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The original framing story for Tolkien's Book of Lost Tales, which later developed into The Silmarillion, was a sailor named Eriol/Ælfwine who chanced upon Tol Eressëa and was told the stories by his hosts in the Cottage of Lost Play.

By the time the Lord of the Rings was published in 1954, the in-story source had become Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish, part of the Red Book.

In a comment on this question about the Notion Club Papers, @DavidRoberts expressed his doubt about whether the framing had changed by the time NCP was written in the 1940's. I was pretty confident it had changed by then, but when I dove back in to the HoME books I became less sure. Thus this question.

A draft of Book I of LoTR (appearing in HoME VI, Return of the Shadow) was completed by the time in question. In August of 1939, there appears to be a version of "A Long-Expected Party" where Bilbo talks about taking his "Book" with him to Rivendell. But this book probably only consists of There and Back Again -- the Translations are framed to have been written by Bilbo while living in Rivendell, translating Rúmil and Pengoloð from Elrond's library.

The initial drafts of the chapter that became "Many Meetings" (later to be moved to Book II) don't mention Bilbo at all, and it's Trotter (still a hobbit) who relates the story of Gil-Galad to Bingo and the other hobbits.

After writing these drafts, (which failed to reach the Council of Elrond), Tolkien got stuck, and went back to rewrite the whole thing.

Tolkien started writing the "Later Quenta" that appears in Morgoth's Ring around 1950-1951, after LoTR was essentially complete, so by this time, Bilbo seems to have supplanted Eriol/Ælfwine.

I'd like to know if we can pin down exactly when Bilbo's Translations got into the text.

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  • It should be pointed out that we can subtly distinguish the transmission mechanism for LotR, and that for the Silmarillion. As Christopher points out, his father was never explicit that the Translations from the Elvish contained the Silmarillion, hence the admission in Vol 1 of HoMe that the lack of frame in the 1977 The Silmarillion was an error. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 7:11
  • @DavidRoberts - Of note though is the comment from PoMe page 14, that Tolkien did at one point consider putting Note on Shire Records in Silm instead of in LotR 2nd edition. I think that's the closest we get to a confirmation that Translations from the Elvish contained the Silmarillion.
    – ibid
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 7:43
  • @ibid Thanks. I guess it had enough wriggle room that Christopher still had reasonable doubt in the mid 1970s, or else didn't know that bit of info. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 8:01

1 Answer 1

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Bilbo's books of lore were first titled "Translations from the Elvish" on the fair copy manuscript made in 1948, but Tolkien doesn't seem to have decided to use them as a first age framing device until the revisions made with 1965 "Second Edition".

As originally written in 1948, the relevant passage in the Many Partings chapter simply read:

Then Bilbo gave Frodo his coat and sword, and he gave Sam a lot of books of lore, and he gave Merry and Pippin a lot of good advice.
Sauron Defeated, "Many Partings"

Immediately afterwards Tolkien made a fair copy, which while unpublished, we can attempt to reconstruct using Christopher Tolkien's description of it:

Then he gave Frodo his mithril-coat and Sting, and he gave him also some books of lore that he had made at various times, written in his spidery hand, and labelled on their backs: Translations from the Elvish, by B.B. Esquire.
Reconstructed based on Sauron Defeated and The Lord of the Rings

Sometime after finishing the book, though unclear exactly how long after (could have been immediately, or as late as 1950), Tolkien made a new, fairer, copy, which revised the text to almost its final form, except for "Esquire" which was only removed in the 1954 galley proofs, and "some books" was only changed to "three books" in the 1965 "second edition" revisions.

The change from "some books" to "three books" in the second edition was due to a section Tolkien added to the prologue, titled "Note on the Shire Records", which describes how the content in The Lord of the Rings was preserved and transmitted.

In here, Tolkien mentions the "Translations from the Elvish", and gets a lot more specific, saying they were three volumes and that they were about the first age.

But the chief importance of Findegil's copy is that it alone contains the whole of Bilbo's 'Translations from the Elvish'. These three volumes were found to be a work of great skill and learning in which, between 1403 and 1418, he had used all the sources available to him in Rivendell, both living and written. But since they were little used by Frodo, being almost entirely concerned with the Elder Days, no more is said of them here.
The Lord of the Rings - Prologue - "Note on the Shire Records"

And probably made around the same time as the above revisions we have a note from Tolkien debating about whether to place the "Note on the Shire Records" in The Lord of the Rings or in The Silmarillion, which seems to be the final proof that Christopher used to decide that his father intended to Translations from the Elvish to be the Silmarillion. (This is a bit of a tangent, so see my answer here.)

Furthermore, it should also be noted that Tolkien deciding to use Bilbo as a framing device does not mean that he had ever abandoned Ælfwine as a framing device. Ælfwine continues to pop up in Tolkien's writings up to at least the late 1950s.

And regardless of whether or not Tolkien had abandoned Ælfwine as the framing device anywhere else, as it is written The Notion Club Papers explicitly use Ælfwine as a character and transmitter.

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  • It is also worth noting that AElfwine & Pengolod appear in the Annals of Aman and the Grey Annals, both written after LotR
    – m4r35n357
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 14:32
  • @m4r35n357 - This is what I was referring to in my second-to-last paragraph. However the "Bilbo as a framing device for the Silmarillion" idea only originated in the Second Edition LotR, which was written after both AAm and GA.
    – ibid
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 20:46
  • 1
    oops yes sorry don't know how I missed that - more haste less speed I suppose. I have been getting into the "1937" Silmarillion and the Annals of c. 1951 so it was fun to write something about it to someone who would understand ;) I like the Bilbo device too though.
    – m4r35n357
    Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 22:18

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