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The Book of Lost Tales, Part One by J.R.R. Tolkien
Published by Houghton Mifflin
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When J.R.R. Tolkien died, he was still in the process of turning his life's work into a presentable manuscript, a proper telling of the stories of the Elder Days which formed such a potent background to The Lord of the Rings. The manuscripts were in a state of disarray, and it fell upon his son Christopher Tolkien to make some kind of order from the chaos.
The result of that effort was the volume known as The Silmarillion. However, Christopher Tolkien was ultimately unsatisfied with that result. As he explains in the foreward to this slender volume, the redaction of the various manuscripts into a single narrative structure creates a sense of finality and cohesion where in fact there was none. While it might be satisfactory for the casual reader, the scholar of Tolkien's works would want a deeper sense of what Tolkien might have actually intended, had he been given the necessary years to fully develop it.
Thus Christopher Tolkien decided that the best way to procede was to produce a full scholarly treatment of the manuscripts. After the success of an initial experiment entitled Unfinished Tales, he embarked on the daunting task of assembling and annotating his father's manuscripts, beginning with the earliest materials.
The narrative tradition begins here, in a collection of battered notebooks in which J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the first stories of elves and their languages. This is a far different narrative than the spare, remote summation of The Silmarillion. It is a rich, primitive set of tales full of a wild energy and puckish humor that somehow got distilled out of the later versions.
It begins with Errol, a mariner who landed upon the Lonely Island of Tol Eressea and was received by the elves. There they told him the tales of their people, in a style reminiscent of such classics as the Canterbury Tales and the Decameron. There are many strange features in this early conception of the elves, including the Cottage of Lost Play to which mortal children were supposed to be able to come in their dreams via a secret path. Amplifying this notion are several versions of a poem called variously "The Cottage of Lost Play" or "The Little House of Lost Play," which ultimately mutated into "Kortirion Among the Trees," a poem of the city of Kortirion after it has been abandoned by the elves.
The stories themselves are the seeds of what will ultimately become the Silmarillion, but they too have this strange pixie quality, so utterly unlike the grandness of the later conceptions of the mythos. Melko in this version seems more like a trickster than the grand and terrible Dark Lord that Melkor would become in later versions. There is a "Melko party" in the war-gods who are favorible to him, something that vanishes entirely almost immediately.
Furthermore, there is a very sensual level of detail in the realization of the world. The chain that bound Melko after his first defeat is made of a special alloy named by an acronym of the elvish names of its constituent metals. When the Gnomes (the precursors of the Noldor in the history of the mythos) set their hands to making jewels, they use various substances such as dew, flowers and pearls to construct them. The creation of the Sun and the Moon from the last fruits of the poisoned Two Trees is described in great detail, from the great weight of the fruits to the intricate workings of the vessels into which they are put.
There are numerous other poems presented alongside the texts, illuminating some of the notions Tolkien held about his mythos at that time, as well as maps and sketches. For instance, there is a sketch of the flat earth of the mythos conceptualized as a sort of ship, with the sky as its sails upon which rest the sun and the moon, and all of it floating on a sort of outer ocean which is also the atmosphere. The poem "Habannan Beneath the Stars" sets forth some of the notions of the cosmology of the time, and particularly of the fates of Men, some of whom were conceptualized as entering into the Blessed Realm after death.
Other poems speak of Tinfang Warble, a "bird ward" fairy who would later disappear entirely from the mythos. He dances under the light of the moon and plays upon his flute. Another enjoyable poem is an earlier version of "Why the Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon," in association with the creation of the Sun and the Moon.
Sadly, one of the critical tales was never finished. This is Gilfanon's tale, which would have told the story of what happened to the Gnomes after they landed in the Great Lands and began their battles against Melko. The hastily pencilled beginning soon ran out, and after that there is nothing but the roughest of sketches, jotted ideas of what might have come next, had Tolkien not abandoned the prose Book of Lost Tales in favor of a poetic retelling.
Students of Tolkien's constructed languages will be delighted to find an appendix dealing with the linguistic underpinnings of the names found in The Book of Lost Tales. These reveal the earliest development of those langauges, in a time when Tolkien was still playfully punning upon real languges, an impulse that would later be eliminated as unworthy of the scope of the epics he wished to tell.
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Review posted October 25, 2000
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