Hobbitmeister Tolkien’s first effort at fantasy, surrounded by scholarly scaffolding.
Somewhere around 1912—the chronology is a little fuzzy—Tolkien immersed himself in the body of Finnish mythology called the Kalevala and then set to work writing a story in its general style, full of moody portent but at least light on dragons. Imagine Longfellow in collision with Tennyson and Washington Irving, and you might arrive at something approaching Tolkien’s result: “And therewith he devised all manner of evil for the boy (for so already did the babe appear, so sudden and so marvellous was his growth in form and strength) and only his twin sister the fair maid Wanona (for so already did she appear, so great and wondrous was her growth in form and beauty) had compassion on him….” The diction varies between that kind of flat modernism and faux–King James: “Break thou the teeth of Sari O flint: rend thou the tongue of Kampa’s son that speaketh always harshness and knows of no respect to those above him.” At times, Tolkien turns to verse, taking his miniature saga into fog and mist and death in just three dozen pages. Added to this are two related papers, separated in time, by Tolkien on the Kalevala, against which he compares the Finnish mythic cycle to similar bodies of work in Welsh, Irish, Norse, and other traditions, as well as scholarly notes that link the hero with Túrin Turambar of The Silmarillion. Of particular interest to die-hard fans of Tolkien’s are his notes on the story, mapping out alternate endings and plot points and revealing the beginnings of a dark mythical vision that will find full force a couple of decades later with the Lord of the Rings cycle.
Tolkien compleatists will want to have this, of course, but serious students of his work and of world folklore will appreciate this more than will general readers.