Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

(1983, George Allen & Unwin)
The History of Middle-Earth, book 1

Drafts of a story of a sailor who makes it to the Undying Lands and hears stories that make up the Silmarillion.


-- 2nd reading (hardcover)
January 24th to February 2nd, 2001


No matter how many times I read this story, I can't get enough of it! And this format is one of the best for presenting the information. Outstanding, as is the buildup to the second part. 

Spoiler review:

I read this book probably about fifteen years ago. I had no knowledge of the Silmarillion, nor did I understand most of it. There are some things that I distinctly remember, though, and that, I find incredible. Many people cannot get through the Silmarillion, and I think it's because reading that book is a little like reading the Bible, from beginning to end. For Tolkien was writing a myth of epic proportions for England, the way the Greeks had their gods, and the Vikings theirs. So he naturally started with the birth of the gods. That is difficult enough, but it gets worse when the elves come into the picture. For elves live forever (unless they are slain), so we can build up a huge genealogy when reading about them. I believe it's the names that confuse people. Trying to keep track of who is who, and how they are related is almost impossible for people who don't keep a notebook by their side when reading. Fortunately, I don't have that problem. When I was younger, I didn't mind the names. I didn't care who did what, exactly, as long as it got done. It was the events that drove the story, not the characters. Sure, I did a lot of backtracking when someone I thought was dead suddenly turned up doing great deeds, but for the most part, I enjoyed it. 

I'm sure the first time I read the Book of Lost Tales, I didn't understand what was going on. Then I read the third book, and I understood a few of the stories better. As the twelve book cycle progressed, I went through drafts, long excerpts, exploratory texts, and many incarnations of the same story. And gradually, I began to understand it. And it was beautiful. Then I read the Silmarillion, and I was almost disappointed, because it lacks the detail covered in the earlier drafts. I knew so much about the characters and the events that I was wondering why so much was left out!

And so I come full circle, restarting the series, and enjoying it much more thoroughly than before, I'm sure. In this, the first book, it can be clearly seen that Christopher Tolkien, the editor and son of the famous author, is not sure whether there is a market for what he is doing, and whether he will be severely criticized for it. His commentary is sparse, indicating mild changes and clearing up some aspects of the story, noting the similarities and differences between this and the published work. How I wish he had kept to that for the rest of the series! The second book is twice the size of the first one, and I know that there is so much more commentary. And each subsequent book seems to balloon until the commentary finally gains more pages than the drafts and text Tolkien put together.

In the Lost Tales, Tolkien obviously wanted some way to tell this gigantic history without it seeming too immense. He devised a traveler, gone way out of the known seas, coming to shore on a land populated with elves, who are long gone from the world. He gains entry to the Cottage of Lost Play, where he stays several weeks, it seems. There, dinner is followed by story time, and through these stories, Eriol, the traveler, learns the history of the world. I think the main problem with this type of situation is that the reader wants to get rid of the storyteller for the most part, and get back to the stories. But what I found interesting was the way Eriol was set up, and the kind of questions and debates that came after the stories. There is a sense of tremendous age in all of the main characters outside the History, and we can tell that some of these people were actually present during some of these events! 

What follows is my attempt at clarifying the Silmarillion to the coming of mankind (where this part ends), stripping it down to bare bones and a few paragraphs. For it is a wonderful tale, and I think everyone should read it at least once. Click here to skip the summary.

The One God, named Iluvatar, created the Ainur (otherwise known as Valar, or gods) through his joy and song. These, in turn, created the world with Iluvatar, each one adding his or her own strengths. Some of these entered the world, and all were immediately smitten with it. The most powerful were Melko and Manwe (later to become brothers). Manwe became leader of the Valar, while Melko became the devil, always destroying the works of the Valar in jealousy and because he loved to destroy. 

Light existed as a shimmering in the air, and the Valar gathered it up and made two lamps to shed light on the world. Melko created the pillars for the lamps out of ice, so that they melted with the heat and both destroyed the great illumination and flooded the world. The Valar abandoned one continent (the "world", later to be known as Middle-Earth) to Melko, and created the land of Valinor on the Undying Lands. They raised mountains and created magnificent dwellings, and they were happy. Here they created two trees that shone, with the light they gathered once again. One was gold, and shone for twelve hours, the other was silver, and shone for another twelve hours. 

When elves first appeared, the Valar went into the world and captured Melko, so that he could not destroy Iluvatar's creations. For Elves and Men were not created by the Ainur, but by God himself. Melko was chained, but eventually released when the elves were brought to Valinor. The concept of three hosts of elves, each subsequent one less grand than the next is seen here in its budding stage, but there is very little difference in these tales between them. 

