Approaching Tolkien: ‘Unfinished Tales’

– Connecting the dots …

I’ve always looked at the ‘Unfinished Tales’ as one stocky appendix book, containing all the intricate information (in prose form) that could not possibly fit at the back of ‘The Silmarillion’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.ut

It goes without saying but here it goes (… with the saying). This book should only be read AFTER you’ve gone through all three major books.

‘Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth’ (being the proper title of the book), is a collection of narratives from the First, Second and Third Ages – serving as “connective tissue” between ‘The Silmarillion’, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. It was published posthumously and put together by Christopher Tolkien.

Literary gems are hidden in this marvellous book; background information and stories that would have otherwise been left undiscovered by the avid reader – specifics and historical depth to many of the happenings in Middle-earth.

Rather than being an entire book with an interconnected set of narratives, readers are presented with categorized subjects relating to a particular aspect from Tolkien’s world – hence the cunning use of the word “Unfinished”. The text itself shouldn’t prove to be too difficult to readers – considering you’ve just emerged from the murky recesses of ‘The Silmarillion’.

mim the dwarfFurthermore, every chapter is accompanied by Christopher Tolkien’s commentaries and notes – notes which should be constantly accessed whenever there is any reference made to them throughout the text. This will help you to better appreciate, understand and analyze the chapter at hand and place it within the context of either of the three major books.

‘Unfinished Tales’ is divided into 4 individual sections and I shall briefly go through the content of each of these. However, (and by now you should know my preaching rule), tackling the Introduction first will immediately orientate you within the structure and purpose of the book itself.

– Part I: The First Age

Excerpts from the two major tales in ‘The Silmarillion’ find their way into the first section of ‘Unfinished Tales’: “Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin” and “Narn i Hîn Húrin” (translated as: “The tale of the Children of Húrin”).

The former presents us with an extensive account that is retold briefly in Chapter 23 of ‘The Silmarillion’ – where Tuor, a mortal man, discovers the hidden Elven city of Gondolin; an event which will prove crucial in the climax of ‘The Silmarillion’.

Naturally, in ‘Unfinished Tales’, the story focuses more about the actual “finding” of the City and the journey Tuor makes across the lands of Beleriand. Unfortunately, it stops rather abruptly as soon as he witnesses the Hidden Valley and Gondolin itself. Nevertheless, it provides an “extended” version of the already known account in ‘The Silmarillion’.

coh

Similarly, “Narn i Hîn Húrin” is a more in-depth rendition of the chapter “Of Túrin Turambar” (Chapter 21 in ‘The Silmarillion’). It is wonderful to be able to revisit this tragic character and the places he ventures to – going even further into the narrative and exploring events in more detail whilst expanding your knowledge on this particular individual.

Again, constant references to footnotes throughout the text will help you wade your way through. At one point, the text breaks up and a note references an appendix at the end of the chapter – detailing a particular aspect in Túrin’s life.

It would be more rewarding if the reader skips the main text at this point and goes through the appendix first – skipping back into the main narrative after having finished. Chronologically, it will be of substantial help …

***

A few people have often asked me whether there is any particular difference between “Narn i Hîn Húrin “ and “Narn i Chîn Húrin” (which is the title found in the stand-alone book of ‘The Children of Húrin’).

The answer is rather simple. They both tell the same story except for the slight change in the title. In order to avoid, mispronunciation of the word “Chîn” turin and glaurung(“children”), Christopher Tolkien took the decision to remove the “C” altogether, making unaware readers that the correct spelling was as in German “baCH” rather than as in “check”.

Regretting this decision, he re-applied the correct spelling of “Chîn” in the 2007 release of ‘The Children of Húrin’.

Now, since the linguistics lesson is over, let’s proceed with the contents found in the rest of the book …

– Part II: The Second Age

This next section is an indispensible read if you want to learn more about the history of Númenor (which is very much lacking) and some of the “comings and goings” during the Second Age – the period we know least about.

You’ll discover the geographical layout of the island, along with a detailed list of all its ruling Kings and Queens; not to mention the story of “Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner’s Wife” – a narrative about two particular individuals (Aldarion being the sixth King of Númenor), with an insightful look into the seafaring structure of the island.

The last part of this section includes “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn” which fleshes out some information regarding both characters during the Second Age celeborn and galadriel– providing the necessary background in understanding their motives and actions during the events of the War of the Ring in the Third Age.

