How (not) to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings

Dwarf FAQs, Sauron truthers and wizards reincarnated as dogs: the increasingly strange attempts to give Lord of the Rings a sequel.

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Let’s start at the end:

“‘Well, I'm back,’ he said.”

And with that, thousand-page long fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings is finally over – J.R.R. Tolkien drops the mic, and the history of Middle Earth is done.

Except, of course, that if you turn the page, you’ll find the lengthy appendices in which, scattered among hobbit family trees and guides to pronouncing Elvish, you can find out what most of the characters get up to after the end of the book.

Tolkien actually considered going a step further and wrote a peculiar final chapter in a sort of FAQ format where the hobbit Sam Gamgee’s daughter asks him questions about the characters (although strangely not, “So dad, was that all that Tom Bombadil stuff strictly necessary?”) But after showing it to a few people he reported that “it's been so universally condemned that I shall not insert it. One must stop somewhere.”

Which sounds about right. Unless you’re Dennis L. McKiernan.

In 1977, McKiernan, now a moderately successful fantasy author in his own right, was an engineer at Bell Labs in New Jersey. His career switch was triggered by a motorcycle accident; trapped in a plaster cast from his ankles to his armpits, he decided to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings to keep himself sane. Sure.

But in an unlikely twist, his novel – which followed Gimli the dwarf and his quest to retake Moria, the home of his ancestors – actually got the thumbs up from a publisher. There was only one stumbling block: the Tolkien estate, whose response when approached amounted to: do one.

McKiernan wasn’t the first person to try this – while Tolkien was alive he fielded a few such offers – and in a letter to his publisher actually seems to have been unclear as to whether he had any legal right to stop them:   

“I do not know what the legal position is, I suppose that since one cannot claim property in inventing proper names, that there is no legal obstacle to this young ass publishing his sequel, if he could find any publisher, either respectable or disreputable, who would accept such tripe.”

Would-be sequel writers didn’t always respond well when he turned them down:

“I once had a similar proposal, couched in the most obsequious terms, from a young woman, and when I replied in the negative, I received a most vituperative letter.”

Amazingly, Dennis L. McKiernan’s publisher wasn’t put off by this. They decided on another approach: they would publish it, but to avoid legal action they’d change all the names. This still left one problem: as written, McKiernan’s book, now titled Trek to Kraggen-Cor was now a sequel to a trilogy of books that didn’t exist. And so he wrote three highly original books that definitely aren’t just Lord of the Rings with the numbers filed off, about diminutive people called warrows who go on an epic adventure to fight the evil Modru with the help of a dwarf, an elf and a prince called Igon.

If you want to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings but don’t want to go to all the effort of rewriting Lord of the Rings first: do it in Russian. Russia’s traditionally loose attitude to copyright allowed Nick Perumov to get away with publishing Ring of Darkness, a trilogy about the descendant of one of the hobbits trying to stop a descendant of Boromir’s hitherto unrevealed bastard son from collecting the nine rings of the black riders and summoning the Middle Earth equivalent of Satan. Saruman is back, but he’s now a talking dog! Yes, really.

Another Russian author, Kirill Yeskov, took a different approach. The Last Ringbearer posits that the Lord of the Rings is a work of propaganda, written to retrospectively justify the actions of the evil tyrant Gandalf. The ring is a powerless symbol, “Orc” is a racial slur,  and Mordor is a peaceful land on the verge of industrial revolution.

While it’s a clever conceit with some occasionally fun results (e.g. it turns out Aragorn murdered Boromir to clear his way to the throne, then covered it up by saying the orcs did it), either it lost something in translation or it was always this dryly pedantic. Yeskov has referred to Tolkien as “charming, albeit slightly tedious”, which are bold words for someone who wrote a book which includes an entire chapter about irrigation techniques in Middle Earth.

Is there any merit in writing a sequel to Lord of the Rings at all? Someone who considered this question was Tolkien himself, who started to write one called The New Shadow. He made several attempts at the first chapter of a story set 100 years after the fall of Sauron, a thriller about the rise of a satanic religion. But he concluded that the idea was “depressing” and “not worth doing.”

A sequel in the spirit of the original would necessarily be more prosaic, because the original ends with the more fantastic elements of his mythology literally departing on a boat. Good wins, but at a price*. And so one must stop somewhere.

*How much of Tolkien’s work was influenced by surviving the horrors of the first world war only to see his beloved countryside eaten up by the horrors of Birmingham is left as an exercise for the reader.