Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
(1991, Grafton Books [original copyright: 1980])

A prelude to the History of Middle-Earth

Story drafts expanding on tales and battles from the first, second and third ages of Middle-Earth.


-- Second reading (paperback)
December 17th to 31st, 2001


Truly engaging.  Every section of this book contains something of interest, making the narration of the events given in The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings seem like a mere summary of what happened.  Here, the characters were introduced and developed into a real narrative.  I wish Tolkien could have published the entire chronology in this format!

I must post a note of warning to any who would read the Unfinished Tales, however.  An intimate knowledge of both The Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings and its appendices (especially Appendix A) are required for full enjoyment of this book.  I am up to date on the events in the former, but am a little behind on what I remember in detail about the latter two.  I am also a little over-stimulated on the Tolkien front.  Between this book, The Fellowship of the Ring in theatres now, and the audio-book of the Silmarillion I received for Christmas (which I have just barely started), I am now dreaming Middle-Earth!

The book is made like the other History of Middle-Earth books that Christopher Tolkien has edited, which came only later.  At the point when he compiled this book, he didn't know that there were twelve other volumes worth of material to present.  He divides the book into four main sections, dealing with the First, Second and Third ages of the Sun, as well as a section dealing with some isolated issues (most of which really pertain to the third age only).  He offers commentary, but since this is really his first foray into this style, sometimes there was less than I would have liked, at other times there is more than I thought necessary.  There are also footnotes to the texts made by Tolkien himself, which ranged from the interesting, clarifications to the dull (for me), etymology of the terms that he created.

The one commonality between all of the sections is the way Tolkien took a small section of his other works, be it the journey of Tuor to Gondolin, the sea voyages of Prince Aldarion of Numenor at a critical time, or the unseen battles at the Fords of the Isen against Saruman's troops, and expanded them.  Often this would spring from one line or one paragraph from the previous works, and develop into a tale twenty or forty pages long!  In almost every case, it was incredible.  I really do wish we could have seen the whole history like this, even if it took up twelve volumes to get through the first, second and third ages before the Lord of the Rings!

The only story that I was not engaged by was the one of Tuor on his journey to Gondolin.  I discovered while reading the Book of Lost Tales II that I didn't really like the story of the Fall of Gondolin, because most of it was simply wandering from place to place, before Tuor reaches the hidden city and after its fall as the inhabitants are led away.  This story expands on the former, and ends just as Tuor sees the city from afar after traversing the gates.  But most of the story is told as he and his elvish guide traverse the lands, making their way from the sea to Gondolin.  And it is not very interesting.  The only part that stands out is when Tuor meets with Ulmo, and receives the armor that Turgon left for his emissary.  Somewhat interesting was the description of the seven gates of Gondolin -but after the first few, this became very tiring.

The tale of Turin Turambar is one that I have always enjoyed.  Here, we get so much detail that is not present in either The Book of Lost Tales II or the Silmarillion.  I only wish he had not removed the parts with Turin at Nargothrond, because I don't remember exactly what happened there.  Other parts seemed new to me, like his capture of Mim the petty-dwarf and the dwelling at his mountain-abode.  But the detail of Turin's youth, his flight to Doriath, his self-exile from there after killing an elf, and his wandering days among the outlaws, were incredible to read about.  Sure, it did get tedious for a little while, but it was also neat to "watch" Beleg as he traces Turin's route.  The story of Turin's abode with the men of Haleth all the way to his death is not very different from what is told in all the other versions, but there is again more detail, expanding on his relationship with the other people there, and how he came to be in command, slowly, as he led a larger and larger group to hunt the orcs that infringe on their territory.  His death and the death of Nienor is told in extreme detail, showing us exactly what happened, not from a second point of view, but showing us how each of the characters in this drama moved, from being a coward to being brave in the face of the dragon (who is the one pictured on the front cover of the book in an incredibly beautiful drawing).

