Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Tolkien’s Great Tales
The Great Tales of Beleriand
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Core to Tolkien’s work are those stories he himself referred to as the Great Tales. Although The Lord of the Rings is rightly adjudged a masterpiece, the Great Tales were dearer and of central importance to him. They are his earliest writings on what came to be known as Middle-earth or the Legendarium, and he continued to work on them in one form or another until his death.
Just as he wrote an “Appendix” to serve as a historical overview of the Third Age to accompany The Lord of the Rings, so also Tolkien wrote a “Sketch” of the mythology and history of the First Age, to accompany the Great Tales. This became known as The Silmarillion. Unfortunately, soon after his death, The Silmarillion was published as if it were a stand-alone novel, that is, unaccompanied by the Great Tales to which it was meant to serve as Appendix! Well, no wonder so many readers are turned of by it! You wouldn’t read the Appendix of The Lord of the Rings without first reading The Lord of the Rings, would you?
Fortunately, at this time all of the Great Tales have been made available in print. I recommend them to any Tolkien fan, whether you liked The Silmarillion and are hungry for more, or whether you disliked The Silmarillion, finding it to be hasty, impersonal, lacking the point-of-view characters and depth that made The Lord of the Rings great. Here, then, are where you can find the Great Tales.
I. The Lay of Leithian
The First Tale is probably the most famous and important. It tells the story of the famous lovers Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. The first version of this tale is called “The Tale of Tinúviel.” It is a complete version entirely in prose, and may be found in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. The second and third versions of this tale, called “The Lay of Leithian” and “The Lay of Leithian Recommenced,” are written in verse (rhyming couplets). Each version expands greatly on the last. “The Lay of Leithian” is nearly complete, and “The Lay of Leithian Recommenced” only has a few chapters. They may be found in The Lays of Beleriand.
II. Narn i Chîn Húrin
The Second Tale has lately gained some fame due to a new, much-trumpeted and illustrated edition being published between its own two covers. (Would that all the Tales would receive such treatment!) Longest of the tales, this is the epic of the doomed warrior Túrin and the Dragon. The first version, in prose, is entitled “Turambar and the Foalókë” and may be found in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. The second version, written in verse (alliterative poetry), is “The Lay of the Children of Húrin,” published in may be found in The Lays of Beleriand.
The third and fullest version, entitled “Narn i Chîn Húrin,” is written in prose and may be found in both Unfinished Tales and The Children of Húrin. Those who may be daunted by the annotations and notes of the other books mentioned here will have better luck by simply picking up the latter.
III. The Wanderings of Húrin
The Third Tale exists in a single, prose version. It was one of Tolkien’s later writings, and fortunately it is quite complete. Entitled “The Wanderings of Húrin,” it picks up right where the “Narn i Chîn Húrin” leaves off. It spins an astonishing and dramatic tale as Túrin’s father returns for vengeance. It is published in The War of the Jewels.
IV. The Nauglafring
The Fourth Tale exists in a single, early, complete prose version. Entitled “The Nauglafring,” it follows the cursed hoard of the dragon as it brings Elves and Dwarves to war (yes, against each other!). It may be found in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. In addition to wrapping up characters and ideas from all three of the previous Tales, “The Nauglafring” also in many ways sets up the situations of The Hobbit.
V. The Fall of Gondolin
The Fifth Tale is also the very first Middle-earth story Tolkien ever wrote. A prose masterpiece, Tolkien was proud of it enough to give public readings several times of it in his life. Entitled “The Fall of Gondolin,” it is printed in The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two. He returned to it later in life (“Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin”, printed in Unfinished Tales), producing a great fragment that unfortunately doesn’t get very far (the hero arrives at the fabled City of Gondolin) in the style of the Narn and The Wanderings.