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Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the time of his death, J.R.R. Tolkien left a wealth of manuscript material dealing with his invented world and its history, languages and peoples, the accumulation of a lifetime of effort. Unfortunately, they were in a chaotic state. Many were unfinished, some little more than tentative jottings, others quite polished up to the point where they suddenly ended, leaving a story dangling in mid-flight. One thing was certain -- none of them were ready for publication as they stood.

His son and heir, Christopher Tolkien, was left in a quandry as to the proper treatment of these materials. On one hand, there was an enormous interest in every scrap of information that could be learned about the fascinating world his father had created. But on the other, there was the problem of respecting his father's wishes. Clearly these were not materials with which the elder Tolkien, a lifelong perfectionist in matters of the self-consistency of his invented world, was satisfied. As such, would making them public be a sort of betrayal? Yet Tolkien had clearly intended for them to be published someday, once he had finished fussing with them.

There might be some arguments to the theory that they should be put away in an archives somewhere, to be examined only by "real" scholars with acceptable credentials. But in view of the enormous interest in the world of Middle Earth, Christopher Tolkien decided that at least some of the most important and relevant materials should be presented to the public at large, with appropriate scholarly commentary, so that anyone with an interest in them could read them without jumping through hoops to prove scholarly status and without needing the funds to travel to an archives that might be hundreds or thousands of miles distant.

The result was this volume, a collection of the most important and nearly completed materials among the papers of J.R.R. Tolkien. Here are the longer and more detailed forms of two of the critical tales of the First Age: that of Turin and that of his cousin Tuor. There is also a wealth of material on the Second Age, which had received only the scantest of treatment in the published materials. Most fascinating is the story of Aldarion and Erendis, a sort of royal soap opera from the early history of Numenor, when the Shadow had not yet darkened the joy of the Land of the Gift, but humans were still humans and could disagree among themselves. In it we see the beginnings of the concern about intermarriage with "lesser" lines of Men resulting in the diminishment of the extraordinary lifespans enjoyed by the Line of Elros, which ultimately resulted in the stipulation that the kings and their potential heirs could only marry only those who could also trace their lineage to Elros son of Tuor (by that time enough generations had passed that a king or royal prince could easily find a potential spouse who met that qualification but was only a very distant cousin, so this requirement did not necessarily result in the negative effects we have seen here in the Primary World as a result of the extreme inbreeding of the European royal families).

In addition to these attempts at extended narrative, there are also expository works, Tolkien's attempts at essays on various background elements such as the complete history of Galadriel and Celeborn. The exact nature of Galadriel's offense against the Valar shifted as Tolkien worked on it. Certainly she had never sided with Feanor, and perhaps she had even opposed him during that terrible crowd scene in the central court of Tirion when Feanor whipped the Noldor into a frothing rage against Melkor. But she certainly wanted to go to Middle Earth and explore the wide lands there -- either with the permission of the Valar or without it. Perhaps her offense had been more a formal one, a breaking of an administrative rule rather than action against innocents -- but if that had been the case, there would also have been the matter of pride to blacken her record, since she had been willing to set her will against the express will of the Valar and go not only without their permission, but against their prohibition of any of the remaining Eldar in Valinor interfering in the affairs of the rebels.

We also have a complete description of the island of Numenor, detailing the landforms and climates of each of its six principle regions -- the five arms of the star and the central inlands. We also learn in this essay the customs related to the annual observances at the top of the Holy Mountain, the Hallow of Eru, which was the only shrine in all of Numenor until Sauron pretended defeat and introduced his foul worship of Morgoth in the form of human sacrifices in a black-domed temple in the heart of the capital. This essay appears to have been intended as a preface for the story of Aldarion and Erendis, which was never finished. It is likely that the list of the kings of the Line of Elros was also intended to accompany that story. It is of interest because it has several notable discrepancies from the list published in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. In addition, the descriptions of the personalities and reigns of these various monarchs is more extensive than in the Tale of Years given in The Lord of the Rings.

Representing the Third Age, we have a number of historical essays, including some that overlap with the narrative of The Lord of the Rings but are apparently from Mannish perspectives rather than that of the hobbits. Some of them are clearly to be understood as documents prepared by various historians for the royal archives of Gondor, while others could be nothing more than summaries Tolkien wrote in his own voice.

There are also writings on the nature of the Druedain (the Wild Men of The Lord of the Rings), taking their history back to the First Age and setting them among the Atani, the Fathers of Men. Other essays deal with the secrets behind the Istari, or order of Wizards, and of the nature and operation of the Palantiri, the Seeing Stones of Arnor and Gondor. However, very little of this material is in the nature of a cohesive document. Rather, they are more on the order of jottings and notes put together to clarify his own thoughts as he realized that he had not properly thought through the implications of his creations, a situation that was particularly brought to his attention when fans would ask him questions about this or that detail of his imagined world which was mentioned only in passing in the published text.

On the whole, this volume is somewhat less important now that we have the publication of the complete History of Middle Earth collection. However, it remains important in that it contains documents that are not reproduced in the twelve-volume collection, so a person who wants to see the complete body of Tolkien's manuscripts in progress will want to acquire it as well.

Table of Contents

  • Part One: The First Age
    • Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin
    • Narn I Hin Hurin
  • Part Two: The Second Age
    • A Description of the Island of Numenor
    • Aldarion and Erendis
    • The Line of Elros: Kings of Numenor
    • The History of Galadriel and Celeborn
  • Part Three: The Third Age
    • The Disaster of the Gladden Fields
    • Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan
    • The Quest of Erebor
    • The Hunt for the Ring
    • The Battles of the Fords of Isen
  • Part Four
    • The Druedain
    • The Istari
    • The Palantiri

Review posted January 14, 2010

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