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The Book of Lost Tales, Part One by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

One of the things about The Lord of the Rings that drew the attention of both readers and critics was the sense of depth in the imagined world of Middle Earth. Other writers would build a backstory into their worlds, but Tolkien made it feel real. Instead of just being told about the histories of the various places and things, we were served up glimpses of those histories through song and folklore that had a feel of something that really had been handed down through unimaginably long periods of time.

Soon afterward, we discovered just why Tolkien was able to convey such a sense of depth and richness: the stories to which his characters referred had in fact been written years earlier, and The Lord of the Rings was in actuality an outgrowth of that long project. A project which had taken many forms from the time he first began to scribble imaginary words into a pocket-notebook and tried to imagine the sorts of people who would have spoken them. A project that he reconsidered many times, reshaping as his perceptions of what would be publishable changed, until the unanticipated success of The Hobbit led his publisher to encourage him to write more in that light fantastic vein and he reluctantly set aside the older works, concluding that there was no market for them.

The excited fannish response to the glimpses of the stories of the Elder Days offered in The Lord of the Rings led Tolkien to change his mind about the commercial viability of those stories. However, when he recommenced work on the stories of the ancient elven kingdoms and their gallant but doomed struggle against the ancient Enemy of whom Sauron had been but a servant, Tolkien found it difficult going. After so many years of working on them, he could no longer settle upon a way to draw together the multitude of variant texts into something that would be comprehensible to a modern reader. Most importantly, he could not find a suitable way to frame and convey them, in the manner that the down-home solidity of the hobbits had served as a mediating voice in The Lord of the Rings. When death cut short his efforts, the manuscripts were in a state of disarray, and it fell upon his son Christopher Tolkien to make some kind of order from the chaos.

The result of that effort was the volume known as The Silmarillion, which many fans of Middle Earth snapped up only to be surprised and disappointed by the cool, distant tone of the text, so unlike the warm and engaging tone of The Lord of the Rings. However, Christopher Tolkien was ultimately unsatisfied with the result for a completely different reason. As he explains in the foreward to this volume, the redaction of the various manuscripts into a single narrative structure creates a sense of finality and cohesion where in fact there was none. While it might be satisfactory for the casual reader to have a text that could be read from end to end as if it were the definitive story of the Elder Days, the scholar of Tolkien's works would want to get a sense of how different versions of the story developed through successive manuscripts and how various elements appeared and disappeared.

Thus Christopher Tolkien decided that the best way to procede was to produce a full scholarly treatment of the manuscripts. After the success of an initial experiment entitled Unfinished Tales, he embarked on the daunting task of assembling and annotating his father's manuscripts, beginning with the earliest materials.

This volume takes us back to the very beginnings of the stories of the Elder Days, a collection of battered notebooks in which J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first stories of elves and their languages. Here we find a far different narrative than the spare, remote summation of The Silmarillion which so many disappointed fans complained about reading like the Old Testament. Instead we find a rich, primitive set of tales full of a wild energy and puckish humor that somehow got distilled out of the later versions. A series of tales that really read like folklore passed through the generations to be retold around firesides.

Even in the very beginning of his efforts to tell the stories of the Elder Days, Tolkien had a sense that he needed a character with whom the reader could identify, who could mediate the stories to a modern audience. Thus he created Errol, a mariner who lost his way on the open sea and landed upon the Lonely Island of Tol Eressea, where he was received by the elves. There they told him the tales of their people, in a style reminiscent of such classics as the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron. There are many strange features in this early conception of the elves which would completely vanish in the later, more elevated versions of the mythos, including the Cottage of Lost Play to which mortal children were supposed to be able to come in their dreams via a secret path. Amplifying this notion are several versions of a poem called variously "The Cottage of Lost Play" or "The Little House of Lost Play," which ultimately mutated into "Kortirion Among the Trees," a poem of the city of Kortirion after it has been abandoned by the elves.

The stories themselves are the seeds of what will ultimately become the Silmarillion, but they too have this strange pixie quality, so utterly unlike the grandness of the later conceptions of the mythos. Melko in this version seems more like a trickster than the great and terrible Dark Lord that Melkor would become in later versions. There is even a "Melko party" in the war-gods who are favorible to him, something that Tokien apparently found somewhat awkward as he began to see his antagonist as less of a troublesome Loki and more of a Lucifer figure. If Melkor were to be evil incarnate, there could no longer be any even remotely sympathetic character taking his part, and certainly not a pair of rowdy war deities who seem to exist more to stir up conflict than to render victory in the tradition of war gods such as Mars.

