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  • The Chronology of The Lord of the Rings
  • J.R.R. Tolkien and William Cloud Hicklin (bio)

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Page 10 of the Chronology (MSS-4/2/18/5b).

(© 2004 The Tolkien Estate Limited and reproduced courtesy of the Marquette University Libraries, Milwaukee)

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Tolkien wrote to Naomi Mitchison in 1954, “I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities” (Letters 177). He could with equal truth have said the same with regard to a time-scheme or chronology, a map of time. Keeping events, and the reader’s perspective, firmly placed within time is a fundamental aspect of Tolkien’s literary technique in The Lord of the Rings. “The reader is kept constantly aware of the pattern of time which moves events and within which they move. . . . Sunrise, moonrise, star time are meticulously noted and tracked. Breakfast-time, teatime, and dinnertime are all noted and longed for. This is all part of an attention to and concern with time” (Flieger 21, 23).

Cartography and chronology are also intertwined, especially in a story about a journey: the characters move through distance in time, through time over distance. Ensuring that the interrelationship remains plausible and in keeping with the reader’s experience of the primary world is part of the craft of bestowing upon a secondary world that essential quality which Tolkien called “the inner consistency of reality” (OFS 59). Tolkien in his sub-creative romance paid scrupulous attention to time, so it was essential for him to map the chronology of his tale, especially once it split into multiple parallel narrative threads, although in the process he still did not entirely avoid landing in “confusions and impossibilities.”

My intention originally was to produce a standalone annotated edition of Tolkien’s final complete time-scheme, as a document of tremendous significance for any interested in the story-internal chronology, but as time went on it became clear, or at least it seemed so for me, that the ultimate Chronology was the product of a lengthy evolution, one which was bound up with the development of the story itself, and to present it bare and without context would be somewhat like hanging a Renaissance altarpiece in a gallery, divorced from the location for which it was created and the surroundings which gave it meaning. Therefore, I have followed the Chronology [End Page 23] with a commentary, rather longer than I had planned, relating the hitherto largely untold story1 of how Tolkien developed his map of time.

He began with linear time-schemes, listing all of each day’s events in a single sequence. As the story grew in narrative complexity, however, these proved inadequate and therefore, as he began what is now Book V in October 1944,2 confusions and impossibilities which had crept into the text led Tolkien to make a time-scheme in parallel columns, which Christopher Tolkien has designated S as the first of the “synoptic” time-schemes, allowing Tolkien to synchronize the day-byday actions of his various groups of characters.

This first “synoptic” chronology petered out as Book V developed during 1946 and was replaced by another, which I will refer to as S2, which remained the working chronology through at least April 1948 and almost certainly until after the completion of the story that summer, although the time-scheme itself breaks off after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. S2 then served as the vehicle for Tolkien’s conversion of the calendar, which had been the Gregorian3 throughout the writing of at least the first five Books, to the new Shire-reckoning.

The Chronology presented here, S3, was the third and last of these “synoptic” schemes, written most probably toward the end of the first phase of work on the Appendices circa 1949–50, definitely after the first draft and in all likelihood after the first typescript of the narrative had been completed. Even at this time the chronology was not settled, and Tolkien altered things to his satisfaction in both the creation of, and later...