In the second part of the book, we move on to what I consider to be the more interesting part of the history, perhaps because there is so little material available.  The second age concerned itself mainly with Numenor.  The largest story contained here details the relationship between one of the heirs to the throne, Aldarion, and the sea which called to him constantly, and his eventual wife, Erendis.  The lives of the kings of Numenor were so long that there were only twenty five of them in over three thousand years.  This means that Tolkien could have told the entire story of Numenor in a narrative form without needing thousands of names like (it seems) he did in the tales of the First Age.  What he tells of Aldarion is beautiful, from the dissent of his parents, to his trips to Middle-Earth, establishing ports along the coast, and the beginnings of the return of the Shadow of Sauron.  Erendis grew to hate the sea, even though it was necessary for the King to travel across it and establish colonies there.  She trained her daughter to hate men, sop that she played her parents against each other.  There is a complicated but mildly interesting discussion of the politics that led to a Ruling Queen instead of a male Heir, but it breaks off before we get more details.  

After the destruction of Numenor (at the hands of Sauron) the focus of the story comes to Middle-Earth.  Elindil (Isildur's father) brought those still faithful to the Light back to Middle-Earth before Numenor was sunk, and there established the realms of Arnor and Gondor.  Most of the tales picked up here derive from Appendix A of the Lord of the Rings.  The History of Galadriel and Celeborn is not so much a tale of two elves who fall in love (as one would expect from the title, similar to the History of Aragorn and Arwen in the Appendix), but it traces their rebuilding of the strength of Eriador and Lorien when they realized that Sauron was becoming active again.  It tells a little about the making of the Rings of Power, but not much, but deals with the battles and efforts that Sauron took against the Elves and Men who resided there.  The most interesting aspect was the battle in which Sauron nearly took over all of Eriador, attacking Galadriel, then moving up to Cirdan, and how Elrond became a major power.  

The second age ended when Sauron was defeated by Isildur, Gil-Galad, Elrond and the others in the Last Alliance.  Just a couple of years into the Third Age, Isildur was killed by the orc raid that lost the One Ring.  It is a very interesting description of troop movements after that battle.  We learn how the orc band managed to be at this spot, the movements of the elves before Elindil came to the Gladden Fields, and in an interesting historical study, how "we" learned about all that went on at that time, from the speculation, to the conjecture and the evidence that Saruman found Elindil's body near Isengard!

I remember being confused about the tales of Cirion and Eorl, but this time I found the study fascinating.  It shows such realistic thinking of how people migrate, how they wax in times of prosperity and wane because of plagues, war, and natural movements.  I can't believe Tolkien could know so much about his world and what happened to a few select groups!  It's amazing to study the cultures in such detail.  The people of Rohan have a complex history, looking for enough ground to ride their horses, but being hindered by the Easterlings and bands of Orcs, and being afraid of Galadriel (as the elves became very secretive in this time, only having four major outposts -Lorien, Rivendell, the Grey Havens, and the ones that Bilbo encountered in Mirkwood).  The pact that the Steward Cirion made with Eorl the Young to create a kingship there was due to his waning influence in that area, and the need to keep Gondor safe without expending men to that area.  It describes how Isengard was closed up, and how everybody was eager for Saruman to take charge of it after Easterlings invaded from nearby.  It was truly an interesting time, and I wish we had even more details of what went on then.  Perhaps an entire novel detailing the passage of the Third age up to the return of Sauron!

I thought the Quest of Erebor would have been drafts from the Hobbit, which I understand are not in existence.  However, what we got was much more interesting.  It really describes how Gandalf came to make probably the most important decision of the Third Age: to send Bilbo with the dwarves to recapture the Lonely Mountain, as described in The Hobbit!  We get so much detail on Gandalf's discussions with Thorin, but what really interested me was the speculation of what would have happened later if Smaug wasn't killed.  Gandalf suggests that Sauron would not have let the dwarf party pass through Mirkwood to destroy the dragon -he would have sent Smaug help!  So he convinced the White Council (Saruman, Elrond and others) to attack Dol Guldor, Sauron's main tower outside of Mordor.  Sauron retreated to Mordor, and probably didn't learn of the attack on Erebor.  If Bilbo would not have gone, Thorin would have made the "honorable" frontal assault, and died there, leaving everything as it was before he decided to return to the mountain.  And if Smaug hadn't been killed, he would have certainly have helped Sauron attack Rivendell and Lorien, and then where would the Fellowship of the Ring have been!  Dire straights! With his massive orc army in the South, his seduction of Saruman with his orc army in the West, and a flying, fire-breathing dragon in the North, not to mention the evil Easterling men, the good guys would have been in deep trouble!

