It's J.R.R. Tolkien's twelvety-first birthday, and it's amazing to think how the Middle-earth franchise has changed in a scant decade. Sure, there were multiple video games, board games and the like before the films, but nothing like the volume of other franchises. For most of its years, Middle-earth has enjoyed a sort of sanctity, with Tolkien afforded his deserved place as Sub-Creator, any derivative efforts considered exactly that. Middle-earth Role-Playing introduced several characters, names, places and ideas, but nobody tried to say it was "canon." And Tolkien's been lucky: nobody's been trying to horn in on his status, claiming to be "co-creators" of Middle-earth, or that their fan-fiction is just as good as his, if not better. Though there is someone who is unfairly saddled with that label.
I keep seeing this allegation that Christopher Tolkien's only in it for the money. That The Silmarillion, The History of Middle-earth, The Children of Hurin, and so forth, speak to a mind tainted by the lure of moneys. That is demonstrably balderdash, because many of Christopher's actions and decisions are directly opposite to someone who's only in it for the money.
CT's relationship to Middle-earth has been strong almost from the beginning, when his father told him the tales of Bilbo Baggins which would eventually be published as The Hobbit. When JRRT was writing The Lord of the Rings, CT offered his own advice, input and observations during the fifteen years of writing, and was instrumental in drawing the maps which appeared in the first publications. JRRT left an incredible volume of notes, drafts, fragments and sketches related to the grand legendarium of Middle-earth on his death, most notably the unfinished Silmarillion. CT took it upon himself to organise his father's notes, make sense of thousands of pages of hand-written material. He rarely had to make educated guesses as to his father's intentions when faced with a particularly mysterious fragment - and no-one was more well-equipped to make such guesswork. JRRT himself thought so, and explicitly made CT his executor and demanded that he hold the copyright.
The publication of The Silmarillion in 1977 is the source of no small amount of controversy in regards to CT's role as editor, and he himself is willing to acknowledge some of the mistakes made. However, he sought to make good on those mistakes in Unfinished Tales and the decades-spanning publication of The History of Middle-earth, which presented JRRT's notes in a far more comprehensive light. Throughout those years, CT has been an invaluable resource for those seeking to learn more about the creation, themes and evolution of one of the great fantastic literary works of the 20th Century. He followed in his father's footsteps both in education (attending Oxford and earning a B.A. and B.Litt in English) and in literature.
And yet, CT's devotion to his father's work did not begin and end with Middle-earth: we have CT to thank for the publication of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, Mr Bliss, Father Giles of Ham, JRRT's translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Ofeo, his literary criticism in The Monsters and the Critics, as well as authorising publication of JRRT's work by other editors such as Alan Bliss' publication of Finn and Hengist, Michael D.C. Drout's Beowulf and the Critics, and Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond's Roverandom, and treasures like The J.R.R. Tolkien Soundbook and Wayne Hammond's J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator.
We need only compare the actions of Christopher Tolkien to someone else who is acting as caretaker to his father's legacy: Brian Herbert. Brian is the son of science-fiction legend Frank Herbert, an author who is frequently compared to Tolkien in terms of his impact and influence on his genre. BH took after his father by becoming a science-fiction author himself, publishing several novels and short stories in the 1980s. Like CT, he is also an authority on the universe of his father's most celebrated creation - in this case, the world of Dune. Unlike CT, however, BH has not published his father's notes (though he has apparently composed a concordance of Dune, with no plans to publish them), and has instead collaborated with fellow author Kevin J. Anderson on a series of prequels to Dune. All have made the New York Times Best Seller list.
The differences between CT and BH's approach are self-evident: one strives to present his father's notes more or less as written, with editing and annotations where necessary, and no posthumous collaboration a la de Camp or Derleth; the other concocts entire novels from his father's plot outlines and fragments, while not making those original works available to the public. Of all the publications CT has edited over the years, one could only really accuse The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin as approaching or even encroaching into the realm of posthumous collaboration: BH has produced no less than ten novels ranging from expanded drafts to whole-cloth spinning from single-page outlines.
Think about this. If CT was truly interested in wringing as much money out of Middle-earth as he could, he surely could have teamed up with someone like Brandan Sanderson or Kevin J. Anderson or someone whose name rhymes with Anderson, and expanded his father's work into entire novels. And as anyone could tell you, there are a lot of stories ripe for expansion. The appendices of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have already been mined for video game plots, board games, and film adaptations. Each book - each chapter - of The Silmarillion has enough in it to form a multi-volume series, more than enough to rival all the Dune prequels. And then there's The History of Middle Earth: you could produce a new sequel trilogy ('cause trilogies are the in-thing) based on The New Shadow alone.
