Note on the original submission of the Lay of Leithian and The Silmarillion in 1937

taken from pp. 431-435, The Lays of Beleriand, HoME Vol. 3, by Christopher Tolkien, 1985

 

 In the wake of the immediate success of The Hobbit, which was published on 21 September 1937, Stanley Unwin, the chairman of George Allen & Unwin, was naturally anxious that my father should produce a sequel or successor – about hobbits. The result of the first meeting between the two of them, not long after the publication of the book, was that my father sent in various manuscripts, among them the Lay of Leithian (referred to in the correspondence of that time as the Gest(e) of Beren and Lúthien) and The Silmarillion.

      Humphrey Carpenter says in his Biography (p.183) that ‘the manuscripts [of The Silmarillion] – or rather, the bundle of manuscripts – had arrived in a somewhat disordered state, and the only clearly continuous section seemed to be the long poem “The Gest of Beren and Lúthien”.’ Rayner Unwin has told me that in the record kept by Allen & Unwin of incoming manuscripts the works delivered on 15 November 1937 were listed as:

1   Farmer Giles of Ham

2   Long Poem

3   Mr Bliss

4   The Gnomes Material

5   The Lost Road

 Notes of my father’s show that together with The Silmarillion ‘proper’ he sent at this time Ainulindalë (The Music of the Ainur), Ambarkanta (The Shape of the World), and The Fall of the Numenoreans. I think that this is why the fourth item in the record book was written down as ‘The Gnomes Material’. It may be that the different manuscripts were not very clearly differentiated, while the title-pages of the different works would certainly seem obscure; and ‘The Gnomes Material’ was a convenient covering phrase.* But perhaps one may detect in it a note of helplessness as well, apparent also in the description of item 2 as a ‘Long Poem’. – On the other hand, it should be mentioned that the text of The Silmarillion was at that time a fine, simple, and very legible manuscript.

      There is no evidence that The Silmarillion and other Middle-earth prose works were submitted to the publishers’ reader. In his report on the poem he referred only to ‘a few pages’ and ‘some pages’ in prose, and Stanley Unwin, when he returned the manuscripts on 15 December 1937, mentioned ‘the pages of a prose version’ which accompanied the poem. Humphrey Carpenter seems certainly right in his suggestion (Biography p. 184) that these pages were attached ‘for the purpose of completing the story, for the poem itself was unfinished’; they were pages from the story of Beren and Lúthien as told in The Silmarillion. But it is also obvious from the reader’s report that he saw nothing else of The Silmarillion. He headed his report: ‘The Geste of Beren and Luthien (Retold in Verse by ?)’, and began:

 

I am rather at a loss to know what to do with this – it doesn’t even seem to have an author! – or any indication of sources, etc. Publishers’ readers are rightly supposed to be of moderate intelligence and reading; but I confess my reading has not extended to early Celtic Gestes, and I don’t even know whether this is a famous Geste or not, or, for that matter, whether it is authentic. I presume it is, as the unspecified versifier has included some pages of a prose-version (which is far superior).

 

By the last sentence he meant, I think, that the story, as represented in what he took to be a close prose translation, was authentic ‘Celtic Geste’, and that the ‘unspecified versifier’ had proceeded to make a poem out of it.

      However, he was a critic positive in his taste, and he contrasted the poem, greatly to its disadvantage, with ‘the few pages of (presumably) prose transcript from the original’. In the poem, he said, ‘the primitive strength is gone, the clear colours are gone’ – a notable conclusion, even if the actual evolution of the Matter of Beren and Lúthien was thus turned onto its head.

      It may seem odd that the reader who was given the poem should have had so little to go on; even odder, that he wrote with some enthusiasm about the fragment of prose narrative that accompanied it, yet never saw the work from which the fragment came, though that was the most important manuscript sent in by the author: he had indeed no reason to suspect its existence. But I would guess that my father had not made it sufficiently clear at the outset what the Middle-earth prose works were and how they related to each other, and that as a result ‘the Gnomes Material’ had been set aside as altogether too peculiar and difficult.

      At the bottom of the reader’s report Charles Furth of Allen & Unwin wrote: ‘What do we do?’; and it was left to the tact of Stanley Unwin to devise a way. When he returned the manuscripts to my father he said:

As you yourself surmised, it is going to be a difficult task to do anything with the Geste of Beren and Lúthien in verse form, but our reader is much impressed with the pages of a prose version that accompanied it.

 

and he quoted from the report only the approving (if misdirected) remarks which the reader had made about the Silmarillion fragment, and which Humphrey Carpenter quotes—‘It has something of that mad, bright-eyed beauty that perplexes all Anglo-Saxons in face of Celtic art,’ &c. But Stanley Unwin then went on to say:

The Silmarillion contains plenty of wonderful material; in fact it is a mine to be explored in writing further books like The Hobbit rather than a book in itself.

 

These words effectively show in themselves that The Silmarillion had not been given to a reader and reported on. At that time it was an extremely coherent work, though unfinished in that version.† Beyond question, Stanley Unwin’s object was to save my father’s feelings, while (relying on the reader’s report – which concerned the poem) rejecting the material submitted, and to persuade him to write a book that would continue the success of The Hobbit. But the result was that my father was entirely misled; for in his reply of 16 December 1937 (given in full in Letters pp. 26-7) – three days before he wrote saying that he had completed the first chapter, ‘A Long-expected Party’, of  ‘a new story about Hobbits’ – he said:

My chief joy comes from learning that the Silmarillion is not rejected with scorn.  . . .  I do not mind about the verse-form [i.e. the verse-form of the tale of Beren and Luthien, the Lay of Leithian] which in spite of certain virtuous passages has grave defects, for it is only for me the rough material.§ But I shall certainly now hope one day to be able, or to be able to afford, to publish the Silmarillion!

 

He was quite obviously under the impression that The Silmarillion had been given to a reader and reported on (no doubt he saw no significance in Stanley Unwin’s phrase ‘the pages of a prose version’); whereas so far as the existing evidence goes (and it seems sufficiently complete) this was not the case at all. He thought it had been read and rejected, whereas it had merely been rejected. The reader had certainly rejected the Lay of Leithian; he had not rejected The Silmarillion, of which he had only seen a few pages (not knowing what they were), and in any case enjoyed them – granting the difficulties that an Anglo-Saxon finds in appreciating Celtic art.

It is strange to reflect on what the outcome might conceivably have been if The Silmarillion actually had been read at that time, and if the reader had maintained the good opinion he had formed from those few pages; for while there is no necessary reason to suppose even so that it would have been accepted for publication, it does not seem absolutely out of the question. And if it had been? My father wrote long after (in 1964, Letters p. 346):

I then [after the publication of The Hobbit] offered them the legends of the Elder Days, but their readers turned that down. They wanted a sequel. But I wanted heroic legends and high romance. The result was The Lord of the Rings.

 

*There is no question that The Silmarillion itself did go to Allen & Unwin at this time. My father made a note while it was gone about changes to be made to it when it came back to him, and he specifically acknowledged the return of it (Letters p. 27): ‘I have received safely . . . the Geste (in verse) and the Silmarillion and related fragments.’

There was not in fact a great deal more to be done in reworking the 1930 text: the new version extended (in some 40,000 words) to part way through Chapter XXI, Of Turin Turambar.

§This may seem a rather surprising thing to say; but it is to be remembered that he had abandoned the poem six years before, and was at this time absorbed in the perfecting of the prose Silmarillion.