J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth stories weren’t cranked out to satisfy an audience demand, and writing them wasn’t even Tolkien’s day job: writing the legends of Arda was effectively a hobby of Tolkien’s, a way to exercise the skills of his professional work in a recreational manner he could share with his immediate family and his friends in the Inklings.
Since Tolkien prepared far more material than he ever actually published, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were enriched by numerous references to a mythology only half-glimpsed by the reader, which plays a major role in creating the impression of a world with a rich past. Sure, it’s entirely possible to fake that sort of thing, but having the structure of those myths worked out both makes it easier to make those allusions seem like they relate to an actual story rather than being made up on the spot and can also help inspire aspects of the present story.
Still, a side effect of this is that after Tolkien died, he left behind a ton of unpublished material, a sizable chunk of which has been released since. First, Christopher Tolkien (with the assistance of Guy Gavriel Kay) produced The Silmarillion, as close a reconstruction of Tolkien’s intended narrative of the backstory of Middle-Earth as could be reached. Much later, three books were produced focusing on the three Great Tales – the stories of the First Age which Tolkien thought had the most scope for being fleshed out into full-length narratives that could be read in their own right; these were The Children of Húrin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin.
Of those who engage with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth texts at all, many have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A pretty decent number have tackled The Silmarillion and bounced off it hard; for those who enjoyed it, the three First Age books I’d say are also worth a look. For those who want more Tolkien material set in Middle-Earth, however, there’s an even denser, drier inner circle of material than the already a bit dry and dense Silmarillion-tier stuff: that is the raw texts offered up with extensive commentary from Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth. Few indeed are those who have undertaken the journey into those realms; I, myself, have wandered into the border region and then written it off as not for me. Here’s what I picked up on my excursion…
Despite the title, a chunk of the material here doesn’t really represent actual stories so much as essays and worldbuilding notes. A Description of the Island of Númenor, for instance, is mostly what it says on the tin, but it’s mercifully brief and the geographical details are interwoven with sociological points which set the stage for the next story.
Likewise, The Battles of the Ford of Isen is not so much a story as an essay on some important military clashes between the forces of Rohan and Saruman that happen otherwise offstage during The Two Towers; The Drúedain is an essay on the so-called “wild men” who help out at one point in The Return of the King, and from this turn out to have hidden depths; The Palantíri offers an astonishingly dry discussion of the palantír and the mechanics of using it.
Two essays, however, I found particularly interesting. The Istari offers some notes on the titular wizards, and it’s interesting to see how many details about them were in flux and how Tolkien never had an entirely settled decision on a number of key points about them. The Line of Elros is list of the kings and queens of Númenor and notes on their notable deeds, if any. It’s more pure worldbuilding, though it does give a broad snapshot of how the piety of the Númenoreans was eroded over the years amid increasing shenanigans with the succession – which means that, whilst it’s not really a tale in and of itself, but you can spot a tale weaving its way through it.
The actual stories are likewise a mixed bag. Of Tuor and His Coming To Gondolin is a travel narrative, very much in the style of Tolkien’s travel narratives, where it’s all rather slow and stuffed with geography notes and details implying bits of history. For a story where Ulmo himself makes a major intervention, it’s pretty frigging dull. Narn I Hîn Húrin is the scaffolding which Christopher Tolkien would later use as the framework for reconstructing The Children of Húrin; this is much more interesting, though if you have the later volume you’ve already seen this.
One especially interesting text here is Aldarion and Erendis. Subtitled The Mariner’s Wife, this is a story of a prince of Númenor, Aldarion, and his wife Erendis. Aldarion loves sailing, it having come into fashion in Númenor in his time due to the Númenoreans learning enough about shipbuilding and sailing to start making little expeditions to Middle-Earth to visit the elves and humans who were living there. Aldarion undertakes various expeditions, eventually greatly expanding the role of sailing in Númenorean life – he establishes a Númenorean colony in Middle-Earth to supply additional timber for shipbuilding purposes, for instance, and he sets up the Guild of Venturers for those who like to go exploring on the sea. (So next time someone in your Dungeons & Dragons tells you that an Adventurer’s Guild is an idea without proper precedent in fantasy literature, you’ve got the Tolkien bomb to drop on them.)
Erendis likes trees and woods and being on dry land, but she falls in love with Aldarion despite them having different interests. Erendis also ends up super jealous of Aldarion’s love for the sea, repeatedly talking about how she’s basically rivals for his affection with Uinen, spouse of Ossë and one of the Maiar of the sea under the Valar Ulmo. Aldarion, for his part, likes the idea of being married to Erendis, but also likes the idea of spending extensive time away from her (and his responsibilities as eventual King of Númenor) to go bobbing about on the sea, and this vacillation causes problems both between the couple and between Aldarion and his kingly father.
