As a scholar, Tolkien spent a great deal of time working from manuscripts. Likewise, as a storyteller, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a narrative persona who bases his story on his compilation and translation of ancient manuscripts. This persona operates within his story’s narrative frame as an analogue for Tolkien’s own work with manuscripts. Readers have long sought for Tolkien’s sources. The mythologies of medieval Northern Europe have been especially beneficial in helping us understand the influences on Tolkien. No study, however, currently exists that pursues the “manuscript sources” used by Tolkien’s narrative persona. But a reading that attempts to pursue these sources may also prove beneficial. Just as Tolkien inserts himself, in the form of his narrative persona, into the framework of Middle-earth, so also is the reader invited to read The Lord of the Rings from within this same framework. Tolkien wanted to his story to be read from inside Middle-earth as an artifact of history.
This study will propose that—by simulating the kinds of phenomena around which a modern compiler of medieval manuscripts and stories has to work: fragmented manuscripts, lacunae, dittography, palimpsests, and variable texts—Tolkien has successfully distressed his story in such a way that it has gained the atmosphere of an ageing legend. The argument of this thesis is that Tolkien’s imitation of classical and medieval manuscript realities is even ambitious enough to suggest that Tolkien’s narrative persona has culled his story from the manuscripts of at least three major literary traditions, each of which is distinct in its interests, concerns, iconographies, historiographies, and themes. In addition to revealing where and how Tolkien has distressed his narrative, this study will also seek to identify what portions of the narrative belong to which of the three major traditions and tease out the implications of the interactions between them.