Why did JRRT never publish The Silmarillion?


Active Member
At the end of the last class, Corey suggested that we would be exploring this question soon.

Great! It is a fascinating question.

I don’t intend here to jump the gun on this question, but just to provide some background as we come to consider it.

So, TLOTR was published starting in 1954. Finished in 1955. Thereafter, there were rumors that JRRT was working on ‘The Silmarillion’, but nothing was published before JRRT’s death in 1973. Those fans who were hoping for more were disappointed. But, then rumors started that JRRT’s Silmarillion might be finished by his son Christopher. Hope arose. In 1977, ‘The Silmarillion was published.

Tolkien fans assumed that JRRT had been working hard at writing a version of ‘The Silmarillion’ that he was happy with, but that he had died before completing it.

They assumed, that the published ‘Silmarillion’ was a mostly completed work by JRRT, just polished off and finished up by Christoper.

This assumption seemed to be confirmed by Christopher’s introduction to ‘The Silmarillion’. ."In this work the concluding chapters (from the death of Turin Turambar) introduced peculiar difficulties, in that they had remained unchanged for many years, and were in some respects in serious disharmony with more developed conceptions in other parts of the book." That sounds a lot like 'JRRT had finished the whole Silmarillion except the last bit, which Christopher had to edit to make it fit'.

So, not surprisingly, Tolkien fans generally accepted ‘The Silmarillion’ as canon. Text from ‘The Silmarillion’ was used to explain mysteries from TLOTR, and ‘Silmarillion’ lore was generally considered to be ‘true’ and ‘explanatory’ of TLOTR.

It was not until later, really until ‘The History of Middle-earth’ began to be published by CT, that it became apparent that this just was not so. Far from JRRT having virtually completed a text of ‘The Silmarillion’ which he was happy to have published, and only his death preventing him from finalizing this, it became apparent that JRRT had failed to produce a version of ‘The Silmarillion’ that satisfied him, and that for the last 13 or so years of his life he had given up on attempting to complete a publishable ‘Silmarillion’.

(Anyone who has insight on exactly when JRRT gave up on producing a publishable version of ‘The Silmarillion’, and also exactly when in the publication history of ‘The History of Middle-earth’ this became clear to fans, please chip in. I am hazy on both of these time-lines.)

Now, many Tolkien fans never read ‘The History of Middle-earth’ volumes (which are quite dense). Never realized that JRRT never reached a version of ‘The Silmarillion’ which satisfied him. Continued to regard ‘The Silmarillion’ as canon. While others, who had thought it canon, now rejected the notion, as they realized that it was not.

So, I believe that we cannot regard ‘The Silmarillion’ as canon, and that readings of TLOTR that are biased or based on Silmarillion material are flawed. There is no Manwe in TLOTR. There is no Ulmo. There is no knowledge of Elvish Fea and Hroar. There are no Maiar. None of ‘The Silmarillion’ can be absolutely trusted as applicable to TLOTR, as it is pretty clear that if JRRT had ever created a publishable ‘Silmarillion’ that he was happy with, it would have been very different (in indeterminable ways) from ‘The Silmarillion’ that we have got.

I think it absolutely fascinating to go back to JRRT’s famous 1936 lecture, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”, and read JRRT, the great foreshadower, foreshadowing the fate of his own masterpiece.

In this lecture JRRT told a parable of a man who had a field full of old stones from older buildings. From those stones he built a tower. Others, perceiving that the tower had been built of older stones, pushed it over, to examine the stones for hidden carvings or inscriptions. "And even the man's own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: 'He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion!' But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea."

Oh Christopher! Did you ever read these words and wonder?

What a foreshadowing analogy! Tolkien built his great masterpiece of TLOTR with ‘old stones’ from his earlier works. His own son, decided to ‘restore the old house’ (after JRRT had rejected doing so). CT did not exactly ‘push over’ JRRT’s tower to do so. But he did damage it. The Great Tower of TLOTR, from which JRRT could ‘see the Sea’. Was de-mystified. Turned into a game of lore, rather than a work of art for many fans. Trivialized and submerged into deeper histories and mythologies, originally only hinted at, but not all too explicit, which JRRT had decided not to publish and not to pollute TLOTR with.

JRRT, in the same lecture, criticized the critics of ‘Beowulf’ in the same way that he might criticize many readers of TLOTR. "Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact and fancy far more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art."

So, I am very excited to hear from Corey that we are going to explore why JRRT never published ‘The Silmarillion’. There have been many theories proposed. But, I see understanding that he was never satisfied with his attempts to marry ‘The Silmarillion’ and TLOTR as crucial in being able to recover TLOTR as a work of art, which has been submerged for may fans into a false perspective of ‘lore’.

So, I certainly look forward to perspectives on why JRRT never achieved a version of ‘The Silmarillion’ which he was happy to publish.

Hope this background is helpful.