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The Lost Road and Other Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In this volume Christopher Tolkien brings the examination of his father's papers up to the point at which he would set aside the stories of the Elder Days in favor of a successor story to The Hobbit, an endeavor he believed to have more commercial viability than this group of manuscripts he had been working on for so many years that he was no longer certain what he wanted to do with them, nor where the true ending point of the ever-shifting narrative should properly fall.

Tolkien's fascination with the story of Atlantis began early. As a man he would speak of a repeating dream that haunted his childhood days, of an overwhelming wave that swept from the sea to drown a beautiful land. So persistent and powerful was this image that he could not put it from his mind, and he was left trying to understand why such a terrible catastrophe should befall such a lovely country. Years later, as he was struggling with his earliest conceptions of the mythos that would ultimately become the First Age of Middle Earth, he was already thinking of what would come after the fall of Melko. His jottings would ultimately become the story of Numenor.

At about that same time as he was wrestling with the question of "what comes afterward?", sometime in the 1920's or 1930's, he and his good friend C.S. Lewis agreed to a sort of "novel dare". Each would write a science fiction novel, one about space travel and the other about time travel. C.S. Lewis wrote the one about space travel, and Out of the Silent Planet became the first of a trilogy of novels exploring Christian themes through the metaphor of alien worlds and races. However, Tolkien could not find a suitable structure for his time-travel novel, to be entitled The Lost Road. His intent was to take a father and son backwards through successive generations to their origin in lost Atlantis, there called Numenor, where they would explore the reasons why Atlantis was destroyed. Tolkien had a vague sense that the climax of the story must necessarily revolve around the protagonists' need to return safely to the present day before the land of Numenor was completely inundated, and that it would require resolving a conflict between the two of them. After generating numerous fragments and failed workings, the project foundered entirely and Tolkien abandoned it.

In this volume Christopher Tolkien presents all his father's workings on the legend of Numenor from this period. There are the successive sketches of the Numenor tale, presented in a form similar to that found in the early "Quenta Noldorinwa," as well as the fragments of The Lost Road. All of them show a fascinating beginning for what might have been a very fine novel, if only Tolkien could have somehow forced his way through the difficulties and seen the project through to its completion. The characters of Alboin and his father Oswin and son Audoin are delightfully drawn, and seem to represent idealized father-son relationships (especially poignant when one considers that Tolkien was orphaned at an early age and seems to have always had a certain amount of longing for the relationship with his father that might have been, although it also seems to represent an idealization of his own relationship with his sons), as are Alboin and Audon's Numenorian alter-egos, Elendil and Herendil.

However, before Tolkien could reach the end of this charming tale, he grew dissatisfied with its simplicity and set to expanding it. Alboin and Audoin would not go straight back to Atlantis. Rather, they would go back by stages, becoming in turn a series of fathers and sons at different periods in time in order to learn what was known by each of those generations about the lost lands of the Uttermost West. There would be tales set in recognizable history -- the Lombards, the Norse, the early Anglo-Saxons (which seems to have been an effort to somehow write the story of Aelfwine and his trip to Tol Eressea into it) -- then tales set in prehistory and in legendary times, with the familiar legends of the Celts giving way to Tolkien's own legendarium of what would ultimately become the beginning of the Third Age, the battle in which Gil-galad and Elendil defeated Sauron (although at this time the failure to destroy the Ruling Ring was not yet an issue). Only then would the traveling pair reach Numenor in its last days of glory, as the Shadow of evil in the form of envy of the Elves began to darken its bliss. But he could not find a satisfactory way to tell the story, so the effort foundered like so many of his grand narrative schemes.

In addition to these early materials related to the development of the story of Numenor, Christopher Tolkien presents the texts of his father's materials on the First Age as they stood just before the commencement of what would become The Lord of the Rings. The later Annals of Valinor and of Beleriand and the Quenta Silmarillion are in many ways linear developments of their earlier counterparts as presented in the previous volume. The Ainulindale is in many respects a re-development of the account of the Music of the Ainur from the Book of Lost Tales, but now as a text separate from the main Quenta Silmarillion.

In addition to these materials that are reworkings of older texts, there is another text feigned to be a non-fiction work by an elven scholar within the Secondary World. This is the Lhammas, or Account of Tongues, which is said to be the work of Pengolod of Gondolin. The Lhammas is a linguistic essay on the development and interrelationship of the various tongues of Elves, Men and Orcs, illustrated by trees of descent which are illustrated as Tolkien drew them. The Lhammas exists in three forms, two complete and the last (and unfortunately most well-developed) interrupted in the middle. They are of particular interest because they describe a history of the languages of Middle Earth somewhat at variance from both those described in the Book of Lost Tales and in the final published versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. As is the case with so many of Tolkien's manuscripts, it is uncertain whether these materials represent a rejection of earlier concepts or simply a variant idea that occurred to him as he was writing. This uncertainty is further complicated by the fact that it is feigned to be a text written within the Secondary World, and thus could represent nothing more than what Tolkien imagined the character as believing to be true within the framework of the Secondary World.

Finally, of especial interest to scholars of Tolkien's linguistic creations who enjoy the technical side of historical linguistics are the Etymologies. In this we find Tolkien's last attempt to set forth a comprehensive vocabulary of the elvish languages. Unlike a regular dictionary, the entries are not arranged by individual words, but by the primitive elvish stems from which the words of the various elven are derived. This enabled Tolkien to display the historical relations between various words, both within the languages and between them. However, readers not familiar with historical linguistics are apt to find them frustrating and wonder why Tolkien couldn't have simply worked up a standard bilingual dictionary with elvish words and their English equivalents.

At the very end are a number of ancillary materials which belong to this period but are not firmly connected with anything else. These include genealogical charts of the Elvish and Mannish royal families, as well as a list of names Tolkien himself compiled (whether to keep them straight in his mind or just from the sheer joy of the process of listing and cataloging is uncertain) and a revision of the map which he had made after recommencing his prose efforts on the Elder Days, which by this point had become so covered with emendations as to be difficult to use.

Table of Contents

  • Part One: The Fall of Numenor and the Lost Road
    1. The Early History of the Legend
    2. The Fall of Numenor
    3. The Lost Road
  • Part Two: Valinor and Middle Earth Before The Lord of the Rings
    1. The Texts and their Relations
    2. The Later Annals of Valinor
    3. The Later Annals of Beleriand
    4. Ainulindale
    5. The Lhammas
    6. Quenta Silmarillion
  • Part Three:The Etymologies
  • Appendix
    1. The Genealogies
    2. The List of Names
    3. The Second "Silmarillion" Map

Review posted January 14, 2010.

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