George MacDonald and one of Tolkien’s most quotable lines

I’ve been re-reading many of the works of George MacDonald recently, in preparation for my keynote lecture at the George MacDonald’s Scotland conference at the University of Aberdeen next week (https://gmdscotland.wordpress.com/). My lecture is titled “George MacDonald and Celticity”, and – among other works – I’ve just finished re-reading Sir Gibbie, one of MacDonald’s “realistic” novels with a Scottish setting (and extensive use of Scotch in the dialogue).

Just as I was about to start wrapping up my notes, I was struck again by these few lines, towards the end of the novel:

The one secret of life and development, is not to devise and plan, but to fall in with the forces at work—to do every moment’s duty aright—that being the part in the process allotted to us;…

Well, this time round, I know what it was that made these lines stand out for me the first time I read them! They brought to mind this exchange:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

Though I know the emphasis of each extract is rather different (and so is the context!) the argument seems to me ostensibly the same. And knowing that Tolkien (and C.S. Lewis) read George MacDonald, one of the two main “grandfathers” of modern fantasy literature (the other is William Morris) makes the link even stronger in my mind.

I’ll leave this small observation here for you to ponder!


The History of Middle-earth: Exploring Tolkien’s entire ‘legendarium’

Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, of course, his best-known works, much loved and read (and often re-read regularly!) but countless people all over the world over the years. But these two works are only the tip of the iceberg of an extended mythology, which most readers know today from the posthumously published Simlarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion traces the history of Tolkien’s imaginary world over millennia, including a cosmogonic myth (the “Ainulindalë”) and a great number of interrelated legends and tales from the First, Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth.

But this isn’t all. The Silmarillion represents only a ‘late’ conception of the Middle-earth mythology, and it was still a work in flux when Tolkien died. To address this problem, Christopher Tolkien undertook the enormous task of editing and publishing thirteen volumes of Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings over sixty years, showing the evolution of his mythology: the 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth, together with Unfinished Tales. I am often asked about these books, by students and visitors on this blog, so I thought I’d give a quick overview of their content and – perhaps – inspire more readers to consider them. As for budding Tolkien scholars, they will need to read all of these volumes (we are well past the time when one could ignore them!) so this outline may make the task a little less daunting.

First Phase: The Mythology before The Hobbit

The first five volumes of The History of Middle-earth largely represent the evolution of Tolkien’s mythology before the writing and publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

The first and second volumes (1983–4) present The Book of Lost Tales, written in the 1910s and 1920s. They also include many of Tolkien’s early poems, written before and during the Lost Tales. One of the main differences between the Lost Tales and the published Silmarillion is in the presentation of the mythology through a ‘framework’ and a ‘mediator’: the character of Eriol (later called Ælfwine) is a traveller to the isle of the Elves, where he hears their stories and records them for mankind.

The third volume, The Lays of Beleriand (1985), includes two long poems: one on the story of Túrin, and the other on the tale of Béren and Lúthien, all written during 1921–32. These poems represent a period in Tolkien’s creative expression of his mythology when he turned from prose to verse. But writing in verse proved to be temporary: both poems were left unfinished.

The fourth volume, The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986), contains the Sketch of the Mythology, which is a prose synopsis of Tolkien’s mythology written in 1926. In this short piece, Tolkien tries to ‘explain’ how his vision of the long poem on the story of Túrin fitted within the whole legendarium. Tolkien wrote this summary of his mythology for the benefit of his former schoolmaster, R.W. Reynolds, to whom he had sent the poetic version of the Túrin tale, asking for his comments.

After the Sketch, Tolkien returned to prose for good in Qenta Noldorinwa, which also represents his next attempt to record his mythology. The Sketch of the Mythology and the Qenta Noldorinwa are the only complete accounts of the legendarium covering the whole of the First Age of Middle-earth from the arrival of the Valar in Arda to the overthrow of Morgoth. At that stage of the mythology’s evolution, no Second or Third Ages had yet been conceived. The matter of Númenor along with the setting of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had yet to be invented.