The story is therefore at its heart a tale of romantic strife, and whilst the trope of the woman who doesn’t understand her husband’s hobbies and seeks to change him is annoyingly common, it’s at least true enough that people (of any gender) do often go into relationships hoping to shape their partner to their design and it never works well. It’s also fairly clear that the texts treats their strife as being partly both of their faults. Aldarion’s sailing, whilst a deed of worth, is also something which prompts him to shirk other responsibilities and damages his good relations with his family, and he has a bad tendency to offer promises he has no real intention of keeping. (There’s a bit where he promises Erendis that if she has particular love for a tree on Númenor he won’t cut it down until it dies of old age, and she declares she loves all of them, and then he just sort of shrugs and goes back to forestry work and shipbuilding she is sad at tree stumps.) He even skips out on the early upbringing of his daughter Anacalimë – a taboo among Numenoréans, who like the elves believed that parents should stick with their children as much as they could during the child’s early years – so he can bunk off and go sailing.
Erendis, meanwhile, is making the cardinal error of trying to get a partner to abandon their passions because she wants to be the fulcrum of his life, not anything else. This is always terrible, regardless of the gender dynamics involved. Aldarion would not be the man he was were it not for his sailing, and accepting that as a part of him would seem necessary for someone who wants to love him as a person as opposed to a status symbol or a ticket into royalty or a hot bit of ass. Kicking away someone’s passions and leaving yourself as the major thing in your life is kind of a creepy thing to want in the first place, especially since it almost certainly isn’t going to make them love you all the more. It’s more likely to make them resent you for forcing them to give up something which gave them joy, or make them cowed because you’ve made them feel like you need to seek their approval for the stuff you want to do, or otherwise just make a really toxic dynamic. It’s really very apparent, well before he and Erendis are married, that he’ll never change to the extent of setting her needs above his need to travel on the sea, and there comes a point where if someone behaves consistently in a particular manner for long enough you’re more of a fool for expecting them to change than they are for not changing.
So as Aldarion and Erendis are at odds with each other, foreboding omens of trouble coming build up – both for their relationship and for the world as a whole, for Sauron is stirring in Middle-Earth and Aldarion’s journeys are bringing him face to face with some of the consequences of that. Aldarion takes some steps to counter this, making an alliance with the elven lord Gil-Galad, but because of the seeds of discontent Aldarion has sown as a result of his neglect of his family he ends up sabotaging what could have been his greatest legacy.
Specifically, since she spent her formative years with her daddy gone across the ocean, leaving just a memory, Anacalimë grows up in a home haunted by his absence and by Erendis’ resentment of his absence; it’s little surprise that when she becomes queen she ends up reversing a lot of Aldarion’s policies, including breaking off the alliance with Gil-Galad which, had she kept it up, might have snuffed out Sauron’s plans all the sooner. Unfortunately, this later stretch of the story was never written up in full, and nor were full details given of the tragic end to which both Aldarion and Erendis seem to be headed, which is a shame because the buildup here is pretty good.
I was also very interested in The History of Galadriel and Celeborn. This is not so much a single text as it is Christopher Tolkien giving us a guided tour of what texts exist on this subject. One of the things which stands out in The Lord of the Rings – I dare say it’s very evident even to those reading it for the first time – is that Galadriel is presented as being super ultra mega amazingly important when encountered in The Fellowship of the Ring, but at the time we aren’t really told why. As it turns out, she’s a badass of primal power, having been one of the ringleaders of the elven rebellion against the Valar when the Valar forbade them to chase Morgoth to Middle-Earth – not because she was sold on Fëanor’s plans, since she actually hated him, but because she wanted to conquer and rule lands of her own.
Moreover, at the end of the First Age she didn’t accept the forgiveness of the Valar, which explains why she doesn’t go West until the end of the Third Age – when her aid against Sauron prompted her forgiveness, and her temptation by the One Ring made her realise that she’d finally grown beyond her youthful craving for unquestioned power and she has therefore truly repented of her original rebellion. (There’s a fantastic theological line of discussion there around defining “repentance” as “working on yourself until you no longer want to commit the sin you’ve been guilty of”.)
This is a level of badassery and character development which we might wish Tolkien had bestowed on more women, but we can be glad he at least provided it to Galadriel. That said, what we have here isn’t so much a cohesive tale so much as it’s a lot of detective work by Christopher Tolkien to work out what stories might have been told about Galadriel, had any been finished, along with suitable extracts from Tolkien’s papers where a sufficiently substantial and interesting piece presents itself. (I quite like the bit which details one of the earliest meetings between Galadriel and Gandalf, and how the latter was able to prove to Galadriel that he was an emissary from the Valar.)
