Tolkien's Late Thoughts 1: Road Goes Ever On, Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
It will soon be Jan. 2021. During that month (and, if anyone wishes, afterwards), here is a place to discuss Tolkien's late thoughts about the Third Age, especially, of Middle-earth. The texts proposed for discussion are:

--The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
--The Road Goes Ever On: JRRT’s notes on “Namarie,” etc.
--"Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age" as published in The Silmarillion
--Third Age section in Unfinished Tales

"Late Thoughts" refers more or less to writings about the Third Age that Tolkien wrote after he finished the narrative of The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1950s.

Future threads in the Late Musings (LM) series should be posted thus:

LM 2: Feb. 2021: Morgoth’s Ring pp. 301-431, with “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (though this is not Third Age) and Myths Transformed
LM 3: March: The War of the Jewels, with pp. 340-341 “Ents and Eagles” and pp. 359-424 “Quendi and Eldar”
LM 4: Apr.-May: The Peoples of Middle-earth — entire book
LM 5: June-August 2021: The Nature of Middle-earth -- entire book

I intend to start separate threads for each month's readings so as to make it easier for future inquirers to find the material of most interest to them.
January would also be a good month for discussing the "late thoughts" element in "Bilbo's Last Song." The text of the poem is provided at the link immediately below, which includes a discussion of its background. It must be the very last work that Tolkien released about Middle-earth and the Third Age. The setting is the Grey Havens. I suppose we are to imagine that Bilbo has written the poem while awaiting there the arrival of those who will be his companions in a voyage to the Earthly Paradise. It has implications for how Tolkien conceived the relationship between "mortal lands" and the realm of the "gods," doesn't it? Perhaps there'll be some discussion on that. What's the Star?

Bilbo's Last Song - Tolkien Gateway

"Bilbo's Last Song" possesses a threefold appropriateness as Tolkien's last Middle-earth release:

1.It is literarily appropriate as a pendant to The Lord of the Rings.
2.It casts some retrospective light on the much-discussed topic of religion and spirituality in the late Third Age -- who knew or believed what.
3.It shows, biographically, the cast of Tolkien's mind after the publication of LotR, in which he gave increasing thought to various deep topics such as we will try to unpack, I expect, in this thread: the fate of rational creatures after death and so on. The poem may raise a question: If Bilbo is going to the Undying Lands, will he die there, or never die? These were topics that Tolkien had already explored in private papers written after LotR and before publication of the poem, but those papers were not published till after he died.

See the discussion of "Immortality" here:

Aman - Tolkien Gateway

I don't propose, myself, to say more about this poem till January, when this thread "officially" starts, but if you have some thoughts to share before then, anyone, please go ahead! There will be plenty else to discuss also in January.
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I wasn't going to write more on this thread till very late this month or January, but perhaps there's no reason to leave something vague that can be cleared up, namely, the destination of Bilbo and other hobbits who set out from the Grey Havens at last. Where were they going to disembark?

It appears from Tolkien's comprehensive 1951 letter to Milton Waldman that their destination was Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle that was formerly between Middle-earth to the east and Aman the Blessed, aka the Undying Lands, to the west. But "Aman and Tol Eressëa were removed from Arda when Arda was made round at the destruction of Númenor" in the Second Age (Robert Foster, The Complete Guide to Middle-earth).

Specifically, Tolkien says "It is hinted that they come to Eressëa," as a summary of what LotR says (or means). The passage from the letter to Waldman is not given in Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; it appears in Sauron Defeated, p. 132.

There's still more to unpack from "Bilbo's Last Song." I hope for some good discussion of Tolkien's Late Thoughts as this thread gets going.
Let's go ahead and begin.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book (1962) was a pleasing book to hold and look at, a good size for a book of poems and generously illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Many readers will know it as reprinted in Ballantine’s paperback Tolkien Reader.

It’s by no means simply a pretty thing; there are frequent shadows of strangeness and melancholy sounds throughout the book. Here are some notes that by no means exhaust what may be gleaned from this book in the matter of lore and of late thoughts of Tolkien’s about his subcreation.

In the first of two poems about him, Tom Bombadil commands not only the various life-forms in his small realm (birds, badgers, the Willow-man), but the dead (the Barrow-wight, here again after his uncanny activity in Fellowship).

The second poem portrays hobbit-wardens identifying themselves as the ones who prevent “bogies from the Barrows” from invading the Shire. Is it reading too much into the available evidence to suggest, rather, that it is Tom himself who does that,* and if so that here we have a clue about why the region or regions around the Shire, which must include good, fertile lands, seem to be uninhabited except for trolls? These lands may, in fact, be haunted, and this may be due to Tom not repressing them. With the downfall of Sauron soon after the time of this poem, the “bogies” may have lost their presence and power.

