. Alas, not me

21 January 2023

Book Publication Announcement: To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity and the Ring of Power

To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity and the Ring of Power

(working title)


Thomas P. Hillman

A brief description
As the magical ring Bilbo found in The Hobbit became the One Ring to rule them all in The Lord of the Rings, the tale he told of how he had won it became a lie, and the pity that spared Gollum’s life emerged from the darkness beneath the Misty Mountains to challenge the might of Sauron. Yet the pity that Gandalf holds essential to destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron offers the bearer no protection against the corruptions of its power. By joining Tolkien and Frodo on their long and weary road, To Rule the Fate of Many illuminates the inner struggle Frodo had to face, and Tolkien had to create and explore, between the power Frodo weighs in his hand and the pity for the darkness he comes to hold in his heart.

In composing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien spent over a decade exploring the dynamics of the power of the Ring and powerlessness of pity. As he did so, all the themes his mythology had embodied since its earliest days during The Great War – Death and Immortality, Fate and Free Will, Divine Justice and the Problem of Evil, Power and War – took on a new aspect at once more vulnerable and more heroic in Frodo Baggins. In turn, as Tolkien began to ponder the expression of these constant themes in The Lord of the Rings, his meditations led him onward to a more philosophical and theological treatment of the unfolding of Ilúvatar's themes in history in later works like the Atrabeth Finrod a Andreth and Laws and Customs Among the Eldar. Like the Beowulf-poet he understood so well, Tolkien could encompass in his sympathy Christian religion and Pagan mythology, the Primary World in which he lived the questions of life and the Secondary World in which he imagined the working out of their answers.

Kent State University Press has in recent years extended a warm welcome to the study of The Inklings, publishing twenty-seven titles so far, including fourteen on J. R. R. Tolkien. It is, therefore, with great pleasure that I announce the forthcoming publication of my book, To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity and the Ring of Power, which studies the evolving dynamics of the Ring of Power and the paradoxical yet all-important quality of pity, and how this quality came to resonate throughout the entire legendarium as a result of the decade and more Tolkien spent unfolding the history of Arda through the writing of The Lord of the Rings

I am abashed, to say the least, to find my book keeping the company of works by scholars such as Verlyn Flieger, Diana Pavlac Glyer, and Amy Amendt-Radeuge -- to name only those who have won The Mythopoeic Society's award for scholaship in Inklings Studies for their work on Tolkien. These and the other scholars who have published on the Inklings with Kent State University Press have of course been nominated for or won awards from scholarly bodies too many to mention here. It is a very flattering thing for To Rule the Fate of Many to be included among them, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien, as a member of 'a class not as a competitor' (Letters no. 156, p. 201)

As soon as the book has an ISBN and is available for pre-order I'll add that information here. 

09 January 2023

Two Paragraphs and Two Threats Converging in Tolkien (FR 2.ix.382)

Here's a piece of analysis I decided to take out of my book, To Rule the Fate of Many: Truth, Lies, Pity and the Ring of Power, about which I hope to have an official, public announcement soon. (Absit omen!). I didn't really want to remove it, but I don't think it shows us as much about the argument I am making in my book as it does about Tolkien's ability to construct a scene in a landscape that is more than a backdrop but contributes meaningfully to the way in which this scene from the journey of the Company on the river quite literally flows. The River moves them all along, dividing them, grouping them, moving them apart and back together; and in the eddy and flow of the narrator's attention as it shifts from one character to the next the dreams, thoughts, and anxieties of the members of the Company converge in the two threats threatening them, one from within and one from without. So much of what we've learned about these characters and theirs stories so far is implicit here, and so much that will become clear after the convergence of the threats causes the threads of their stories to separate after the breaking of the Fellowship on Amon Hen and the meeting of Frodo and Gollum in the Emyn Muil.


The heart of Legolas was running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beech-woods; Gimli was fingering gold in his mind, and wondering if it were fit to be wrought into the housing of the Lady's gift. Merry and Pippin in the middle boat were ill at ease, for Boromir sat muttering to himself, sometimes biting his nails, as if some restlessness or doubt consumed him, sometimes seizing a paddle and driving the boat close behind Aragorn's. Then Pippin, who sat in the bow looking back, caught a queer gleam in his eye, as he peered forward gazing at Frodo. Sam had long ago made up his mind that, though boats were maybe not as dangerous as he had been brought up to believe, they were far more uncomfortable than even he had imagined. He was cramped and miserable, having nothing to do but stare at the winter-lands crawling by and the grey water on either side of him. Even when the paddles were in use they did not trust Sam with one.

