This was the first of the several books to be published by Christopher Tolkien about his father’s stories and conceptions of Middle-Earth after he edited The Silmarillion into a relatively coherent narrative. Unfinished Tales contains drafts of stories which Tolkien worked on from time to time and are presented in a relatively complete form, even if, like ‘Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin’, these narratives were included in a cut-down form in The Silmarillion. The range of histories covers the First Age, with Tuor and a long version of the Narn I Hîn Húrin, versions of which he wrote and re-wrote many times, with further details of the island of Númenor and the story of Aldarion and Erendis (an anti love story, maybe), drafts of the contradictory story of Galadriel and Celeborn; and more detailed essays about the ambush at the Gladden Fields where Isildur lost the Ring, the stories behind the Oath of Eorl, the quest of Erebor, the hunt for the Ring, and the Battle of the Fords of Isen, which form background to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Essays about the Istari, the Drúedain and the Palantíri are also included.
Like the other Histories of Middle Earth, it’s interesting to see how Tolkien’s creation – particularly of events in the First and Second Ages – rarely achieved a static, set in stone, this-is-how-things-were canon. When it came to events of The Lord of the Rings, things seem a little more settled, as though he had fixed ideas about what lay in the background of the mutually beneficial relationship between Rohan and Gondor which is so clearly stated in The Ride of the Rohírrim, even if these were never included in the published text. The inclusion of text describing the Battle of the Fords of Isen, for example, which although never achieving a final fixed definitive version, does nevertheless provide a useful background to what Gandalf was doing in between leaving the king and his followers at Edoras and before rejoining them outside Helm’s Deep, as well as providing a lot more information about the Rohírrim than is in the Lord of the Rings.
Being extracts and unfinished works, the book is very bitty-piecey, and won’t interest anyone who hasn’t read The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or The Silmarillion – and maybe not all of those!
“Much of this book will be found unrewarding by readers of The Lord of the Rings who, holding that the historical structure of Middle-earth is a means and not an end, the mode of narrative and not its purpose, feel small desire of further exploration for its own sake, do not wish to know how the Riders of the Mark were organised, and would leave the Wild Men of Drúadan Forest firmly where they found them. My father would certainly not have thought them wrong.”
Some of the bits are more interesting than others – I can’t bring myself to feel great sympathy for Túrin, for example, and the Narn is the longest chunk of text in the book – but having recently watched the films made me think the bits about the Rohírrim much more interesting than when I first read this book back in 1986. The description of the oath-taking between Cirion and Eorl, for example, is actually moving, particularly an awe-struck Lord of Dol Amroth viewing Elendil’s tomb for the first and only time.
There’s also interest to be gained from the brief essay about the Istari – Wizards – which does a lot to explain the antipathy Saruman has for Radagast, and Gandalf himself if it comes to that, in The Lord of the Rings. However, it’s not a book with a single complete or finished narrative, and can be frustrating in that regard. Tolkien’s writing tends mostly to the style of The Silmarillion – it’s certainly not chatty or colloquial – and is best read as a companion to the orthodox texts.
Published by: George Allen and Unwin (1982)