We get a glimpse of Tom and Farmer Maggot – whom we know Tom respects – discussing “tall Watchers by the ford, Shadows on the marches.”

The book concludes with “The Last Ship.” This must have been for years the last thing that Tolkien thought would represent his work about Middle-earth. (Yes, he hoped to see The Silmarillion into print for a while, but eventually he had to have realized that he would not live to see that happen, and the book would be published, with his authorization, as whatever Christopher produced from his father’s manuscripts.)

Decades before, in the Book of Lost Tales period of Tolkien’s invention, he’d had the idea of the history of the Elves who have “faded” from human awareness by our time. (I’m using the word “faded” because I think Tolkien used it – I’m sure he did eventually; but frankly I’m not much acquainted with Tolkien’s early writings. But I think this was part of his first purpose.) So it’s noteworthy that this last poem ends with, “their song has faded.”

In the event, Tolkien did publish notes on Quenya and Sindarin in The Road Goes Ever On. But Firiel’s poem was probably the last story of Middle-earth that he saw into print – last in the sense of appearing on the final pages of a book.

(I write “probably” because of two poems were published later, “The Dragon’s Visit,” a comic poem that is surely not a poem of Middle-earth, and the other, “Once Upon a Time,” which is only doubtfully so. Is there really any reason to think it is seriously meant as a poem from the Third Age about Tom Bombadil – “Tom” is a character, but is it quite certain that this is Tom Bombadil? -- let alone about new creatures called lintips?

Tolkien and Fantasy: The Mystery of Lintips

My own take on “Once Upon a Time” might be that it is a poem about Tom Bombadil by a modern author -- his name was J. R. R. Tolkien -- and it’s not a translation from the Red Book. There’s nothing that says it was. But I mention these poems for the sake of completeness. If “Once Upon a Time” is to be read as a translation of something written millennia ago by Bilbo or some other hobbit, probably the lintips are to be taken as real creatures of Middle-earth no more than the mewlips are.)

To return to “The Last Ship” – though the original version dates to the 1930s, this poem makes a good conclusion to Tolkien’s Middle-earth storytelling. Once again, it possesses beauty, strangeness, pathos.

Fíriel’s feet sink into the mud; she is unable to come to the Elves’ boat. (“Fíriel” means “mortal woman.” She is “Earth’s daughter.”) An implication is that the Elves who called her would not have sunk into the waterside “clay.” In “The Ring Goes South,” in The Fellowship of the Ring, as will be remembered, Legolas wears just light shoes (not boots) and when he walks on the snowdrifts, he leaves almost no imprint.

The Elves had beckoned to Fíriel, the mortal woman. There’s a suggestion here of the Mary Rose theme. I refer to J. M. Barrie’s play, which deserves to be better known, and which got under Tolkien’s skin when he saw it performed (see the critical edition of On Fairy-Stories for his remarks).

Note: According to the critical edition of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil edited by Scull and Hammond, an error occurred when the book was originally published, whereby Nos. 12 and 11 became 11 and 12. The change was made so that the full-page cat picture would faxce “Cat.” Well and good, but the preface was not changed to reflect the change in numbering.

In other words, in fact it’s “Cat” that was a marginal addition to the Red Book, not “Fastitocalon.” It’s “Fastitocalon” that’s by Sam Gamgee, not “Cat.”

*It would be like some ignorant, smug hobbits, who actually owe their peace of mind to Tom and the Rangers, to give themselves the credit. Tom is scornful of their boasts.
Notes on “Namárië” and “A Elbereth Gilthoniel” in The Road Goes Ever On (1967).

When these notes appeared in 1967, they were by far the most technical notes relating to his invented languages that Tolkien had released to the public. I’m sure they remain important documents for students of Quenya and Sindarin.

Most buyers of The Road Goes Ever On may have found them (as Huck Finn said of The Pilgrim’s Progress) “interesting, but tough,” or just tough.

For the relative few who were eager for linguistic details, the notes must have been of the greatest interest. George Santayana, said, in his Sense of Beauty (1896), that “grammar…is akin to the deepest metaphysics, because in revealing the constitution of words, it reveals the constitution of thought, and the hierarchy of those categories by which we conceive the world.” I suppose Tolkien would have sympathized with that view.

