Unfinished Tales (book)

(This review is based on the 1998 HarperCollins paperback)

Following JRR Tolkien’s death in 1973, his son Christopher faced a near impossible task, appointed as his literary executor he held responsibility for nearly 50 years of Tolkien’s creative life and the future direction of his father’s legacy, including the fate of an enormous amount of unpublished, (and in many cases unfinished) writing about Middle Earth.

In 1977 assisted by Guy Kay, Christopher Tolkien served as editor on the posthumous release The Silmarillion. Reconstructed from a series of notes and drafts spanning, in some cases more than forty years, it told the story of the mythical first age of middle earth and the High Elves ‘War of the Jewels’. It was a commercial success, with a largely positive critical reception. It answered many questions posed in Tolkien’s earlier writings, but brought forth new ones, and demands for more unseen material. The result three years later was Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth.

Unfinished Tales is a collection of essays, notes and even near-complete narratives covering the first three ages of Middle Earth, left in various stages of completion upon Tolkien’s death they are of mixed complexity and quality. Brought together in one Volume (611 pages in length) by Editor Christopher Tolkien it makes a flawed but fascinating read that will be of great interest to fans of Tolkien’s work, though other readers may not find it as rewarding.

The book is divided into four sections. The first three, each covering an ‘age’ of Middle Earth (1st-3rd) correspond quite closely to the title ‘Unfinished Tales’,  being largely comprised of unfinished stories or narratives. The fourth section is more ‘factual’ in its content, containing essays and notes on three very curious story elements of Lord of the Rings. This combination of writing- narratives, and ‘histories’ makes an interesting but uneven read, the book reads both like an historical account and a fantasy epic.

The book is further broken up into separate chapters for each ‘tale’ making it a well-paced, easy to follow read. The book more or less follows the timeline of middle earth, making it very easy to navigate for experienced Tolkien readers. For those less so, or even totally new to Middle Earth a reasonably detailed index of names and page references will help to an extent.

Reasonably detailed maps of Middle earth and Numenor (the only one Tolkien ever completed) are included, a thoughtful addition, they are useful reference points, though they don’t entirely prevent confusion between places and names, and aren’t as detailed or large scale as they could have been. This is a text heavy book that largely depends on a reader’s imagination and memory to take in what is written, and as such some readers may find it frustrating reading.

Though many of the chapters give a short outline or introduction to their content, this is a book that largely depends on a reader’s pre-existing knowledge of Middle Earth. In the introduction to the book Christopher Tolkien himself states he won’t waste time recapping or explaining vast swathes of existing writing, and he doesn’t, the book plunges immediately into some very complicated storytelling. There is an awful lot to remember and understand, the index can only take you a little way. The book regularly jumps between different time periods and places in Middle Earth, in short this is a book that requires a strong memory and patience to get the most from it.

Christopher Tolkien in addition to his editing duties provides a fascinating commentary giving his thoughts on the narratives and discussing how he put the book together. It’s  rarely intrusive, revealing a lot of extra detail, and giving a clue to Christopher’s relationship with his father. It occasionally seems rather random in its nature, and in some chapters is far too prevalent, both overall the commentary proves an invaluable addition.

By the end of his life JRR Tolkien had developed a reputation as one of the most skilled, individual writers of his time. Despite being published posthumously the writing in this book is largely his own, it demonstrates both his skills, and his flaws as a storyteller. Most of the stories have moments of genius and staggering beauty: Ulmo’s emergence from the depths of the ocean, the vivid description of the death of Glaurung the Dragon, and The battle at the fords of the Isen being just three, readers familiar with Tolkien’s reading will recognise and enjoy this imagery, whilst others may be put off by their complicated nature.

Many of the stories are very complex, even self-indulgent, little attempt is made by Christopher Tolkien to ‘dumb down’ his father’s writing, and it is the clear the book was put togther with serious fans in mind. Casual readers, who struggled with Tolkien’s existing work or bought the book on a whim, may be put off by the sheer amount of detail, but this isn’t really a book intended for them.

At several points in the book JRR Tolkien once again demonstrates his disregard for standard narrative structure, stop-start storylines are present (The Children of Hurin for instance), whilst the three act structure remains largely unutilised. Fans won’t care, but JRR Tolkien’s writing style remains  as always an acquired one.

