The other night Professor Olsen mentioned that there were some students in the class who remembered what it was like to read The Lord of the Rings before The Silmarillion was published. I do remember those days (it makes me feel like Elrond to say that-- "You remember?" said Frodo, speaking his thought aloud in astonishment) In some ways it was wonderful. When Aragorn sang part of the Lay of Leithian, when Elrond spoke of the War of Wrath, when Faramir spoke of his dream of the great green wave looming over Numenor, endless vistas of a romantic and heroic past opened up before me. They beckoned me onward. Then came the frustrating part: as far as I could tell, and as much as I was craving to learn more, there didn't seem to be any way to do that.
It was, as Professor Olsen suggested, similar to the position Eriol finds himself in when the elves in the Cottage of Lost Play make reference after dizzying reference to tales of which he has no knowledge. But it was not quite the same. Eriol is inundated with information, which is not what happens in The Lord of the Rings. I think there are two reasons for this. One, Tolkien is a better writer and storyteller by the time he gets to The Lord of the Rings. He mixes larger more detailed pieces of story (like Beren and Luthien) with smaller, incidental references (Elrond's mention of the great elf-friends), just as people do in conversation in "real" life. This helps to draw in the reader as well as the hobbits. Two, Eriol is far more a stranger to the stories referred to than even the hobbits are. He is on the outside looking in. He knows nothing. The hobbits at least know a little, and they are part of the story.
I still remember the day someone told me that there was this book called The Silmarillion coming out "in a couple of years." It was very exciting, but not as exciting as the day I rode all the way across town on the bus after school to buy it the moment it was published. As I rode home, reading all the way, and lay in bed reading all that night, I knew what Sam must have felt like when he reached Rivendell and heard the Tale of Beren and Luthien told in full.
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