Completed 4/12/2015, Reviewed 4/15/2015
Most Tolkien fans probably know that he had trouble finishing his work. Even with the books he finished, he revised later editions. This was because he was constantly developing his universe. Rather than simply writing a new story in the universe and moving on, like many contemporary writers of multi-story universes, he jumped around the timeline, making additions and changes, evolving the characters and situations as his own understanding evolved. “Unfinished Tales” presents stories which he never quite finished, or had multiple or partial rewrites. In addition, his son Christopher adds lots of commentary to help the reader understand the details and discrepancies in each piece. The result is a mélange of amuses bouche which while tasty, will leave the unprepared reader only partially satisfied.
Like “The Silmarillion”, I dove into this book with full ammunition: an open mind, “The Atlas of Middle-Earth” by Karen Wynn Fonstadt, and 13 podcasts from Professor Corey Olsen from tolkienprofessor.com’s Mythgard Academy. In general, I found the book generally enjoyable, even the chapters where there were almost as many pages of notes as there was text.
My favorite and perhaps the easiest read is the story, or probably more accurately, the essay on the Istari, the order of which Gandalf and Saruman were a part. It doesn’t answer all the questions, but even Tolkien’s own lack of definitiveness is incredibly interesting. By contrast, “The History of Celeborn and Galadriel” is not as satisfying as one would think. Within this text are three differing collections of information about Galadriel’s life and role in Middle-Earth. At times I had to stop and look back to realize the story switched gears. What helped me the most was Prof. Olsen’s analysis of the evolution of Galadriel, from her conception for LOTR to the last treatment Tolkien gave her near the end of his life.
I also find my appreciation growing for the epic story of Turin Turambar. “Unfinished Tales” gives a more detailed narrative of the beginning and end of his tale than “The Silmarillion”. It’s an incredibly tragic story, but marvelously conceived. It’s actually inspired by a story from the Kalevala, the ancient epic Finnish poem, and integrated into the mythology of Middle-Earth. After my first exposure to it in “The Silmarillion” I was pretty bummed by it: murder, suicide, incest, making Macbeth seem YA. Now after reading this treatment of it, I’m greatly anticipating the full novel version that Christopher put together a few years back.
About the only part of the book I really didn’t like was the section on the formation of Rohan, mainly because it mostly consists of detailed battle scenes. My regular readers know that that’s not my favorite type of reading. No matter how hard I try, my eyes glaze over and the next thing I know, I’m a few pages further and completely lost. The reward of this chapter, though, is that the success of these battles creates the original alliance between Gondor and Rohan. That part is beautifully written, and worth getting through the tough part.
Ultimately, the nature of the book is frustrating because the stories are, well, unfinished. No matter how much I prepared myself, when the stories just stopped or histories revised multiple times within twenty pages, I was left unfulfilled. Thank goodness for the maps and the lectures. They helped me regain my perspective. And I think you have to maintain a strong balance between fan and academician to read any kind of unfinished work. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. Experiencing Tolkien at this level is great, but is probably not for everyone. It’s even less accessible than “The Silmarillion”. The nature of the book does not lend itself to the emotional punch I need to give it a full 5 star rating. I think jumping back and forth between story and notes kept that dampered. But now that I’ve gotten this far, I’m just hungrier for more, and am not put off by how difficult the twelve-volume “History of Middle-Earth” probably is. So yeah, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a fanboy.