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As I've been reading the books/stories published by his son after his death, which are very much unfinished, I can't help but think of how embarrassing I would find it if somebody managed to dig up old, early versions of my own writings, always radically worse and downright misleading compared to the finished products.

I assume that Tolkien the elder gave his permission before making his final journey, or perhaps had written it into his will, for his son to publish/do as he found best with all these private notes and grossly unfinished stories. But is this known? One would think that, if such is the case, this would be worthy of a mention in the massive commentary that Christopher wrote, but so far, I've not spotted anything like that.

The situation seems to almost mirror the relationship between Bilbo and Frodo, even though they weren't father and son, in that the latter finished the book which had been begun by the former. (Well, I suppose it was Sam who ultimately finished it, after Frodo had left to Valar Island.)

The thought strikes me that if he had really wanted that stuff to be published, he would have made more of an effort to at least make some crucial general notes to his son or whoever would be tasked with making sense of it, telling them the general "final structure", and of course organizing and date-marking it all far better while working.

I'm thankful for the unfinished stories, but it's a shame how much his son had to guess his way to any kind of coherent structure, and it does to some extent take away from the stories to know how wildly different they were in their earlier forms, as instead of a mysterious finished text whose "history" we know nothing about, we get to see all the silly and random ideas that he was considering and most likely didn't intend for anyone to ever take part of.

But perhaps he even wrote about this very topic while still active, and I just haven't found it yet?

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    The answers address the question posed well, but as a side note, as long as the elder Tolkein still owned the rights in question at the time of his death, someone was going to inherit them. The dead do not own anything. It didn't have to be Christopher who received them, but the question seems to suppose that there might be a scenario in which no one could lawfully have done what Christopher did, and that's not the case. Commented Jul 1 at 14:15
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    I doubt JRRT had much concern, or any, for what happened with his papers after his death. He was a devout Catholic Christian, and as he expected to either be in Heaven or Hell, in neither case would anything left on Earth have any significance whatsoever (other than the welfare of his family).
    – RC_23
    Commented Jul 2 at 4:43
  • @JohnBollinger: I don’t read the question as primarily about legal rights or permissions — much more about personal and moral permission, J.R.R. Tolkien’s intentions and preferences.
    – PLL
    Commented Jul 2 at 11:03
  • –1 "downright misleading" is a falsehood. Not just in the case of Tolkien, but in the case of any author. It is not the case that a published work of fiction is more or less real than unpublished work. As long as authorship and posthumous contribution is made clear, such works may range from "this how the story developed" (e.g., Unfinished Tales), to "here are the contours of the story (The Silmarillion)", to "here's an alternative take" to "here's a novel story" (with your without fleshing out). "Misleading" implies that there's a real fictional story, as opposed to a preferred one.
    – Lexible
    Commented Jul 10 at 14:51

2 Answers 2

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Tolkien gave his son absolute and explicit permission to do with his unpublished papers whatever he saw fit. That includes finishing his works, editing his works, combining them or destroying any part of them, for any purpose whatsoever.

I GIVE my library and all my manuscripts typescripts notes and all other articles connected with my work as an author (hereinafter together referred to as "my literary assets") to my Trustees upon the following trusts that is to say:

(a) Upon trust to allow my son Christopher full access to the same in order that he may act as my Literary Executor with full power to publish edit alter rewrite or complete any work of mine which may be unpublished at my death or to destroy the whole or any part or parts of any such unpublished works as he in his absolute discretion may think fit and subject thereto

(b) Upon trust to deliver to my son Christopher such parts of my library as he may select for his own use and benefit within one year of my death and subject thereto

JRR Tolkien - Last Will and Testament

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Christopher was appointed literary executor by his father, with the intention that he would publish the Silmarillion, but with full control to do whatever he wanted with the material

There were discussions between Christopher and his father about the state of the Silmarillion and Tolkien's plans for it. Six years before his death, Tolkien made arrangements with his publisher that his son would complete it in the event of his death.

