My first attempt to read The Book of Lost Tales 1 was made way too early in my life and made certain that my response was to put it on the shelf and decide that all of this background stuff, especially taken from this early phase in Tolkien’s life as a writer, was way too different from the Middle-Earth stories that I loved for me to waste any time on it.
Looking at where the bookmark from my first attempt still sat when I picked it up again, I noticed that I didn’t even get much beyond the first several pages of the introductory chapter “The Cottage of Lost Play.” I remember thinking that it was just altogether too twee for me, what with the Eldar of Middle-Earth still being referred to as ‘faeries’ and the, to me, bizarre structure of a wanderer coming to a tiny cottage (bigger on the inside than the outside) peopled by dancing and singing children and adults who primarily sat around telling tales and reciting pretty mediocre poetry. It wasn’t really Middle-Earth now was it? Well, at the time I put down the volume and decided that I’d stick with the ‘real’ stuff of LORD OF THE RINGS, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and that, as they say, was that for probably about two and a half decades.
Then it came about that I discovered my greatest love vis a vis Tolkien’s work was growing to be the posthumously published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth, both of which contained some of the most beautiful and powerful of Tolkien’s writing. I looked at the corpus of THE HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH with something of a new eye and decided that I might just dip into it and see what it was like. I consciously chose to first read those volumes that dealt with the matter of the First and Second ages of Middle-Earth and were latest in the chronology of composition thus presumably assuring that I was coming across ideas and stories that were closer in tone and content to the ones with which I was so familiar and that thrilled me with their mythic reverberations. I ended up loving what I found in Morgoth’s Ring and The War of the Jewels and decided that maybe this huge work undertaken by Christopher Tolkien to present the works of his father in toto wasn’t an altogether bad idea after all (especially given my hunger for more material regarding the tales as told in The Silmarillion).
So now I find myself re-embarking on the journey from the beginning and tackling the very Book of Lost Tales (part one) that defeated me in my youth. I’m glad I came back. Pushing through past the point in the first chapter beyond which I never made it before I actually found a fair bit to like, even though it wasn’t the undiluted Middle-Earth vintage I had initially wanted. I was actually reminded a bit of William Morris’ medieval romances that so influenced Tolkien as I read about the journey of Eriol the mariner upon the Isle of Tol Eressëa and once the tales themselves began to be told I saw that there was a surprising amount of coherence between these earliest versions of the myths of Middle-Earth with what eventually came to be published in The Silmarillion. The differences themselves were intriguing and I found as the chapters sped on the framing device didn’t bother me half as much as once it had.
I will readily admit that much of the poetry in this volume leaves something to be desired. I am not one of those readers of Tolkien that skips over the poems, and I think that many of them are quite beautiful (especially Bilbo’s poem of Eärendil sung in Rivendell), but the early ones showcased in this volume are not really my cup of tea (though one can certainly see Tolkien’s word-craft in them improving as time went on). The Cottage of Lost Play itself took on greater interest as well as I started to see some parallels between it and the ultimate development of Elrond’s house of Rivendell as “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.”
Eriol the mariner, a man from medieval England who has found his way to the magical isles of the west, sits in this pleasant house and has recounted to him many of the tales of the elder days when the Elves were alone in Middle-Earth, or mankind just arising from their ages long slumber. All of these tales are ones that a reader of The Silmarillion will already be familiar with: the creation myth of the Music of the Ainur, the building of Valinor and creation of the Two Trees of Light, the battles against Melkor (here named Melko) and his initial imprisonment, the coming of the Elves to the blessed lands and their ultimate rebellion and return to Middle-Earth in pursuit of Melko, and the myth of the creation of the sun and moon upon the death of the two trees.
Some of these are not very far from the more final versions that were presented in The Silmarillion, while others display drastic differences (such as the expanded legend of the sun and moon, the extensive bits that deal with cosmology and the make-up of the world, and the inclusion of Valar who mate and even include in their number some gods of war), but it is safe to say that unless you have a deep and abiding love for Middle-Earth, and especially tales of the elder days, you probably won’t get much out of this book. I would agree with those who claim this is really only for aficionados of Tolkien’s tales who want more and who are interested in seeing the development of his mythology. It is indeed a fascinating peek over the shoulder of Tolkien as he writes his tales and we finally start to get a glimpse of the sheer magnitude of the effort that his son expended simply in producing from the jumble of inter-related texts about the legends of the Elves a volume as slim and relatively cohesive as The Silmarillion.
I’m looking forward to tackling Book II of the lost tales and proceeding with the history of Middle-Earth texts at least up to volume 5 to continue to get my fix and maybe even get a taste of some legends of the elder days that I haven’t already experienced in another form. The Book of Lost Tales 1 is recommended for hardcore Tolkien fans who don’t mind critical apparatus and multiple versions of tales.
The Histories of Middle-Earth, Volumes 1-12 — (1983-1996) Publisher: Christopher Tolkien, who formerly taught at Oxford University, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s son and literary executor. Contain Tolkien’s ideas, notes, poems, drawings, etc which he began in 1916 and which explain the entire conception of Middle-earth and Valinor. Die-hard Tolkien fans love these — they show how much thought and time when into the creation of Middle-Earth. Here is a synopsis of each book: