Unfinished Tales by JRR Tolkien edited by Christopher Tolkien
(HarperCollins, £6.99, paperback)
and Hengest: the fragment and the episode by JRR Tolkien
Since both of these books have been in print for almost two decades, one can hardly review them as if new. However, perhaps this is a good moment to reconsider certain aspects of Tolkien's work, and its publishing history. Christopher Tolkien's massive manuscript analysis, The History of Middle Earth (in twelve volumes!) is at last complete, and forms a backdrop against which other offerings under Tolkien's name can be considered.
Unfinished Tales is the broadest-ranging collection of fictional fragments by Tolkien, ever put between one set of covers. From the First Age to the Fourth, it offers snippets, episodes, genealogies, historical asides and commentary that illuminate and expand on both the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.
Compared to the many later volumes of T.H.O.M.E., Unfinished Tales is easily accessible, and enjoyable. The stories here may not be complete, but the prose is polished, and they form appreciable parts of the fuller, published novels. As an example, 'Of Tuor And His Coming To Gondolin', is an episode that simply wasn't concluded, and therefore didn't make it into the Silmarillion (to the detriment of that book).
When you consider the exhaustive detail, and the almost excruciating pedantic presentation of T.H.O.M.E., you can see that Unfinished Tales was the natural stopping point in Tolkien Publication. What came later was the sort of material - point by point presentation of earlier versions of Tolkien's stories, demonstrating the genesis and development of his fictional world - only really of concern to literary theorists, and in my opinion not the sort of thing that should have been offered to the mass fiction-buying public.
Finn and Hengest, is a further example of the extremes a publisher can go to in the pursuit of money. This rather short book (180 pages) is an edited compilation of several lecture series that Tolkien gave at Oxford before World War Two. His subject was The Finnesburg Fragment (a tiny incomplete scrap of pagan Anglo-Saxon poetry) and the associated Episode (another tiny scrap, which appears within the famous Beowulf Saga).
Finn and Hengest reminds us that Tolkien's profession was not that of an author, but of an academic. He was a philologist (a student and theorist of ancient languages) of great distinction. In Finn and Hengest one finds precise textual, grammatical and etymological analysis of frighteningly obscure Old English texts. The material is interesting because of what it reveals of Tolkien's life and work, but daunting because it never strays far from extremely wide-ranging and technical linguistic/historical study. At certain points lack of a Latin or Old-English dictionary simply forces one to skip pages. I can't conceive of anyone outside a university making full use of Finn and Hengist (or understanding it for that matter), and I rather think that its appearance as a paperback under a popular imprint, indicates the publisher's clear understanding that just about anything with the name Tolkien on the cover will sell.
Ultimately, the continued examination of a man's work and life can reach the point of the absurd. I've loved Tolkien's fiction ever since reading The Lord of the Rings at age eleven, but you really can have too much of a good thing. Enough already.
This review was first published in the British Fantasy Society newsletter, Prism, July/Aug 1998.
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© Simeon Shoul 26 May 2001