David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Revisiting Middle Earth: “Unfinished Tales”

J.R.R. Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings or any of the related Middle Earth materials. Honestly.

No, the good Oxford don was merely a translator and annotator of an ancient work of literature known as the Red Book of Westmarch. In addition to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which are presumed to have been written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the Red Book also contained a large collection of ancient folklore known as Translations from the Elvish. It’s from this section of the Red Book that The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and Unfinished Tales are presumed to have originated.

'Unfinished Tales' coverTo me, this is one of the truly fascinating things about Tolkien’s world that sets it on a higher pedestal than just about any other work of fantasy. Middle Earth extends beyond the printed page. Like the actor who stays in character between performances, Tolkien pretended in his letters and private writings that he really was just a quaint British scholar dusting off old books of lore.

Tolkien was an early example of the kind of complete, obsessive immersion you find today in devotees of Second Life or World of Warcraft. I can only imagine what the stuffier dons at Oxford must have thought of this elderly chap whiling away the hours alone pretending to be a scholar of an invented world, writing philosophical treatises about it, mapping it out, trying to smooth out its inconsistencies. Certainly Tolkien’s pal C.S. Lewis never went to such extremes with his Narnia fantasies. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about someone creating such a detailed, fantastic world — called “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — but even that was speculative fiction.

And so there’s something both satisfying and frustrating about this posthumous collection of stories. Unfinished Tales is really just a big hunk of Tolkien fetishism. You get JRRT at his most didactic, listing chronologies of imaginary kingships as if he were tracing the lineage of Jesus. You get Christopher Tolkien at his most pompous, pointing out all of the petty differences between versions of his father’s stories in lots of dry footnotes.

All this for what? Well, for stories. Fiction. And fiction about Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, no less. Sometimes I would finish some of the drier chapters of Unfinished Tales — say, the listings of the kings and queens of Númenor, or an account of the battles fought in the margins of LOTR by the Rohirrim — and really have to struggle to remember that this was all just part of a made-up story.

Because in the final analysis, what Tolkien’s doing with these stories isn’t scholarship or historical research. It’s pure fiction, just the same as the Flight to the Ford or the Council of Elrond or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. It might feel like scholarship, but it isn’t really. Tolkien’s a storyteller at heart; he just tells them in a different way than anyone before him.

That leads me to the frustrating aspect of Unfinished Tales. There are lots of these seemingly endless endnotes where Christopher Tolkien talks about the different versions of the story at hand. Did his father really intend for Ar-Adûnakhôr to be the nineteenth or twentieth king of Númenor? In the appendices of Return of the King he says one thing, in draft A he says another, in draft B he says a third thing, in a letter to a fan he wrote a fourth thing, and furthermore if you compare the dates of the drafts you find that… zzzzzz.

I mean, really, who cares? We don’t give an urn of warm troll spit about Ar-Adûnakhôr. He’s just one of the thousands of names in the margins. I felt like smacking Christopher across the face and saying, “You’re the frickin’ editor now, dude. None of this is really germane to the story your Dad was trying to tell. Nineteenth or twentieth, doesn’t matter — just pick one.”

'Unfinished Tales' coverFor another example, take “The Quest of Erebor,” a behind-the-scenes look at how Gandalf came about getting involved with Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit. Christopher Tolkien presents multiple drafts and fragments that his father wrote on the subject, with plenty of editorial commentary and endnotes in between. The drafts really don’t differ all that much. Any half-decent editor could have stitched together a 90% complete and cohesive narrative of “The Quest of Erebor” without adding a single word of their own.

As for the last 10% — why didn’t Christopher just take a co-author credit and flesh it out? We already know that Christopher found enough in the Túrin saga to put together a relatively complete Children of Húrin. Guy Gavriel Kay helped him finish The Silmarillion. Most of the tales in Unfinished Tales end with a long summary by Christopher Tolkien of how the rest of the story was supposed to go. It’s not like he was transcribing the words of Moses here — why couldn’t he just finish the ones that were close to being finished?

On further reflection, though, I can think of two words that summarize why you shouldn’t flesh out your father’s notes and outlines, and those words are “Brian Herbert.” (Read my take on the first three Dune prequels.) Besides which, Christopher had a very good justification for treating the material with the reverence of a historian: his Dad wanted it that way.