When Melko is released, he schemes, while the elves make beautiful gems. Finally, one makes the Silmarils, capturing the light of the Two Trees. Melko escapes during a festival and steals the gems, including the Silmarils. He makes his way south, where he meets a Spider who can spew out darkness (later a great-... -grandmother of Shelob). He gives her the gems in return for her help. They go to the trees, Melko stabs them and the Spider drinks the light, darkening Valinor once again. 

Some of the elves, having listened somewhat to Melko's lies, take this opportunity to escape what they think is their bondage in Valinor. They even kill other elves who get in their way. The Valar are frantic, chasing Melko and their jewels, but he is long gone. The Valar seal off Valinor from the rest of the world with magic islands and mountains, and mourn for their lost happiness. Meanwhile, the elves who escaped do battle with Melko, and lose many of their number, but this is only the beginning of their war. Men appear in the world, some corrupted by Melko, others running away from that corruption. 

In Valinor, tears and sadness create one last bud on each of the trees. The golden one is placed in a large vessel, and some minor Valar guide it up into the heavens, to become the Sun. The silver bud becomes the Moon, scarred because it fell to the ground. The Valar spend a lot of time trying to find a good rhythm for the Sun and the Moon, and Time comes to the realms as the they rise into the sky, then moor under the earth when they set. The sun is splendid and predictable, but the moon has an erratic course. With the first sunrise, Men finally awakened into the world.

This book ends virtually all the tales that take place in the land of the gods. The rest of the tales are set in Beleriand on Middle-Earth, and concern the war between the Noldor elves and Melko. 

What is so different between the Lost Tales and the published Silmarillion? It is mostly in the detail Tolkien gives to the world and the stories. When describing the world, Iluvatar describes how Melko's treachery will only make the world stronger, and proceeds to give many examples. When the houses of the Valar are being built, the tale runs on for pages about each house, and how it is unique to the god who possesses it. There are gods present who seem to be completely at odds with how the Valar are described in the Silmarillion, and enmity between others, which totally disappears later (later meaning in later drafts). Some sequences of events are displaced, and the reasons for many actions are completely different, even though the results are the same. The evolution of the story is quite amazing. 

Throughout the book, whenever an event started to play out differently from the Silmarillion, I kept thinking to myself -something is wrong; this isn't the way it's supposed to be. But how could events be so very different? Tolkien played with this story for decades. The Lost Tales were composed between 1915 and 1920, and he worked on them until he died, never completely satisfied. Christopher Tolkien took on the task of compiling and publishing the Silmarillion many years later. And of course, the Lord of the Rings set certain events in stone, so that he had to work around them later. So many of the stories that had their beginning here turned out much, much better in the final version. When I read of Melko's theft of the Silmarils, I was perplexed at a lot of the things that happened. There was not much motivation besides Melko being pure evil. In the later tales, the Theft is fleshed out so much that it becomes the central pivot for the entire Silmarillion. And the story of the Sun and the Moon rambled on and on, that I was wondering where it was going at times. I don't think even Tolkien knew where he was going with it. Personally, I think he took on too much when trying to explain why the Sun and the Moon behave the way they do today. He would have ultimately abandoned the whole idea because he couldn't explain eclipses and a few other astronomical events. That would have been a great loss, because I think it's one of the best stories in this section.

This time around, I was amazed at how I even liked reading about Eriol, our traveler. He makes interesting enquiries, and could be an interesting person, so that, as anxious as I was to get on with the tales, in no way would I even think about skipping the interludes that dealt with Eriol. There were sections of the book that I did skip, however, and that's the poetry. I have finally discovered that I don't enjoy reading poetry. I have yet to decide whether I'll read the Lays of Beleriand, book 3, because it is completely poetic in style. It takes some of the most interesting stories and tells them in epic poem form. In Tolkien's Poems and Stories, the poetry did absolutely nothing for me. In this book, there are isolated poems that deal with some of the characters, that were written separately from any of the texts. I tried a few lines of them, but could not find any interest in them. 

The most interesting part in this book must consider the Coming of Men, because that's something that Tolkien has never done properly, I think. The chapter in the Silmarillion is way too short, and Men are shrouded in mystery. Only a few words concern their history, and I wanted so much more. There is a description of an elf who discovers the sleeping Men before it is their time, and he takes to studying them, and eventually teaching them. But of course Melko seduces them, and Men enter the Dark Time, their lives grow shorter, and they cannot be trusted. 

The second part takes up immediately after this part ends, with what I think is Tolkien's favourite story. And the second book tells the most interesting parts of the History of Middle Earth. But the first part was terrific, and a great refresher for the Silmarillion. The evolution of the work is fascinating, and Christopher Tolkien's analyses are non-intrusive and very clear. I loved it!


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