Even as a kid, I was thrown off when I got to the climax of The Return of the King and there was still half a book left. There is that overlong denouement (a problem Tolkien was able to avoid in The Hobbit, as we will see next week when I discuss John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit). But there is also a huge chunk of the volume devoted to appendices when paper shortages drove the volume divisions.
But it was the LOTR appendices, as much as anything, that created epic fantasy as we know it.
I was never one to pore over the dates and family trees and linguistics. Maybe that was the first clue I would never be an epic fantasy superfan. There is a lot of really interesting information in the appendices though.
Tolkien devotes a lot of space to the history of Numenor. Gondor at one time extended well into the east (Rhûn) and the south (Harad), covering lands that would later send men against Gondor on Sauron’s behalf in the War of the Ring. Including Umbar, where many rebel Dúnedain fled. There is also a history of the Rohirrim and one of the dwarves (the latter including plenty of material that was poorly and very loosely adapted by Jackson for his abomination of a Hobbit movie trilogy).
When learn roughly when the five Istari, who came “in the shape of Men, though they were never young and aged only slowly, and they had many powers of mind and hand,” arrived in Middle Earth. Tolkien gives their number as five, but says nothing about the Blue Wizards (or Radagast for that matter). The tidbits about the Blue Wizards, who always intrigued me, came later. Another interesting bit: the wizards were sent to oppose Sauron, but were “forbidden to match his power with power, or to seek to dominate Elves or Men by force and fear” (dominating dwarves was okay, I guess).
Tolkien fills in the blanks in LOTR, telling us what happened with Dol Guldur and Erebor during the War of the Ring. (The War in Middle Earth computer game would make good use of this information.) Celeborn marched a force out of Lothlórien and sacked Dol Guldur. Easterlings pushed the men of Dale and the dwarves of Erebor into the Lonely Mountain and besieged it.
We learn that Gimli and Legolas went home again but didn’t stay. Gimli brought dwarves to settle in the Glittering Caves, and Legolas took elves to settle in Ithilien.
The appendices matter a little more than they did last year because of the Amazon TV show announcement. Amazon only has rights to The Lord of the Rings, not to the Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales. The appendices, then, provide the natural grist for the show’s story. Amazon has confirmed that the series will be a prequel focusing on Young Aragorn (my vote was for the Ballad of Balin). Several sources have noted that the appendices have some information on Aragorn’s younger years.
So I was very interested in reading about Aragorn when I cracked open the appendices this time. What do they have to say about him? Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Tolkien focuses on how Aragorn came to be a ward of Elrond and his meet-cute with Arwen. Other than that we are really just told that Aragorn wandered very far and very wide. No wonder name writers are skittish.
I’ve been reading a lot of pre–Tolkien fantasy and sword and sorcery over the last couple years, which has led me to give a lot of thought to the epic fantasy sub-genre. I am an old-school Tolkien and Jordan epic fantasy fan, but I figured out a couple of things. One, I also love sword and sorcery, especially as a busy adult. Two, I am not an epic fantasy superfan. This has kept me from really getting into Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere and Stormlight Archive, for example (that Oathbringer review, it’s still coming!). Epic fantasy rewards rereads and endless hours on the Internet researching and debating the work. It is a really remarkable thing that doesn’t naturally follow from the thing of a fantasy novel. That is why devoting a huge chunk of page space to the appendices was so revolutionary. People who wanted more didn’t have to go buy another book with another story. They could continue to flesh out the nooks and corners of this story in their heads, enriching their experience. An experience that would be enriched even more by interaction with other fans.
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.