Friday, May 22, 2020

Dr. Havard's 10%

So, here's a passage I cut from a draft of my recently published piece on Tolkien's failure to finish THE SILMARILLION.

Tolkien’s papers were disorganized to an extraordinary degree, and this trait grew on him in his final years. Yet we should also acknowledge that his internal vision of the legendarium seems to have been much more comprehensive and focused than the physical evidence records. Dr. Humphrey Havard, fellow Inkling and family friend, told me that he thought Tolkien had only ten percent of his legendarium written down. All the rest was in his head. 

I believe Havard based this on the fact that, he said, you cd ask Tolkien about anything in his mythology (I assume by this he meant any name, place, character) and he cd tell you all about it.

This may explain the curious phenomenon mentioned by Christopher Tolkien that his father treated the final chapters of The Silmarillion as finished, requiring only relatively minor revision to reach final form (HME XI 247). The real Silmarillion was in Tolkien’s head, and he seems not to have realized how little of it was recorded in a physical medium (like pen on paper).

I thought this a good explanation back in 1981 which explained a lot of what we knew at the time of JRRT's literary remains. Recently, having worked my way through a lot (not all) of the material in the last three volumes of THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH, I'm rethinking things. It now seems apparent that JRRT wrote down a huge amount of material relating to his legendarium, far more than was known in the decade following his death, many times including multiple drafts of given texts. Also, we have now quite a few examples of his thinking on paper, of ideas emerging in response to questions he'd been asked.

So while I think there's some truth to Dr. Havard's observation, and that JRRT had an enormous amount of carefully though out material about his legendarium in his head, I'm no longer inclined to consider it the whole truth.

Any comment much appreciated.

--John R.

P.S.: Coincidentally, there's quite an interesting article about Dr. Havard in the recent issue of VII, just out from the Wade Center at Wheaton.


David Bratman said...

As I suggested when we discussed this before, perhaps Tolkien's facility at inventing (or as he'd put it, discovering) these internal histories and backgrounds on the spot misled Dr. Havard into thinking that more of it had already been set down in an established form than had been.

Paul W said...

David Bratman's idea is certainly plausible, but I don't think we can fully discount Dr Havard's remark, even if the exact % is debatable. My experience is in writing history, not fiction, but I certainly can visualize chapters long before actual writing gets down on the page, and this is even more pronounced when outlines appear. With my own writing process, five or six days before the first draft is completed it looks like I have nothing, or just a hodgepodge of barely related notes. But that draft already exists at that point, even if it isn't yet on on the page. I can't imagine that I am unique or special in that regard.

David Bratman said...

I don't think that Dr. Havard's speculation is entirely untrue, by any means, but I think he may have overestimated, and by a considerable degree, the amount of material Tolkien already had firmly drafted in his head.