“Morgoth’s Ring”: Tolkien’s “Retractationes”

Morgoth’s Ring, volume ten in The History of Middle-earth, is a fascinating collection of texts pertaining to the Elder Days (i.e., the period of The Silmarillion) that were either written or re-written by Tolkien in the years following the publication of The Lord of the Rings. As such, they represent a kind of Tolkienian retractationes, an allusion to Augustine’s famous work–misleadingly translated as “retractions”–in which he takes inventory of and “reconsiders” his earlier writings, highlighting what he found to be significant and “correcting what he found inappropriate or incorrect” (Alan Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, 723). As Christopher Tolkien writes of his father’s purpose during this period:

Meditating long on the world that he had brought into being and was now in part unveiled, he had become absorbed in analytic speculation concerning its underlying postulates. Before he could prepared a new and final Silmarillion he must satisfy the requirements of a coherent theological and metaphysical system, rendered now more complex in its presentation by the supposition of obscure and conflicting elements in its roots and its tradition. (Morgoth’s Ring viii)

As Christopher further explains, some of the aporia or difficulties that his father now saw as requiring his editorial attention were: Earth’s being created flat and only later made round; “the immortality (and death) of the Elves; the mode of their reincarnation; the Fall of Men and the length of their early history; the origin of the Orcs; and above all, the power and significance of Melkor-Morgoth, which was enlarged to become the ground and source of the corruption of Arda” (viii-ix). The very title of the volume, finally, is an allusion to the latter problem in particular, deriving from a note in which Tolkien explains that, just as Sauron had incarnated himself into his Ring, so also Morgoth-Melkor had “concentrated” or “disseminated” part of his being and power into the matter of Arda, meaning that “[t]he whole of Middle-earth was Morgoth’s Ring…” (400).

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