As dusk drew down on the fourth day, he was looking back over the bowed heads of Frodo and Aragorn and the following boats; he was drowsy and longed for camp and the feel of earth under his toes. Suddenly something caught his sight: at first he stared at it listlessly, then he sat up and rubbed his eyes; but when he looked again he could not see it any more.

(FR 2.ix.382)

What beautiful paragraphs these are in detail and movement, from character to character, from boat to boat, and from threat to threat. Beginning with the loveliness of Legolas' vivid, dreamlike memory, and Gimli's chivalrous, romantic imaginings, we never expect the uncomfortable turn it takes, with the uneasiness of Merry and Pippin at the disturbing, almost threatening, behavior of Boromir. We then follow Boromir's gaze through Pippin's eyes straight to Frodo in the boat ahead with Strider and Sam. But suddenly and unexpectedly, since our attention has just been directed to Frodo, we find ourselves with Sam instead. But the introduction of Sam here, uncomfortable, unhappy, and untrusted Sam, is a misdirection. It lightens the menace of the sentences on Boromir, but only in order to refocus it a moment later on another threat that is present on the Great River, another one who has his had eyes fixed on Frodo and Frodo's burden for some time now.

It is of course Gollum whom Sam has seen, but the way in which the narrator shifts our gaze from Boromir to Gollum is masterful. Notice how Sam is looking back towards the boats behind his own. Given the previous paragraph, we might expect him to have caught the same look in Boromir's eyes as Pippin had. But it is not so. For just as we followed Boromir's gaze forward to Frodo, but found Sam instead, so, too, we now follow Sam's back, not to Boromir, but to Gollum. When Sam comes to tell Frodo what he has seen, he remarks over and over again on Gollum's eyes, five times in all, thus further pairing these two threats (FR 2.ix.382-83). Nor is this the first time that Frodo has been the object of the intense gaze of Gollum and Boromir (FR 2.vi.345; vii.358; viii.369; ix.383; cf. ix.388). As the day draws near when Frodo must decide between Minas Tirith and Mordor, danger is converging on him from more than one direction. From Gollum of course, as he tracks Frodo down the Great River, but also from his companion Boromir, who, desperate to save his homeland, feels quite keenly the anguish of the choice which lies before Frodo as he sits in the boat just ahead of him with Sam and Strider. And if Gollum, as Boromir himself said, is 'small, but great in mischief' (FR 2.ii.255), what is Boromir?

28 November 2022

Tolkien between two publishers, feeling like a fool

14 April 1950

Dear Unwin,

It was odd that our letters crossed. I might have waited a day longer; but the matter is for me becoming urgent. Weeks have become precious. I want a decision yes, or no: to the proposal I made, and not to any imagined possibilities.

Letters  no. 127


17 April 1950

[Sir Stanley Unwin to Tolkien:]

.... As you demand an immediate "yes" or "no" the answer is "no"; but it might well have been yes given adequate time and the sight of the complete typescript.

Quoted in note on Letters 128

I've recently been working on an article in which I argue that Tolkien's famous letter 131, so often cited and quoted, actually plays a large role in shaping the subsequent course of his writings on Middle-earth. For in this letter he is attempting to persuade Milton Waldman and Collins publishing to bring out The Lord of the Rings and 'The Silmarillion' together, and in order to do so he has to step back himself and come up with an explanation of how it all fits together, from the Ainulindalë to the tale of Beren One-hand and the Great Jewel, to the tale of Nine-fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom. In the Waldman letter Tolkien undertakes for his legendarium what he accomplished for Beowulf in his essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics and for fantasy in On Fairy-stories. The Beowulf essay directly precedes the writing of The Lord of the Rings; On Fairy-stories was written and re-written while he wrote The Lord of the Rings; and the Waldman letter follows immediately after its completion and marks a turning point towards the more philosophically and metaphysically focused writings on the 1950s -- works such as Laws and Customs among the Eldar and the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Together these three -- the Beowulf essay, On Fairy-stories, and the Waldman letter are indispensable for understanding the shape of The Lord of the Rings, most immediately, and the legendarium as a whole. 

But I digress. 

As I was looking through the Letters the other night and thinking about Tolkien's struggle, first with Allen and Unwin, and then with Collins, to get someone to publish his work as he thought it should be published, I spotted some details that were both very funny and very interesting. In the first place, there is the humor innate in Tolkien, whose writing process could not unfairly be called asymptotic, demanding an immediate 'yes' or 'no' answer to whether Allen and Unwin would publish both The Lord of the Rings (12 years in the writing and only just 'completed') and 'The Silmarillion' (over 30 years in the writing and not even close to finished, then or later).

