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Nothing else seems to have survived. Not cities, not even mountains. How did the Red Book survive to fall into the Translator's (Tolkien's) hands?

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  • Per wikipedia - "This version somehow then survives until Tolkien's time,"
    – Valorum
    Oct 18, 2022 at 10:12
  • Per Tolkien Gateway: "It therefore must be supposed that copies of the book survived through several Ages. Tolkien says nothing about how he gained access to one or more copies of the Red Book and how he learned Westron and other languages of Arda."
    – Valorum
    Oct 18, 2022 at 10:15
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    It didn't survive: it was destroyed when Sol swelled to red giant size a few billion years from now.
    – Lexible
    Oct 18, 2022 at 15:40
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    Tolkien experimented with other, less tangible methods of transmission before the Red Book, namely via oral transmission (for the Book of Lost Tales, in some versions), or via recovered memories from past lives (the first 'time travel' Númenor story, but I've yet to read it), or a psychic link that allowed a dreamer to experience the past either aurally or visually, seeing written records or hearing a spoken account (the Notion Club Papers). Since these never got adopted into the post-LotR Legendarium we cannot say for sure, but in principle the Red Book may have been recovered in this way. Oct 19, 2022 at 10:32
  • That is, a descendant of Elendil via Aragorn in the time of recorded history might have had an 'experience' that allowed the reconstruction of the Red Book, which then survived in the usual way. Since Tolkien the Translator is silent on this, it's merely an attestation, an 'asterisk frame', to adopt Shippey's adjective. Oct 19, 2022 at 10:35

2 Answers 2

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The answer is indeterminate, but the most likely methods of transmission of the Red Book of Westmarch to the present day are (1) preservation of a copy in a sealed tomb or container, and (2) preservation by repeated copying of the manuscript. The latter is the more likely of the two.

In-universe, so far as I know, Tolkien did not state directly where he found a copy. However, in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, in "Note on Shire Records", Tolkien wrote that his

account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch. That most important source ... was long preserved at Undertowers, the home of the Fairbairns, Warden of the Westmarch. It was in origin Bilbo's private diary, which he took with him to Rivendell. Frodo brought it back to the Shire, together with many loose leaves of notes, and during S.R. 1420-1 he nearly filled its pages with his account of the War. But annexed to it and preserved with it, probably in a single red case, were the three large volumes, bound in red leather, that Bilbo gave to him as a parting gift. To these four volumes there was added in Westmarch a fifth containing commentaries, genealogies, and various other matters concerning the hobbit members of the Fellowship. The original Red Book has not been preserved, but many copies were made, especially of the first volume, for the use of the descendants of the children of Master Samwise. The most important copy ... was kept at Great Smials, but it was written in Gondor, probably at the request of the great-grandson of Peregrin, and completed in S.R. 1592 (F.A. 172). Its southern scribe appended this note: Findegil, King's Writer, finished this work in IV 172. It is an exact copy in all details of the Thain's Book in Minas Tirith. That book was a copy, made at the request of King Elessar, of the Red Book of the Periannath, and was brought to him by the Thain Peregrin when he retired to Gondor in IV 64.

Tolkien went on to discuss more of the history of this book and others preserved in Shire libraries. It all sounds very much like the brief history of manuscripts that often forms part of a translator's introduction to a classical Greek or Roman text. Recall that translating ancient works was part of Tolkien's day job.

Also, please note that Tolkien is specific about the format: The Red Book is a codex with leaves (pages), not a clay tablet.

It is reasonable to extrapolate that the Red Book of Westmarch was preserved in a way similar to those that survived from our own remote past. We know quite a lot about how books survived from classical times. Few of the materials used by the ancients -- clay tablets, parchment, papyrus, paper of various kinds, rarely metal foil -- can last for more than a few hundred years. The Greeks and Romans and medieval Europeans often stored books in wooden boxes or cabinets that helped to prevent damage from insects and rodents. Bound books (codices) replaced scrolls for most purposes only a couple of thousand years ago, though since the Red Book was a codex, the technology of binding must have been forgotten since the Fourth Age. In the humid climate of Europe, most manuscripts that were left untended have presumably succumbed to rot or pests, but there are some rare cases where books that were sealed away tightly, e.g., in a coffin with a dead body, were preserved intact for centuries. In arid Egypt and the Dead Sea region, ancient books have been found not only in tombs, but also in sealed jars, e.g., the famous libraries of Qumran (scrolls) and Nag Hammadi (codices). So one might imagine the Red Book, or a copy of it, being found in a sealed tomb or container.

However, nearly all of the literature we possess from classical times was copied by hand, over and over. Some books, like those of the Bible, are preserved in many copies, though no originals are known to exist. Others, like the poems of Catullus and a mathematical treatise by Archimedes, squeaked through in a single copy. (Catullus' ribald poems are said to have been used to bung a wine barrel.) Most classical literature by far has been lost without a trace, or exists only as a sentence or two that a surviving author quoted. Tolkien, who was a scholar of medieval sagas, apparently imagined the Red Book being preserved by copying over the years, with errors and annotations creeping into the text at each stage.

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  • 1
    This all seems plausible, but I'm assume you've not got a lick of evidence to back up that this is what Tolkien had in mind
    – Valorum
    Oct 18, 2022 at 13:16
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    @Valorum …He admitted he was guessing. Oct 18, 2022 at 16:51
  • @suchiuomizu - Admitting ignorance doesn't improve an answer
    – Valorum
    Oct 18, 2022 at 17:22
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    Nope, not a whit of it. Maybe you should close the question as being unanswerable without opinion, even if it is an informed one. Oct 18, 2022 at 18:05
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    @PM2Ring - Tolkien's essay in response to the Pauline Baynes map (published in NoMe as "Descriptions of Characters") seems to imply they're extinct: "they became a fugitive and secret people, driven as Men, the Big Folk, became more and more numerous, usurping the more fertile and habitable lands, to refuge in forest or wilderness: a wandering and poor folk, forgetful of their arts and living a precarious life absorbed in the search for food and fearful of being seen; for cruel men would shoot them for sport as if they were animals. In fact they relapsed into the state of “pygmies”."
    – ibid
    Oct 20, 2022 at 2:07
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Given the geologic time required to alter the physical features, or the energy of a cataclysm needed to do the job quicker, I am inclined to go with "divine miracle". Maybe Eru saw to it that the Westmarch was preserved intact until someone stumbled across the right hobbit-hole, thinking it was just another English barrow.

1
  • This all seems plausible, but I'm assume you've not got a lick of evidence to back up that this is what Tolkien had in mind
    – Valorum
    Oct 19, 2022 at 13:32

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