No one who gets a postgraduate degree in Hobbit Studies ever imagines they’ll be sued by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien. I certainly didn’t expect to wind up in court against Christopher Tolkien and his lawyers, like Frodo Baggins facing down the Nazgûl on Weathertop. Little did I know I was heading into a legal and scholarly Midgewater when I wrote and published The Lord of the Rings: A New English Translation.
As anyone who’s read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings knows, both it and The Hobbit are Tolkien’s translations from the so-called “Red Book of Westmarch,” an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni. How Tolkien came to possess the Red Book is a mystery, and the Tolkien Estate has never allowed other scholars access to it.
Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.
It is also deeply flawed.
Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.
In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.
Because Tolkien’s Estate didn’t let anyone else so much as peek at the Red Book, his The Lord of the Rings remained the only available version for half a century. Nobody even attempted a new translation until me.
When I entered the Hobbit Studies program at the University of Chicago in 2003, I wasn’t planning to write my own translation. Like most of my peers, I was content to lead a quiet scholarly life, writing my dissertation on Adûni phonology and having friendly debates over second brunch about whether or not Balrogs have wings (they don’t). The best I really hoped for professionally were a few publication credits and a full-time lecturer job at a small Franciscan college.
Then one day, in a back corner of the second sublevel of Regenstein Library, I stumbled across an unmarked file dropped by a twitchy-looking undergrad. After flipping through it for a few minutes, I realized it was an unauthorized manuscript copy of the Red Book of Westmarch.
At first, I considered telling the Tolkien Estate about the file. But as I read through it, an idea took shape in my mind: I could write my own translation. I had the academic training to do it, and besides, I felt it was about time someone brought the book out from under Tolkien’s shadow. What’s more, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies had just come out, and debates about how to interpret the story and characters were all over the media. The text was ripe for a new translation.
Of course, I also knew publishing my own version of The Lord of the Rings could make my career, and maybe even land me a tenure-track position at a midsized Jesuit university. I began to feel as if the copy of the Red Book was a gift, like I was meant to have it.
Using my knowledge of Adûni, Quenya, and Sindarin, and the unauthorized copy of the Red Book, I undertook my translation. My goal was never to match Tolkien’s masterful prose, but to provide a more literal translation into English and fix Tolkien’s errors. I also wanted to restore the real names of the characters and settings, in place of Tolkien’s whimsical anglicizations. You won’t find Frodo Baggins or Samwise Gamgee of the Shire in my version of The Lord of the Rings. You’ll find Maura Labingi and Banazîr Galbasi of Sûzat.
Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises. I discovered that the Tom Bombadil chapters weren’t original to the text at all, but had been inserted by a different author at a later date. They’re written in the Adûni dialect of Bree, not Sûzat, and judging by the sloppy handwriting, whoever wrote them was almost certainly drunk, a child, or both.
Tolkien also excised a lengthy, in-depth description of hobbit sexual customs from the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue (an unfortunate omission, as it is here where we learn how Bullroarer Took earned his nickname). In fact, the famously conservative and Catholic Tolkien left out almost all of the Red Book’s ribald humor and attention to the body. Gone are the dwarves’ dirty songs, gone is Gandalf repeatedly referring to Pippin’s brain as “blunter than an orc’s dick,” gone is the Fellowship’s graphic struggle with dysentery in the Mines of Moria.
The translation took me three years to complete. The day it was done was the happiest and proudest day of my life as a Hobbit Studies scholar. I felt I had made a significant contribution to my field and shown my quality.
I was devastated when the papers were served. Not only was I a struggling grad student with huge student loans and multiple payments left on my 1998 Dodge Stratus, but I almost felt as if I’d betrayed Tolkien himself. The court blocked the sale of my translation, and legal fees quickly ate away at my meager savings.
The lawsuit consumed my life. It was all I could think about. I took a hiatus from the university and my research, and spent so much time holed up in my apartment smoking pipe-weed and also actual weed that my friends and family thought I’d disappeared. I started to wish I’d never even written my translation. But I took comfort from the wizard Mithrandir’s words to the Ring-bearer Maura: “No man wishes to live in troubled times, but we have no say in the matter. We can only determine how best to spend this time which the gods have given to us.”
I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and put my research skills to work on my defense. Unfortunately, the case law was sparse. The only similar case I found was The Estate of S. Morgenstern v. William Goldman over the latter’s abridged version of The Princess Bride. It was settled out of court. There was also Lemony Snicket’s lawsuit against Daniel Handler over Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, though the court ruled that a pseudonym may not sue his own author, no matter how delightfully wicked and meta that would be.
The Tolkien Estate had a strong case. They owned the real Red Book, along with the copyright for the characters Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Gimli, and various other hobbits, dwarves, men, orcs, Ents, and Eldar. They claimed my copy of the Red Book was illegal and amounted to intellectual property theft. As I listened to the Tolkien Estate’s lawyers make their arguments in court, the thought that I was doomed grew louder and louder in my mind, like drums echoing in the deep.
My defense was simple but impassioned: Tolkien explicitly stated in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings that he was merely translating the Red Book of Westmarch, not writing an original story. Since Tolkien claimed the Red Book is over 6,000 years old, it must be in the public domain and so open to everyone to reinterpret and repurpose as they see fit. The Red Book didn’t belong to the Tolkien Estate, it belonged to the world.
The Tolkien Estate’s lawyers countered that they still retained the copyright for Bilbo, Sméagol, and other key characters, and they couldn’t be used without permission. But those names are just Tolkien’s own translations from the true Adûni names. As I told the judge, “Bilbo Baggins” and “Sméagol” don’t appear in the Red Book; Bilba Labingi and Trahald do. If the Red Book is truly as ancient as it’s said to be, the Tolkien Estate can’t copyright Bilba and Trahald, any more than T.H. White could claim a copyright on King Arthur.
After a three-month trial, the judge dismissed the lawsuit against me. I left the courthouse feeling immensely relieved, but also sad and empty. I never wanted to anger Christopher Tolkien, the preeminent Hobbit Studies scholar of our time. And though I won in court, my reputation in the field was deeply damaged. I ultimately left academia to pursue a career in the friendlier and more lucrative and efficient world of federal government bureaucracy.
Although the Red Book of Westmarch is now in the public domain, I’d caution future Hobbit Studies scholars against incurring the wrath of the Tolkien Estate. The work may seem compelling enough, but few grad students and scholars can afford the risk to their finances and careers. As Boromir so famously warned, “Not lightly does one walk the road into Mordor.”