Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review of Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

What do the following works have in common: M. John Harrison’s Viriconium Nights, Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea, Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Martians, Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles, and George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen Nights? They are not only all collections, they are also collections featuring stories set in an established world, binding the larger pieces together like cement. (In the case of Harrison’s Viriconium, we must make that plural: worlds).  Poring over the wealth of material available for the posthumous publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (1977), Tolkien’s son, Christopher, tabbed, compared, analyzed, and made extensive notes of it all, and three years later published Unfinished Tales (1980).  Like the aforementioned author’s collections, it fills in holes, covers backstory, and all around creates a broader, rounder view of a world, in this case the inimitable (though often attempted) Middle Earth. Therefore, those looking for The Lord of the Rings 2: Sauron Strikes Back should be aware: Unfinished Tales is most similar to the mythic stylings of The Silmarillion and the informational appendices of The Lord of the Rings than the novel itself. 
Unfinished Tales is for the scholar, the connoisseur, the nerd of Middle Earth.  Frodo, Gandalf, Sam, Bilbo, Gimli, Aragorn—all get brief mention, but are far, far from being the cornerstones of the collection.  Unfinished Tales can thus be broken into three essential parts: 1) the tales and myths, legends and stories Tolkien had written in the background of the major works that are confluent with Middle Earth history yet insular.  For readers simply interested in reading more from Tolkien’s imagination, they will satisfy. 2) bits of history, including geographical descriptions, royal lineages, histories of friendships and marriages, maps, etc.  These are for the reader who revels in worldbuilding.  And 3) the foot notes.  Covering a tremendous range of side commentary, Tolkien includes his father’s scribblings in the margin, alternate versions of the stories at hand, cross-indexing, analysis, supposition, as well as explanations and descriptions how or why the information is important to the larger scheme of Middle Earth.  Though dad’s writings occupy the majority, the foot notes occupy a significant portion of the book.  (There are even a couple of occasions wherein the foot notes are longer than the story itself.)  These additional notes, analysis, and commentary are for the reader with “Frodo lives!” tattooed on their forehead.

The title, as honest as it may be, is conservative; there are only a few stories which live up to the name “Unfinished Tales”.  Each complete to some degree, there are none that read: “For when Tuvarin raised his sword to smight the dragon, the great beast rai—“. There are, however, a couple of tales which end relatively abruptly.  The first “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”, for example, is a delightfully linear narrative rumbling along with all the stylish accoutrements of Nordic and Greek myth, but ends without truly achieving the goal it set out for itself.  What does exist of the story satisfying in itself, there remains a small sense of incompleteness.  That the end is just around the corner, however, easily allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the holes.  “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife” ends a bit more abruptly, and is the biggest reason the collection’s title is what it is.  The remaining selections that are fiction (not fictional non-fiction) have a much stronger sense of completion, including the stand-out piece “The Tale of the Children of Hurin”, which is full-on mythic tragedy rendered in flawless style.

Thus, if The Hobbit is the butter, The Lord of the Rings the bread, and The Silmarillion the bottle of rich, red wine standing nearby, than Unfinished Tales is the crumbs.  Truly for the famished, Christopher Tolkien has carefully pieced together the bits of lore, tales with no place in the three books published prior, and other leftovers and put them in one place: unnecessary for full enjoyment of Middle Earth, but available for those interested in a little something to top off their hunger.

In the end, Unfinished Tales is a meticulously edited collection of tales in the Middle Earth setting that rounds out the history and places, people and events of the works published to date in fine fashion.  But at the same time, it is not a necessary work.  It is truly for the Middle Earth enthusiast—the reader interested in learning more about the land’s history, its lore, and perhaps, the depths of Tolkien’s imagination.  Covering an extremely broad range of material—legends to historical epigraphs, maps to outtakes of outtakes—it is thus a treasure for the interested reader, but not a continuation of the Middle Earth story in consequential fashion. 

The following is the table of contents.  (All selections are by J.R.R. Tolkien unless otherwise noted.)

Introduction by Christopher Tolkien
“Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”
“Narn I Hîn Húrin: The Tale of the Children of Húrin”
“A Description of the Island of Númenor”
Númenórë (map) by Christopher Tolkien
“Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife”
“The Line of Elros: Kings of Númenor from the Founding of the City of Armenelos to the Downfall”
“The History of Galadriel and Celeborn and of Amroth King of Lórien”
“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”
“The Drúedain”
“The Istari”
“The Palantíri”
Index by Christopher Tolkien
The West of Middle-Earth at the End of the Third Age (map) by Christopher Tolkien

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