Sunday, October 16, 2022

J. R. R. Tolkien (with Christopher Tolkien), Unfinished Tales


Opening Passage: The book consists of a lot of different separate works. Hereis the opening of the first, "Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin":

Rian, wife of Huor, dwelt with the people of the House of Hador; but when rumour came to Dor-lomin of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, and yet she could hear no news of her lord, she became distraught and wandered forth into the wild alone. There she would have perished, but the Grey-elves came to her aid. For there was a dwelling of this people in the mountains westward of Lake Mithrim; and thither they led her, and she was three delivered of a son before the end of the Year of Lamentation. (p. 23)

The Nirnaeth Arnoediad was the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, a devastating battle between the Elves and Morgoth in which the Elves and their allies only narrowly avoided complete destruction.

Summary: As Christopher Tolkien notes in his introduction, tales can be unfinished in different ways. You could have a tale that is an incomplete draft. You could have fragments that loosely indicate a tale without actually giving it, as in notes for a story. You could have stories that don't stand on their own, being backstory or sidestory, but by their nature are explanations of things in other stories. You could have kinds of scaffolding, whether in the form of fragments or backstory or sidestory, which aren't really quite a tale but are parts of the process of working out a tale. Unfinished Tales has all of these different kinds of unfinished tale.

My favorite part of the book is "Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin". I've noted before that the primary problem with The Silmarillion is its lack of balance. The dark tale of Turin, about the fall of Nargothrond, needs to be balanced structurally by the less dark tale of his cousin Tuor, about the fall of Gondolin, but we don't get this because the tale of Turin is mostly well developed while the tale of Tuor is hardly more than a summary. This was simply an artifact of the state of the manuscripts when Christopher Tolkien drew them together -- the tale of Turin had been developed further in a complete form than the tale of Tuor had. Tolkien had an idea of how the original complete story of Tuor should be developed and improved and had begun writing, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin" -- but the draft never got beyond Tuor arriving at Gondolin (hence Christopher Tolkien's change of the title). The incomplete draft shows us just how far the development of the story had grown in Tolkien's head, and it shows that what Tolkien would have eventually written would have been truly great. Alas, it was not to be so, but we can see the beginnings of it here. We also see something of how The Silmarillion might have ended up in the Narn i Hin Hurin, the tale of the Children of Hurin, about Turin. This is essentially a complete story whose draft-status is complicated -- parts of the story are highly revised and parts of it were clearly still undergoing the process.

Likewise, "Aldarion and Erendis", a tale of Numenor, and "The Disaster of Gladden Fields", telling of how Isildur lost the One Ring, are more or less complete as stories, but were still undergoing revision, so that parts are more advanced than others. "The Quest of Erebor" is a passage that Tolkien cut from The Lord of the Rings, in which Gandalf recounts how he came to send Bilbo on his adventure in The Hobbit, and "The Hunt for the Ring" seems to be a sort of scaffolding-story, again in various stages of development, by which Tolkien made his mind clearer about what exactly Sauron had done in searching for the Ring. 

"The History of Galadriel and Celeborn" and "Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan" are collections of fragments in which Tolkien attempted to work through the backstory of major elements in The Lord of the Rings. The latter is quite enjoyable if you like legendary history as a genre. "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn", however, is the least satisfactory of all the pieces in the book. The fundamental problem that Tolkien faced was that Galadriel is quite clearly the most powerful Elf left in Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, but Galadriel as a character was a very late addition to everything. Almost the entire history of Middle Earth had been worked out without having even thought of her, but obviously she had to have been around and could hardly have been unimportant, and the puzzle of what she was doing is one that Tolkien never worked out. He would try various things out in various contexts but (1) it seems sometimes to have literally just been trying something out (which Tolkien often did) and (2) it was often incidentally in the course of doing something else (e.g., writing an etymological essay on roots of Elven words), and these digressions were never brought together into any unified form. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tolkien just did not have a real idea yet as to what to do here.

The rest of the works, "A Description of Numenor", "The Line of Elros: Kings of Numenor", "The Battles of the Fords of Isen", "The Druedain", "The Istari", "The Palantiri", are all tale-adjacent scaffolding works or partial tales worked out as part of historical or linguistic world-building. "The Istari" is the most interesting from the perspective of any interest in the legendarium of Middle Earth itself, but "The Druedain" is far and away my favorite of these side-works. It gives the background of Ghan-buri-Ghan's people, of whom we had such a brief but memorable depiction in The Lord of the Rings, as well as a couple of brief legends about them, and, brief as it is, in my opinion is the most fun of these unfinished tales.

I think it was Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped Christopher Tolkien with part of The Silmarillion, who said that one of the most important lessons he learned from Tolkien is just how much of the brilliance that went into Tolkien's epic fantasy was diligence -- that is, Tolkien didn't just write down the story but construct it, in the process requiring many drafts, revisions, false starts, and errors. The genuine Tolkienesque does not arise from simply putting down tropes on a page; it is a result of an extraordinarily intensive process of thinking through. One of things that makes Unfinished Tales valuable is its clear depiction of this. But, in part thanks to Christopher Tolkien's judicious selection and editing, it works as a fantasy book in its own right, and (as Christopher Tolkien himself notes), you can read it as a collection of disparate legendary traditions about the history of the Middle Earth, none necessarily 'canonically authoritative', but nonetheless at least suggestive of 'what may have happened' and interesting in their own right. I think Christopher Tolkien has done a great service in recognizing the potential of the unfinished tale as itself a great achievement of the narrative art.

Favorite Passage: My favorite passage, describing Tuor's journey through the Gates of the Hidden City, is too long to quote in full. Here is part:

So they came to the Golden Gate, the last of the ancient gates of Turgon that were wrought before the Nirnaeth; and it was much like the Gate of Silver, save that the wall was built of yellow marble, and the globes and parapet were of red gold; and there were six globes, and in the midst upon a golden pyramid was set an image of Laurelin, the Tree of the Sun, with flowers wrought of topaz in long clusters upon chains of gold. And the Gate itelf was adorned with discs of gold, many-rayed, in likenesses of the Sun, set amid devices of garnet and topaz and yellow diamonds. In the court beyond were arrayed three hundred archers with long bows, and their mail was gilded, and tall golden plumes rose from their helmets; and their great round shields were red as flame. (pp. 64-65)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended


J. R. R. Tolkien, Unfinished Tales, Christopher Tolkien, ed., HarperCollins Publishers (New York: 2000).