Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
(1984, Houghton Mifflin Company)

The History of Middle-Earth, book 2

The wanderer in the Undying Lands is told about the lives of the elves and men in Beleriand under the spell of Melko.


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


Where the first book gave an extraordinary amount of detail that made it worth reading, the stories in this book rambled on and on, making me want to skip the geography lesson of Middle-Earth. There was, however, one shining moment that was simply spectacular.

Spoiler review:

Tolkien never got around to finishing the Lost Tales, and I, for one, am now glad. After finishing this second volume, the outline given in the last chapters convinced me that there could have been four or five more volumes if he had continued. And none of the future stories sounded very interesting. The story of Earendel as he searches for Valinor would have seen him wandering all over the place, meeting all sorts of trouble. If it was to be anything like Tuor's adventures while searching for Gondolin, I'm glad to have missed out on it. The story of Eriol, at the end, could have been interesting, but I'm not inclined to believe that at face value, since it looks like more wandering for half the story. 

Once again, Christopher Tolkien's commentary was nicely to the point, for stories that were completed. Since these stories differed in so many respects from the final Silmarillion, he could not really point out differences, but similarities in form and structure, as well as seeds for future developments, were pointed out. Towards the end, he gives Tolkien's outlines, then tries to piece them together into a point-by-point narrative. This necessitated him giving more than just a short commentary, and he tended to go on a little too long for my tastes. 

I will continue with my summary of the Silmarillion stories here, breaking it down chapter by chapter. As mentioned, though, the Silmarillion stories change considerably from what is given here. This book only contained six stories, compared to double that number in the previous volume. The Tale of Tinuviel is the story of Luthien and Beren, but in this case, Beren is an elf, so the stigma against him is not that he is a man wooing an elfin maiden, but that he's from a group of "unclean" elves. Once he is sent away from the land that is to become later (in later drafts and the final form) Doriath, he wanders for what seems like forever. Tinuviel has fallen in love with him and threatens to run away, so her father, the king, locks her up in a tall tree-house. She grows her hair long, though, and escapes, weaving a spell of sleep around the elves guarding her. 

Beren has been locked up as a servant of Melko's, under the supervision of the lord of the cats (who would later become Sauron). Tinuviel wins her way to the castle of the cats, with the help of Huan, greatest of the dogs. She tricks the cat into a fight with Huan, and gains power over him, thus releasing Beren. Huan abandons them when he finds out they still want to capture a Silmaril from Melko's crown (the price of marriage to Tinuviel from her mocking father), but they go anyway. Tinuviel dances for Melko, weaving a sleeping spell on him. Beren steals a Silmaril, and they leave, but his hand is bitten off (with the jewel) by a giant wolf, who goes mad into the lands. When Beren and Tinuviel return to her father, they discover the wolf haunting the forest. Learning that the jewel is inside the wolf's belly, a great hunt begins, which ends up with the wolf dead, and Beren dead as well. Tinuviel dies of grief, and they go to the god of the dead, Mandos, together. They plead such a case that they are allowed to return to the world as mortals, to live out short lives. The structure is the same, but in the Silmarillion there is much less wandering, and Beren is a man, so his feats are much more incredible.

The Tale of Turambar introduces the dragon, and the spells that he could cast on people. Melko captures Turin's father and curses his family. I don't remember if all men were restricted to a small region of the earth under Melko's rule in the final story. But it makes Melko's power seem much more widespread. Turin (a man) grows up in what later becomes Doriath, but as a late teen, he kills an elf there, so leaves in disgrace. He wanders forever (again) until he falls in with a band of elves in what later becomes Nargothrond. The Nargothrond story is much compressed from its later form, but it has the same result. Turin calls for action against Melko, bringing these elves, who had lived in secrecy and peace for years, to Melko's attention. The dragon comes, and all are either killed or enslaved. Turin, now named Turambar, is let go to live with his guilt and his curse. 

Turambar lives with a group of men, eventually becoming their leader. Meanwhile, his mother and sister (whom he never met) go in search of him, convince the king of Doriath to fight the dragon, and, when those elves fail, they become ensnared in its sorcery. Turin's sister, completely amnesiatic, is discovered by Turambar, who falls in love and names her Nienel. Eventually they get married, and she conceives. The dragon, though, comes after these men, and Turambar kills it. Before it dies, however, it releases its spell on Nienel and she kills herself because of the knowledge she now has. Turambar, waking and learning who his wife really was, also commits suicide. 

Turin's father is released by Melko, and begins wandering, himself! He comes to the caves of Nargothrond, with its treasure guarded by Mim the dwarf (dwarves are evil in this draft), whom he kills. Before his death, however, Mim curses the gold, so that more trouble comes from it, and Hurin casts the gold at the elvish king's feet, because he didn't do more to save his son. 