Other stories here are essentially DVD bonus material for The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, filling in gaps in those narratives. The Disaster of the Gladden Fields offers the full story of Isildur’s death and the loss of the One Ring, and is one of the more fleshed-out pieces in this vein; it also includes fun details about how crucial information on the subject was uncovered after the War of the Ring by Aragorn and Gimli when they were restoring Isengard to set up a sort of palantir-based royal monitoring station there. Cirion and Eorl is basically nation state slash fiction about the forging of the alliance between Rohan and Gondor which becomes significant generations later in the War of the Ring. Clearly important, but also very dry.
The Quest of Erebor gives several versions of the behind-the-scenes story of Gandalf’s manipulations which set up the Unexpected Party at the start of The Hobbit. A bit too much of a peek behind the curtain, really, and not as funny as it had the potential to be had Tolkien polished it up further. Somewhat more successful is The Hunt For the Ring, an account of the movements of the Nazgul prior to them showing up in The Fellowship of the Ring, including a fun hitherto-untold story about how Saruman misdirected them and how Saruman’s influence in the Shire had long roots due to his secret pipe-weed habit.
Any book of this nature was always going to be a bit of a mixed bag, but Unfinished Tales managed to retain my interest more often than not. Christopher Tolkien’s accounts of how the texts developed and change may be the driest parts of all, and indeed that will prove to be the case in The History of Middle-Earth proper. The success of Unfinished Tales in the market proved the existence of a receptive audience for the History, though I can see why Christopher Tolkien wouldn’t have embarked on such an ambitious process without seeing how this fared.
The Book of Lost Tales, Volumes 1
This is the first volume of The History of Middle-Earth, a 12-volume sequence covering the various iterations of the Middle-Earth myth cycle as Tolkien produced and revised it over the years. The material here consists of a set of short stories that Tolkien produced to convey the myths (perhaps influenced by Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegāna in that respect), begun in the midst of World War I – as Tolkien had to navigate the completion of his degree, his marriage (a cause of drama at the time due to Tolkien being Catholic and his wife Edith’s family being Protestant), military service, a nastily persistent bout of trench fever (which would see him sitting the later war years out at home), and that minor scuffle in France we now remember as the Battle of the Somme.
Nobody can begrudge him his bit of escapism under such circumstances, and it was an escapism he was evidently happy to share with Edith, who as well as inspiring some of the characters also seems to have helped out with preparing nice transcripts of the initial, somewhat scrappy rough drafts. This early iteration of the material, whilst it has the same mythic scope of the later Silmarillion, has a whimsical fairytale tone that keeps creeping in; it feels like a product of a setting where Tom Bombadil, far from being the one-off oddity he’s now regarded as, would be seen as fitting in perfectly smoothly.
The Cottage of Lost Play sets up the framing device: Eriol, a human traveller, comes to the Lonely Island and discovers on the edge of a mysterious town the titular Cottage, where resides the elf couple Lindo and Vairë, along with mortal children who had found their way to the Cottage back when mysterious roads from the realm of men could still reach Valinor and, on witnessing the elven city of Kortirion, could no longer bring themselves to return home. (The notion of anyone reaching Valinor from Middle-Earth – or the Great Lands, as the continent was called at this stage of the setting’s development – on foot in waking life or in dream, rather than sailing there, would eventually be very firmly ruled out – but it fits the more whimsical nature of the setting at this time.)
As part of the daily routine there, the children and their hosts like to tell stories, and it is through this means that Eriol hears the Lost Tales of the title. It is this material which forms the initial framework on which later iterations of the Silmarillion were based. In his commentary on the story, Christopher Tolkien unpacks how even this very early concept was itself built on the foundation of earlier scribblings, a few poems and other fragmentary thoughts which were initially cooked up with the idea of creating a specifically English body of fairy lore to match narratives existing elsewhere. With Eriol being related to Hengest and Horsa, who supposedly led the Anglo-Saxon incursion into Britain, this is arguably Beowulf fan fiction, what with Hengest being mentioned in Beowulf and the action of that story, despite being prized as a piece of Old English literature, actually taking place in Denmark.
Apparently, early on the idea was that the Lonely Isle would be Great Britain itself, which puts Tolkien’s oft-cited desire for a specifically English set of legends in context: he’s specifically wanting to make a legendary narrative for the foundation of Anglo-Saxon England, much as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain would try to do the same for Britain as a whole (but pitched to a Norman audience and with the Anglo-Saxons sidelined or cast as villains), or how the story of Romulus and Remus provided the same for Rome.
