Probably the most accessible volumes of the admittedly very dry HISTORY OF MIDDLE-EARTH series to the general reader, this box set covers the evolution of Tolkien's masterpiece, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. This is a graduate level look at what goes in the making of a literary masterpiece. As you read through this box set, you see Tolkien's imagination at work, toying with ideas, names, possible plot lines, and just the general struggle to get through the work. This is not a fun, entertaining read that you pick up; this is a scholarly look out the evolution of one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century, and an opportunity almost never granted to readers. The biggest weakness of this set is it does not include THE PEOPLES OF MIDDLE-EARTH, which details the evolution of the appendices, as well as giving the full text to THE LORD OF THE RING's aborted sequel, THE NEW SHADOW. A strange omission, especially since the last volume is so slim
Throughout the series, Christopher Tolkien illuminates how directionless his father truly was, and how little he actually knew when writing THE LORD OF THE RINGS. What is truly startling about these books (and the most encouraging) are how much was unknown when Tolkien begun the first chapter. Indeed, for the half of FELLOWSHIP, Tolkien was largely raiding his own, pre-existing larder, sending the hobbits through already exisiting situations that Tolkien had envisioned in his poetry (see Tom Shippey's AUTHOR OF THE CENTURY for more about this).
The changes are absolutely phenomenal. We see a great number of name-shifting throughout the original hobbits. We watch the evolution of Aragorn, originally a rustic hobbit of Bree, turn into the very heir of Isildur himself, come to reclaim the vacant throne of Gondor. We see Treebeard, a malignant, evil character originally, become one of the key players in winning the war of the ring. We watch Tolkien work through the problem of Gandalf's appearance as the hobbits set out from the Shire; Tolkien was just as puzzled at what happened to Gandalf as the hobbits were. His disappearance led to the birth of the treacherous Saruman.
The other three books (including the slim volume THE END OF THE THIRD AGE, ordinally published as the first part of SAURON DEFEATED) gives us further insight into the creative process at work. As new lands emerge (Lothlorian, Rohan, Fangorn), Tolkien's shifting conceptions and outlines often fall by the wayside when he writes that part of the story. No one appears more surprised at the Palantir crashing upon the feet of Orthanc than Tolkien, though he instantly knew what this mysterious seeing stone was. Faramir, Boromir's younger brother and one who beats back the desire of the Ruling Ring, succeeding where his brother failed, appears in Ilthilien, unknown and unannoucned. We see a very different Helm's Deep, as well as the evolution of the Paths of the Dead and the story of Denethor. The Shire's Scourging is also quite different, with Frodo taking a much more dominant role in the uprising to reclaim the hobbits' homeland. Christopher spends a lot of time on Tolkien's continual cross-checking of the internal chronology of the work, right down to the very phases of the moon. This effect cost Tolkien a lot of labour, and, like his actual constructions of his imaginary languages, have never been done so well in other fantasy works.
One of the biggest revelations comes during the last book, when we finally get to read the long lost epilogue about Sam and his family. Tolkien wisely cut this; the epilogue's presence would have destroyed the deeply meloncholy, emotionally charged departure at the Grey Havens and Sam coming home to Rosie with one of the book's best lines. "Well, I'm back," brings the entire quest back home, but we all know Sam, or any of us for that matter, can never truly come back after going through such harrowing and challenging experiences as he and the rest of the Fellowship went through. However, it is very refreshing to see Sam's large family a lot closer up than we get to in the finished work. Quite sentimental, it shows Tolkien had quite the soft spot for those hobbits of his.
Overall, a stunning, and almost never given, opportunity to watch one of this century's most important writers go through the creative process. This set gives the most encouragement to aspiring and struggling writers, for it shows, first and foremost, that writing is a process, not a finished product. Highly recommended for the serious Tolkien student and fan, and for writers interested in watching a master at work.