The Hunt for the Ring is really told in two parts, Sauron's hunt, and Saruman's hunt.  They both intertwine, but we get to see Saruman's jealousy of Gandalf build, his interest in Hobbits grow, and his desire to possess the One Ring, instead of seeing it destroyed.  Sauron, on the other hand, was worried about revealing his hand too early.  He sends a feint at Gondor, but sends the Black Riders north in search of Gollum and "Baggins".  We get a small explanation that the Nazgul are afraid of water, which makes their chase of Frodo across the fjord much more spectacular.  Saruman plays to both sides, lying to the Black Riders and hiding the truth of his deception from Gandalf.  He gets caught in the end by both parties, and ends up with nothing.  

The tension is cranked up several notches in the description of the defeat of the Rohirrim at the Battles of the Fords of Isen.  This is a battle that we hear about later, from Merry and Gandalf's point of view.  But to see it actually unfold -wow!  It was breathtaking.  Here, armies do not arrive just in time to save each other, and the good guys are totally overwhelmed.  But reinforcements do come, scaring off the enemy for a short while.  Commanders are slain, and sometimes they make poor decisions.  It looks hopeless for a while, it really does.  The survivors of those battles make their way towards Gondor to add their small numbers to its defence, following the armies of Saruman.  

The final section of the book deals with miscellaneous items.  The story of the Druedain, the peoples who helped Aragorn like Ghan-buri-Ghan (who I must admit I remember little about and even less how he helped the story along). What I did find interesting was that some of these diminutive people actually lived on Numenor, but they abandoned it when they felt the Shadow returning!  

The second section deals with the Istari, the Wizards like Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast.  I hoped to learn about the two others, but even Tolkien admits that he didn't know anything about them, except that they perhaps went East and South, or maybe were corrupted by Sauron.  It seems to me that Manwe's plan was pretty weak, if two of his messengers were not heard from again, one (Radagast) turned rather towards birds and flowers, and the fourth was eventually corrupted and led a huge army against those he was sent to protect.  Only Gandalf was successful, both in the war, and in rejecting Sauron.  The author mentions that the Istari were given so little power because of "past mistakes" by the Valar.  Christopher Tolkien mentions that the scope of those mistakes is beyond this book, but I don't remember any mention of it in the rest of the History (though admittedly, I can't remember everything that went on in those twelve books, and maybe it was of small concern).  Based on what happened in the First Age, however, I think we can make a safe guess.

The final part of this section (and of the book) deals with the Palantiri, the seeing stones that helped corrupt Saruman and that led Denethor to suicide.  They have a rather interesting history, but I would have also liked a concise history of how they were made (though I think this is given in the Lord of the Rings).  They were used for communications between Gondor and Arnor, except for one which looked out over the sea, and another that could eavesdrop on the others.  This section is a little too technical, detailing how the devices worked, and how to use them.  Most interesting was the way the events of the Lord of the Rings was influenced by them, including the capture of the one from Minas Ithil (which Sauron used), and Gandalf's revelation about them from Pippin's experience.

There is so much detail present in this book that expands on short sequences from the main stories.  Personally, I loved the way Tolkien was able to take those short sequences and make them seem even more intense than they were suggested to be originally.  Some of the passages went on for a little too long, especially those from the First Age.  But others take what should have been a longer narrative and filled it out, like the beginning of the Fall of Numenor.  I wonder how much of this was intended for inclusion in the Appendices, because much of it is written in the same form as the discussions there.  For the most part, the different sections were isolated from each other, so that commentary connecting them was not necessary.  However, I found that we could have used some introduction and conclusion for each section, especially the last one, which ended rather abruptly.  Some concluding remarks would have been nice to see, rounding the stories out. 

I think this book led to my slight disappointment with the Silmarillion, as what is written there is a mere shadow of what existed in terms of story detail.  The Silmarillion should be read first, and this book afterwards, to get a better feel for the events.  Standing alone, I think anybody picking this book up will be thoroughly confused.  As a companion, though, it is terrific -even better than that.  I adored it, all the way through.


-- First reading (paperback)
February 19th to 26th, 1993


No review available.


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