The Tale of the Nauglafring belongs here, but is told later in the narrative. Here, the elvish king calls upon the dwarves to fashion beautiful things from this gold, against the warnings of his wife, who is a minor Valar, and who has the gift of prophecy. Through the king's greed and lack of trust, and the dwarves cruelty, there is more of a curse laid upon them. A beautiful necklace is created, and the Silmaril is set in it. The dwarves ask an outrageous payment, and the king sends them home with barely anything. The dwarves march against Doriath, led by a traitor elf, and kill the king, sacking his realm. 

Beren learns of this, and chases the dwarves, eventually killing them. They dump the gold, but he brings back the Silmaril for his wife. Beren and Tinuviel have a son, who becomes the leader after his parents fade out of the world. When their home is destroyed, only Elwing, Beren's grand-daughter, survives and is brought to the sea-side dwelling of the last of the free elves. This entire story feels like a very early draft, which it really was. There is a lot of ambiguity here, and many contradictions. And a lot of it made me scratch my head and wonder what Tolkien was thinking of, and what he was trying to do. 

I wonder about the power of the curses, being glad that they were either abandoned or reduced in nature later. It seems that Melko had incredible power, but he chose only to use it on people like Hurin, instead of on people who could have helped him defeat the elves. And the fact that anybody at all, like Mim, could cast a curse upon a people or gold, at any time, seems unnatural. If that were so, there would be curses aplenty everywhere, on everybody and everything!

The Fall of Gondolin begins at such a rambling pace that I couldn't remember why I liked this story. Tuor is a man, sent by the Lord of the Waters, Ulmo, to find Gondolin and ready them for battle. Tuor wanders for what seems, again, forever. Eventually he finds Gondolin, but Turgon, king of the hidden city, refuses to reveal himself to Melko. Tuor resides in the city as an honoured guest, and even marries Turgon's daughter. The king's nephew, however, is jealous, and when he's captured by Melko, offers to aid in the overthrow of Gondolin. 

When the battle comes, many years later (and Tuor has a son, Earendel), Tuor has fashioned an escape route from the city. The battle is many, many pages of spectacular description, of how one part of the army is trapped, another part breaks through, they advance, retreat, slaughter balrogs (!) and even a dragon. I can't even begin to describe it here, but it was incredible, and it raised the entire book up by an entire star in my rating scheme. 

However, after the battle, we get treated to more wanderings, as Tuor leads his ragtag group for over a year, before settling down near the sea. They lose a lot of people, but are eventually joined by Elwing and the remains of Beren's people. 

After this, there are no more narrative tales. We get outlines of Earendel's journeys as he searches for the aid of the Valar, and a couple of lines on Melko's recapture. But the world does not go on in peace. Eriol, the traveler to whom these stories were told, gets to play a big part in the next chapters, which were never told. These tell of how the world became the way it is now, with England at the center, and how the elves fades and the Valar left the world to itself. 

I was never interested in history that drew too close to our own. I know that Tolkien wanted an English mythology, but I don't know that he needed to bring it as far as he wanted to. Maybe it was necessary in his mind. And perhaps the tales would have been interesting. I don't know. 

What I do know is that the way he was going, there would not have been enough substance, and too much geography to learn. All through the wanderings, I let my mind go, so that I didn't know, nor did I care, about all the place names, people that our heroes (or tragic figures) met along the way. I only became interested again when they began to interact with others, and an actual story took place. 

Of Eriol and the other people that we got to know between the stories in the first Book of Lost Tales, there is barely anything. He plows straight from one story to the next, with hardly any interaction between storytellers. This, too, is a disappointment. 

There was a draft of what looks like a complete rewriting of the beginning of the Lost Tales, resituating the mariner, and telling his tale first, before he gets to the Cottage of Lost Play, and it is somewhat interesting. I wonder what it would have brought to the story had he continued with this development.

I must note here, at the end, that these tales were written way before there was any conception of the Second or Third Ages, and the whole story of Numenor was not even conceived, and there was no idea that the Elves might be once again great and majestic, after Melko was recaptured. The idea that the elves were all hemmed in, like the men were, or held in captive service, amazes me. I'm glad it was abandoned. The world of the Lost Tales is one that is much less complex than the final story it was to become. I'm glad it had the time to grow.

The stories themselves have a ring of familiarity about them, and they are good stories, but just have to be trimmed down and altered in some ways. This is not a bad book, by any means. The adventures of the first few chapters, aside from the endless wandering, were very interesting and intriguing, and I looked forward to reading them again every time I put the book down.  Rereading this pair of books has made me itch to write again.  After all, it was this set of books that inspired me to write out an entire historical account (25000 years) for the people of my SF novel (unpublished, and still in a very rough form).  When it's time to go back to those drafts, I think I will pick the books up once again.


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