– Part III: The Third Age

What happened to Isildur and his men after the Battle of the Last Alliance? Read the story on “The Disaster of the Gladden Fields”.

Ever wanted to know how the friendship of Gondor and Rohan began? Then you should follow the story on “Cirion and Eorl and the Friendship of Gondor and Rohan”. You’ll also be able to learn and understand the military organization of Rohan, along with the various divisions (or éoreds) that existed.

Basically, this section fleshes out back-stories from the Third Age that are either referenced in passing in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, or mentioned in brief at particular moments in the book.

If you thought that the history of Middle-earth couldn’t possibly be any deeper – well, it just did.

Not only ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but the narrative entitled “The Quest of Erebor” is a wonderful account of the meeting between Gandalf and Thorin before the events in ‘The Hobbit’ – detailing the wizard’s concerns about the dragon Smaug and dark lord Sauron.

Tolkien thus provides a narrative that connects issues between his once children’s story, and the more epic and dark “sequel”.

Gandalf

Bridging the gap between ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is an account on “The Hunt for the Ring” – incorporating various known characters and their journeys before the start of the events in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ – mainly, the Ringwraith’s search for the Ring and the storyline of Aragorn and Gandalf’s quest to find Gollum.

References to these events are made in “The Council of Elrond” chapter, however, as with the other narratives, it goes deeper and expands more on the actual happenings themselves.

fords of isenLastly, “The Battles of the Fords of Isen” recounts the struggle between the forces of Isengard and the Rohirrim, before the battle of the Hornburg during the War of the Ring. Further insight is given into the strategies employed and the outcomes of the battles – strongly contrasted with the fleeting glimpse given in ‘The Two Towers’.

– Part IV: Essays

Thankfully for us readers, Tolkien wrote several essays on some of the most mysterious aspects in Middle-earth and provided explanations and commentaries to their nature and their role in his stories. Three of these are found in this last section of the book: “The Drúedain”, “The Istari” and “The Palantíri”.

The first of these, supplies us with information on the puzzling folk known as Woses, found in the Drúadan Forest in ‘The Return of the King’. Their history from the First Age is explained and many of the “what’s” and the “why’s” are also provided.

Who were the five wizards? If you’ve read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, you would have come across the names of Gandalf, Saruman and Radagast.palantir Rarely mentioned are the two blue wizards which we barely know anything about. Therefore, this essay sets out to explain who these figures were and their purpose for being in Middle-earth – furthermore, we get our only glimpse of the unnamed wizards and what happened to them.

Finally, the third essay provides information on the all-seeing crystal balls known as the Palantíri, which were of such significant importance in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Where they came from, how many and what happened to them is all explained here.

– Index and Maps

Remember all the paragraphs I had written in the previous posts about indexes and maps? The same thing applies here.

In ‘Unfinished Tales’, you will be provided with an extensive index of mentioned character names, places and objects and a short description on each – as well as page references.

The book also contains a redrawn map of Middle-earth which, although is not as detailed as the ones found in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, is still a handy feature whilst working your way through the book.

– Conclusion

If going through the appendices and other materials from the three main books did not suffice, ‘Unfinished Tales’ will satisfy any eager fan’s appetite. Filled to the brim with wealthy information, it is an absolute companion when reading the stories of Middle-earth.

There are a few issues concerned with whether the content is actually canon or not. Nonetheless, wherever any conflicting dates or accounts arise, Christopher Tolkien is quick to point out the issue and provide an explanation.

rohanIt’s such a wonderful thing to have at your disposal these four books (together with ‘The Silmarillion’, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’) that are somehow inter-connected with each other – spanning a history of thousands of years, from the world’s Creation before the First Age to major cataclysmic events that introduce the Fourth Age.

A reader is able to sift between pages filled with a richness of knowledge and follow any story-line they want – tracking its evolution, the characters, mapping out location distances and cross-referencing it with other stories across different books.

Possibilities are definitely endless …

Here’s hoping one day the publishers decide to release a one-volume, two and a half thousand-page book of all these works.

Well, you never know.

I’d immediately propose a name for it: ‘The Saga of the Jewels and the Ring’; it actually sounds extremely enticing already …

(Illustrations by Alan Lee and John Howe)

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3 thoughts on “Approaching Tolkien: ‘Unfinished Tales’

  1. I found this web site by mistake. Great addition to my reading All of Tolkien’s works as junior high school librarian. The gifted students probably read these extra books. Thanks for additional information.

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