Interface and the Problem of Tolkien’s Manuscripts

Megan N. Fontenot


The Middle-earth legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien is a difficult body of work to study, not least because only two of the major works included within it were completed and published in the author's lifetime. The Silmarillion, for example, was collected and published posthumously and perforce excises a staggering amount of fascinating material. This excised material was deemed so significant, however, that much of it has been released as the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth (with a thirteenth volume dedicated to an index of the foregoing) and several stand-alone volumes focused on specific tales. Scholars and fans alike must sift through this information before hoping to contribute to a meaningful conversation--before claiming that they “know” Tolkien and his work.

Graphic concerns make the topic even more difficult. Often, in his curation, Christopher Tolkien included marginalia; sometimes, the information came from handwritten documents evidencing several stages of editing. Drafts have been combined, and the volumes include photocopies of maps, drafts, and sketches. Tolkien is also created almost illegible palimpsests by writing over old sketches, and vice versa, and sometimes even over other writing—none of which is helped by the fact that his handwriting was already difficult for even his son to decipher.

This project would seek to address these complications via the following questions: How do we approach this material, culled as it is from a variety of formats and in various stages of development and completion? Scholars and fans alike take the posthumous publications to be authoritative, but where does one draw the line? Is looking at a transcribed document equivalent to looking at the real thing? How did Christopher Tolkien “translate” marginalia and in-manuscript editing into a readable format without sacrificing the nature of the text he was dealing with, and what happens to the information in the passages he was forced to pass over as “illegible”? How does one represent, in a printed text, a passage that has been crossed out, re-written, and then returned to its original state? How do these questions translate in the digital age? And (why) does it matter?