Many of the ‘tales’ included are ‘new’, not in terms of age, but because they probably had never been read outside Tolkien’s household. Two of the most notable are as follows:

The Mariners Wife, the tale of an Ill-fated romance between Aldarion a King of Numenor, and Erendis a woman of lesser blood is unique in both setting and tone amongst Tolkien’s writings. Being one of his few narratives set in the Second age, and the only completed story he wrote about Numenor, in trivia value alone it merits its inclusion. No less than five uncompleted manuscripts were left of this story, choosing and editing different elements together; Christopher Tolkien presents a coherent but uneven narrative. More of a dramatic romance than a fantasy epic, it feels somewhat out of place in Tolkien’s back catalogue, it is stretched out too long, and brought to a rather awkward conclusion. Despite these flaws, it is a worthwhile read, proof that Tolkien could write convincing romance, and for fans is a rare insight into the mysterious island of Numenor.

The longest, oldest tale presented is NARN I HIN HURIN or the Children of Hurin (Recently published in expanded, altered form as a separate novel). Taking up nearly a fifth of the book its relatively complete nature makes a less confusing read than many of the ‘tales’. Amongst the darkest of Tolkien’s tales it is unique in setting, and tone. Following Turin and Neinor the cursed offspring of Hurin the Mortal man who defies Morgoth, it details their journeys across Beleriand, building to a emotional conclusion. One of the few stories with a human protagonist it is a long, complex read that occasionally sags under its own weight, but largely succeeds in retaining the reader’s attention. It is even more interesting when compared to the new version, which is significantly different.

Perhaps the most interesting section is the last, detailing three barely explored elements of The Lord of The Rings. The ‘Istari’  or wizards, is a short, very interesting section, revealing more about Gandalf’s true identity, and information about the missing two wizards of the five mentioned in the book. The Palantiri (‘seeing stones’) reveals more information about the lost seeing stones utilised by Aragorn in Return of The King, whilst the Druedain or ‘wildmen’, are given their own chapter, filling in Plot holes from the book, they are amongst Tolkien’s last writings.

Some of the tales have no definite ending, are in some cases no final story. The History of Galadriel and Celeborn is one example, never brought to a definite conclusion by Tolkien, numerous different versions of their history exist, varying enormously in tone and content. In this chapter the editor makes no attempt to present a final version, instead he shows several. It makes this chapter amongst the most rewarding for hard-core fans, and confusing for others. Some readers may find it irritating reading several slightly different versions of the same story, whilst others will find it rewarding.

Whilst the narrative content may be decisive even amongst fans, the fact that the book spans decades of Tolkien’s life gives an insight into how middle earth was shaped and changed over the decades, and a clue as to how his invention affected his life through the decades.

Some of the chapters do drag, containing too much, or too little content, and whilst Christopher Tolkien does his best, he simply isn’t his father; his reconstructions don’t always feel like his father’s work. Considering the amount of time Christopher Tolkien had in assembling the book, it’s a shame he didn’t consider a tighter edit, which could fix many of the book’s flaws.

It is worth remembering that a lot of the information recorded in this book is new, for some readers it may ‘spoil’ Tolkien’s existing work, the unexplained mysteries- How Gandalf sent the Dwarves to Bag End in The Hobbit, or how the Fords of Isen were taken, being part of the charm. Similarly even committed fans may struggle with the fragmentary nature, and varying tone of the tales recorded. In any case it is a book best read in few sittings, as there is alot to rememeber.

In conclusion Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth is an uneven but fascinating read, casual Tolkien fans, or readers with limited free time will not get much enjoyment from reading this volume. But for the serious Tolkien fan, this is essential reading.

Those who enjoy reading this book may want to consider reading the series History of Middle Earth, which explains in great detail how Tolkien created, and reworked his creations over the decades, with numerous drafts and notes of his various stories. Again Edited by Christopher Tolkien they suffer some of the same flaws as Unfinished Tales, but are certinly worth checking out for fans with enough time and moeny on their hands.


Paul Ashwell


About paulashwellreviews

A Blog dedicated to Film, TV and Book reviews of all ages and genres
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