With this compilation of the mammoth "The History of Middle-earth", we get the literary backstory, so to say, of J. R. R. Tolkien's turmoil and travails of the composition of one of the most complex fantasies every constructed. Admittedly difficult reading, you must have a deep, abiding interest in mythology and Tolkien's desire to create one to get through this, and you need a working knowledge of Tolkien's life pursuit to really understand the "History". Do not buy this expecting anything as nearly accessible The Lord of the Rings or The Annotated Hobbit.
This publication is for the serious student and lover of J. R. R. Tolkien's work. The causal fan will find this much too expensive and much too expansive. For those only marginally interested just pick up the books (Volume VI-IX) dealing with the trilogy and have done with the whole affair. But for those who love Middle-earth and want to marvel at Tolkien's work, this is a must-have purchase. It's a very rare opportunity to see the creation of a work of such massive import to our international societies. Tolkien's commitment to this birthing process of a beautiful work of art truly stands out as one of the great efforts of Man to give homage to his God, as Tolkien saw it (read his essay on Faerie Stories).
"The History" operates as a chronicle of the evolutionary processes of one of the most ambitious literary projects of the 20th century. Tolkien once wrote that he would leave no biography behind in traditional form, for his written works were his biography. In that matter, "The History of Middle-earth" is the definitive work for Tolkien afficiandos. This, even beyond "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings", and the 1977 version of "The Silmarillion", is truly Tolkien's life work. As you read through this series, 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 literary projects of the twentieth century, and an opportunity almost never granted to readers.
This box set includes all twelve volumes of "The History" in three massive hardback books, which are enclosed in a gorgeous slipcase. Notably, this particular product has been available in the UK for well over a decade. (I even wrote a review of this set back in 2001 on Amazon.co.uk). I am thrilled to see this set finally available on Amazon.com. I've been literally waiting for years to see this available outside the UK.
Book 1 gathers the first five volumes, which are "The Book of Lost Tales Part I", "The Book of Lost Tales II", "The Lays of Beleriand", "The Shaping of Middle-earth", and "The Lost Road and Other Writings". These volumes cover Tolkien's mythology from the earliest written texts (the first two volumes) to the mid 1930s, before Tolkien set aside "The Silmarillion" to begin work on his epic novel, "The Lord of the Rings"
The first two volumes deal with the earliest form of "The Silmarillion". In many ways, startlingly different than the forms the legends finally found themselves in the published work. The prose is workman-like, and a far cry from the more accomplished writings of the later volumes. The work is far more novelistic, written in an archaic stye somewhat reminicesent of the more arid passages of the trilogy. Most interesting is in the original form Beren was an elf, which totally changes a massive strand in the mythology. Also, there are two dropped Gods (brother and sister Makar and Meássë), similar to war deities of ancient, primitive mythologies. The general form and structure of "The Silmarrion" can be determined here, but in the "Lost Tales" Tolkien introduces a framework of an Mariner, AElf-wine (Elf-Friend), who comes to an island meant to symbolize England who learns about the legendarium. "The Lost Tales" are notable for containing the only full versions completed regarding the Dwarves and "The Nauglafring", the travels of Earendell, and, shockingly for such an important story, "The Fall of Gondolin".
Next are the epic The Lays of Beleriand (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 3) First edition by Tolkien, J.R.R. published by Houghton Mifflin Hardcover that were never completed, and showing Tolkien was a poet of very accomplished calibre. The two major poems are "The Children of Hurin" (written in alliterive verse), which deals with the tragedy of Turin Turambar, and "The Gest of Beren and Luthien: Release from Bondage", which tells the story of Tolkien's principal lovers in the form of rhyming couplets. Also published in this volume is a brief twenty page commentary written by C. S. Lewis over the Gest. By J.R.R. Tolkien: The Shaping of Middle-Earth: The Quenta, the Ambarkanta and the Annals (The History of Middle-Earth, Vol. 4) deals with the geography and physical history and includes some historical Annals.