The fifth volume, The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987), introduces the story of Númenor into the mythology. Written around 1936–7, it contains the first version of the legend of Númenor, The Fall of Númenor, and Tolkien’s first abortive time-travel story, entitled The Lost Road. Closely associated with the Númenórean material, The Lost Road involved a series of fathers and sons reliving northern European myths and legends through dreams, concluding with the fall of Númenor from Tolkien’s own mythology. Finally, the volume contains Tolkien’s fourth attempt to record the entire narrative of his mythology: the unfinished Quenta Silmarillion, written between the mid-1930s and 1938.




Second Phase: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

By 1937, Tolkien’s story The Hobbit, originally created to amuse his children and initially conceived as independent from Middle-earth, was published. After its success his publishers asked for a ‘sequel’. Instead, Tolkien offered them his private mythology: the incomplete Quenta Silmarillion and a few other texts. The work was rejected, but Tolkien was still very much encouraged to write another story about hobbits. He started writing it reluctantly in the beginning, but soon realized that the story was growing into something different than a mere children’s story.


The next four volumes (VI-IX) of The History of Middle-earth record step-by-step how Tolkien created The Lord of the Rings, following his creative path from manuscript to manuscript during the period 1937-50, including rejected versions and revisions.

  • The Return of the Shadow (1988)
  • The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The War of the Ring (1990)
  • Sauron Defeated (1992)

During this time Tolkien stopped working on his mythology and devoted all his time to the ‘new Hobbit’ his publishers had requested. The Notion Club Papers, written between December 1945 and August 1946, represents the only period during which he deviated from his task. Tolkien wrote The Notion Club Papers as a time-travel story; it is included as the second part of the ninth volume of The History of Middle-earth entitled Sauron Defeated. Similar in theme to The Lost Road, this story was also left unfinished. In The Notion Club Papers the dreamers travelling to the past are Oxford dons belonging to a literary group called the ‘Notion Club’, similar to the Inklings group that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien belonged to. In this work the dreamers travel back in time, mainly to places from Tolkien’s own mythology like Númenor and Valinor. The Notion Club Papers was not just another attempt to write a time-travel story, but also a narrative experiment to find a ‘framework’ for presenting his whole mythology. Instead of using a ‘mediator’, like Eriol/Ælfwine in The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien seems to have considered time travelling as a way of ‘introducing’ his legendarium to readers.

Third Phase: Revisiting the Mythology after The Lord of the Rings

After the great success of The Lord of the Rings, the publication of The Silmarillion was finally a possibility. The Appendices of the former had whetted the appetites of readers for the myths and legends of Middle-earth. The last three volumes of the History of Middle-earth represent Tolkien’s efforts to fulfil this demand by attempting to compile a mythology fit for publication.

The tenth and eleventh volumes of the series, Morgoth’s Ring (1993) and The War of the Jewels (1994), include the Later Quenta Silmarillion. From 1950 to the mid-1960s Tolkien returned to the earlier Quenta Silmarillion to rewrite large parts and make changes, but the work remained unfinished. At the same time he wrote a plethora of other texts related to the Quenta Silmarillion.


These texts included essays on specific characters, moral and theological issues raised by his mythology, as well as parts of stories from the mythology rewritten in a different prose form. Many of these texts are included in the twelfth volume of the series, The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996), which also records the compilation of Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Some of these late texts are also found in Unfinished Tales (1980).

Further resources online on The History of Middle-earth:

Henry Neff’s invented world: myth, legend and the boundaries of fantasy

Last week I blogged about Lloyd Alexander, the American fantasist who creatively reshaped elements from Welsh tradition to create an exciting fantasy world and a very successful, award-winning series of books. Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964) is the earliest text explored in my forthcoming monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, due out soon by Palgrave Macmillan. Today, I continue a series of blogs related to my book, with another American fantasist who is on the opposite side of my chronology continuum, having produced the most recent text of Celtic-inspired fantasy I explored.

The name is Henry H. Neff and if you haven’t heard it yet, you’d better take a note of it as his reputation is quickly spreading beyond the USA! Neff’s The Tapestry series is a worthy addition to children’s/young-adult fantasy and his world-building is truly ambitious and original.