Playing the "What If" game is rarely useful or critically insightful, but it might offer a bit of perspective. What if Christopher Tolkien was more mercenary minded? Here's an entirely speculative timeline.
Report from A-U 74.6f.6c.6b.69.65.6e
Speculated Point of Divergence: Death of JRRT, coincident with bombardment of Mammon rays on CT by unknown party
1973: CT hires Dennis L. McKiernan to co-author several books based on JRRT's notes over the next few years. The most complete of the stories, tentatively titled "The Children of Hurin," is expanded into a full narrative into the first of the Tales of Middle-earth series. Tolkien fans who note the inexactitude of collecting stories set in Beleriand under a series called Tales of Middle-earth are largely ignored.
CT and McKiernan collaborate with Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson on the first of several Middle-earth roleplaying games, The Dungeons & Dragons of Middle-earth. It went on to rival Chivalry & Sorcery and RuneQuest as the RPG of choice for fantasy fans.
1974: Tales of Middle-earth: The Children of Hurin is released. It is a bestseller, but critical reception is mixed due to the dark subject matter and sombre tone of the story, with most publications considering it unsuitable as a "children's fairy tale." CT and McKiernan made several alterations to the story, most significantly the inclusion of a happy ending where Turin & Nienor live happily ever after - the matter of Turin & Nienor's genetic ties being waved off as Glaurung's lies - when Turin finally "mastered his fate" by slaying Glaurung and lifting the curse Morgoth placed on his father. CT's justification was that Tolkien was writing "action stories for 15 to 25-year-olds," and that any deeper meaning within was strictly unintentional. The original version of The Children of Hurin remains unpublished. The book was followed through the '70s and '80s by The Fall of Gondolin, The Lay of Beren & Luthien, The Awakening Trilogy (The Awakening of the Elves, The Awakening of Men, and The Awakening of the Dwarves), the Fallen trilogy (The Lost Road, Tal-Elmar, and The Drowning of Numenor), the Oath of Feanor hexalogy (The Unchaining of Melkor, The Darkening of Valinor, Theft of the Silmarils, The Flight of the Noldor, Kinslayer, and The Battle Under The Stars), and The War of Wrath. Other stories based upon what would, in another timeline, become The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth were published in the subsequent decades, co-written by such genre luminaries as Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David Eddings, R.A. Salvatore, Kevin J. Anderson and Richard A. Knaak.
1975: Following the success of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian, DC hired David Michelinie and Ernie Chan to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a comic format. Lord of the Rings was criticised by Tolkien fans for the excessive violence and simplification of the story, the heavy copying from Conan the Barbarian - Aragorn in particular was criticised for his more-than-superficial resemblance to John Buscema's Conan - and the significant expansion of the novel to include supplementary stories by Michelinie and others. Nonetheless, the comic was successful, seeing contributions from luminaries Steve Ditko, Mike Grell, and Mike Vosburg, and lasted for several years.
1976: CT collaborates with John Boorman and United Artists to produce The Lord of the Rings. The film would be beset with problems: creative disagreements, actors protesting conditions, and constant editorial interference from the studio, who insisted on more science-fiction elements in the wake of Star Wars' success.
The BBC adapts The Lord of the Rings into a staged miniseries starring Paul McCartney as Frodo Baggins, Ringo Starr as Sam Gamgee, George Harrison as Gandalf, and John Lennon as Gollum. It was a very faithful adaptation of the book, but many found the casting of The Beatles to be extremely distracting, and the songs too modern.
Tom Shippey writes "The Middle-earth Conspiracy," an essay which deeply criticizes CT and McKiernan's approach to JRRT's work, citing the several inconsistencies between characters and events, arguing that JRRT is vastly superior as an author and should be considered the sole creator of Middle-earth, and his writings the only true "canon." This essay encapsulates much of the frustration felt by members of the Mythopoeic Society and other Tolkien purists, initiates a protracted back-and-forth between Shippey and CT, and a minor schism between Tolkienists and "Ringers" emerges.
1977: To drum up interest in the upcoming Boorman film, CT expands his pastiche plans for a new series set during or just prior to the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, called The War of the Ring. The first, The War of the Ring: The Hunt for the Ring, was published in 1977 and followed by The Heirs of Elendil, The House of Eorl, Durin's Folk, Twilight of Angmar, The Kin-Strife, The Corsair Wars, The Conquest of Moria, and The War in the North.
1980: CT and McKiernan begin writing The Lord of the Rings II: The Dark Tide, first in the long-awaited sequel trilogy. The book takes elements from "The New Shadow" and "The Tale of Years" to present the story of a resurgence of Sauron in the Fourth Age, with a plot closely mirroring that of the original trilogy.
The Lord of the Rings is at the centre of controversy over the supposed "Seduction of the Innocent" going on in the late '70s and early '80s, with the widespread belief that the games and books were Satanic. Tolkien fans were adamant in pointing out the author's staunch Catholicism and the many Christian elements of LotR, but they are unheeded in the wake of shrill hand-wringing and exploitation of tragedies.
1981: The long-delayed, vastly over-budgeted and relentlessly troubled John Boorman's The Lord of the Rings is released worldwide. It featured John Terry as Frodo, John Alderton as Sam, Gabriel Byrne as Aragorn, Sean Connery as Gandalf, Max Von Sydow as Saruman, Liam Neeson as Boromir, Robert Addie as Legolas, Patrick Stewart as Gimli, Cherie Lunghi as Galadriel, Helen Mirren as Eowyn, Lysette Anthony as Arwen, and James Earl Jones as the Witch-King. It was widely praised for its effects, art design, and the performances from the stellar cast, but criticised for its chaotic and meandering story, frugal insertion of iconic classical music, and significant divergences from the source material. Tolkien fans were especially outraged by the Hobbit and Dwarf characters presented as indistinguishable from humans, Gandalf & Saruman's outlandish war of words, the nonsensical awakening of Gimli's ancestral memories by ritual bludgeoning, and the many gratuitous sex scenes (Arwen's healing of Frodo in Rivendell, Frodo & Galadriel in Lothlorien, and Aragorn's healing of Eowyn on the Pellenor Fields singled out). The film was a critical and financial disaster, but would gain a cult following in subsequent years. Ralph Bakshi's animated Conan the Barbarian and John Milius' Flash Gordon starring Arnold Schwarzenegger were released the same year, also going on to become cult classics.
Concurrent with the release of John Boorman's The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings II: The Dark Tide is published. It is critically derided as Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfilment, though some publications praise it as a guilty pleasure, but is a resounding commercial success, topping the New York Times Bestsellers list for several weeks. Reaction from Tolkien fans is split, mostly between those who want Middle-earth to be considered Tolkien's creation alone with no extraneous work from other authors, and those who believe Middle-earth should be shared with everyone. The most common criticism is that the story is almost identical in construction to The Lord of the Rings, including two Hobbit heroes and a quest to destroy an artifact of terrible power.
1982: The Lord of the Rings II: Shadows of Doom is published. Public reception is much the same as the first sequel, and is even more lucrative.
Following the success of The Dark Tide, this year saw the beginning of a veritable explosion in Middle-earth pastiches, with several authors contracted to write the further adventures of several characters, under the Middle-earth Legends banner. Poul Anderson's Aragorn the King, Terry Brooks' Legolas & Gimli, and Steve Perry's Samwise the Brave were released this year, swiftly followed by various sequels and spin offs. There were rumblings of criticism regarding continuity issues, where characters and events are described differently in each novel: these are generally considered only nitpicks, since nobody reads about Middle-earth for the details.
1984: The Lord of the Rings II: The Darkest Day is published, the most successful of the sequel trilogy. The same year, an anthology collecting the three books titled The Lord of the Rings II: The New Shadow is published.
Middle-earth Legends continued with Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman's Aragorn & Arwen, Andrew J. Offutt's The Vengeance of Saruman, several instalments of Brooks' Legolas & Gimli and Perry's Samwise series, and Robert Jordan's Eowyn: Shield Maiden. The continuity issues are more prevalent, with some Tolkien fans criticising several plot points that were antithetical to Tolkien's themes, not to mention more profound continuity errors like dead characters appearing alive and events conflicting with each other, but they are again largely ignored.
1985: Work begins on a film adaptation of The Hobbit, to be directed by Richard Fleischer. The film is aimed to be a more light-hearted affair, with much less violence than the Boorman film, and no sex whatsoever.
Skazochnoye puteshestviye mistera Bilbo Begginsa Khobbita is released in Russia, where it becomes an unexpected hit.
1987: Sunbow Entertainment produces The Lord of the Rings: Guardians of Middle-earth, a Saturday morning cartoon exceedingly loosely based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Divergences from the books are thick and fast, including the controversial decisions to render Legolas as a female elf "Legola," Boromir as black (and surviving Amon-hen), the Hobbits as children (one in a Medieval wheelchair), and Gimli as cartoonish comic-relief akin to Snarf or Orko, with several themes directly contradictory to Tolkien's intentions. It runs for 13 episodes, only 6 of which are broadcast.
