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

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Although JRR Tolkien's fame was made with The Lord of the Rings, it was in fact an outgrowth of a much older body of work which had its roots in his youth, in his efforts to create a body of legend specific to England in a way comparable to Continental nations' folklore and mythology. Beginning as a young man, he wrote a series of successive versions of this legendarium, glimmers of which appear in The Lord of the Rings as various characters encounter places and artifacts that were significant in those long-lost times. However, by the time he set forth to write The Lord of the Rings he had become convinced that it would be nearly impossible to publish the stories of the origins of the elves and their brave yet tragic battle against the ancient Enemy for the great jewels, the Silmarils.

Although the commercial success of The Lord of the Rings and the resultant clamor for a fuller telling of the stories only glimpsed in it led Tolkien to reassess his earlier belief that they were unpublishable, he found it sadly difficult to resume the effort so long held in abeyance. There was simply so very much materials, and all of it needed to be reconsidered in the light of things established in The Lord of the Rings. For instance, he needed to at least suggest the existence of the ents, who were so critical in the fall of Saruman and whose memories were described as going back to those ancient days when the Sun and the Moon had yet to be created, when the Two Trees illuminated Valinor and the wide lands of Middle Earth were still lit only by the stars. To actually weave them into the stories would completely disrupt their structure, but there needed to be at least some sense that the primeval forests of that ancient era were guarded by wise beings closely akin to the trees they tended.

As a result of the difficulty, and of Tolkien's natural tendency to dither in an effort to find the perfect solution, he was not able to bring the manuscripts together into some kind of coherent whole by the time death's bell tolled for him. As a result, the confusion of manuscripts were left to his son Christopher, who cobbled together a Silmarillion that many readers found frustrating to read. As a result, Christopher Tolkien decided that his father's manuscripts really deserved a fuller, more scholarly treatment so that those interested in the historical development of the concepts of the Elder Days could see the creative process in operation.

In this volume Christopher Tolkien completes the examination of the earliest of his father's writings, the Book of Lost Tales. In fact, many of the stories in this volume were among the first he ever wrote, although in terms of the internal chronology of the Secondary World they come after the stories in the first volume. There is evidence that "The Fall of Gondolin" was originally written in a heated rush while recovering from his collapse during World War I, although that version was later overwritten by a subsequent revision as the result of an extreme shortage of paper which made it impossible to obtain a separate notebook for the new version. As a result we have only tantalizing glimpses of the earliest form, dashed onto the page in pencil and subsequently erased as the new one was written in ink over it.

Although the critical elements of the tales are already in place, they differ in many respects from their final forms. For instance, Beren is a Gnome rather than a Man in this version, so that the objections of Tinuviel's father are on the basis of a political dispute between elves rather than an objection to a mating between two different peoples (although there are hints that he was a Man in the erased original draft). Beren's foe on his quest to find the Silmaril is a sort of monstrous cat who will never again appear in Tolkien's mythos, rather than the terrible Sauron. Although the images of the Tevildo and his feline retainers lounging about their palace as Beren struggles to prove his claims of being a mighty hunter by capturing the mice that infest it have a certain charm, it is the amusement of a children's tale of animal lore rather than the grand battle against Morgoth's lieutenant Sauron that it will soon become.

Even many of the elements in these stories which will persist until the ultimate forms of the Silmarillion are somehow "smaller," less significant than they would ultimately become. Tinwelint is a simple woodland king, the leader of rustic elves, utterly unlike the majestic king Thingol he will ultimately become. Until Urin brings him the wealth of the dragon, he has almost no gold or silver, and his crown is a wreath of red leaves. The Rodothlim occupy the same narrative space as the people of Narogothrond, but they are little more than frightened refugees hiding in some river caverns, rather than a magnificent kingdom of hidden elves awaiting the time to sally forth against Morgoth, nor do they play any part in Beren's story, only the tragedy of Turin.

Gondolin alone seems to approach the majesty of its final form, hidden in the Encircling Mountains, and in many ways the portrayal of Gondolin and its fall in this notebook constitutes the only full recounting of those events Tolkien would ever complete. Although he subsequently attempted both verse and prose retellings of the story of Gondolin, each time the effort would stall well short of its conclusion, never even able to get to the point at which Tuor actually enters the beautiful yet doomed city of the Hidden Elves to which his father and uncle once were brought.

Unfortunately, the concluding tale, that of Earendel and his journey westward through the mists to beseech the aid of Valinor on behalf of the few surviving Elves and Men, never reached its final form. Rather like Gilfanon's tale in the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales, it fell apart soon after its beginning and is represented only by a collection of disjointed and often contradictory notes. Tolkien was never able to find a suitable structure for those events, and the lack continued to be felt throughout the history of the development of the stories of the Elder Days. However, within this volume are also a number of poetic works concerning Earendel, many never before published, which offer a glimpse of the possibilities Tolkien may have been considering as he struggled to compose that final tale which would have brought the story of the struggles against Melko to their conclusion.

Furthermore, Tolkien never was able to come to a final conception of the "framing tale" of Eriol. Even as he was working on the main tales, he was reworking the story of Eriol, transforming him into Aelfwine, an Englishman. But this never went beyond jottings and ideas to a completed narrative, so we are left with hints of a tragic story by which Tol Eressea would have been uprooted and drawn eastward across the sea to fight some sort of final, disastrous battle that would end up destroying the very elven culture into which Eriol had sought to integrate himself, but would result in the creation of the modern British Isles. Perhaps that very tragic element was what led Tolkien to discard the Eriol storyline and replace it with Aelfwine, and thus with an England firmly separated from any origin in Tol Eressea. Of course this meant that his charming identification of certain features in Tol Eressea with places and buildings in England would have to be eliminated from the framing materials connecting the tales, which may well have been critical in Tolkien's decision to abandon this version of the legendarium altogether and move on to verse retellings of the most critical tales. It had become simply too difficult to uproot those elements and replace them with something new.

Students of Tolkien's constructed languages will be happy to know that this volume, like its predecessor, includes an appendix with a wealth of information on the earliest forms of the elvish languages. As in the first volume, this one is arranged as a list of words with a discussion of related forms and their roots, which offer insights into the processes by which Tolkien developed his imaginary languages.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
    1. The Tale of Tinuviel
    2. Turambar and the Foaloke
    3. The Fall of Gondolin
    4. The Nauglafring
    5. The Tale of Earendel
    6. The History of Eriol or Aelfwine and the End of the Tales
  • Appendix: Names in the Lost Tales -- Part II
  • Short Glossary of Obsolete, Archaic and Rare Words
  • Index

Review posted January 14, 2010.

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