Tolkien wanted his mythology to be fragmentary and occasionally contradictory; he wanted these histories to read like summarizations of retellings of half-remembered legends. As if JRRT himself was only the latest in a long line of scholars attempting to construct a complete history of Middle Earth without access to the original source materials. I think he would be tickled to discover that his writings were being treated with the same scholarly fussiness that he himself employed.

Tolkien himself recognized the absurdity of all this, as son Christopher quotes him in the introduction to Unfinished Tales:

I am not now at all sure that the tendency to treat the whole thing as a kind of vast game is really good — certainly not for me who find that kind of thing only too fatally attractive. It is, I suppose, a tribute to the curious effect a story has, when based on very elaborate and detailed workings, of geography, chronology, and language, that so many should clamour for sheer “information,” or “lore.”

If you want to see how far Tolkien’s self-awareness goes, look at the story of “Aldarion and Erendis,” which I couldn’t help reading as autobiographical. The tale concerns a prince of Númenor who strives to reconcile his love for a woman with his obsessive love of the sea. He spends years denying one or the other — either staying home and tending to his marriage, or voyaging afar on the sea and neglecting his wife. The resulting bitterness makes a sham of his marriage and sows evil in the Númenoreans that will eventually lead to their downfall hundreds of years later. It’s one of the best chapters in the book.

'Unfinished Tales' coverNow I don’t know much about J.R.R.’s wife Edith and what their marriage was like. But I’m sure there must have been many a tense night when J.R.R. secluded himself in his study with his funny little maps and philological note cards, leaving Edith to wonder if she should have married William the tax attorney instead. I’m sure a lot of women reading this story nod their heads, thinking about their husbands who like to seclude themselves in the attic and obsess over their online gaming/model trains/fantasy baseball/Civil War recreationism/whatever. (I don’t want to be sexist or exclusionary — but isn’t this kind of fetishism generally a male thing?)

“Aldarion and Erendis” stops somewhere in the middle, and J.R.R. left only scattered notes about where he intended to take the story, but it’s clear that things were headed for a bad turn. Aldarion’s desire for the sea and Erendis’ stubborn resentment cannot be reconciled. Tolkien always works in dichotomies — good vs. evil, Frodo vs. Gollum, fealty vs. treachery, etc. — and one could argue that the main “theme” of his work is how we make our way through the world by steering between these moral pylons. I wonder if Tolkien found this particular story too painful to finish.

Aside from “Aldarion and Erendis,” the Túrin fragments, and “The Quest for Erebor,” the other major treats of Unfinished Tales include:

  • “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin,” which contains a breathtaking scene of Ulmo, the lord of waters, appearing before a mortal Man (see the third book cover on this page), as well as a fantastic description of the hidden city of Gondolin
  • “The Drúedain,” an essay about those jungle pygmy dudes that help Théoden’s army get to Minas Tirith in Return of the King, and including a short story, “The Faithful Stone”
  • “The Istari,” an essay on the Order of Wizards that included Gandalf and Saruman, including some tantalizing information about Alatar and Pallando, the two “Blue Wizards”
  • “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn,” which offers many of Tolkien’s musings on the First Couple of Lórien, including much speculation about Galadriel’s ban from returning into the West

If you haven’t gone much beyond Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films — if you couldn’t get through The Silmarillion — if you didn’t look longingly at the maps of Middle Earth in those volumes and hunger to know what was in those blank spaces — then don’t bother with Unfinished Tales. You’re the kind of person who’s probably never bought the Special Extended Limited Edition DVD version of a film specifically so you can listen to the Visual Effects Supervisor’s commentary, which wasn’t on the original DVD, which you also own. And this is okay. You’re what we call “normal.”

But if you think you just might have a touch of the obsessive fanboy in you, give Unfinished Tales a whirl. I think Unfinished Tales is about as geeky-obsessive as I get. I have no desire to slog through all twelve volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s “History of Middle Earth” series. Though I might just breeze through The Tolkien Reader if I feel up to it. And maybe Roverandom. And maybe Smith of Wooton Major

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  1. Fiona Avery on June 28, 2007 at 4:28 pm  Chain link

    You say:
    (I don’t want to be sexist or exclusionary — but isn’t this kind of fetishism generally a male thing?)