1988: The Lord of the Rings: The Hobbit is released in theatres. It starred Warwick Davis as Bilbo, Billy Barty as Thorin, Kenny Baker as Balin, Phil Fondacaro as Dwalin, Mark Northover as Bombur, David Woodburn as Dain, David Bowie as the Elven King, and Michael J. Anderson, David J. Steinberg, David Rappaport, Tony Cox, Tiny Ross, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, and Herve Villechaise as the rest of Thorin's company. Despite Sean Connery reprising his role as Gandalf, its continuity with the Boorman film is unclear: the Hobbits and Dwarves are obviously shorter than humans instead of the human size in the earlier film, the orcs & goblins are puppets created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop rather than stuntmen in makeup, and the tone is significantly lighter. Nonetheless, the film is praised for its visual effects, Brian Froud's superlative art direction, Phil Tippett's outstanding stop-motion for the trolls and Smaug, and Trevor Jones' score.
1990: With DC's The Lord of the Rings having come to a close some years before, an attempt to reboot the comic in a more "adult" and "gritty" style was realised in War of the Ring, with art influenced by Rob Liefeld and dialogue inspired by Frank Miller, and more inspired by the Boorman film than the comic or novel. Aragorn is a sullen and brutish anti-hero, the Witch-King (once again promoted to primary antagonist with Sauron a background menace) depicted as vaguely effeminate, and Arwen - clad in elven armour bikini, naturally - is promoted to the tenth member of the Fellowship. "Savage Sword of the Rings," as it was popularly called by fans, lasted ten issues.
1991: The first attempts to produce a new adaptation of The Lord of the Rings are made when United Artists allowed the license to lapse. Disney, bolstered by their recent renaissance since the unexpected success of The Little Match Girl and The Blue Bird, approached Tolkien Enterprises: though JRRT's opinion of Disney was not favourable, CT worked with Disney to produce an ambitious film trilogy, produced concurrently.
1993: Disney's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is released. It boasted an all-star cast, including a young Christian Bale as Frodo, Sean Astin as Sam, Fred Savage as Merry, Macaulay Culkin as Pippin, Michael Caine as Gandalf, Chris O'Donnell as Aragorn, Charlie Sheen as Boromir, Geena Davis as Legolas, Tim Curry as Saruman, and Dustin Hoffman as Sauron. The film is a critical and commercial hit, though Tolkien fans were aghast at the Boromir-Aragorn-Legolas love triangle, the modern pop-culture references, and the characterisation of Hoffman's Sauron, who has more screen-time than most of the other leads. There is also significant conflation, with several characters and subplots absorbed into Lothlorien (Legolas taking Arwen & Galadriel's role as Aragorn's betrothed and Queen of Lothlorien, for instance, though that doesn't stop all the belligerent banter between the two), the Fellowship flees the Balrog, and Gandalf fights and defeats Saruman (now Sauron's lackey) at Amon Hen. Upon Saruman's death, Gandalf "levels up" to Gandalf the White. The film ends on a cliffhanger, as the Balrog arrives at Mount Doom, where he bows to Sauron.
1994: Disney's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is released. As before, it is well-received, save for the Tolkien diehards, who lamented the extreme conflation of several characters and plot lines: Merry & Pippin join Frodo & Sam on their journey to Mordor, Rohan was replaced with Lothlorien in the war against Isengard (now Sauron's forward base), Theoden & Eowyn's roles combined into Legolas, and Faramir was cut completely. The Balrog leads the forces at Helm's Deep, where it is defeated by the Fellowship. The cliffhanger ending shows Sauron marching his legions from Barad-dur, with particular emphasis given to the Witch-King, who is revealed to be a resurrected Boromir.
Hearing of Blizzard's legal dispute with Games Workshop on an attempted development of a Warhammer game, Tolkien Enterprises suggested producing a Middle-earth themed strategy game patterned after Dune II. The result, War for Middle-earth: Orcs and Dwarves, was well-received, and helped found the RTS boom of the late 1990s.
1995: Disney's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is released. Not as successful as its predecessors critically or commercially, though still a hit, here the divergences from the book are most profound: the Witch-King fights Legolas to add further angst to the Aragorn-Legolas romance, Sauron personally leads the army at Minas Tirith before being defeated by Aragorn when the ring's destruction leaves him vulnerable, and Gollum becomes a fully-fledged hero by saving Sam from Shelob and finally destroying the ring himself. The story ends with Frodo crowned King of the Shire, Aragorn & Legolas founding the United Kingdom of Men and Elves, and everyone lives happily ever after. No Scouring, no Grey Havens, no passing of magic, and the inversion of Tolkien's world is complete.
