THE LAYS OF BELERIAND: Vol. III of The Book of Lost Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien
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THE LAYS OF BELERIAND: Vol. III of The Book of Lost Tales

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Volume III in a series of Tolkien's previously unpublished writings, these windy early poems would better have gathered dust in the Bodleian Liberary, awaiting scholars hardened to the spectacle of classics in their early, inchoate stages. This unenticing ragbag of poetical false-starts and dead-ends, mostly dating from the 1920's and 30's, is entirely written in alliterative pseudo Anglo-Saxonese, with a few particularly noisome exceptions couched in halting octosyllabic couplets--a verse-form otherwise universally abandoned in England after Samuel Butler's Hudibras in 1678. None of these soi-disant sagas will appeal to that majority of plot-hungry readers who skipped the reams of Elvish verse that interrupted the action in Lord of the Rings; and even readers who love Tolkien's poetry are likely to dismiss these earlier effusions as merely larval. Lord Jeffrey once earned critical infamy by declaring at the outset of a review of Wordsworth's poetry that ""This will never do""--yet a similar expostulation seems earned by these limping, repetitive verse-fragments, mostly set in the same Elvish pre-history as the tedious Silmarillion. An apparent humorlessness in Tolkien--transformed into high seriousness by the high art of the two concluding volumes of Lord of the Rings--is here shorn of the decencies of art. In the first poem, for instance, archvillain Morgoth sounds more like folksy Sam Gangee: ""Is it dauntless Hurin quoth Delu Morgoth,/stout steel-handed who stands before me,/a captive living as a coward might be?"" Clearly, until the breakthrough represented by the last half of Fellowship of the Ring (1954), Tolkien was still feeling his way towards his major cadences and characterizations. It seems a pity to undercut the achievements of his triumphant maturity by reverentially offering far inferior renditions of the same themes from two and three decades earlier. Although evidently a labor of love by Tolkien's son, this entire series of ""Lost Tales"" will be experienced by most fans of Tolkien as a trial of faith more taxing than Frodo's.

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin