Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
(1987, George Allen & Unwin)

The History of Middle-Earth, book 5

The earliest forms of the Fall of Numenor, along with an advanced version of The Silmarillion.


+ -- 2nd reading (hardcover)
December 2nd to 17th, 2004

    As with most of the other volumes in this series, this one was very mixed. While I enjoyed so much the stories, it is once again the languages that I enjoy the least, which has so much priority in these books, and which the editor stresses most.

Spoiler review:

This book describes the tales of The Silmarillion as they stood when Tolkien started to write The Lord of the Rings. So many of the ideas come around to very close to their final form, but many essential elements are noticeably missing. Finally, we come to the Fall of Numenor, which is one tale that I really enjoy, probably because I am less familiar with it than the tales of the First Age.

One of the problems with Tolkien's writing is that he started over so many times, without reaching the end of the tales before he recommenced. This means, of course, that we get to see the beginning of the tales very often, but by the time we get to the Fall of Gondolin and the War of Wrath, they exist only as scribbled notes, if at all. In the few instances where they do get completed, they are in much rougher form than the earlier tales.

Christopher Tolkien, for his part, is obsessed with the chronological order of the texts, and spends an incredible amount of time discussing them. As a casual reader, rather than a scholar trying to make sense of this, I found many of his discussions rather tedious in this regard. Fortunately, his general commentaries give a lot of information, though they were fewer than in the previous volumes.

The first part of the book deals with Numenor. The editor tells briefly of how Tolkien came to attempt a time travel story, which became The Lost Road. The real meat of this section comes in the form of The Fall of Numenor, however, which gives us the first real draft of the story. I was amazed at how fully formed the story was, right from the moment Tolkien wrote it down. The most amazing part, I think, is the presence of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, even though the Rings of Power were not yet in existence. Of course, I would love more details, like what we got in Unfinished Tales.

In the next section, The Lost Road of course refers to the Straight Road that leads to the Undying Lands, which was lost after Numenor attacked there. I remember reading this story and being bored, the first time I read this book. I was very impatient for it to get going, and it never actually does, as it was abandoned very early on, barely reaching Numenor at all. This time, however, I found it to be mildly interesting, especially in the short Numenorian chapters. The story is not nearly in finished form, being only in the first stages of writing, so if appears very rough and unrefined. I would have liked to see the story finished, I think, as there were so many neat ideas that would have been explored. I think I would have enjoyed learning about the time periods that Tolkien wanted to explore. From the short histories that Christopher Tolkien gives of the proposed intervening chapters, my interest was piqued. Even though many of them, like King Sheaf, were quite confusing in the conflicting legends given here, for a while I became quite interested in the histories of Europe 1000 to 2000 years ago, especially the times of the Vikings.

If written these days, I think Tolkien could have made a large multi-part series, similar to Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth, or others. He could have spanned the time periods of The Silmarillion through the first and second ages, written from points of view like The Lord of the Rings and The Lost Road. It probably would have made people more likely to understand the stories told here.

After the relatively short time spent with the Numenorian legends, we return to the first age once again. There are more Annals of Valinor and Beleriand, which were of less interest to me, since they don't have a real narrative structure, and they are not very different from the earlier Annals given in The Shaping of Middle-Earth. I could, remarkably, see how the story was coming much closer to the published version of The Silmarillion, however. I enjoyed the way the story of Gondolin was expanded slightly (in terms of history and Turgon, not its Fall). I've wondered how Turgon could gather so many elves in such secrecy that nobody knew their route. Surely some would have abandoned the journey, even past the halfway point, and not hesitated to divulge it even in careless conversation someday. This section, especially, has many references to The Shaping of Middle-Earth which are frustrating, because the editor simply says "see book IV..." I would rather have had him say "recall that... in book IV", even just giving a half sentence more, to jog the memory.

The Ainulindale is much as I remembered it, from The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales I. This is one place where the lack of commentary (or sparse one, at any rate), hinders the enjoyment. This version does give Melko more motivation in his quest for power, however. Being the most knowledgeable and powerful of the Ainur, he wanted something to control, even in the Void. In other words, he got into trouble at first because he was bored! As far as I could tell, the Ainur didn't have any children until they entered the world, where they took gender roles. I find it surprising that they could procreate at all!

Languages of the world are the subject of The Lhammas, which tells of how they changed as the elves and men came together and separated. I suspect that this text would be very confusing to anybody who is not intimately familiar with The Silmarillion. Even with that knowledge, I found it quite tedious and less than interesting. Mostly, it describes, once again, the travels of the elves at the beginning of the story, when they were called to Valinor.

The Quenta Silmarillion, of course, was interesting from the point of view of the story and how it has evolved. Unfortunately, it is so close to the finished form in many respects that there is little more to note than when certain names and minor concepts arose. The most notable of these is the first conception of the dwarves being made by Aule. Interestingly, the dwarves are compared to the orcs in that they were created by one Vala. As Iluvatar gave life to the dwarves, does that mean that He gave life to the orcs, as well, in this conception? The later story makes more sense, as any Vala could not give living spirit to the bodies that they fashioned, Melko had to make orcs out of existing living things- perverting the elves. Here, too, the conception that the orcs only came into being after Melko saw the elves entered the mythology, but the editor doesn't dwell much on that.

The early chapters have some interesting points, some of which were taken into the future versions, and some abandoned. I wondered that Mandos could have a wife, especially if he doesn't speak except at Manwe's command! Did he, having knowledge of all future, know about Melko's destruction of the Trees beforehand? I guess festivals go on, though, even with Melko running around and others searching for him, right before he committed his terrible deed. After this, one of my favorite stories deals with the creation of the Sun and Moon, which is much reduced in length in the final book, and a concept which Tolkien attempted to change completely in the later stages, as told in Morgoth's Ring.

The tale of Beren and Luthien should not be read unless the Silmarillion is well-known, because most of the chapter is missing, and for a very good reason: this version was the final one, the one used in the published book. In contrast to most of Tolkien's works, in this case, he jumped right to the end of the First Age after that! So in fact, rather than getting the long tale of Turin, we get the War of Wrath!

As a whole, The Silmarillion must be a very depressing read to a lot of people. Although there is beauty, there is mostly sadness. Some people said that The Fellowship of the Ring movie was very depressing, but I disagree. In both cases, I think Tolkien means to say that it is impossible to win a war against a god through strength of arms, whether it is the most powerful, Morgoth, or a "minor" one (relatively speaking) like Sauron.

Tolkien had little faith in humanity, mostly because of his experiences in the trenches during World War I. From characters like Isuldur and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings to the traitors in the Battle of Unnumbered tears, men just can't do what is required, and take the easy road out, even the evil one. There are relatively few men who balance it out, like the Faithful ones of the Three Houses, and Aragorn. These are rare, though. Beren and Turin were not without honor, but also not the best examples of mankind in their treatment of others. Only Tuor really shows decency through his life, even to Meglin who hates him.

The Etymologies makes up the final section of this book, and that is pure linguistics, giving the bases and roots of words in the elvish languages. I read the introduction, but skipped the rest.

There are three very short appendices, which also don't add much to the works: genealogies, list of names and the second Map. None are really complete, and they really feel like an afterthought. Perhaps it would have been better to keep them for another book and do something more with them.

In fact, almost the entire commentary section deals either with name changes or dates of writing, where I would have preferred to see more discussion. This would have been difficult, however, due to the fact that there is much less development between the stuff given in The Shaping of Middle Earth and here and The Silmarillion.

Still, the material dealing with Numenor was what I looked most forward to, and I mostly enjoyed it.


-- First reading (hardcover)
June 22nd to July 11th, 1990


No review available.


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