    My experience:
    It’s an OCD thing. We have the reverse dynamic in my household. I’m the “male” who closets herself in the study and works on her big L.O.T.R. project until all hours of the night. However, this may be because I grew up in a male-dominated household and was treated like the first-born son. Over the course of my life, I’ve found that most of my female friends were socially conditioned out of that behavior (whether you view this behavior as good or bad is up to you naturally). I’d never been informed as a young woman that this sort of behavior ‘is wrong,’ whereas my friends were steered clear from it. You should see the plethora of women’s magazine articles which are now teaching women in my age group and older to “carve out time for yourself” and “get a hobby and make time for it,” etc etc. It is actually a current theme in sociology study.

    The review:
    I loved your discussion of how Tolkien was working. I just picked up Children of Hurin but at present, I’m far more interested in works like The Company They Keep By Diana Pavloc Glyer and The Gift of Friendship; two books centering on the Inklings — a group of scholars and writers who were meeting with Tolkien and Lewis regularly for seventeen years. I have pasted a small snippet of Glyer’s argument for her thesis here: http://fionagh.livejournal.com/367950.html

    I’ve been going through the legendary source material Tolkien was living on at the time: The Poetic Eddas, the Volsung Saga etc etc. These are not just Myth 101 Creation stories and a dry accounting of the Norse Gods. The stories of heroes within the early Norse days bring up things like The Ring of Power. Yes, a Ring of Power is in there. So is the name Gandalf, though in Tolkien’s story he appears to be more fo an Odin figure. There are many other aspects that you can see Tolkien drew inspiration from as well.

    My theory is — because Tolkien made his work so much like his Work, as in the stuff he loved to do at Oxford, he treated it just like he was required to treat the stuff at Oxford. After a while, he became the legend keeper or Bard of his own creation, based so well on the source materials at Oxford. I’m not saying he pilfered, or regurgitated — but the source archetypes are all still there in Middle Earth and they resonate with us deeply. So, I’m saying Tolkien became the Snorri Sturluson of Middle Earth.

    Snorri Sturluson was the man we can thank for most of the literature we have on ancient Norse myths and legends. Ancient Bards aren’t much different than we storytellers today. They knew when to keep things a secret and when to reveal their hand for the benefit of the good story. Back then it was pretty much crucial to their survival, unlike today where we can bag groceries if our novels don’t make it on the stands. (Snorri on the other hand was ultimately murdered in a court intrigue…)

    So it was brilliant really. Middle Earth was bound to be as addictive as crack because it was based so heavily on archetypes that pop up all over the world in mythology. But you can see people reusing the archetypes in fantasies today without the same shattering effect. LOTR is good, not necessarily because Tolkien lived his life as Middle Earth’s bard, but because he was good at living his life as Middle Earth’s bard. I believe that this is due to his work at Oxford. As keeper of all the Norse records at Oxford through the language department, and subsequently learning about the ancient bards who kept them before he did — it made him feel an extension of that legacy. His life was lived as the safeguard of ancient treasures. And this made him a great bard to his own stories in the end.

    P.S. As for what people thought of him in this role, you can see some of those comments appear in the Inklings circle. They were not all fond of the Middle Earth fanatic. I forget which one it was now, but at a reading of some Middle Earth rough draft, he threw up his hands and growled, “Not another f—— elf!” He was not invited back to another reading, by the way.

  2. David Louis Edelman on June 28, 2007 at 5:45 pm  Chain link

    As usual, Ms. Fiona, your comments singlehandedly add value and substance to my blog. :-)

    You’re right, I think the reason Tolkien is so strong is because he picked up on some many common archetypes we all know (at least here in the West). Many people confuse the archetypes Tolkien employed with stereotypes he was trying to avoid (and of course, sometimes he tried for the former and strayed into the latter).

    Everyone always says you should “write what you know.” JRRT knew linguistics, mythology, and Anglo-Saxon history, so there you have it.

