Christopher Tolkien, ‘Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth’
‘It is, I suppose, a tribute to the curious effect that a story has, when based on very elaborate and detailed workings, of geography, chronology, and language, that so many should clamour for sheer “information”, or “lore”…’
Letter from Tolkien to Rayner Unwin, 6 March 1955
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien, was published in 1980 shortly after The Silmarillion. The following text is adapted from his introduction to the book.
The problems that confront one given responsibility for the writings of a dead author are hard to resolve. In the case of the unpublished writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, he himself, peculiarly critical and exacting of his own work, would not have dreamt of allowing even the more completed narratives in this book to appear without much further refinement.
On the other hand, the nature and scope of his invention seems to me to place even his abandoned stories in a peculiar position. That The Silmarillion should remain unknown was for me out of the question, despite its disordered state. I presumed, after long hesitation, to present the work, not in the form of an historical study, a complex of divergent texts interlinked by commentary, but as a completed and cohesive entity.
The narratives in Unfinished Tales are indeed on an altogether different footing: taken together they constitute no whole, and the book is no more than a collection of writings, disparate in form, intent, finish, and date of composition (and in my own treatment of them), concerned with Númenor and Middle-earth. But the argument for their publication is not different in its nature from that which I held to justify the publication of The Silmarillion.
Those who would not have forgone the images of Melkor with Ungoliant looking down from the summit of Hyarmentir upon ‘the fields and pastures of Yavanna, gold beneath the tall wheat of the gods’; of the shadows of Fingolfin’s host cast by the first moonrise in the West; of Beren lurking in wolf’s shape beneath the throne of Morgoth; or of the light of the Silmaril suddenly revealed in the darkness of the Forest of Neldoreth – they will find, I believe, that imperfections of form in these tales are much outweighed by the voice (heard now for the last time) of Gandalf, teasing the lordly Saruman at the meeting of the White Council in the year 2851, or describing in Minas Tirith after the end of the War of the Ring how it was that he came to send the Dwarves to the celebrated party at Bag-End; by the arising of Ulmo Lord of Waters out of the sea at Vinyamar; by Mablung of Doriath hiding ‘like a vole’ beneath the ruins of the bridge at Nargothrond; or by the death of Isildur as he floundered up out of the mud of Anduin.
Many of the pieces in this collection are elaborations of matters told more briefly, or at least referred to, elsewhere; and it must be said at once that much in the book will be found unrewarding by readers of The Lord of the Rings who feel small desire of further exploration for its own sake, do not wish to know how the Riders of the Mark of Rohan were organised, and would leave the Wild Men of the Drúadan Forest firmly where they found them.
But whatever view may be taken of this question, for some, as for myself, there is a value greater than the mere uncovering of curious detail in learning that Vëantur the Númenórean brought his ship Entulessë, the ‘Return’, into the Grey Havens on the spring winds of the six hundredth year of the Second Age, that the tomb of Elendil the Tall was set by Isildur his son on the summit of the beacon-hill Halifirien, that the Black Rider whom the Hobbits saw in the foggy darkness on the far side of Bucklebury Ferry was Khamûl, chief of the Ringwraiths of Dol Guldur – or even that the childlessness of Tarannon twelfth King of Gondor (a fact recorded in an Appendix to The Lord of the Rings) was associated with the hitherto wholly mysterious cats of Queen Berúthiel.
The construction of the book has been difficult, and in the result is somewhat complex. The narratives are all ‘unfinished’, but to a greater or lesser degree, and in different senses of the word, and have required different treatment; I shall say something below about each one in turn, and here only call attention to some general features.
The most important is the question of ‘consistency’, best illustrated from the section entitled ‘The History of Galadriel and Celeborn’. This is an ‘Unfinished Tale’ in a larger sense: not a narrative that comes to an abrupt halt, as in ‘Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin’, nor a series of fragments, as in ‘Cirion and Eorl’, but a primary strand in the history of Middle-earth that never received a settled definition, let alone a final written form. The inclusion of the unpublished narratives and sketches of narrative on this subject therefore entails at once the acceptance of the history not as a fixed, independently-existing reality which the author ‘reports’ (in his ‘persona’ as translator and redactor), but as a growing and shifting conception in his mind.
‘…while many like you demand maps, others wish for geological indications rather than places, many want Elvish grammars, phonologies, and specimens; some want metrics and prosodies…Musicians want tunes, and musical notation; archaeologists want ceramics and metallurgy. Botanists want a more accurate description of the mallorn, of elanor, niphredil, alfirin, mallos, and symbelmynë; and historians want more details about the social and political structure of Gondor; general enquirers want information about the Wainriders, the Harad, Dwarvish origins, the Dead Men, the Beornings, and the missing two wizards (out of five).’
Letter from Tolkien to H. Cotton Minchin, 1956
Except in minor details such as shifts in nomenclature, I have made no alterations for the sake of consistency with published works, but rather drawn attention throughout to conflicts and variations. In this respect therefore Unfinished Tales is essentially different from The Silmarillion, where a primary though not exclusive objective in the editing was to achieve cohesion both internal and external.
In content the book is entirely narrative (or descriptive): I have excluded all writings about Middle-earth and Aman that are of a primarily philosophic or speculative nature, and where such matters from time to time arise I have not pursued them. I have imposed a simple structure of convenience by dividing the texts into Parts corresponding to the first Three Ages of the World, there being in this inevitably some overlap, as with the legend of Amroth and its discussion in ‘The History of Galadriel and Celeborn’.
The fourth part is an appendage, and may require some excuse in a book called Unfinished Tales, since the pieces it contains are generalised and discursive essays with little or no element of ‘story’. The section on the Drúedain did indeed owe its original inclusion to the story of ‘The Faithful Stone’ which forms a small part of it; and this section led me to introduce those on the Istari and the Palantíri, since they (especially the former) are matters about which many people have expressed curiosity, and this book seemed a convenient place to expound what there is to tell.