Well, I’ve gotten hold of a copy for the first time (an interlibrary loan), and I can tell you that it’s all these things but much more, too. For one thing, I hadn’t realized there were quite so many letters by Tolkien published in such a scattering of other books; and Hammond summarizes the important points of most, and offers a quotation from many (see the section “Separately Published Letters and Excerpts”, pp.353–68). These letters include plenty of useful tidbits on sources, etymology, specimens of Old English and Elvish, commentary on the meaning of The Lord of the Rings, and on and on. What a time-consuming process to gather them all together! But Hammond has already done the work for us. All of which reminds me just how much I’d love to see a new, expanded edition of Letters. I know that Hammond and Scull would like to do one; but it remains a difficult matter to convince the publishers of its commercial viability.
Also, for each work whose bibliographical details Hammond presents, he also writes an expository introduction to the history of the work. Some of these are pretty lengthy, and all of them are interesting. Many contain surprises I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. (I expect a lot of these may have found their way into Hammond and Scull’s later books, such as the Companion and Guide, but those are dense enough — wonderfully dense! — that I haven’t read every page of them yet. Far from it.)
A few of those surprises:
I expect that all of you know the titles of the three books of the “trilogy.” But did you know that before these decisions were finalized, Rayner Unwin made some alternative suggestions. If he’d had his way, the three books would have had quite different titles: instead of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book would have been The Lord of the Rings; instead of The Two Towers, The Ring in the Shadow or The Shadow and the Ring; instead of The Return of the King, The War of the Ring. Tolkien responded that he preferred the books be called The Return of the Shadow, The Shadow Lengthens, and The Return of the King. A little later, Tolkien evidently leaned back toward The War of the Ring again, writing in August 1953 that this title “also is more non-committal, and gives less hint about the turn of the story.” He went on to say, “the chapter titles have been chosen also to give away as little as possible in advance” (89–90; see also Letters, p.170–1). Tolkien was spoiler-conscious — I love that! :)
As a child, Rayner almost had another unexpected influence on the course of Tolkien’s work. Some of you know that Stanley Unwin paid his ten-year-old son Rayner a shilling for a “reader’s report” on The Hobbit. Fortunately for us, he liked it! Well, a little later on, Rayner was asked whether Tom Bombadil might make a suitable hero for a new story (see Letters, p.26). But Hammond quotes from Rayner’s answer:
I think that Tom Bombadil would make quite a good story, but as The Hobbit has already been quite successful I think the story of Old Took’s great grand-uncle, Bullroarer, who rode a horse and charged the goblins of Mount Gram in the battle of the Green Fields and knocked King Golfimbil’s [sic] head off with a wooden club would be better. This story could be a continuation of The Hobbit, for Bilbo could tell it to Gandalf and Balin in his hobbit hole when they visited him. (177)What a different sequel to The Hobbit that would have been!
And here’s another surprise. Many of you might know that the artist who painted the covers for the now infamous Ace editions of The Lord of the Rings was Jack Gaughan (who also did the cover for the Ace edition of Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen — the copy I’ve read for years). Looking at them (see the top of this page), it comes as no great surprise to learn that Gaughan didn’t actually read the books before painting the cover illustrations. But Hammond goes a step further, telling us he was “said to have painted all three covers [...] in a single weekend. He did not have time to read the book, but was ‘talked through’ his art by fantasy writer and critic Lin Carter” (105) — who made a name for himself with Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, one of the first attempts at deconstructing Tolkien’s great opus. I had no idea that Carter and Gaughan teamed up on the covers! Another lesson in six degrees of separation, eh?
And finally, a few quick tidbits. Did you know that an illustrated special edition Hobbit being planned in 1963 was going to be illustrated by Maurice Sendak, of Where the Wild Things Are fame? He did a sample sketch of Bilbo and Gandalf, but the planned collaboration was never completed. A few years later, Sendak did the illustrations for a reissue of George MacDonald’s The Golden Key (which was, indirectly, the inspiration for Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major). Tolkien had been approached to write its introduction but in the event, he left the project (as Sendak had left the collector’s edition of The Hobbit), and instead, an afterword was provided by W.H. Auden, who had been one of Tolkien’s students (201). A year before this, Auden had been asked to write an introduction to The Tolkien Reader, but unfortunately, he couldn’t find the time. Clyde Kilby and Dick Plotz were also considered before the eventual “introduction” — a separately published essay by Peter Beagle — was included (198). It’s a small, tangled world, isn’t it?
And that’s just scratching the surface. So, to bottom-line it for you: this is a book well worth its admittedly steep cover price. Hammond is actually working on an updated and expanded new edition, but I have no idea how long it will be before he can complete it. However long, you can be sure it will be worth the wait, but you may want to get a copy of the first edition now to tide you over (or put in an interlibrary loan request). I know I’m going to raid the piggy bank for a copy just as soon as I can!