    Btw, the “Not another f—– elf!” comment was widely misattributed to C.S. Lewis, even by his biographer. The actual utterer of the comment was a dude named Hugo Dyson. (I know that because I found this article on Google.)

    Oh, and you can say “fucking” on my blog. I don’t mind.

  3. Kate Elliott on June 28, 2007 at 8:05 pm  Chain link

    I don’t know much about JRR and Edith either, but I do know that on their tombstones are the names Beren and Luthien, respectively. Make of that what you will. I think it is unutterably sweet.

    I have to add a data point which, being anecdotal, is otherwise useless, but I’m one of those weird people who drew closed myself into the attic and drew maps and etc. I would have to agree that it’s not a gender axis thing but rather would guess that many women/girls were – one way or another – made to understand it was not acceptable for them. I’m sure many men/boys were told the same, but I suspect not to the same degree. Just my opinion, though. And worth what you paid for it!

  4. Michael Rowland on June 29, 2007 at 5:46 am  Chain link

    I’ve seen in a place or two on this thread where Tolkien is described as the person who is trying to tell the story. I actually always saw it as Tolkien writing all the books as though they were the recordings of the hobbits. In the Lord of the Rings, there are many references to the red leather book of Bilbo, which would be The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo was also known to translate the ancient tales and write them down in “Common” speech. An example of these translations is the song of Gil-galad Sam remembers in The Fellowship of the Ring. Throughout the Silmarillion, it reads as it would from an observer’s point of view within the actual realm of Middle Earth, which would be the Elvish view, seeing how they’re always the best loremasters. Even the beginnings would be written down by the Elvish, as Ulmo, I believe, had told them of the past before they awoke. Kind of like God describing the events in Genesis to whoever wrote that part of the Torah. And these stories that the Elves pass down and remember would have been translated by Bilbo, into the very books we read, if we ignored Tolkien’s name on everything. (And remember, Bilbo’s room was cluttered with notes half-finished too)

  5. Carl V. on July 1, 2007 at 11:21 am  Chain link

    As someone who ‘discovered’ Lord of the Rings because of Peter Jackson’s films, who has obsessively watched the extended editions and the extras many, many times, who read The Silmarillion and fell in love with each and every word, the recent discovery that there was a book about Middle-earth that I haven’t read: The Unfinished Tales, was a thrill.

    Several of us have found ourselves in the midst of Tolkien mania once again because of the recent release of Children of Hurin. That has led to me pulling out my unread Tom Shippey books and enjoying all the details I can get about the Master himself.

    Your thoughts on Middle-earth and specifically Unfinished Tales makes me want to ignore my self-imposed sanctions against buying the book until I’m done with some of my other reading and rush out and devour it NOW!

    Wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and look forward to getting into the minutae of Middle-earth once again with Unfinished Tales.

  6. A.R.Yngve on July 2, 2007 at 4:52 am  Chain link

    “I can only imagine what the stuffier dons at Oxford must have thought of this elderly chap whiling away the hours alone pretending to be a scholar of an invented world, writing philosophical treatises about it, mapping it out, trying to smooth out its inconsistencies.”

    What they thought: “Shell-shocked in the Great War. Poor chap.”

  7. Jesse L on July 20, 2007 at 8:49 am  Chain link

    “Certainly Tolkien’s pal C.S. Lewis never went to such extremes with his Narnia fantasies.”

    Certainly Lewis did not go to the extents that Tolkien did in the invention of a language and complex history, however, we can not understate the extent to which he did go for his children’s novel. For a text specifically directed to children (comparable to the Hobbit) I would say that Lewis’ history and development is far more expansive.

    In “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis’ autobiography, we learn that the land of Narnia had found its creation early in the life of Lewis, not late, as one would assume. Lewis as a young boy spent hours locked away in his attic imagining and mapping a world inhabited by talking animals. He shares that he went as far as to record trade winds in this new world.

    Though the “stuffier dons of Oxford” may well have thought him shell shocked, and Lewis and Tolkien may have had their disagreements as to the use of allegory, I believe that these two were far more than simply friends but were kindred spirits, drawn together by a life long obsession with their myths.

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