Furthermore, in this early version there is a very sensual level of detail in the realization of the world, a richness which vanishes entirely in the later, more spare and remote retellings of the mythos. The chain that bound Melko after his first defeat is made of a special alloy named by an acronym of the elvish names of its constituent metals. When the Gnomes (the precursors of the Noldor in the history of the mythos) set their hands to making jewels, they use various substances such as dew, flowers and pearls to construct them. The creation of the Sun and the Moon from the last fruits of the poisoned Two Trees is described in great detail, from the great weight of the fruits to the intricate workings of the vessels into which they are put. Again and again we the readers get to see, hear, smell and taste the world in a way that will never be true in any later version.

In addition to the poems of the Cottage of Lost play, there are numerous other poems presented alongside the texts, illuminating some of the notions Tolkien held about his mythos at that time, as well as maps and sketches. For instance, there is a sketch of the flat earth of the mythos conceptualized as a sort of ship, with the sky as its sails upon which rest the sun and the moon, and all of it floating on a sort of outer ocean which is also the atmosphere. The poem "Habannan Beneath the Stars" sets forth some of the notions of the cosmology of the time, and particularly of the fates of Men, some of whom were conceptualized as entering into the Blessed Realm after death -- a striking contrast to the later view that Men were strictly prohibited from ever setting foot upon the Blessed Realm because their fates lay elsewhere, beyond the circles of the world.

Other poems speak of Tinfang Warble, a "bird ward" fairy who would later disappear entirely from the mythos. He dances under the light of the moon and plays upon his flute. Another enjoyable poem is an earlier version of "Why the Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon," in association with the creation of the Sun and the Moon.

Sadly, one of the critical tales was never finished. This is Gilfanon's tale, which would have told the story of what happened to the Gnomes after they landed in the Great Lands and began their battles against Melko. At this point Feanor was only beginning to develop the stature he would hold in the later tales as a prince among the Noldor, but already Tolkien had a strong sense that the terrible crimes of the rebellious Gnomes in seizing the Telerian swan-ships would bear bitter fruit. However, the impulse to write was beginning to run low by this point, after having written so many stories in intricate and engaging detail (the stories in this volume were actually composed after the stories in the second volume which come after them in terms of internal chronology). The hastily pencilled beginning soon ran out, and after that there is nothing but the roughest of sketches, jotted ideas of what might have come next, had Tolkien not abandoned the prose Book of Lost Tales in favor of a poetic retelling.

For instance, we get the story of Tu or Tuvo, a mysterious figure who may be one of the beings who accompanied the Valar into the world but who were not yet called the Maiar, and his dark elf assistant Nuin who stumbles upon the Fathers of Men sleeping in the hidden vale of Murmenalda, awaiting the time appointed by Illuvatar for them to awaken. One of the most fascinating details, right at the end of the fragment, is the discovery by Nuin that they are not adults, but young children -- and then the fragment ends before Tolkien could develop any of the implications. Some of the notes suggest a sinister connection between Tu and Melko, but those comments were subsequently struck out, indicating Tolkien rejected them. In addition, it appears that Tolkien was struggling with the relative sizes of Men and Elves, no longer sure if he wanted to maintain his original notion of the Elves being roughly the same stature as Men at the beginning of time but their diminishment in later eras being a shrinking of physical size as well as a loss of their primeval power.

Students of Tolkien's constructed languages will be delighted to find an appendix dealing with the linguistic underpinnings of the names found in The Book of Lost Tales. These brief notes reveal the earliest development of those langauges, in a time when Tolkien was still playfully punning upon real languges, an impulse that would later be eliminated as unworthy of the scope of the epics he wished to tell.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword
    1. The Cottage of Lost Play
    2. The Music of the Ainur
    3. The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor
    4. The Chaining of Melko
    5. The Coming of the Elves and the Making of Kor
    6. The Theft of Melko and the Darkening of Valinor
    7. The Flight of the Noldoli
    8. The Tale of the Sun and Moon
    9. The Hiding of Valinor
    10. Gilfanon's Tale: The Travail of the Noldoli and the Coming of Mankind
  • Appendix: Names in the Lost Tales Part I
  • Short Glossary of Obsolete, Archaic, and Rare Words
  • Index
The Book of Lost Tales 1(The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 1) from Amazon.com