The Tapestry series is made up of five books: The Hound of Rowan (2007), The Second Siege (2008), The Fiend and the Forge (2010), The Maelstrom (2012) and The Red Winter (2014). The pentalogy begins in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the style and structure of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: a young boy suddenly finds out that he is one of a few people around the world who have inherited a ‘spark’ of magic from the ancient powers that once looked after the world. He is then whisked off to a secret school where he takes lessons in a rather eclectic mix of subjects designed to hone his special abilities. But the similarities stop more or less here. Max MacDaniels is only one of two special boys the series focuses on: where Max is unusually powerful and agile, his best friend and roommate, David Menlo, is the most talented “mystic” of his generation. Alongside the two boys we are also introduced to schoolmates, friends, enemies, and teachers (all staple characters of the ‘school story’ genre) but also magical creatures and motifs from myth and legend. In addition to that, already from the first book we have elements of a well-thought-through background cosmogony and cosmology, and from the second book and on the plot expands in space and time to a truly ambitious scope.

One of the most successful aspects of The Tapestry is its hybrid status in terms of genre. Although world-building is at the core of the series and fantasy is its main structural and narrative trope, there are also elements of the ‘school story’, science fiction, as well historical fiction. Myth and legend are also main ingredients in the ‘cauldron of story’ that Neff has created, blending a number of different mythological traditions including Irish, Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Hebrew, Finnish and Anglo-Saxon. The result is a rich mythopoeia which, for me, is mainly carried by the centrality of the Irish tradition in the series. While researching my book, it was so very exciting to see a new fantasist from outside Ireland being so powerfully inspired by the life and deeds of Cúchulain, the most celebrated hero of medieval Irish literature.


Max in battle, brandishing the gae bolga, Cúchulain’s legendary weapon (copyright Henry H. Neffl; illustration reproduced by kind permission)

The figure of Cúchulain, the “Irish Achilles”, has been appropriated by different sides of the Irish political spectrum for centuries, often for diametrically opposed ideological causes. His status as a national hero is left aside in The Tapestry. Refreshingly, Henry Neff offers us a vision of Cúchulain as a teenager: just like his Irish inspiration, Max MacDaniels possesses supernatural strength, becomes the defender of his people, struggles with the heroic code and his own identity, and all of that at the threshold of manhood. A number of other figures from Irish medieval literature make an appearance, including Lugh, Scathach, and a Fomorian, while Neff’s cosmology involves the legendary race of the Tuatha de Danaan. More on Neff’s creative engagement with the Irish tradition in Chapter 3 of my book!

Henry Neff’s mythopoeia is supported by a creative element that is often seen as ‘para-textual’: Illustrations based on his own drawings. Tolkien famously visualised Middle-earth and provided his own illustrations for The Hobbit, but much of his art remained unpublished in his lifetime. Neff’s five books, on the contrary, engage in a sustained way with the visual side of his world: each chapter opens with a drawing and each volume also contains a handful of full page illustrations. We, therefore, get a very clear sense of how much successful fantasy relies on imagining a rich, alternative world which can be experienced visually.

The vision and scale of The Tapestry is difficult to encapsulate in a single blog post, but let me add a few more interesting elements:

  • Astaroth, the arch-villain of the series, is not the typical “Dark Lord” we expect from fantasy: he is seductive, relatable and unpredictable. As a reader one is never sure how he will react or behave.
  • The series does humour really well, and includes some memorable characters who may initially seem to be there only for comic relief, but end up showing a great degree of complexity.
  • There are some really strong female characters who do not conform to the tired gender stereotypes often reproduced in the genre
  • There are elements of an invented language used by the race of demons who become more central from the third book and on

The ending of the series is both innovative and memorable: I’ve often wondered aloud during my fantasy literature lectures about whether any new fantasy writer will ever challenge some of fantasy’s structural tropes, and Neff has a real good go at this! (I won’t say another word – no spoilers! Read it and find out!)

That Neff’s spin-off series, Impyrium, will be published by HarperCollins (the official publisher of J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin) is a clear indicator of Neff’s developing skill and creative vision. Impyrium is out on 6th October, but you can read the first 100 pages as a free sample via the HarperCollins website. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next!

Useful links: