Friday, April 22, 2016

The Shaping of Middle Earth

JRR Tolkien
Completed 4/21/2016, reviewed 4/21/2016
4 stars

This is the fourth book in the History of Middle Earth series.    This book gives us the early development of Tolkien’s thoughts on The Silmarillion.  At this point in time, Tolkien was moving away from the framework he used in The Lost Tales.  It still contains the same mythology but is being constructed and rewritten differently.   Once again, I followed along with The Tolkien Professor’s analysis to help me understand the text and commentary.  As I progress through the series, the stories are becoming very familiar.  It’s the commentary that’s much drier.  Christopher Tolkien spends most of his time detailing the evolution of the names as well as pointing out the detailed differences between all the versions of the stories from The Lost Tales up to the ‘30s, when much of this text was written.  I still find all this fascinating even though it is often dry as dust. 

The book begins with some fragments from the Lost Tales, but moves into full swing with Tolkien’s first outline of the Silmarillion, referred to as the Sketch.  This is followed by an initial fleshing out of the outline, called Quenta.  The Quenta is basically the first prose version of the Silmarillion that Tolkien ever produced.  It has most of the stories from Lost Tales, though they have evolved by about 10 to 20 years.  The prose is often delicious. Now that I am as familiar as I am with these stories going through the History, I’m finding myself really paying attention to the prose to see how he retells these immensely tragic stories. 

The next two chapters are related.  The first shows maps of the construction and evolution of Middle Earth, the second is the Ambarkanta, the prose cosmology.  Tolkien discusses the makeup of the atmosphere and the shape Middle Earth, beginning as a flat, uniform earth and eventually becoming round and turning into continents looking vaguely like Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The final chapters are annals of the Silmarillion.  They are breakdowns of the stories of the Silmarillion by year.  There are two sets of annals.  It’s interesting that one of them, the Annals of Bereliand, reads like you’d expect, terse outlines by year of events.  The other, the Annals of Valinor, is almost like another go at a prose version of the stories.  It is quite readable.  Included in these chapters are Anglo-Saxon versions of the annals.  Needless to say, don’t understand Anglo-Saxon, but it shows that Tolkien still had the idea that the point of his stories was to create a mythology for England.   

As I always say, this book is for the hard-core fan that wants to see how Tolkien’s stories evolved over the years.  You have to be quite the fan to read for a fifth time the tragic tales of Turin Turambar or Beren and Luthien.  But I find it interesting to see how the stories changed and grew over the years and look forward to rereading the Silmarillion again at some point with all this additional background swimming around in my head.  I give this book four out of five stars.  

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