The Tolkien Reader and Unfinished Tales (Review)

The Tolkien Reader is a great little book for fans of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings who want to get a taste of stories he wrote that take place outside of Middle Earth. One such story, Farmer Giles of Ham, is entertaining and funny, introducing us to a simple Farmer who through various twists and turns ends up representing his village in a fight with a dragon.

The other great story here, Leaf by Niggle, may just be the best thing I’ve read on the goodness of work. We meet a man named Niggle who loves to paint but can never quite put on canvas the beauty in his head. The good news for Niggle is that there is a place where the beauty he only dreamed of is made real. If this is Tolkien’s vision of heaven or the afterlife, it would do good for more Christians to read it. Whatever heaven is, Tolkien understood, correctly I would say, that from a Christian perspective it is not just an endless song-service of praise to God. Humans were created to work in the first place, we work now, and we will have work to do then.

When originally released, Leaf by Niggle was paired with On Fairy Stories. On Fairy Stories is Tolkien’s philosophy of fantasy literature (i.e., fairy stories). He defends fantasy literature as not just something for children which adults outgrow when we become more rational. Instead, fairy stories take place within a world (a sub-creation) where all that takes place ought to be entirely credible, within that world. In this essay Tolkien introduced the word, eucatastrophe, the joy of a happy ending. The concept of eucatastrophe is certainly rooted in Tolkien’s Christian faith, trusting that no matter how bad things get there will be a good ending to the story.

I’m going to write 1-2 more posts solely on On Fairy Stories.  For now, I offer my review of another book from Tolkien, Unfinished Tales:

You’ve read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings many times. You’ve worked your way through The Silmarillion. Then you enjoyed the fantastic Children of Hurin. Now you want to read more from Middle Earth. Unfinished Tales seems to be the next place to go.

For me, it will probably be the last place. These are a collection of writings in various degrees of completion. Some, such as the Coming of Tuor to Gondolin, give only a glimpse of what could have been a fantastic, epic story. Sadly, the glimpse is boring. Others give Christopher Tolkien, JRR’s son, the opportunity to parse various copies of the same story, comparing differences into the minutiae. It reminds me of a Bible scholar comparing ancient manuscripts. The clearest example of this is the story of Galadriel which, while interesting, was nearly unreadable.

There are some gems though. The story of Aldarion’s love for the sea competing with his love for Erendis was fantastic. The stories that provide background for Lord of the Rings, such as the Quest for Erebor, and the history of the Istari where we get a lot on Gandalf, were treats.

So if you’re a Tolkien fan, I recommend this book. But beware. If you thought The Silmarillion was difficult, and I did, this will really give you a hard time.

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4 thoughts on “The Tolkien Reader and Unfinished Tales (Review)

  1. I absolutely LOVED Unfinished Tales. It’s a great introduction to how the History of Middle Earth series is laid out (bits of Tolkien’s work with commentary by his son throughout – lots of footnotes). And though the Turin story was recently(ish) covered in greater detail in the Children of Hurin, there’s extra detail in the notes to this version.

    It also gives us really the only glimpse at life on Numenor in the Aldarion story), contrasting the desires for isolationism and dominion, as well as laying the ground for all the horrible things to come.

    But you’re absolutely right about it being dry, and about the Third Age stuff being worth the price of admission.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I don’t think I am going to ever approach the History of Middle Earth series. I like the Turin story but that was something I was unsure of – how is it different in Unfinished Tales as opposed to Children of Hurin as opposed to The Silmarillion? Having read all three, it seems like Children of Hurin puts together the fragments from the other two into one large story. All in all, good stuff though.

      1. The Children of Hurin is just a culmination of all the sources, but the Unfinished Tales version has footnotes detailing other ideas, etc. Worth checking out if you just don’t have enough sorrow in your life. 🙂

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