The Nature of Middle-earth (Nature from now on) is the most recent publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts, a tradition started by his son and literary executor Christopher with The Silmarillion, back in 1973.
Although many of these books have been published over the past 48+ years—made out of Tolkien’s unfinished manuscripts plus some editorial work—Nature is special. First, it is the first of these books to be published after Christopher Tolkien’s death, which sets a precedent about the future of such publications, which was in doubt after his death.
Second: this is the first book to deliver some new, previously unpublished writings by Tolkien about Middle-earth in some time now. The last of them was The Story of Kullervo in 2015 (edited by the incomparable Verlyn Flieger) or, if we’re more strict in our definition, this honor belonged to 2007’s The Children of Húrin (edited by Christopher Tolkien).
Finally, Nature is special because it may very well be the last book with previously unpublished writing by Tolkien about Middle-earth that we see. As Hostetter himself admitted in an Ask Me Anything over at Reddit a couple of weeks ago, “I don’t think there is enough unpublished material concerning Middle-earth (outside of the linguistic papers) to form another volume like [Nature]” (his emphasis).
Taking all that into consideration, what’s in this book and who is it for? I’ll try to answer this and other questions in the following paragraphs.
After Tolkien died, Christopher found himself with the unenviable task of putting his father’s writings in order. What he encountered was a massive collection of texts in various degrees of completion and “organized” in a most idiosyncratic way.
This was 1973. Tolkien had been writing more or less seriously for at least 60 years and he mostly did so by hand, with a few texts later on in his life written on a typewriter.
Using those handwritten texts, often incomprehensible even to their own author, Christopher tried to share—with as much respect as possible—everything his father wrote about Middle-earth and other things. The results were dozens of books which, with a few notable exceptions, are mostly drafts with commentary.
In other words, they are not “complete” books.
Most of the time they are texts that were abandoned before they were completed. Sometimes they are complete but older versions of stories that never got rewritten or updated. Rarely they are isolated but complete works of fiction.
And, still, they are fascinating.
In my opinion, Tolkien was an amazing first drafter. He was capable of putting his ideas to paper quite clearly and with a strong style even in a first pass. Because of that, these “drafts” are often better written and more engaging than a lot of the “polished” fantasy published after Tolkien’s death.
Taking all of this into consideration, let’s talk about Nature.
The Nature of Middle-earth is a 440-page book divided into three main sections plus Appendices. Each of these sections includes chapters, each of them dedicated to a specific text that Hostetter—the editor—received from Christopher Tolkien as photocopies from originals.
If we add up the chapters and appendices, the total is 64. If we consider the book has 420 pages dedicated to its text, the result is that each chapter is, on average, 6 and a half pages long. And that’s including the text plus any commentary by Hostetter.
That’s not much.
Once you start reading you quickly realize why this is so. Most texts are just a couple of pages long and are mostly notes on highly specific topics and some other miscellaneous texts. These chapters often either comment upon or refer to much more substantial texts, like the ones published by Christopher while he was alive.
These texts truly feel, for the most part, anemic. You can glimpse little of Middle-earth in Tolkien’s (often erroneous) numerical calculations of the Elvish population after their Awakening. I couldn’t summon much excitement to read about how many solar years are contained in a Valian Year according to one of Tolkien’s latest-yet-seemingly-discarded ideas.
And this comes to the core of the issue with Nature and many of Tolkien’s latest writings, as published in Morgoth’s Ring and other books. What is the fictional truth in this and other cases? Should we believe Tolkien’s latest writings because they are, well, the latest, or should we take into account the consistency of the stories—the Legendarium—as a whole.
Or, in other words, what’s canon?
Nature and Middle-earth Canon
This is truly the core of the issue. Since Tolkien himself did not complete these texts and publish them in one form or another, we can’t know for certain what he would have decided to be the ultimate truth in many important matters regarding Middle-earth, from the origin of Orcs (and their redeemability) to the Sun and Moon and the whole cosmos in which the stories are set.
In the case of Nature, since the texts are so short, they hardly add anything of value to clarify these problems. It saddens me to say that, in my appreciation, the texts in Nature are little more than leftovers, the last remnants or ruins of Tolkien’s writing. And there’s little if any value to be derived from them.
Should I Buy and Read This?
If you would ask me that hypothetical question, I’d say that it depends on how deep you are in Middle-earth lore. If you have read only The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there are many other books I’d recommend before you buy and read this.
If you’re a Middle-earth aficionado and have read The Silmarillion and other related works, I think I’d still recommend for you to read The History of Middle-earth series (if not all, then its key books) before Nature.
Now, if you’ve read everything about Middle-earth that has been published, and you can be content with even the smallest of new content, then I think you won’t listen to my advice and you probably have already bought and read Nature.
If you’re on the fence, however, then I’d warn you that Nature is a hard read. I had to summon a lot of energy to keep on reading, especially in Part One, which is by far the most boring and insubstantial of the three. Part Two is the best, since it contains the most interesting material and Part Three, although it starts well, devolves into texts that are as arid and unattractive as the worst of Part One.
All in all, The Nature of Middle-earth is most probably the last book in this style we’ll see—and I’m glad for it. If there isn’t any worthwhile material left written by Tolkien (as Hostetter declares), then I hope that there are no more books in this vein.
Hopefully the current members of The Tolkien Estate try to honor both the author and his literary executor and avoid trying to make money out of texts that have little to no importance to our understanding of Middle-earth, such as the ones presented here.
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