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Is it Tolkien, or isn't it?

Son's quest fuels debate

Is it the real McCoy? Does it matter?

Houghton Mifflin's decision to publish an unfinished work by J.R.R. Tolkien next year is prompting such questions. The book is the epic ``Children of Húrin," begun in 1918 by the legendary author of ``The Hobbit" and ``The Lord of the Rings." Unfinished at the time of Tolkien's death in 1973, the book has been ``reconstructed" from his drafts by Christopher Tolkien, the author's 81-year-old son.

``This is part of a 30-year project by Christopher Tolkien to bring all of J.R.R. Tolkien's works to the public eye," said Webster Younce, senior editor at Boston-based Houghton Mifflin, who handles the Tolkien books. ``He has devoted himself to that and has done a marvelous service to fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's work."

But is it really J.R.R. Tolkien?

``The Children of Húrin" is another tale of heroes, dark forces, elves, and dragons set in the mythical Middle-earth of Tolkien's previous books. Since his father's death, Christopher Tolkien has completed and ushered into print ``The Silmarillion," ``Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth," and ``The History of Middle-earth." While most Tolkien scholars accept the junior Tolkien's authority to finish the unpublished texts, he has acknowledged that, in sorting through mountains of hand-written manuscript pages, he at times had to make educated guesses at his father's intentions.

``It seems Christopher has taken pieces and stitched them together into one narrative," said Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College who is a Tolkien specialist. ``This is a big deal, because the problem with the other [books] is that, while they're an amazing resource for scholars, they're fairly unreadable."

Christopher Tolkien ``was viciously condemned" by critics when he published ``The Silmarillion" in 1977, Drout said. ``They said, `It's not really Tolkien's words, because you can't tell what is J.R.R. and what is Christopher.' " But, said Drout: ``When it comes to Middle-earth, he rightly feels that he knows more than anyone else. I can't think of anyone but Christopher Tolkien to make that call."

World rights to ``The Children of Húrin," bits and pieces of which have appeared in other books by the Oxford medievalist, were acquired from the Tolkien estate by HarperCollins UK, part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. Last month Houghton Mifflin announced it has acquired US rights, and will publish in April, simultaneous with international editions. Houghton is the US publisher of all of Tolkien's previous works, beginning with ``The Hobbit" in 1938. If Christopher Tolkien feels any doubts about the new project, he isn't saying so publicly. David Brawn, publishing director of HarperCollins UK, said Tolkien hasn't given interviews in years.

It's hardly the first time a dead author's work has been brought into print by someone else. Sometimes it happens when an author's fame virtually guarantees sales, such as with two early novels of Louisa May Alcott published in the past dozen years. Sometimes the impetus is a personal connection. With Tolkien, it's both.

Ralph Ellison's posthumous ``Juneteenth," published in 1999, was mined from a mountain of manuscript pages by Ellison's longtime literary executor, John Callahan. Several novels and nonfiction books by Ernest Hemingway have been published since his death in 1961, including the 250-page novel ``The Garden of Eden," extracted from a 1,500-page manuscript by Hemingway's publisher, Charles Scribner Jr. Most recently, there was ``True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir," edited from a first draft by Hemingway's son Patrick and published in 1999.

Reached at his home in Montana, Patrick Hemingway said he had long felt the work, an account of a 1953 African safari, ``should not be published. It was hard to follow," he said, ``by no means a finished work. But then someone read it and liked it, and I thought, maybe it is worth fooling with." After he began working on it, he said, ``it was like having my father alive all over again."

Yet he was clear that he was not wearing-in his father's shoes. ``You have to warn people that this has been tampered with and modified," he said. ``You have to insist, `I am not the author.' " Asked whether he wondered what his father would have thought of the result, he said: ``I think he would have been amused. He would say, `You got this right, but boy did you get that part wrong.' "

Some have doubts about such tampering. ``I think that word `reconstructed' is a warning sign," said William Pritchard, an English professor at Amherst College and biographer of poets Robert Frost and Randall Jarrell. ``You don't want a `reconstruction' by a member of the family of something a genius wrote. It induces skepticism in the wary reader."

Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of collections at Lincoln's Thoreau Institute and author of an annotated ``Walden," says reconstructions will inevitably attract controversy. ``Every time you put an author's work into print after his death, you are editing," he said. ``Even if supposedly you're giving the world what the author intended, there's no way to know with certainty, without a lot of arrogance. If you looked at a fifth draft of `Walden,' you could not predict what would be in the final version. Thoreau was still making changes in the final proofs."

Some books are unpublished for a reason, said John Taylor Williams, a Boston-based literary agent and publishing lawyer.

``Almost all literary estates have fragments that people try to breathe life into," he said, ``though often the reason they were not published is that the author thought the work was not worthy to publish. But he didn't put a sticker on it that said, `Don't publish.' " Williams added, however, ``There is an obligation of the estate to see if there is anything of literary value in the cupboard."

Neither Younce nor Brawn would disclose the financial terms of Houghton's and Harper's rights to ``The Children of Húrin," but the price could not have been small. Younce said 80 million Tolkien books have been sold in the United States since ``The Hobbit" was published in 1938, and 200 million worldwide. Of that number, 50 million were sold after Peter Jackson's three movies based on ``The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, in 2001-03. As for the movie potential of ``The Children of Húrin," Hollywood is sniffing around, said Brawn. Disney, Warner Brothers, and New Line Cinema have contacted the Tolkien estate, but the estate put them off until after publication. The interest is understandable. The box office gross of Jackson's trilogy was $2.9 billion.

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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