth between the source texts” (AR, 61). This complexity, admirably illustrated throughout Arda Reconstructed, has lead to questions over the canonicity of the published Silmarillion.

The assumption that The Silmarillion is canon can be a pitfall to even the most renowned of Tolkien scholars Kane argues. Kane gives as an example Tom Shippey’s comments on Thingol’s death “in the dark while he looks at the captured Light” (Road to ME, 238), which Shippey cites as an example (in Kane’s words) of “Tolkien’s genius for creating compelling images”. Kane points out that this scene “was completely an invention of the editors” (AR, 216).

Although the phrasing and tone of this argument, presented in Arda Reconstructed, could be interpreted as discourteous (“The fact that as renown a Tolkien scholar as Shippey would have this kind of mistaken impression”: AR, 216), the point still seems a legitimate one to make. This passage was not written by Tolkien, yet is being cited as an example of his genius. Kane concludes that this is justification for a work like Arda Reconstructed.

It is worthwhile to discuss Kane’s opinion and comment throughout Arda Reconstructed. As he himself admits “it would be impossible for me to fail to express my own opinion regarding how successful Christopher was in achieving this task” [of creating the published Silmarillion], and “with so little commentary regarding many of Christopher’s editorial choices, we are left with no option but to speculate as to his reasoning, based on the material available” (AR, 25).

His argument that he was left with no option but to speculate sometimes leads Kane into problems. Frequently the comment and speculation are bold, and the manner and tone in which they are put forth may not be to everybody’s liking. As example, commenting on the aforementioned switching back and forth between source texts Kane states “I think Christopher might have better served his father if he had stuck more closely to one text at a time”(AR, 61). And, in discussing the omission of much of the philosophical material touched upon in Tolkien’s writings on Finwe and Miriel, Kane comments that Christopher “was both underestimating the audience and doing a disservice to his father’s legacy” (AR, 82).

The removal of these comments from their context perhaps does Kane a disservice, and is a little unfair. Kane’s willingness to put across his own personal thoughts on the matter and his passion for the subject are to be applauded. But it might be observed how at odds this is with the general tone of criticism in scholarly and academic Tolkien studies. It could be argued that much of the speculation could have been avoided, and serves to highlight the very real limitations of this work: the lack of access to Tolkien’s original manuscripts, and the understanding this may have provided.

One point of criticism of the published Silmarillion, which seems more than justified, is the simple omission of material. Usually through a desire by Christopher for consistency this, Kane argues, is to the detriment of the published work.

Kane cites many instances of material which could have been included from the “Silmarillion”, without compromising the published work; for example the removal of much of Tolkien’s philosophical writings, and omissions leading to the reduction in female characters. He demonstrates that in several instances the removal or editing in numerous small instances, led to the later need for radical editing/removal; which could have been potentially avoided.

The removal of all vestiges of a framework from the published Silmarillion was a critical decision. The Aelfwine/Pengolod/Rumil framework was a longstanding element of Tolkien’s legendarium, providing an explanation of how the stories existed within the imagined world; or more radically, providing (however obscure and tenuous) an explanation of how the material had come down to the present day reader.   

Some form of framework could have enabled some degree of inconsistency to exist. Not only did its removal increase the need for consistency, it removed one of the most attractive, elusive, and compelling qualities of the “Silmarillion” material: namely the interplay of the internal imagined world of story-tellers, compilers, redactors, translators, and fabled books; and the external reality of Tolkien the author, with his many variant texts, feigned history, and material retold in shorter and longer forms in varying styles. This relationship between Tolkien’s invented legendarium and the external complexity of the material Tolkien left are not adequately reflected in the published Silmarillion.

Kane states “including these different contexts would have enhanced the work” (AR, 253) (e.g. the idea that The Silmarillion itself was a mix of Elvish history and Mannish myths, preserved by the Numenoreans), and “would have been appropriate, because The Silmarillion is, in fact, a compilation of various sources”. He concludes this “should and could have been preserved” (AR, 261).

Christopher Tolkien expresses similar sentiments himself in The Book of Lost Tales, Part One, when he states that “it is certainly debatable whether it was wise to publish in 1977 a version of the primary ‘legendarium’ standing on its own and claiming, as it were, to be self-explanatory. The published work has no ‘framework’, no suggestion of what it is and how (within the imagined world) it came to be. This I now think to have been in error” (BoLT1, 5).

Kane’s conclusion to Arda Reconstructed is unfortunately short, being only three and a half pages of discussion and comment. Most of this is taken up with, what Kane believes to be, a summary of the “five major types of changes to The Silmarillion that result from the edits made by Christopher in the process of preparing the work for publication” (AR, 252). These are: the reduction of the importance of female characters; the elimination of much of the philosophical speculation; the condensing (or in certain cases virtual elimination) of important parts of the tale; the virtual re-creation of the story of the ruin of Doriath; and the removal of the contexts in which the stories were placed (AR, 252-253).

With so many points of detail covered in Arda Reconstructed, and so much room for discussion and debate, it would perhaps have been pleasing to have seen a longer conclusion; or a  more in-depth exploration (perhaps within the given chapters) of what other reasons/motives may have influenced Christopher’s decision making. A more detailed examination of Guy Kay’s precise role would have been of great interest too.

The book itself is of good quality, like most US academic press titles; the font and paper combine to make for easy reading; the tables are well positioned and are an excellent adjunct to the text within each chapter; and the notes, which are minimal, are confined to after the main text. Perhaps unusually for an academic publication (normally issued without dustjackets), Arda Reconstructed has a colourful glossy jacket, carrying an illustration by Anushka Mourino. A further five illustrations by Mourino appear inside the book.

A working knowledge of the general construction of The Silmarillion is probably required to fully appreciate Arda Reconstructed. However to those intimately familiar with the published Silmarillion, this book is simple in layout and simple to follow; it is not necessary to have a copy to hand. A familiarity with The History of Middle-earth would also be helpful, as many of the variant texts, drafts, and essays documented in that series are discussed in detail.

Rayner Unwin remarked, in Early Days of Elder Days, that “in effect one man’s imaginative genius has had the benefit of two lifetimes’ work” (Legendarium, 6). We can’t deny the dept we owe Christopher Tolkien for making the “Silmarillion” accessible to us; but he’s not, as Kane shows, beyond criticism.  

Brian Henderson

Works Consulted

Fisher, Jason. “From Mythopoeia to Mythography: Tolkien, Lonnrot, and Jerome”. The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Edited by Allan Turner. Walking Tree Publishers, 2007.

Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-earth. HarperCollinsPublishers, 1992.

Tolkien, Christopher. The Silmarillion [by] J. R. R. Tolkien: A Brief Account of the Book and its Making. Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Tolkien, Christopher (editor). The Book of Lost Tales, Part One. HarperCollinsPublishers, 1991.

Tolkien, Christopher (editor). The War of the Jewels. HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.

Unwin, Rayner. “Early Days of Elder Days”. Tolkien’s Legendarium. Greenwood Press, 2000.

Title: Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion

Hardback Edition
Extent: 280 pages
23.4 x 15.5 x 2.3 cm
Lehigh University Press
Publication date:
15 Mar 2009
Language: English


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