The Book of Lost Tales 2: Framework for Tolkien’s fantasy epic

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Book of Lost Tales 2 by J.R.R.Tolkien fantasy book reviewsThe Book of Lost Tales 2 by J.R.R.Tolkien

In volumes one and two of The Book of Lost Tales, we have a more or less full picture of the earliest work J.R.R. Tolkien did in the development of his personal mythology which later grew into the tales of Middle Earth. It was a mythology meant to provide England with something he felt it sorely needed: a foundation myth. Also, it was a vehicle which allowed him to explore and expand upon his own fascination with the world and stories of Faery, and his love for the invented languages of his youth. The frame of the entire mythology at this point centred on the character of an English mariner (initially called Eriol and later Aelfwine, each with varying origin stories) who was shipwrecked upon the isle of Tol Eressëa, the last bastion of the Elves who have all but fled the mortal world. Here are recounted to him the ‘lost tales’ of the Elves from prior to their departure from the wider world of men.

While it always remained the case that Tolkien envisioned his Middle-Earth stories to be tales about the earliest, unknown histories of our own world as opposed to stories set on some completely alien fantasy world, both parts of The Book of Lost Tales really point out just how strong Tolkien initially envisioned this link to be. In part one we were presented with some of the more cosmogonic myths: stories of the Valar and the creation of the world, the creation of the two Trees of Valinor and the Silmarils, the creation of the sun and moon, and the ultimate exile of the Elves from Valinor to the wider world. In the second part things get a little closer to the ground as we hear tales of heroes and their deeds in their attempt to fight against the forces of Melko (later, named Melkor) who would overthrow all that is good and beautiful in the world.

I have to admit that volume two had a bumpy start for me: the tale of Beren and Tinúviel, and the tale of Turambar and the Foalókë, are distinctly inferior to what they were to become in their fuller, more developed forms. In Beren’s tale two things stood out as road blocks to my enjoyment: Beren as first envisioned was actually an elf of the Noldor and to me this robs the tale of his love of the immortal Tinúviel of much of its tragic grandeur, though it must be admitted that some does still remain; added to that was the fact that Melko’s lieutenant in the tale, and the main opponent to the heroes, was not Sauron of the Ainur and lord of the isle of werewolves, but Tevildo Prince of Cats! It might just be me, but a giant house cat (no matter how large and mean) is a slightly less intriguing villain than one of the greatest of the gods.

As I noted in my review of Book One, Tolkien was still working within a model that was much more based on traditional ‘fairy tales’ than what his stories of the First Age of Middle-Earth were to become, so this element isn’t exactly unexpected — it’s just not my particular cup of tea. As for Turambar, there wasn’t anything specific I could point to as the deciding factor in my relative lack of enthusiasm, but having read what this tale was to become it certainly pales in comparison.

For me that pretty much sums up the points at which I was disappointed in both volumes: these are much paler, thinner, and in some ways shadow-versions of the tales I know. That being said, they have the virtue of being able to show just how much the constant work and revision, the lifetime of unceasing development, love and thought that went into them truly turned what were inspired-but-limited stories into things that truly were comparable to the mythic workings of an entire people. The depth and reality of the tales of Middle-Earth all started here with something much smaller and simpler, but which would prove to be the seeds of something so much greater. The layers that one can see were built upon these first canvasses, giving a fascinating glimpse into a creative process that was truly monumental.

On to what I did like in Book Two: the tale of the Fall of Gondolin was almost all I could have hoped for. While I still weep at the unrealized potential of the rewrite to this story that Tolkien had started but abandoned far too early as presented in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, I at least was able to see the story of Tuor and his flight to the doomed city of Gondolin just as it is about to be overcome by the forces of Melko in a complete, and I must say rather satisfying, version. Tied in with this is the story of the Nauglafring, or the necklace of the Dwarves, which in itself is a rousingly Germanic tale of greed, curses, and doom that also allows for two of the great love stories of Tolkien’s mythology to this point (that of Beren and Tinúviel on the one hand and of Tuor and Idril on the other) to dovetail into each other and become the genesis for the tale of Eärendel which was in many ways the very heart of Tolkien’s mythology from the beginning. Eärendel himself was the child of Tuor and Idril, who falls in love with Beren & Tinúviel’s granddaughter Elwing, and whose great mission is to be the only mariner able to sail to the land of Valinor. Interestingly, in some early versions of the tale as presented here, Eärendel is sometimes either unable to make his way to Valinor or finds that his journey there proved unnecessary. Ultimately this is another case where Tolkien’s later development of the tale proved to be more satisfying than what we initially find, but it is still an intriguing (and more importantly a fuller) glimpse into what would otherwise be little more than some bare bones references in later works.

The final chapter of the second volume is made up of scattered notes and poems that relate explicitly to the frame narrative and the life story of the mariner Eriol/Aelfwine. To me the greatest value these fragments hold is in showing how strongly Tolkien initially wanted to tie in his tales of Faery with the history of our own world (and specifically with England). I myself don’t worry too much about this aspect of Tolkien’s work, but it was obviously hugely important to him. Even in the later development of the tales of Middle-Earth, which seem rather distant from any kind of mythological history of England, we can see that the ‘historical’ element remains: specifically in the frame narrative of the ‘Red Book of Westmarch’, which lies as the pseudo-historical source of all of the published tales of Tolkien.

All in all while a bit uneven, this book gave some intriguing glimpses into Tolkien’s craft, especially in places where a later development of a given tale was either never completed or where what does exist is only fragmentary. The Book of Lost Tales is definitely a collection which will be of primary interest to the Tolkien aficionado.

The Histories of Middle-Earth, Volumes 1-12 — (1983-1996) Publisher: Christopher Tolkien, who formerly taught at Oxford University, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor. Contain Tolkien’s ideas, notes, poems, drawings, etc which he began in 1916 and which explain the entire conception of Middle-earth and Valinor. Die-hard Tolkien fans love these — they show how much thought and time when into the creation of Middle-Earth. Here is a synopsis of each book:

The Histories of Middle Earth J.R.R. TolkienThe Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Shaping of Middle Earth by J.R.R. TolkienThe Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>The Histories of Middle Earth <strong>J.R.R. Tolkien</strong>


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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book. You can see what he's currently reading at his Goodreads page.

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3 comments

  1. “It might just be me, but a giant house cat (no matter how large and mean) is a slightly less intriguing villain than one of the greatest of the gods.”

    I think this just means that Tolkien must have had a cat.

  2. don’t, upon hearing about tevildo, lord of cats – think “wow! i bet tolkien fans have made some cool artwork for this guy. Google!”

    anthropomorphic porn all over my monitor :( safe search is on as well.

    if anyone does know of any cool art for this guy i’d love to see it though

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