Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Book of Lost Tales Part I

JRR Tolkien, edited and commentary by Christopher Tolkien
Completed 7/25/2015, Reviewed 7/27/2015
4 stars

This was the title given by JRR Tolkien for a collection of stories he wrote in the latter half of the 1910s.  His original idea was to create a mythology for England.  It included elves which he sometimes called faeries and gnomes, humans, gods, and other assorted beings.  He framed it in a larger story of the first human coming to Tol Eressea which is inhabited by elves.  Previously, only children came in their dreams.  They tell him their history and he is overcome with wanting to be an elf himself.  He stays on Tol Eressea and it eventually becomes England.  Tolkien abandoned the project several years later, but it was not wasted.  The stories evolved into what was eventually published in “The Silmarillion”.  This book is a must for hard-core Tolkien fans, but it makes reading “The Silmarillion” seem like a cakewalk. 

I had a lot of difficulty with this book.  The hardest part is the language.  Tolkien writes in an archaic fashion.  There are many words out of middle and old English.  For example, he uses “an” as the article it is now, and also uses it with its old usage, meaning “if”.  Instead of “diminish”, he uses “minish”.  This gets quite confusing.  Fortunately, Christopher recognized this and included a short dictionary to translate these words.  Between these words and the “Lo’s”, “thee’s”, and reverse order sentences, you feel like you picked up a book written somewhere between the Canterbury Tales and the King James Bible.  On the positive side, I felt a sense of mystery and wonder while reading it, but my train of thought often was derailed by confounding sentences.

Another issue I had was that I still have “The Silmarillion” familiarly fresh in my head.  Since it evolved from the stories in “Lost Tales”, I felt like I was reading an alternative history of someplace I’m not from.  Sometimes the stories are roughly the same, sometimes not even close.  The biggest difference is that here, the gods have much more personality and interaction with the elves than in “Silmarillion”.  So one has to remember, the Manwë here is not the same Manwë we’ve already met.  And the action and motives aren’t the same between the two books either.  There are some things that didn’t make it into the later mythology like the introduction of Time, or how there came to be a man in the moon.  But it’s all close enough that it can become very confusing, assuming the archaic words and style didn’t already lose you.

The commentary for this book is quite extensive.  Christopher Tolkien spends a lot of his time explaining the differences between these stories and what became “The Silmarillion”.  In fact, one of the reasons for presenting “Lost Tales” was a response to the critics that “The Silmarillion” was more Christopher’s work than JRR’s.  So when reading the commentary, he spends a lot of time on the differences between the books, as well as inconsistencies within.  It must be remembered that “Lost Tales” was eventually abandoned by JRR.  Knowing the kind of perfectionist he was, one can’t help but think that he rolls over in his grave whenever someone cracks open this book. 

Once again, I am grateful to The Tolkien Professor at Mythgard Academy for the online seminars.  Following along in his lectures helps makes sense of the jumbles in my head.  I give this book an academic four stars out of five.  I highly recommend it for the obsessed, or for those who want a challenging read, but if you’re just looking for another Tolkien story, stick with “Tales from the Perilous Realm” or “The Tolkien Reader”.  

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