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  • Tolkien’s Creation of the Impression of Depth
  • Michael D. C. Drout,1 (bio), Namiko Hitotsubashi (bio), and Rachel Scavera (bio)

One of the most celebrated aesthetic effects of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings is the “impression of depth” that these works create,2 the sense that behind the immediate text “there was a coherent, consistent, deeply fascinating world about which he had no time (then) to speak” (Shippey, Road 228–29). Tolkien himself identified this quality in works of medieval literature that had “deep roots in the past” that were “made of tales often told before and elsewhere, and of elements that derive from remote times, beyond the vision or awareness of the poet” (M&C 72). He believed that part of the attraction of The Lord of the Rings was “due to glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunset mist” (Letters 333).

Previous scholars have made significant progress in explaining the ways that Tolkien creates this impression of depth, attributing it to four major factors: (1) the vast size and intricate detail of the background Tolkien created for his imagined world; (2) the ways he refers to this background material through seemingly casual and incomplete allusion; (3) the logical gaps and apparent inconsistencies in the stories; and (4) the variations in style within given texts.3 In this paper we build upon and extend this scholarship, explaining in greater detail how each factor contributes to the aesthetic effect of Tolkien’s works and arguing that all four were to a significant degree generated by the tortuous evolutionary histories of the texts. Although Tolkien may not have set out to create a complex, multi-layered textual archive as a background for subsequent work, once this resource existed he exploited it, and the ways in which he both drew upon and modified the archive created a textual patchwork whose heterogeneity in both content and style contributes significantly to the impression of depth.

Vast and Detailed Backcloths

“The allusions in The Lord of the Rings are not illusory,” notes Christopher Tolkien (LT I, 3). The development of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legend-arium had begun as early as the winter of 1916–17,4 so by the time he began to write The Lord of the Rings5 Tolkien had created a great mass of interconnected stories, poems, and histories upon which the later work was able to draw. Thus the “songs and digressions like Aragorn’s lay of Tinúviel, Sam Gamgee’s allusions to the Silmaril and the Iron [End Page 167] Crown, Elrond’s account of Celebrimbor, and dozens more” (Shippey, Road 229) were linked to stories in actually existing texts. When Tolkien used the phrase “vast backcloths” (Letters 144) to describe this material, the adjective was no exaggeration. The sheer size of just the published record is staggering, including as it does The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales Parts I and II, The Lays of Beleriand, The Shaping of Middle-earth, sections of The Lost Road, Morgoth’s Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Children of Húrin. And because Tolkien’s writing process was that of multiple drafts and revisions,6 behind the published material lie further drafts, partially edited copies, riders, cancelled pages, and even lost texts.

Although we will discuss the textual history of Tolkien’s Túrin story in greater detail below, it is perhaps useful to sketch it here to illustrate the extent of Tolkien’s writing and revision.7 There are twelve published versions of the Túrin story written over the course of approximately forty years,8 the earliest, “Turambar and the Foalókë,” being composed between 1917 and 19199 and the last, parts of the Narn i Chîn Húrin and some Túrin material in the Grey Annals, in the 1950s.10 These texts range from chronicles of differing length and detail to poems, summaries, and elaborated, novelistic narratives—a network of revisions and rewritings in which each successive version draws on what came before...


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