The Lost Road and Other Writings: Language and Legend before the Lord of the Rings shows us an unfinished novel and several other unearthed treasures, including invaluable philological material that shows how inseperable Tolkien's linguistics was from his creative writing. "The Lost Road", like the unfinished and (as of 2012) unpublished children's story "The Orogag", was long known to be in existence to Tolkien scholars, but unknown in actual content. The aborted time travel novel, which would feature a father and son going back to Numenor (Tolkien's take on the Atlantis myth), came from a bet between Tolkien and Lewis in 1937 to write the type of fiction they both would enjoy reading. Tolkien would write a time-travel story, and Lewis would write a space-travel story.
Indicative of how both men worked, Tolkien wrote his novel very methodically before abandoning it completely, while Lewis quickly wrote "Out of the Silent Planet" and had with the help of Tolkien got his novel published in 1938. Then, for good measure, he published two more books ("Perelandra" and my favorite, "That Hideous Strength") to make a trilogy.
The second book contains the four volumes (VI-IX) comprising Christopher Tolkien's study of "The Lord of the Rings" manuscripts, one of the most significant volumes ever released the to the world, online with Homer, Virgil, and Dante. This is a graduate level look at what goes in the making of a literary masterpiece. These four volumes are easily the most accessible of the admittedly very dry "History" series. For the average reader and literary historians who are not specialized in Tolkien, this is the real meat of these twelve volumes. These four volumes are "The Return of the Shadow" (VI), "The Treason of Isengard"(VII), "The War of the Ring" (VIII), and "Sauron Defeated" (IX). These four titles are available in their own set, entitled "The History of the Lord of the Rings". The Tolkien estate retitled "Sauron Defeated" as "The End of the Third Age", and omitted the last half of the original book, which contains an abandoned novel entitled "The Notion Club Papers" and is unrelated to the trilogy. For casual readers, I recommend first purchasing this set, and if you are further interested, buy the others. The biggest weakness of the stand-alone box set of "The History of The Lord of the Rings" is that does not include "The Peoples of Middle-earth", which details the evolution of the appendices, as well as giving the full text to "The New Shadow", a twenty page abandoned sequel to the trilogy Tolkien wrote in the 1960s. A strange omission, especially since the last volume ("The End of the Third Age") is so slim
As you read the second book in this set, Christopher Tolkien illuminates how directionless his father truly was when composing the trilogy, and how little he actually knew when writing "The Lord of the Rings". What is truly startling about these books (and the most encouraging for would be authors) are how much was unknown when Tolkien begun the first chapter. Indeed, for the half of "The Fellowship of the Ring", 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 "J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century" for more about this). The most notable encounter that happens in the first part of "Fellowship" is with Tom Bombadil, a character far predating Tolkien's initial work on his masterpiece.
The changes documented are absolutely phenomenal and endlessly fascinating. 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.
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 volumes 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 unannounced. 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.
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. Originally meant to be published, Tolkien wisely cut the epiloge on recommendation of both his publishers and his family and friends. 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.
As previously mentioned, the last half of "Sauron Defeated" is a fascinating but unfortunately abandoned novel entitled "The Notion Club Papers". In this book, Tolkien reworks the original idea of incorporating the Atlantis myth into a modern setting, which he first attempted with the 1937 "The Lost Road" . Written as a compilation of records of a literary club (clearly based on The Inklings), "The Notion Club Papers" charts Alwin Arundel Lowdham's discovery, through lucid dreaming, of Numenor. Of all the "What ifs" associated with Tolkien's unfinished writing, for me this is one of the most interesting tangets to think about. Essentially the Papers is a modern novel set in modern times, but clearly based on Tolkien's mythology. Had the Papers been completed and published, I feel the book would be by far one of the strangest satilites to commercially successful fantasy series ever.
Get these books and become immersed in Tolkien's majesty! However, be aware "The History" details at great length the construction of this elaborate universe, which means these are rough drafts and various other things that didn't make it into publication in Tolkien's time, adding a huge amount of material to Tolkien's fandom to consider.
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. Christopher's editorial notes are a must have. Thanks to the Tolkien family and to Christopher for their support of their father (who died in 1973) and of his son for the publication of this work. A very unique moment in literary history indeed.