Goodreads: The Book of Lost Tales, Part One
Series: The History of Middle-earth #1
Christopher Tolkien presents the early tales that would form the basis of his father’s later work on The Silmarillion. Part One of The Book of Lost Tales follows a mariner called Eriol as he lands upon a magical island and hears there stories of the creation of the world, the awakening of the Elves, the treachery of Melko (later Melkor/Morgoth), and the darkening of Valinor.
In his introduction to The Book of Lost Tales, Christopher Tolkien explains that his decision to release his father’s early conceptions of Middle-earth stemmed in part from the confusion that resulted from the release of The Silmarillion. Tolkien scholars seemed at a loss on how to approach the work because they did not know the extent of Christopher’s editorial intervention. How much of The Silmarillion was Tolkien’s writing and how much was Christopher’s attempts to smooth away the rough edges and present a coherent narrative? With the publication of the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, scholars and fans alike can now see how Tolkien’s worldview evolved over the years and how his visions of key characters, locations, and events changed–sometimes in surprisingly drastic ways. It is a veritable goldmine of story and invention.
Of course, many fans are content to enjoy Tolkien’s Middle-earth as it stands and the obvious question is whether this book can really appeal to readers not interested in writing literary criticism. The easy answer might be to suggest that those who enjoyed The Silmarillion are more likely to enjoy this book than ones who did not. It deals, after all, with many of the same events and is written in Tolkien’s signature “high” language, which tends to inspire extreme reactions of either love or hate. However, The Book of Lost Tales differs significantly from The Silmarillion in that it does not attempt to present a cohesive narrative, but rather a glimpse of Tolkien’s writing process. The stories presented thus do not all enjoy the same level of revision. Some arguably would require to be written more concisely. One exists only in various outline forms. Sometimes more than one draft exists and Christopher has to choose one, although he is careful to note the differences.
Noting the differences is, indeed, a key part of this book. Christopher organizes it by separating the various tales by chapter. Each tale is followed by plentiful footnotes explaining such things as how the account given in one chapter may not match up with an account given in a later or earlier chapter, how the names changed, etc. Christopher then provides a separate section just for names, detailing all the changes made by his father in the course of writing. The chapter ends with a commentary by Christopher explaining what the original manuscript looked like (pencil, ink, ink over pencil, various versions, etc.), how it matches up with The Silmarillion, when it written, how he thinks his father meant to integrate it into the whole based on other documents his father left, etc. Sometimes he includes related poetry his father wrote. At the end is an appendix dealing strictly with the etymology of names. For a non-scholar, all this can no doubt be dry, but Christopher does his best to write his book for both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences by keeping all the notes at the end; any readers not interested in the details of the original manuscripts can simply read the beginning of each chapter (that is, the story proper).
The stories themselves will probably have the greatest appeal to Tolkien fans who enjoyed The Silmarillion simply because it is interesting to see how Tolkien’s conception of Middle-earth changed over the years. For instance, some of the Valar initially had different roles and relationships (they had children back then). Furthermore, there were two Valar living in Valinor who were arguably akin to Melko (that’s awkward). The Dwarves as originally conceived were evil (sorry, Dwarf fans). And it’s all interestingly tied together as a sort of tale within a tale, wherein a mariner named Eriol listens to these stories by the fireside, essentially functioning as the early form of the Hobbit or “relatable” character.
However, even those who have not yet read The Silmarillion have much to enjoy in The Book of Lost Tales. Though I would argue that the majority of Tolkien’s revisions truly did improve the work, by streamlining it, removing awkward parts, or just by making it more dramatic (seriously, the Silmarils here were barely special!), his early work still contains all his trademark wonder, complexity, and magic. It is a wonderful treat to be able to tread the early days of Arda once more, watching Varda strew the sky with stars and the trees of light come into being.
I hope to continue on with the History of Middle-earth as watching Tolkien’s legendarium come into being is a fascinating process. There is still so much to explore and The Book of Tales, Part Two contains the germs of some of the more famous stories such as that of Beren and Tinúviel, as well as the only full account of the Fall of Gondolin. Good times are ahead!