Some years previously, [JRR Tolkien] had decided that in the event of his dying before [the Silmarillion] was finished, Christopher (who was of course well versed in the work) should complete it for publication. He and Christopher often discussed the book, contemplating the numerous problems that remained to be solved; but they made little progress.
J.R.R Tolkien: A Biography

I am the person most likely to know what he was about. And the knowledge that he wanted me to be his literary executor gave me the confidence to do it.
The Sunday Times Magazine 25 September 1977 - "The Filial Duty of Christopher Tolkien"

23 February 1967: Rayner Unwin sends Tolkien a revised agreement for publication of The Silmarillion, to cover a point raised during a discussion by Tolkien with his solicitor. (Tolkien is making his will, and arranging for his son Christopher to deal with The Silmarillion after his death.)
J.R.R Tolkien Companion and Guide

Tolkien also added specific language to his will, giving Christopher permission to "publish edit alter rewrite or complete any work of mine which may be unpublished at my death".

transcription below I give my library and all my manuscripts typescripts notes and all other articles connected with my work as an author ... to allow my son Christopher full access to the same in order that he may act as my Literary Executor with full power to publish edit alter rewrite or complete any work of mine which may be unpublished at my death or to destroy the whole or any part or parts of any such unpublished works as he in his absolute discretion may think fit and subject thereto

It should be noted that Christopher's original plan for posthumous publication was very different from what ended up happening. He originally conceived as the Silmarillion as a much more scholarly book, somewhere perhaps a bit closer to what The History of Middle-earth ended up being. Guy Gavriel Kay, who acted as an assistant to Christopher at the time, reports that:

The initial idea had been to produce a scholarly text rather than a single narrative. Such a book would have been some 1300 pages long, and would have consisted of chapters which had as their main text the latest version of the passage concerned, followed by appendices giving variant readings from other, earlier versions, complete with an editorial apparatus of footnotes and comments on dates and inconsistencies, and so on. The first two chapters had already been drafted in this academic style
A Tower in Beleriand: A Talk by Guy Gavriel Kay (AmonHen #91)

To see a bit about how Christopher's own thoughts about what to publish evolved over the years, see the introductions to most of his books, especially the ones to the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The Book of Lost Tales Part One.

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    I really hope the drafts of those first two chapters of Christopher's "proto-Silmarillion" survived. It would be fascinating to see his original motive, and also compare it to how his analytic approach developed through the UT and HoMe projects (and of course, I really hope his History of the Silmarillion has likewise been preserved). Also, GGK's mockup proposal of what became "Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor" would be interesting to compare to the final version... Commented Jul 1 at 0:16
  • I am greatly puzzled that JRRT expected Christopher to publish the Silmarillion in some form after his death, but apparently never discussed it with him!
    – m4r35n357
    Commented Jul 1 at 9:08
  • @m4r35n357 But the answer says they DID discuss it. Commented Jul 1 at 11:54
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    @suchiuomizu whatever the answer says, it is clear from reading HoME that CT had to reconstruct the whole thing from scratch. The published Silmarillion is a chimera comprising the 1937 Silmarillion "B", unevenly updated with more recent Annals, and the two big post-LOTR rewrites of the main text, plus other snippets, plus some stuff from an external author. There is also a great deal of debate around the War of Wrath. In none of these cases does CT say anything like "my father was of the opinion . . .).
    – m4r35n357
    Commented Jul 1 at 12:05
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    @m4r35n357 - My understanding is that the discussions were more focused on what would have been needed for JRRT to finish it via continuing to write new material. Christopher had a completely different task, which was how to assemble a complete book without writing new material (or at least with keeping the new material to a minimum). I don't think that JRRT ever had a discussion or expectation about assembling a Frankenstein silmarillion from his various older drafts.
    – ibid
    Commented Jul 1 at 14:13

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