The specifically linguistic material was beyond me, but I was intrigued by the few glimpses of Middle-earth’s ancient days. I’m quite sure that the significance of “Namárië” as Galadriel’s lament escaped me when I first read the Road notes at around age 15, by which time I’d probably read LotR three times. I wonder what I’d have said then if someone had asked me (unprepared) for the significance of “Elbereth.” In February 1972, though, I got Robert Foster’s Guide to Middle-earth (a Mirage Press hardcover with a Tim Kirk wraparound dust wrapper), and that would’ve been a handy source to consult. Its entry on Elbereth is indebted to the Road notes. A sense of beauty comes through even though these notes are “dry.”

Tolkien wrote, “These and other references to religion in The Lord of the Rings are often overlooked.”

The book’s examples of Tolkien’s calligraphy were appealing.

Ballantine Books, Tolkien’s American mass market paperback publisher, issued The Road in a hardcover, but not clothbound, edition, with Barbara Remington’s famous design from the three volumes of the (so-called) “trilogy” as a single image glued to the blue paper-fabric. This Ballantine release was an exceptionally attractive volume, and I bought one even though I couldn’t read music and didn’t play any instrument. Later, someone gave me a copy of the Houghton Mifflin first edition, bound in red cloth.

A Caedmon Spoken Arts LP record was released to coincide with the publication of the book, and that was a treasure in itself. Tolkien read several of his poems, including “A Elbereth Gilthoniel” in Sindarin. I played it often enough that I memorized it without trying to.

In 2002, HarperCollins published a third edition of The Road Goes Ever On, by the way. This had settings of two poems not included in the original song cycle, “Bilbo’s Last Song” and “Lúthien Tinúviel.” The second edition and this one include a reminiscence of Tolkien by Swann that didn’t appear in the first. There was no new material by Tolkien, however.

This third edition included a 2002 note by Leon Berger that says Swann had written an opera based on C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra when LotR came his way. Berger – or someone with the same name – sang the role of the Un-man in a performance early in this century. Three clips of music from the opera are available, one purely instrumental, one with soprano, and one with boy soprano.

Perelandra The Opera - Daily Info | Daily Info

C.S. Lewis on the Theological Nature of Science Fiction - Transpositions

I don’t know why the opera hasn’t been recorded for release as CD and/or DVD. I would think that, with all the CSL fans out there (and librarians being aware of the interest in his work), it would be sure of at least decent sales.
Whether “Of the Rings of Power and the End of the Third Age” from The Silmarillion technically belongs in a thread primarily devoted to Tolkien’s writings from after the time he finished the narrative of LotR is a matter that invited discussion.

Tolkien might have been working on that enormous narrative concurrently with the writing of “Of the Rings of Power,” which Douglas Kane (in Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion, 2011) believes was “in existence by 1948.”

Scull and Hammond say (The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, Part I: A-M, 2017) that “Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings, at least in draft, in the period 14 August to 14 September 1948 while in the quiet of his son Michael’s home at Payables Farm, while Michael and his family were away on holiday,” and that in 1949 Tolkien “made fair copies and typescripts of The Lord of the Rings, finishing the complete work in October 1949” (p. 719).

Scull and Hammond also note Christopher Tolkien’s idea that “Of the Rings of Power” “did not take shape until a very late stage in the writing of The Lord of the Rings, perhaps soon after its completion in late summer 1948” (The J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, Part II, p. 1096).

My take on the matter, then, is that “Of the Rings of Power and the End of the Third Age” may well be the first document in Tolkien’s “late thoughts on the Third Age” and thus is appropriate for discussion on this thread.

Page references are to my old Ballantine mass market paperback, the copy of The Silmarillion that I mark most freely.

356-357/ Interesting about the Three, forged for the Elves by Celebrimbor and never touched by him, and “yet they also were subject to the One,” Sauron’s Ring: Tolkien says the Wise “concealed them and never again used them openly while Sauron kept the Ruling Ring.” Once Sauron lost the Ring, however, the Three could be and were “used,” I take it.

358/ Stratyner’s essay in Mythlore #59 says the Nazgûl are “thanes” of the giver of rings Sauron, his “comitatus.” That is, their story as bearers of the Nine is of thanes who become thralls.

Sauron calls himself “Lord of the Earth.” This is the title of a futuristic and indeed apocalyptic novel by R. H. Benson, which, in an article years ago in Beyond Bree, I suggested was something that could have influenced Tolkien’s conception of Saruman.
I do mean to resume postings to this thread, though I’m not keeping up with the schedule.

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