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and endless revisions followed, and yet by Tolkien’s death in 1973 his life’s work was still unfinished and mostly unpublished.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.’The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, Chapter XI, “A Knife in the Dark”
‘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.’
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.