This close connection between Tolkien’s academic interests and his recreational myth-making is borne out by the linking text that precedes The Music of the Ainur, in which Eriol has a chat with Rúmil, who in later developments of the legendarium would be depicted as a legendary elven sage of yesteryear who invented writing, but here is presented as a cranky old door-warden who, nonetheless, might well be intended to be one and the same after all – for he’s been tending to the Cottage garden for aeons and knows the language of every bird that visits it, save for one that has visited today, and he both offers an explanation of the language structure of the elven peoples (in the form which Tolkien had worked out at that time) and a gripe about how quickly human languages evolve and change and are annoyingly hard to keep up with.
The Music of the Ainur itself is essentially what later became the Ainulindalë section of the published Silmarillion; whilst some changes were made here and there, the general shape of the myth – Ilúvatar creates the Valar, the Valar guided by Ilúvatar play some music which creates the world, the first Dark Lord (here called Melko, later called Melkor or Morgoth) adds a discordant note when he decides to just free jazz improvise his own shit rather than working within the framework that Ilúvatar had set out (which even had some designated spots for improvisation, so Melko is just being a turbo-asshole here) and it’s through that that evil comes into the world, yadda yadda.
The next section, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor, describes how various Valar move into the newly-created world and establish homes suiting their temperaments and affinities; this too has its spot in the later Silmarillion in the Valaquenta, a document giving a basic rundown of the Valar and their temperaments, though rather than providing a somewhat overlong narrative to cover this information the Valaquenta is presented more like a sort of FAQ.
One thing which is especially interesting is that at this stage, Tolkien is much happier to call the Valar “the Gods”, which is how a pagan Anglo-Saxon would understand them, though he’d steer away from this terminology later on (possibly out of religious scruples, possibly because using “the Valar” to refer to the pantheon would be understood by Middle-Earth inhabitants who knew the stories, much as referring to “the Aesir” would be understood by Scandinavian/Germanic pagans back in the day.
The Chaining of Melko also shows signs of a wilder, looser approach to the story, with the Valar being depicted as essentially tricking and lying their way into getting into Melko’s throne room in order to bind him; in later Tolkien stories deception is almost never a good thing. The closest things I can think of to “white lies” which doesn’t just serve the enemy’s purposes is Frodo using the travel name of “Mr. Underhill” when he goes travelling, and Gandalf using a bit of fireworks to provide cover for Bilbo’s disappearance from his birthday party. The latter is not a full-blown lie so much as it’s an obfuscatory distraction; the former is arguably not a lie either, but a use of the long-standing Middle-Earth practice of people having various riddling names. Here, the Valar are just bullshitting Melko.
Moreover, they’re bullshitting him in an incredibly undignified way, such that they come across less as the stately, dignified deities of Middle-Earth and more like a D&D adventuring party handling a negotiation encounter badly (complete with one of them being desperate to just Leroy Jenkins in and have a fight). It’s a good thing, in the end, that Tolkien revised the story of Melkor’s capture, and more generally a good thing he gave the whole thing a comprehensive revision.
Let’s be clear, The Silmarillion is not an easy read. It’s a dense slab of setting information and, whilst there is a narrative in there, it’s not delivered in a remotely novelistic fashion. Much of the difficulty involved in getting it into a publishable state stemmed from Tolkien being unable to find a mode of delivering the narrative he was really satisfied with, and it’s evident that this was something he was tinkering with right from the beginning.
The whole Eriol framing story would fade away to be replaced with attempts at a time travel story (The Lost Road), a “lucid dreaming”-type story (The Notion Club Papers) and so on, and attempts to produce documents as though they were the products of elven sages with no framing device required occurred (many of the components of the published Silmarillion are in this style), and multiple attempts were made to find a definitive telling of major episodes within the grand sweep of the history, which The Children of Húrin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin represent the most significant products of.
The upshot of this is that The History of Middle Earth is really, in terms of the actual Tolkien texts you get in them, largely a history of ideas which Tolkien rejected, or comprehensively revised, as to an extent is Unfinished Tales. To read the entire run would require wading through multiple different iterations of the Silmarillion narrative, along with various early drafts of bits of Lord of the Rings in the middle volumes before going back to yet more Silmarillion fiddlings.
Where you do have bits of material that aren’t essentially precursors of the finalised Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, they’re essentially ideas that Tolkien toyed with but then thought better of seeing through to completion, such as The New Shadow – the one story Tolkien contemplated writing set in the Fourth Age before he decided that there wasn’t really scope for anything satisfying there.
In addition, the History of Middle Earth volumes are as extensive as they are because the commentary by Christopher Tolkien is very extensive, and unfortunately it’s always a bit stodgy to wade through. Whilst it is useful for scholars of Tolkien’s work that Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth exist, there’s no need for anyone who isn’t a seriously devoted fan to actually read this stuff. I, for one, lost my will to keep going a mere few chapters into the first Book of Lost Tales, and I don’t feel like I will miss much from skipping the rest.