Nowhere and Back Again: Prologue

Tolkien in 1973 (cred. Billett Potter)

At its birth in 1917’s West Midlands, Middle-earth was defined by inauspicious circumstances. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 25-year-old graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, and second lieutenant of the 11th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, was temporarily dwelling with his wife Edith (née Bratt) in a cottage in Great Haywood, Staffordshire, recovering from the trench fever he’d contracted during the Battle of the Somme. While recovering from his combat afflictions, a series of trials both physiological and psychological, Tolkien began working on his infamous legendarium, sketching a short story called “The Fall of Gondolin” in a little volume tentatively entitled The Book of Lost Tales. A lifetime of myth-making and endless revisions followed, and yet by Tolkien’s death in 1973 his life’s work was still unfinished and mostly unpublished. The popular success of The Hobbit and the late-blooming The Lord of the Rings only hinted at parts of a larger work. The appendices that close out The Lord of the Rings indicate a greater mythology, and throughout Tolkien’s books there is a sense of a greater corpus confined by the format of popular novels. Take the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Aragorn tells his hobbit companions the story of Beren and Lúthien: 

‘Then tell us some other tale of the old days,’ begged Sam; ‘a tale about the elves before the fading time. I would dearly like to hear more about elves; the dark seems to press round so close.’
‘I will tell you the tale of Tinúviel,’ said Strider, ‘in brief—for it is a long tale of which the end is not known, and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.’

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter XI, “A Knife in the Dark”

Tolkien’s characters cling to an awareness that they’re a part of legend, or hope to be part of the heroic tales of history someday. In the most infamously metafictional (and most homoerotic) scene in The Two Towers, Frodo and Sam converse about their chances of being the heroes of their own myth for posterity:

‘Still [said Sam], I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!” And they’ll say: “Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?” “Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.”’
‘It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. […] To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”’

The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter VIII, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”
A map of Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth film franchise.

With the advent of The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and subsequent books edited by Tolkien’s son and estate arbiter Christopher, it becomes clear that the mythology Aragorn, Sam and Frodo invoke and which Tolkien labored over for over 50 years after composing “The Fall of Gondolin” existed in manuscripts, drafts, and excerpts of his most famous work. Yet extant compilations of these scraps are bricolages: guesswork, reassembly, and occasionally wholesale composition from scratch. As a result, Tolkien’s legendarium is a patchwork, collated largely by people other than Tolkien himself, and ultimately leaving behind a corpus half of whose canonical status is disputed by its own author. For decades, Tolkien’s attempts to publish The Silmarillion, his magnum opus history of the Elves and Middle-earth, were thwarted by publishers’ rejections. In a letter to his publisher Stanley Unwin, Tolkien bemoaned how The Silmarillion languished in the realm of the unpublished, deeming The Lord of the Rings “not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion.” In the same letter Tolkien says that The Silmarillion, “although shelved (until a year ago), […] has refused to be suppressed.” Tentative plans to publish The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings in tandem never came to fruition. An onslaught of poems, synopses, and myth in prose awoke in the deep of Tolkien’s creative suppression. There is no single unifying text pointing to the canonicity of any particular Tolkien text, and near the end of his life Tolkien seemed ready to revise his body of work. 

One of the effects of this hodge-podge approach to creativity (or sub-creativity, as the stridently traditionalist Catholic Tolkien would have asserted) is that everything can be treated as canon: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and every other published work is of equal salience and validity for our project. This has multiple effects on Nowhere and Back Again, the work of geographical literary criticism you’re now reading. For one thing, it allows us to trace the evolution of Tolkien as a writer and how a body of work develops. Additionally, we get to play the textual game of treating myth as fluid, endlessly reworked, and anti-essentialist. Story was secondary to Tolkien; his greatest interest was philology, his true profession, with a smattering of geography (“behind my stories is a nexus of language,” he once wrote). Rather than treating Tolkien’s world as a fixed and unassailable thing of perfection, we get to see it as a work in progress through an extra-diegetic lens, avoiding Tolkien’s worldbuilding fetish that has been appropriated and thwarted by works of fantasy for decades now.

Rather than tracing a cohesive, definitive history of Middle-earth, Nowhere and Back Again adopts the techniques of détournement and psychogeography, radical exercises in political ambulation developed by the French Marxist group the Situationist International in the 1950s and 1960s (the decades in which The Lord of the Rings was published and became a cult phenomenon, respectively). Normally psychogeography is applied to real geography, but as Eruditorum Press’s project largely entails abolition of reality (particularly the banal material reality of late capitalism), it’s fitting that we use radical techniques to probe fictional worlds.

Sean Astin and Elijah Wood, respectively, as Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins in a conspicuously homoerotic climactic moment in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

While Middle-earth has been explored critically by hundreds of writers since its publication (and long before its manuscript was completed), Nowhere and Back Again melds a radical critique of Middle-earth with an exploration of its historiography through its geography. Tolkien was an Edwardian of the umpth degree, armed to the teeth with traditionalist Catholicism, a complicated fixation of his own Englishness, and a longing for the revival of monarchism. He was a grade-A reactionary, albeit one more complex than his many right-wing imitators (and some of his contemporaries). A complete psychogeography of Tolkien’s creation must account for his chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, and mildly sexist tendencies. Anything less would make this project a reactionary hagiography without purpose or principles.

As with real geography, Tolkien’s imaginary geography is inextricably tied to its history. A study of the land entails an exegesis of the events that happened on it. You can hardly talk about the plains of Dagorlad without discussing the Battle of Dagorlad, just as a complete discussion of East Sussex has to address the Battle of Hastings. Dagorlad is where Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron’s finger; thus it is the birthplace of the Third Age of Middle-earth. Slightly to the south, roughly 3,000 years later, Mount Doom erupts as the Third Age ends. As such, Mordor, Middle-earth’s hell, is the heartland of Tolkien’s most popular and treasured work. It only fits that we start our voyage across Middle-earth here, at the end of all things.