Tristan Fry of Exodus Books, 10/17/2008
Unfinished Tales is a stupendous compendium of facts pertaining to the composition of the mythology underlying Lord of the Rings; a complex web of promising ideas that never found complete fulfillment. It is also one son's akward tribute to his father's legacy. In a manner similiar to the way in which he recently prepared The Children of Hurin for publication, Christopher Tolkien collected and edited Unfinished Tales as a companion to the far more polished Silmarillion. The book was first released in 1980; it recently celebrated its twenty-seventh anniversary earlier this month, on Tuesday, October 2nd. Today, it remains an intriguing, if difficult, resource for the committed Tolkien reader, providing a closer look at the work-in-progress of this celebrated author. Perhaps I should have underlined "difficult". Everything about this book?from its binding, size, and typeset, to its content?seems to preclude the possibility of an easy reading. This was never intended for the faint-hearted, or even for the casual reader of The Lord of the Rings epic. If you are not already a fan, this book will, in all likelihood, not make you one. In fact, it might discourage those who haven't yet read Rings from ever picking up a a Tolkien novel again. At the least, it will likely prove baffling, in both style and content, for those who are not intimately conversant with The Silmarillion, its history and mythology. Unlike the more recent Children of Hurin, it does not and ought not to stand alone as an independent chronicle. That being said, if you already are a fan, and want to learn some interesting facts about the composition of Tolkien's books?if Lord of the Rings left you with an insatiable desire for knowledge concerning Middle-Earth and its peoples?then Unfinished Tales might be helpful to you after all. The one unifying factor of the "Tales" is that they were all, obviously, and for one reason or another, left unfinished at the time of Tolkien's death. The number of these manuscripts, both those released by Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales as well as in other collections, such as The Lays of Beleriand or the Book(s) of Lost Tales, is nearly as large as the novels J.R.R. himself oversaw. These writings span a wide range of topics, including Elvish myth, geography, and cultures in Middle-Earth. While LOTR focuses primarily on the birth of the world of Men (hobbits, the saviors of Middle-Earth, after all, are very much akin to the rustic English farmer), UT has much more to say about the Elves before their glory faded into obscurity at the Grey Havens. (Warriors such as Turin son of Hurin play crucial roles in many of the selections, but their destinies are enacted in a predominantly Elvish world. An exception to this is the large section of text dealing with the isle of Numenor, a kingdom that gave birth to Aragorn's ancestry.) Selections given cover the First, Second, and Third Ages of Middle-Earth, providing an epic, if disjointed feeling. Tolkien once wrote that, "Once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story?the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths." The scope of such a project is certainly evinced here, but any sense of connection is fragmented by the constant intrusion of Christopher Tolkien's annotations. Tales recounted include ?Aldarion and Erendis?; the romance of two Numenorean lovers separated by Prince Aldarion's obsession with the sea, and a much-extended version of ?Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin?, a crucial element in Tolkien?s mythic cycle. It also gives some interesting background information on Celeborn and Galadriel before they came to Lothlorien, an essay on the mission and purpose of the five Wizards (only three of which, Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast, actually appear in LOTR), and a description of how the Palantiri, the "Seeing Stones", functioned as communication devices in Gondor. An account of ?The Battles of the Ford of Isen?, in which King Theoden?s son Theodred fell, is also provided. For those Peter Jackson buffs who would be interested to know, the aftermath of this battle was alluded to in the extended cut of The Two Towers film, when, as he was riding, Eomer came upon the body of Theodred in a stream, surrounded by the bodies of slain men and Orcs. My favorite part of this book, and probably the most entertaining, is a conversation recounted by Frodo that was deleted from the published text of The Return of the King (?cut out to lighten the boat,? as Tolkien put it), in which Gandalf describes his perspective on how Bilbo began his adventure in The Hobbit. The picture which he paints is rather unflattering to the poor old hobbit: ?Bilbo was getting rather greedy and fat, and his old desires [for adventure] had dwindled down to a sort of private dream?He was altogether bewildered [by the appearance of the dwarves], and made a complete fool of himself?? Maps of Numinor and the west of Middle-Earth, "The Hunt for the Ring", and the Narn I Hîn Hurin, as well as several other pieces of varying length and completeness, make up the rest of Unfinished Tales. Readers should be aware that this is nearly as much Christopher Tolkien's book as it is his father's. Unfortunately, the skill that he demonstrated in effacing the marks of the editor from Children of Hurin is not evident here. His extended academic commentary is perhaps the most difficult part of the book; the stories themselves often seem to be buried under copious notes detailing times of composition, textual variants, and contradictions between Unfinished Tales and the text of the novels. All of this would be (and is) conceivably very interesting as a historical study of an author's shifting conception of his text. As it is though, I was left wishing that the commentary could somehow have been marginalized, so that the precious fragments could be experienced and enjoyed for what they are: unpolished narrative gems in the crown of a gifted author.