THE BOOK OF LOST TALES: Vol. I by J. R. R. Tolkien
Kirkus Star


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After the death of J. R. R. Tolkien in 1973, publishing sources continued to pass on rumors of another unpublished work still more ambitious than The Lord of the Rings. The true state of affairs proved to be a vast, inchoate mare's nest of unfinished, often overlapping attempts at imaginary cosmologies, mythologies, and etymologies, representing about 50 years' work on what appears in the Ring books only as a shadowy and half-glimpsed ""background."" The business of sorting out some of this tangle for publication has fallen to Tolkien's son Christopher, and it must be one of the most thankless editorial tasks ever undertaken--the more so as it progresses from somewhat finished fragments of late versions (The Silmarillion, 1977) to earlier foolings-around with the same material. This volume, the first of two dedicated to a very primitive elaboration from around the time of World War I, makes one wonder what Tolkien himself might have thought of the Tolkien-scholarship game. It contains drafts of episodes from the larger body of lore, beginning with the creation-myth in which the world is sung into being (""The Music of the Ainur"") and ending with the first glimpse of the race of Men in what was to be Middle-earth; the material is rather woodenly framed as a series of tales told to a later voyager from Middle-earth by Elvish hosts. In Christopher Tolkien's arrangement, each tale is followed by textual and etymological notes and a discussion of changes made (or projected) in the same matter at later stages. And though this clumsily breaks up the story, the total effect would be pretty feeble in any ease: Tolkien's early notions of the Elves were distinctly saccharine and childish, and his stylistic fumblings make the ""high style"" of The Silmarillion and the Ring books appear masterly. For those who read The Lord of the Rings as a book rather than a cult-object, this quarrying of the larger incomplete mythology must arouse mixed feelings: on the one hand, it is tantalizing to pursue the mysterious allusions woven into the Ring trilogy; but on the other, every newly published snippet from the huge, tortuous maze of unfinished legends bears that lovely work further off into a realm of cross-indexers and academicians.

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 1984
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin