The War of the Jewels by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In this volume Christopher Tolkien continues his examination of his father's writings related to the Elder Days subsequent to his completion of The Lord of the Rings, which was begun in Morgoth's Ring. While the previous volume covered those writings that dealt with Valinor, this one deals with the returning Noldor in Beleriand. However, the problem the elder Tolkien had with recovering the momentum he had lost during the years he had set aside the material have not abated. If anything, they have become even more severe as he approaches the ending which has never been fully realized as more than the briefest of sketches. The inability to write the tale of Earendil which had robbed the original Book of Lost Tales of a proper conclusion continues to haunt him decades later as he struggles to find some way to tell that story at a level comparable with the detail in such sections as those covering the stories of Beren and Luthien or Turin Turambar.
The first section of this book is devoted to the "Grey Annals," the final realization of the tradition of the Elder Days in the form of chronicles. By this time it had expanded from the original brief chronological entries to a narrative in its own right, parallel to the "Quenta Silmarillion". Unlike the earlier Annals of Beleriand that were presented in The Shaping of Middle Earth, these annals do not simply take up with the arrival of the Noldor in Middle Earth with the rising of the Moon and Sun. Rather, they begin with the arrival of the Sindar, the Grey Elves, in Beleriand during the Great Journey and how they lingered there when their king, Elwe, became lost in the forests, enraptured by the beauty of Melian the Maia. As a result, the Gray Annals become a parallel narrative alongside the Annals of Aman and only taking over from them after the story leaves Valinor behind to concentrate entirely upon the struggles of the Elves and their allies the Fathers of Men against Morgoth in Beleriand. Sadly, like so much of Tolkien's work, the Gray Annals were never completed. As he reached the story of Turin, he abandoned this work and never again returned to it.
The later part of the "Quenta Silmarillion" is also presented here, but due to its length, not in its entirety. Rather, Christopher Tolkien only presents and comments upon the changes which his father made from the earlier version of the "Quenta Silmarillion" that was presented in the fifth volume, The Lost Road. However, it should be noted that a number of the changes are fairly major, including new material related to the Dwarves and the Edain, However, the conclusion, which by rights should have received extensive revision in order to bring the account of the final war against Morgoth and the ultimate fate of the Noldorian rebels into line with material in The Lord of the Rings, received almost perfunctory attention. There was little or no effort to bring Galadriel and her prideful response to the Valar into the story, although this may have been in part the result of Tolkien's own uncertainty about her story as reflected in Unfinished Tales. But it would appear that even more important in the inability to produce a significant reworking and development of the final sections of the Quenta Silmarillion was the simple fact that it had never been thoroughly developed in the earliest versions of the legendarium, and thus remained disastrously formless in Tolkien's mind to the end of his life.
Following the analysis of the revision of the Quenta Silmarillion are a number of narrative works from this period, almost all of them sadly incomplete. It is uncertain whether they were intended to have been incorporated into the Quenta Silmarillion or if they were intended to stand alone as supporting material along the lines of The Children of Hurin. "The Wanderings of Hurin" deal with the actions of Hurin after the death of Turin and his sister/wife, Neinor/Ninel. At this time Tolkien was still hesitating between the older notion of Hurin joining up with a group of outlaws and bringing a large portion of the dragon's treasure in Narogothrond to Thingol, and the later idea that Hurin alone came to Thingol, bearing the Nauglafring and nothing else. As a result of this inability to decide between two mutually exclusive possibilities, Tolkien produced several very interesting partial manuscripts, each of which ends before it could reach its proper conclusion.
The story of Aelfwine and Dirhavel relates to Tolkien's continuing struggle to find a suitable framing device to present the tales of the First Age and mediate them to the modern reader. Since Tolkien had established that at least some Men who survived the final war of the Valar against Morgoth did not abandon Middle Earth in favor of Numenor, he concluded that it might well be possible for some confused accounts of the events of the Eldest Days could have been recorded and transmitted by Mannish poets and loremasters over the generations, leading Aelfwine of England to wonder what might be the true stories behind them and undertake his westward journey to meet the elves of Tol Eressea where he would hear them from their own lips and read the documents of their loremasters.
"Maeglin" is an exploration of the character of this unhappy figure in the history of Gondolin. However, Tolkien never got beyond rough sketches of his story, perhaps uneasy that any in-depth portrayal might end up lending Maeglin unwarranted sympathy, turning him from a villain to a tragic hero. "Of the Ents and the Eagles" reflects Tolkien's continuing strugle both to reconcile the tales of the Elder Days with that of The Lord of the Rings, and to reconcile the intensely primitive nature of the stories with some form of believable theological and cosmological framework. However, these are hardly more than jottings, certainly not anything resembling a developed narrative or essay, unlike the extensive writings on the nature of orcs and trolls in the previous volume. "The Tale of Years" is a straight chronology which seems to have co-existed with the ever-expanding form of the Annals, and may have been as much for Tolkien's own reference as for publication. Tolkien appears to have often set things out for the sheer joy of having them written out in orderly form on paper in the manner an ancient elven loremaster would have, even if he had no real interest in publishing that particular document.
Finally, students of Tolkien's constructed languages will enjoy "Quendi and Eldar," a set of etymological discussions on those words that relate to the various divisions of the elves and other Incarnates: Men, Dwarves and Orcs. It begins with a discussion of the linguistic elements and their developments in the various languages, then moves to a discussion of each language's development of the various roots. There is also a discussion of the language of the Valar and the way in which it affected that of the Elves, particularly their names for various persons, places and things in Valinor. Interestingly enough, Tolkien himself annotated this manuscript as if it were a scholarly document rather than a work of fantasy. Finally, there is a rather amusing elvish myth, of the original elves to awaken and how they became divided into three kindreds. This is feigned to explain the development of numbers and counting in the elvish languages. The total number of elves who were said to have awakened at Cuivenen were thus said to have been 144, twelve twelves, which agrees with Tolkien's comment in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings that elves preferred to number by sixes and twelves, rather than fives and tens in the manner of Men (which has led some readers to speculate that elves may have been six-fingered, and even drawing a parallel with the chieri of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover.
Table of Contents
- The Grey Annals
- The Later Quenta Silmarillion
- The Wanderings of Hurin
- Quendi and Eldar
Review posted January 14, 2010.