1996: As part of the Marvel vs. DC event crossover, CPI and Tolkien Enterprises came to an agreement for a special miniseries where Conan the Barbarian travels to Middle-earth during the events of The War of the Ring. As per the style of the time, it is a relentlessly dark and edgy take, where Conan leads the Dunlendings against Isengard, steals the ring from the Fellowship, uses the ring to lead the Dunlendings, Easterlings and Haradrim to victory over Rohan and Gondor, before storming into Mordor and supplanting Sauron as Emperor of Middle-earth. Howard and Tolkien fans alike are thoroughly depressed.
1997: Advances in technology and interest from producers bring plans for adaptations of The New Shadow to the fore. Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh begin work on the adaptation in conjunction with CT and McTiernan, but are beset at every turn by demands from the studio to be more commercially viable, as well as CT's own disagreements with their direction.
2001: The unwieldy-titled The Lord of the Rings: The New Shadow: The Dark Tide is released. It is moderately successful, but largely overshadowed by Warner Bros' The Worst Witch. Despite the success, Jackson, Boyens and Walsh decline to return. Guillermo del Toro is approached to complete the trilogy, while a team of writers are contracted to hammer a script out.
2003: Blizzard's World of Middle-earth is released. Following the success of Sosaria Online and Age of Conan: Acheron's Call, Tolkien Enterprises wanted to launch into the MMORPG genre. It has become a worldwide phenomenon, and servers run to this day.
2004: The Lord of the Rings: The New Shadow: Shadows of Doom is released. It has mixed results, with some finding Del Toro's style and humour a strange mix, and Middle-earth fans bothered by the alterations to the source material. A disagreement between Disney and Tolkien Enterprises results in a convoluted series of legal battles, resulting in the postponement of the final film. Del Toro and much of the cast and crew could not afford to wait it out, and so the series is postponed for several years.
2007: Yet another new wave of Middle-earth books is announced. Threads of Fate was an anthology based on alternate "takes" on Middle-earth by celebrated fantasy authors: Neil Gaiman's mildly subversive The Problem with Orcs, Michael Moorcock's anarchic The Hundred Acre Old Forest, David Brin's bizarre Some Kind of Gadget, and China Mieville's darkly comic Oldest and Fatherless highlighted as particularly excellent.
2010: MGM, Warner Brothers, Miramax, and Walden Media work with Tolkien Enterprises to finish the New Shadow film trilogy.
2012: The Lord of the Rings: The New Shadow: The Darkest Day is finally released. Most of the cast returned, while Michael Apted signed on as director. The film garnered a lukewarm reception, mostly due to the extreme popularity of the long-awaited Justice League. Nonetheless, it made a decent amount at the box office.
As of this date, J.R.R. Tolkien's original, unedited manuscripts remain unpublished.
Back to our reality, and the more things change, the more things stay the same. We haven't had interminable sequels and spin offs by inferior writers from Tor, but we've had a plethora of board and video games which introduce new characters. It's said that Tolkien's world has been brought to the masses in a way which was unseen for much of The Lord of the Rings' existence, but when the films are such a selective and, at times, antithetical presentation of the work, can that truly be said?
For the central tragedy of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien's work is that it is obfuscated by its own success. Just as Tarzan has been reduced to the monosyllabic wild-man with a pet chimp and sharp haircut, just as Sherlock Holmes is the borderline socially-incompetent savant saddled with a bumbling sidekick, just as Conan is the Big Dumb Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings is now "action movies for 15 to 25-year-olds" in the minds of many, regardless of its many fine qualities. Criticisms of the films' themes, choices, and ideas are levelled at Tolkien, even if they didn't exist in the original work.
So what's worse for an author: to be largely unknown save for a smaller dedicated fanbase, or to be wildly popular but greatly misrepresented outside that dedicated fanbase? Don't know. But I will say that the dedicated fanbase is undoubtedly larger due to the films: I think it's well worth putting up with people thinking Tolkien was fascist or whatnot based on a skewed interpretation of the films, when you know that some people are going to cut through all that to the original work.
And, as I suggest with my alternate timeline, it could be worse. So let's celebrate the fact that Tolkien is rightly considered one of the great fantasy authors of the 20th Century, and know that he's there to stay.