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Unfinished Tales cover Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

Published by Houghton Mifflin

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the time of his death, J.R.R. Tolkien left a wealth of manuscript material dealing with his invented world and its history, languages and peoples. Unfortunately, they were in a chaotic state. Many were unfinished, some little more than tentative jottings, others quite polished up to the point where they suddenly ended.

His son and heir, Christopher Tolkien, was left in a quandry as to the proper treatment of these materials. On one hand, there was an enormous interest in every scrap of information that could be learned about the fascinating world his father had created. But on the other, there was the problem of respecting his father's wishes. Clearly these were not materials with which the elder Tolkien was satisfied. As such, would making them public be a sort of betrayal? Yet Tolkien had clearly intended for them to be published "someday," once he had finished fussing with them.

There might be some arguments to the theory that they should be put away in an archives somewhere, to be examined only by "real" scholars with acceptable credentials. But in view of the enormous interest in the world of Middle Earth, Christopher Tolkien decided that at least some of the most important and relevant materials should be presented to the public at large, with appropriate scholarly commentary, so that anyone with an interest in them could read them without jumping through hoops to prove scholarly status.

The result was this volume, a collection of the most important and nearly completed materials among the papers of J.R.R. Tolkien. Here are the longer and more detailed forms of two of the critical tales of the First Age: that of Turin and that of his cousin Tuor. There is also a wealth of material on the Second Age, which had received only the scantest of treatment in the published materials. Most fascinating is the story of Aldarion and Erendis, a sort of royal soap opera from the early history of Numenor, when the Shadow had not yet darkened the joy of the Land of the Gift, but humans were still humans and could disagree among themselves.

There are also expository works, Tolkien's attempts at essays on various background elements such as complete history of Galadriel and Celeborn. The exact nature of Galadriel's offense against the Valar shifted as Tolkien worked on it. Certainly she had never sided with Feanor, and perhaps she had even opposed him. But she certainly wanted to go to Middle Earth and explore the wide lands there -- either with the permission of the Valar or without it. Perhaps her offense had been more a formal one, a breaking of an administrative rule rather than action against innocents.

There are also writings on the nature of the Druedain (the Wild Men of The Lord of the Rings), taking their history back to the First Age and setting them among the Atani, the Fathers of Men. Other essays deal with the secrets behind the Istari, or order of Wizards, and of the nature and operation of the Palantiri, the Seeing Stones of Arnor and Gondor.

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Review posted December 28, 2000

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