What struck me as very funny, however, was the transition from his addressing Sir Stanley Unwin as 'Dear Unwin' in Letter 127 to his addressing Milton Waldman in Letter 131 far more personally as 'My dear Milton'. Tolkien had been in correspondence with Sir Stanley Unwin for more than a dozen years by this time. For at least the first four and a half years Tolkien had addressed his letters to 'Dear Mister Unwin'. Somewhere between February of 1942 (Letters no. 47) and March of 1945 (Letters no. 98), Tolkien became more familiar, dropping 'Mister' and beginning, as we saw above, with 'Dear Unwin'. By the time Tolkien wrote Letter 105 in the summer of 1946 Unwin had been knighted, and so Tolkien, as was proper, addressed him as 'Dear Sir Stanley.' Within a year, however, Sir Stanley suggested that they dispense with titles such as 'Sir' and 'Professor' altogether, to which Tolkien agreed and resumed addressing him as 'Dear Unwin' (Letters no 109).

Now many these days might find 'Dear Unwin' and 'Dear Tolkien' to be a little distant still, perhaps even frosty, but it was not so. For in Beleriand in those days using someone's first name was a privilege reserved for family and maybe very close friends. Tolkien and Lewis were for a long time extremely close, but even they did not call each other by their first names. Lewis called him Tollers or Tolkien. Tolkien called him Lewis or Jack (which was not of course Lewis's name at all). To illustrate this custom, no better or more appropriate authority can be cited than Tolkien's own letter from December 1965 to Rayner Unwin, son of Sir Stanley:

Very Best Wishes for Christmas and the New Year. Do you think you could mark the New Year by dropping the Professor? I belong to a generation which did not use Christian names outside the family, but like the dwarves kept them private, and for even their intimates used surnames (or perversions of them), or nicknames, or (occasionally) Christian names that did not belong to them. Even C. S. Lewis never called me by a Christian name (or I him). So I will be content with a surname. I wish I could be rid of the 'professor' altogether, at any rate when not writing technical matter. It gives a false impression of 'learning', especially in 'folklore' and all that. It also gives a probably truer impression of pedantry; but it is a pity to have my pedantry advertised and underlined, so that people sniff it even when it is not there.

(Letters no. 281)

So it is remarkable to see Tolkien in late 1951 addressing Waldman, whom he had met only in in the autumn of 1949, and whom he was addressing as 'Dear Waldman' in March 1950 (Letters no. 126), as 'My dear Milton'. It stands out even more when we notice that about a year and a half passed between Sir Stanley's rejection of Tolkien's ultimatum, which freed Tolkien to make a deal with Waldman and Collins, and Tolkien's 'My dear Milton,' a year and a half in which Tolkien found himself unexpectedly encountering resistance to his hopes and requests that The Lord of the Rings itself be cut. By late 1951 Tolkien's prospects for publication at Collins were fading, so much so that Waldman himself suggested that Tolkien write a letter to convince Waldman's associates at Collins that the two books must be published together. In this context, 'My dear Milton' has the ring of 'Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope.'

At about the same time Tolkien was composing his 10,000+ word letter to Waldman, in late November 1951, called upon Tolkien at home in Oxford, but did not see him since Tolkien was unwell (Scull and Hammond, C&G 1.401). He followed up with a letter, in which among other things he asked Tolkien if he could see 'The Silmarillion', but Tolkien did not reply. By the time Rayner Unwin wrote again in June of 1952 Tolkien's relations with Collins had completely failed, in a manner not unlike his negotiations with Sir Stanley two years earlier, ultimatum, rejection, and all. The failure was catastrophically disheartening and embarrassing for Tolkien, and you can hear it in his response to Rayner Unwin:

When I have a moment to turn round I will collect the Silmarillion fragments in process of completion – or rather the original outline which is more or less complete, and you can read it. My difficulty is, of course, that owing to the expense of typing and the lack of time to do my own (I typed nearly all of The Lord of the Rings) I have no spare copies to let out. But what about The Lord of the Rings? Can anything be done about that, to unlock gates I slammed myself?

(Letters no. 133)

The Salutation? 

Wait for it. 

'My dear Rayner'.

And if 'My dear Milton' makes me think of Princess Leia begging for Obi Wan's help, 'My dear Rayner' reminds me of Frodo's plea to Gandalf: 'O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do?' (FR 1.ii.59).

As we know, Tolkien and Allen & Unwin were able to work out their differences, and Tolkien never finished 'The Silmarillion'. 

