Kudos to Jamie over at Books and Beverages for selecting this book to read for her August discussion. Now that I have had a few weeks to let it all mull over since I finished, I thought it would be time to get my thoughts out in the form of a review. There are a few things I learned by reading this book:
- I will gladly read anything and everything Tolkien I can get my hands on and enjoy every minute of it. I pretty much already knew this, but going through this book confirmed things.
- The stories of the Third Age are not superior simply because those are entwined with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Tolkien had a wealth of grand stories that took place long before those books, and some of them are possibly even better than the Lord of the Rings.
- I can’t get enough of Túrin Turambar, even though I just read The Children of Húrin and reread The Silmarillion last year.
If I had to pick out the three pieces in this book that I enjoyed the most, they would be “Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin”, “Narn i Hîn Húrin (The Tale of the Children of Húrin)”, and “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife”. While the pieces on Galadriel, the history between Gondor and Rohan, and Gandalf’s recounting how he convinced Thorin to take Bilbo and journey to reclaim Erebor were all fascinating, the three stories I mentioned all stole the show and I found myself wishing they all were longer.
Title: Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (9/19/2001)
Pages: 472 (Hardcover)
Blurb: A New York Times bestseller for twenty-one weeks upon publication, UNFINISHED TALES is a collection of narratives ranging in time from the Elder Days of Middle-earth to the end of the War of the Ring, and further relates events as told in THE SILMARILLION and THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
The book concentrates on the lands of Middle-earth and comprises Gandalf’s lively account of how he came to send the Dwarves to the celebrated party at Bag-End, the story of the emergence of the sea-god Ulmo before the eyes of Tuor on the coast of Beleriand, and an exact description of the military organization of the Riders of Rohan and the journey of the Black Riders during the hunt for the Ring.
UNFINISHED TALES also contains the only surviving story about the long ages of Númenor before its downfall, and all that is known about the Five Wizards sent to Middle-earth as emissaries of the Valar, about the Seeing Stones known as the Palantiri, and about the legend of Amroth.
Writing of the Appendices to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, J.R.R. Tolkien said in 1955, “Those who enjoy the book as a ‘heroic romance’ only, and find ‘unexplained vistas’ part of the literary effect, will neglect the Appendices, very properly.” UNFINISHED TALES is avowedly for those who, to the contrary, have not yet sufficiently explored Middle-earth, its languages, its legends, it politics, and its kings.
My Take: A man who is as thorough in his revisions as Tolkien was will inevitably leave behind tales that never quite reach that state of completion. It is no surprise that there are many stories from The Silmarillion that Tolkien attempted to expand upon and never quite reached the end. After all, he was notorious for not only going through a manuscript thoroughly to revise it if there was any indication of interest in publishing it, but he also would start at the beginning of a tale every time he picked it back up to work on it. This habit led to many great beginnings to work that never quite reached that status of being complete. And thus they find life in this publication, alongside various essays on topics such as the Istari and Palantiri, and that is a great thing for fans of Tolkien and of fantasy.
The collection in here ranges from fascinating narratives to a genealogical listing of the kings written in a style that you would expect to find within a history book. There are some items that will interest certain readers more than others, and the impulse of the reader may be to skip ahead to the things of interest and leave the others unread. Which, in many cases, would be to skip over all of the First Age and most of the Second Age stuff. That, I believe, would be a tragic mistake. The best of the tales appear in those two ages, being longer narratives that, while incomplete, give a flavor of the epic nature of the characters rooted in Middle-Earth history. Fans who have read The Silmarillion will certainly enjoy getting a deeper dive into the adventures of some of these familiar figures, such as Túrin Turambar, and even a reader who has not enjoyed The Silmarillion will still find much to enjoy in some of those tales. I’d argue that they are presented in a far more compelling manner than The Silmarillion, having more development and storytelling than appears in the other work.
All in all, this is a welcome piece to any Tolkien collection and an enjoyable group of stories and essays to read about Tolkien and his work. It would also appeal to any writers of fantasy to see some of how Tolkien worked, and the depth he put into fleshing out the history of the fictional world he created. I cannot recommend this book enough and know I will be diving back into this one as often as I will be The Silmarillion.