The Nature of Middle-earth
The “last book” of The History of Middle-earth and the first of the post-Christopher era
The Argentinians sometimes say of their greatest tango singer, Carlos Gardel, that not only is he not dead, but also singing better and better. This always reminds me of Tolkien, who is fortunately still very prolific! On September 2, we celebrated his 48th death anniversary honoring him in the best possible way: with a new book hitting shelves, this time edited by Carl F. Hostetter, The Nature of Middle-earth.
Launched simultaneously in Brazilian Portuguese and English, The Nature of Middle-earth is the first book by Tolkien to come to light after Christopher’s passing, but it is not completely outside his aegis: it is dedicated to Tolkien’s son and indeed a result of correspondence between him and Hostetter, who received from Christopher materials for his consideration and approved the preliminary project.
More than that, the new book converses constantly with Christopher’s monument, The History of Middle-earth, making use of excerpts, particularly from the last volumes of the series, and adopting similar editorial practices: the texts in The Nature of Middle-earth are introduced by a discussion of the source — brief and accessible to the lay reader — and complemented by notes. Owing to this similarity, the new book functions as a kind of coda to the legendarium, since, as Hostetter said in the interview to this website, there is little of the Middle-earth matter left for publication. Hostetter, however, tends to be more concise than Christopher in his critical apparatus, causing this book to be faster to read. This can be helpful for the Brazilian reader to get used to the upcoming translations of The History of Middle-earth. By the way, having read the HoMe is not vital to understand the NoMe: if you read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, you are good to go. If you have also read Unfinished Tales, all the better!
The Nature of Middle-earth is split in three parts: “Time and Ageing” (23 chapters), “Body, Mind and Spirit” (17 chapters) and “The World, its Lands, and its Inhabitants” (22 chapters), apart from two appendices, one of them dealing with theological and metaphysical issues, and the other listing Quenya words. The variety of subjects covered in all these chapters is vast, and there is some overlapping at times. Therefore, what follows is but a very brief report of what can be found in the book.
In the first part, among the many tables, we see the Tolkien we are used to, struggling to give his own world ‘internal consistency’, calculating the number of Elves, periods of gestation and rates of ageing, making the March from Middle-earth to Valinor credible, and allowing — as a good philologist — the necessary amount of time for the languages to diverge. But not everything is about Math! In this part, the reader finds details about the Awakening of the Elves in Cuiviénen, the elvish perception of time and many of the events that took place during the Great March.
The second part, perhaps more palatable, deals with themes that will be of utmost interest to lovers of Elves and Valar, such as the issue of hair, thought-communication, death, reincarnation, and spirit, not to mention a very interesting chapter on how Tolkien envisaged the physical appearance of characters such as Gandalf, Legolas, and Shelob.
[Short digression: this part includes a text titled “Notes on Órë”, a word translated in the Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings as “heart (inner mind)”. In his article “Elvish as She Is Spoke”, written by Hostetter himself, he calls the attention to Neo-Elvish enthusiasts who mistakenly attribute to the quenya word órë the English meanings of the word heart (the physical organ, the seat of emotions, feelings, etc.): a warning for all of those who employ Elvish words and think that they are using authentic Elvish.]
The third part, the most varied of all and very much related to the Unfinished Tales, brings such issues as the making of lembas, light and darkness, some aspects of the Elvish economy, the powers of the Valar, and two longer essays dedicated to Númenor (its land and fauna) and Gondor (its rivers and beacon-hills).
The appendices written by Hostetter, in turn, help explain philosophical and theological issues (e.g.: the Ages of the World, the Fall of Men, Marriage, the Incorruptibility of Saints, etc.), using excerpts of the book as cues for discussion. This is particularly welcome to people who are ignorant in such matters, myself included. The glossary of terms in Quenya is helpful in providing easy reference and translation to frequent and essential words used throughout the book.
Many of these texts have already been published elsewhere, but the difficulty in getting them (either because they are old, rare, or expensive) justifies including them again in this volume, and the editor is successful in arranging the texts so that what could be seen as mere “disparity” becomes welcome “variety”, particularly in the third part. Such a variety is beneficial because it caters to the diverse tastes of diverse readers, and everyone will find something enjoyable there, whether they like Math, Philology, Geography, Zoology, Botanic, Thanatology, History, Philosophy, Theology, Anatomy, Telepathy… you name it. One cannot create a universe like Tolkien’s without creating everything a universe does or can contain.
The Nature of Middle-earth, like other posthumous books, has also much to say about the nature of Tolkien’s own composition: an erratic and dilatory writer, perhaps, but just because (apart from an eventful academic life) he was always adjusting things here and there, rewriting, annotating, looking almost obsessively for consistency and — typically for a niggler and a philologist — departing from a single linguistic root to reveal Elvish culture.
At least for the Brazilian reader, the “last book” of The History of Middle-earth is great in its own right, and also a prelude to something grandiose. Far from putting an end to anything, The Nature of Middle-earth is a new branch of a tree that has never stopped growing.