It may be worth noting that Tolkien's Letters preserve only two further letters addressed to Stanley Unwin. Both come more than ten years after Tolkien's return to Allen & Unwin. In the only one of the two to preserve the salutation, Tolkien reverts to the more formal 'Dear Sir Stanley' (Letters nos. 241 and 248). Rayner Unwin, however, records an amusing and entirely predictable moment, the last time his father and Tolkien ever met, in 1967, which is quoted in Scull and Hammond (C&G III 1369):

"'It was at the Garrick [Club in London]. They were both rather deaf. My father talked about the balance sheet, which Tolkien didn't understand, and he talked about The Silmarillion, which my father didn't understand. But they were full of goodwill. They knew they owed each other a lot -- but they weren't sure for what.'"

Finally, for all Sir Stanley's attention to the balance sheet, in fairness to him we should remember that when Rayner told him in the autumn of 1952 that The Lord of the Rings could lose £1,000, which was a lot of money at the time, Sir Stanley replied:

'If you believe it is a work of genius, then you may lose a thousand pounds.'


According the Scull and Hammond's Companion and Guide, the last paragraph of Tolkien's Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin was written on a page torn from September in a 1951 planner. Since Tolkien must have begun writing his massive letter to Waldman soon afterwards, I wonder if this is why Tolkien stopped writing the much loved and much longed for story of Tuor. As John Garth has rightly pointed out to me, Tolkien had a lot of other work to do in the fall of 1951 and was also not well, so the Waldman letter may not be solely to blame for Tolkien's ceasing work on Tuor. Even if the Waldman letter should be the reason, however, for Tolkien's stopping, it would not be the reason why he never resumed this marvelous regrettably unfinished tale. Unless, perhaps, we consider the disappointment he felt at the failure of the Waldman letter to secure the simultaneous publication of 'The Silmarillion' and The Lord of the Rings. That surely stung, as did the fact that his experience with Collins had played out similarly to the his experience with Allen & Unwin had done. When Tolkien did return to work on 'The Silmarillion' a couple of years later, his concerns were more philosophical and theological as I mentioned at the beginning of this post. That is, I believe, a result of the overview of his legendarium which the Waldman letter necessitated. But I will argue this in much greater detail elsewhere. 

(Kudos if you got the joke in the title of this post.)

There's a lot more that could be said here. For the moment, I'll just give you the sources. In addition to Letters, there is Scull and Hammond's Companion and Guide for the relevant dates and people, Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, and Rayner Unwin's George Allen and Unwin: A Remembrancer.

20 November 2022

Hobbits and the Shire: The strength of the hills is theirs also.

Yesterday, a friend sent me something he was working on about The Lord of the Rings, and what he had to say about Hobbits and the Shire in it immediately made me think of the passage I have quoted below. I couldn't remember where I had read these comments before, though. I was pretty sure it wasn't in anything Tolkien wrote, and I thought it was in Lewis. As it turned out, I was right. It just took me a while to track it down. So to prevent me from forgetting the location of the comments again, I am sharing it with all of you.

The allusion to the 95th psalm in the penultimate sentence just makes me think of Tom Bombadil himself as well as old Tom's assessment of Farmer Maggot: ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open' (FR 1.vii.132). Remember, too, that the Shire has a power of its own (FR 2.i.222) and it was in the Shire (faced with the redoubtable Gaffer and Farmer Maggot) that 'the hunters before whom all have fled or fallen' faltered (FR 2.ii.260. And am I the only one who hears an echo of T. S. Eliot in 'We are synthetic men, uprooted'?

Tolkien once remarked to me that the feeling about home must have been quite different in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps this was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood-they were not mistaken for there was in a sense a real (not metaphorical) connection between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air & later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardised international diet (you may have had Canadian flour, English meat, Scotch oatmeal, African oranges, & Australian wine to day) are really artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours. My pen has run away with me on this subject.

C. S. Lewis, Letter to Arthur Greaves, 22 June 1930

17 November 2022

Not to find them, not to bind them -- Elrond and the Ring verse

'Yet no oath or bond is laid on you to go farther than you will.'

(FR 2.iii.280)

As I was listening to Corey Olsen on episode 226 of Exploring the Lord of the Rings say that Elrond refuses to 'bind' the members of the Company to the Quest, the word 'bind' suddenly leaped out at me. For obvious reasons (though they were obscure before the moment). The most prominent and important use of the word 'bind' in The Lord of the Rings comes of course in the Ring verse:

One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.(FR 2.ii.254)

And as soon as I thought of this verse in this connection, my mind then leapt to a statement Elrond made at the start of the council:

‘That is the purpose for which you are called hither. Called, I say, though I have not called you to me, strangers from distant lands. You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered that we, who sit here, and none others, must now find counsel for the peril of the world.

(FR 2.ii.242)

Elrond's entire approach (not to mention Gandalf's) rejects the kind of control and domination Sauron seeks and the Ring was created to impose, and embraces 'chance as it may seem' and hope.