In Review: The Book of Lost Tales, Part I

The Book of Lost Tales, Part I by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher TolkienThe story and the world which developed over the course of Tolkien’s life is that of the Silmarillion.  I have always had a soft spot for this book, and history and mythology in general, and though I have had the full set of the History of Middle Earth on my “Tolkien Shelf”  for many years now, I have not read them; except in piecemeal sections.

I have made the attempt before, but always got thrown off by the difference in style, in framing (ie. Eriol and the Cottage of Lost Play).  I think now, however, I am suitably prepared having spent many years now reading both Tolkien criticism and analysis…as well as writing some myself.  So I figured this was the time to give it another go.

HoME is not for the faint of heart, and while it contains truly amazing insights into the development of Tolkien’s mythology it is not always easy going.

The book of Lost Tales Part I chronicles the history of Middle Earth during the first age, through to the Hiding of Valinor and the creation of the Sun and Moon. It is a fascinating book, particularly if you are already familiar with the Silmarillion.

The problem with this book is similar to that which plagues most readers of The Silmarillion. It can be hard to get into, difficult to follow and tough going at times. Personally,I love the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales, Tolkien criticism/analysis and I am fascinated by history in general all of which made the first two volumes of HoME easier for me. However, the first hurdle to start and keep going is probably the hardest. The tales begin with the story of the Cottage of Lost Play and Eriol’s arrival at Tol Eresea…this was my stumbling block and for years I never made it further. The framing devise and style take some getting used to. Keep going through to the actual tales and you’ll find the diamonds in the rough.

What is so amazing, is how much of the final form of the history is already formed or begun in these first tales Tolkien wrote. At the same time, some of Tolkien’s earliest thoughts concerning the Valar and the phases of the creation of Arda are startlingly different.

I was particularly drawn to the Music of the Ainur and the Creation of the Sun and Moon. The music has always been one of my favorite chapters in the Silmarillion, here it is greatly expanded, and though sometimes rough, the prose is exquisite. Also the religious-philosophical underpinnings of the tale are all present, and expressed in beautiful prose. Some ideas are expanded, some are different, and some new (old) ideas later discarded.

The Creation of the Sun and Moon is significantly longer in the Tales, and full of surprising detail. The first thoughts of Tolkien are at times very close to the published Silmarillion, and at other times so far afield as to be unrecognizable. Even so, many of the ideas here linger in later works, and it is fascinating to discover these kernels of insight.  It is both fascinating and striking, given slight familiarity with classical and particularly Norse/Icelandic mythology how much Tolkien borrowed and adapted.  Though with rewriting these elements are largely indistinguishable from Tolkien’s own world and invention, here you can see the initial germ of his later polished ideas.

One thing to be aware of reading HoME, whether for pleasure or scholarly reasons, is that it is largely approached by Christopher Tolkien in a scholarly, pseudo-archeological manner.  There are many notes regarding changes and tweaks along the way, as well as Christopher’s own commentary on the development of the current draft/tale in question.  Ultimately it is up to the reader how much of this to partake in.  I found most of the tales to be excellent, and the commentary particularly interesting, but mostly skimmed through the other notes.

What is truly amazing about reading HoME is the benefits of hindsight.  I am very familiar with the final published Silmarillion and Tolkien’s other writing; so it was fairly easy for me to spot differences, but even more stunningly the already firmly established bones of the final tale.  Though there are striking and at times shocking differences, most of these are fairly minor compared to the overarching mythology.  An interesting point which comes out of the commentary is that part of Tolkien’s struggles with the Silmarillion was due to how to frame the story.  Often the tales in this book are greatly expanded from what is published in the Silmarillion (ie. The creation of the Sun & Moon) and much of Tolkien’s later work was in the revision and condensing of the previous work.  Often (mostly true of The Children of Hurin & the Tale of Tinuviel & The Fall of Gondolin) the expanded form was never left behind or rejected, only shortened.  In this sense The Book of Lost Tales is invaluable, and should be experienced by all Tolkien fans.

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