Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Tolkien and the Mysterious. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
You may have some familiarity with The Silmarillion and seen these newer works being published that are part of it. But maybe you are not sure where they came from, or how they fit in to the larger work. Here is the scoop: you can pick up any one of the three separate works from The Silmarillion that have been released as standalone volumes and enjoy it on its own. They are The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. Some say the reading order should be publication order, but you would not be wrong to read Beren and Luthien first.
But what are they, and how did they get here? And why are some more complete than others? Here we’ll take a look a little bit at what I have come to understand as the evolution of the Tales of the Elder Days.
JRR Tolkien worked on the stories in The Silmarillion for years. He worked on the individual stories, and he worked to bring the entire opus together into his long-sought mythology of England. But after the success of The Hobbit, his publishers wanted “another hobbit story” and not a deep epic about elves and men. So during the years from the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 to the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954, his attention veered away by necessity more towards hobbits, which he strived to bring into the story of his larger mythology. However, this took much longer than he thought it would, and he was not able to spent time to pull together the pieces of The Silmarillion into a definitive arc. After the unbelievable success of The Lord of the Rings, he worked on The Silmarillion in bits and pieces, in between interview requests, answering fan letters, and the other demands of his sudden fame.
His publisher, Allen & Unwin, did not seem to be interested in anything other than the stories surrounding The Hobbit. They did not want Farmer Giles of Ham, and they didn’t want any pieces of The Silmarillion. So it was that his original stories, his magnus opus, was not published during his lifetime. The Silmarillion was finally published in 1977 as a total, but not quite completely polished, work.
At this point, his son Christopher was the literary executor of his estate, and seemed to share an affinity for the stories. He certainly had grown up knowing about them, if not reading them. After the publication of The Silmarillion, there seemed to be nothing left to do. But wait. There were mounds more of papers, sketches, snippets on scraps of paper, and different versions of some of the tales. More than had been included in the published edition of The Silmarillion.
Ultimately, it was decided that the most complete, and arguably, pivotal tales in the saga could be published in their most complete forms, and in the case of Beren and Luthien at least, along with little snippets of the story that differed somewhat from the most complete form of the tale.
Eventually, there would be three stories published, in separate editions over a period of years. These can be collectively called the Tales of the Elder Days, as Christopher Tolkien refers to them in his Introduction to the first one, The Children of Hurin. This one was published in 2007, and it is probably the most complete of the three that would be published as a stand-alone book.
Even though it refers to other stories that occur in The Silmarillion, much as The Lord of the Rings refers back to events in The Silmarillion itself, The Children of Hurin can be read as a complete story unto itself.
The next book to be published was Beren and Luthien in 2017. This particular tale is presented as more fragments, with commentary interspersed from Christopher Tolkien. Imagine trying to sort through all the papers and snippets, and make them into some kind of coherent whole. And yet, Christopher knew how important this story was to Tolkien. After all, Tolkien had the names carved on the tombstone of he and his wife, he Beren, and Edith, always, his Luthien. It was one of the first tales he had written after returning from the Battle of the Somme in 1916, during his convalescence the following year.
Soon after the publication of Beren and Luthien as a standalone, the world received The Fall of Gondolin in a similar lovely volume. As this seems to be the final episode in the First Age, and since Christopher Tolkien has retired as Director of the Tolkien Estate, it seems unlikely that we will get anything further in this series. However, since he retired in 2017 – and at 93 who can blame him? – and was known to be notoriously tight with rights to Tolkien’s works, it is highly likely that there will be more adaptations, more ways to enjoy the work that exists. The first inkling of this is the upcoming Amazon series, for which Amazon Prime is doling out teasers in incredibly maddening tiny tidbits.
Yet, it is unlikely that we will see any really new work. Christopher Tolkien had an understanding of and familiarity with his father’s work which is unlikely to ever be equaled. We still have The Lost Tales, which are the very first versions of these stories. And there are more Tolkien scholars delving deeply into every aspect of the work of Tolkien. But whether there will ever be any other tales taken from the larger works, expanded and edited, is doubtful.
Still, it is incredibly satisfying to have these three volumes to read, each of them a standalone and yet part of a whole. Each of them includes information pertinent to that particular story, and is the furthest one can delve into that part of the history of the First Age.
*This post is comprised of knowledge gleaned from many sources, and I can’t specifically cite segments, as I have integrated what I know and paraphrased most of it. These sources include The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth, and various articles and posts online. The quote about the publisher wanting “another hobbit story” is from somewhere in The Letters of JRR Tolkien.
About the Author
A long-time reader and book collector, Linda is also a writer and is working on her first novel. She can be found on Instagram @lindabookmania where she loves to talk Tolkien, Harry Potter, and all things
fantasy. She runs the blog BookManiaLife and a website for writers called The Publishing Bones, as well as a boutique agency, BookMania. When not reading or writing, she might be gardening, hiking or dabbling in book arts.