Friday, February 24, 2017
In Which Tolkien Returns to My Lady Bibliophile
I mean, who doesn't enjoy checking off The End in one book after another?
This book was on my goals to finish during the winter season, and just in time, I squeaked through to the finish line. I don't know about you, but I love a good Tolkien gab over history and people groups and all the wonderfully rich culture he puts into his books. So if you haven't read The Book of Lost Tales (Part 2, guys, the goodness doesn't stop) then pull up a cozy chair, and let's have a chat.
In The Book of Lost Tales Part 2, Christopher Tolkien collects six of his father's early drafts and fits them into the Middle Earth legend. Meticulously, he weaves together the sometimes disjointed notes Tolkien left of each tale to make a consecutive narrative, explaining the name changes and other alterations his father made over time.
These tales are focused on the elves. No Hobbits and few dwarves here. In Lost Tales 2, you'll learn the fierce, proud glory of Turin Turambar, the everlasting love that sent Beren into the den of Melko to win fair Luthien, and the heart-wrenching voyage of AElfine. You'll stand on the walls of Gondolin as it falls to fiery Balrogs and sit with the elves, clamoring for one more story about this well-loved world.
For the philologists among us, there are notes on the meanings of the elvish names, notes on Tolkien's exact wordings, and a brief commentary by Christopher Tolkien after each story tracing his father's train of thought as J.R.R. Tolkien developed each legend and fit it into the giant scope of the world of Middle Earth.
While The Book of Lost Tales 2 encompasses 6 tales, I'm going to spend this review focusing on two. Several of them are early drafts of tales (Beren and Luthen, and The Tale of Turambar) that are covered in more detail in The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin. You may find it interesting to compare the first draft to the later ones, and how Tolkien's ideas grew over time. But if you're not a die-hard Tolkien aficionado, then I wouldn't start with this book. It's a tough nut to crack, and some of the later stories, where we have less and less structure to work with, can be mind-numbing with the effort they require to read.
But two tales in particular linger in my mind with fondness as I shut this book. One is The Fall of Gondolin, and the other is The History of Eriol or AElfwine.
The Fall of Gondolin
The Fall of Gondolin was pretty much the entire reason I started with Part 2 of Lost Tales instead of Part 1. Gondolin was a hidden city in Middle Earth, the one that could always elude and withstand the evil war of Melko. But even Gondolin fell in the tragic war between Melko and the elves, and its fall was heartstirring and glorious. The last stand of Turgon on the walls, the valiant wisdom of Idril, wife of Tuor, the tragic shield brother action of Tor and Ecthelion as they defended each other in battle, and best of all, sightings of Legolas and Glorfindel in the same story, (two of my favorite elves) make for an epic combination.
The History of Eriol or AElfwine
The history of AElfwine lingers with a tugging of the heartstrings. The beginning half as Tolkien tried to fit this legend into English history is a bit slow and unbelievable, but a later draft of the legend that doesn't contain as much English history is a stirring, grand tale. At the peril of life, AElfwine and his companions sail in search of the island of the elves. In a heart-wrenching twist of fate, most of them catch a glimpse of it. But only one man attains elf land, and the others are blown in the mist all the way back home. The tragedy leaves you breathless.
You might be wondering, is The Book of Lost Tales for me? Here's a good way to go with Tolkien's books:
Read The Hobbit. Everyone reads the Hobbit first. Then read Lord of the Rings. If you love LOTR so much your soul starts singing in the language of elves (a normal and natural reaction) then go on to The Silmarillion. Once you're done with Sil, if you're still interested, then feel free to delve into Lost Tales and The Children of Hurin.
Why this order, Schuyler? Well, because that's the way I did it. But in all seriousness, I think that's a pretty decent order to go in. I'm a sucker for punishment, so I'm going on to The Unfinished Tales next, and hopefully I'll read Lost Tales Part 1 someday.
I think one particular reason why I appreciate reading a tough Tolkien book is the mental exercise it requires. You use a lot of the same skills you would use to read real history, so it translates well. Plus, starting and finishing it is like starting and finishing an intense physical workout. It exercises different parts of your brain (genealogies, geography, and history) and keeps it sharp.
So if you want a mind puzzle, or some glorious moments of valor and heart-wrenching, then give Book of Lost Tales 2 a try.