Week 7: A book by Lewis or Tolkien
by: J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Love it (with some mixed feelings)
First, this book is not for casual readers of Tolkien (when I say "Tolkien" in this review, I mean the father, J.R.R.). This is one of his unfinished works. That means it's rough, it's not polished, and Tolkien would probably roll over in his grave if he knew it was published (he was kindof a perfectionist).
This was my first experience reading a work of Tolkien's that Christopher edited. I mean, I'd read the Simarillion, and some of the Lost Tales, and the Unfinished Tales, which he did edit, but they lacked his commentary.
I have mixed feelings about Christopher's publishing of his father's unfinished works. I mean, it showcases his father's genius, but given how meticulous J.R.R. was I can't see him being too happy about it. It has a tendency to come off as a money grab to me.
That said, I was so thrilled to see that Tolkien had started working on an Arthurian piece! I'm a big fan of Arthur and I love Tolkien so this just seemed too good to be true.
There are several parts to this book. I'll be honest, I really expected something longer from Tolkien given the size of the book. The poem is a decent length, in the alliterative style, and deals solely with Arthur's downfall (as indicated by the title). Alliterative poetry takes getting used to, but is a style more people should try and use. Revival of this type of poetry was one of Tolkien's goals in writing this piece.
My biggest disappointment in the poem (obviously other than it being unfinished! which was no surprise) was that Tolkien included the affair between Geneviere and Lancelot. As this aspect to the story - while quite famous - is a later addition to the Arthur legend, I was hoping that Tolkien would opt to not include it in his retelling of the legends. (The absence of that particular tale from the Pendragon Cycle by Lawhead was very pleasing.)
After the Tolkien's telling of Arthur's downfall, Christopher dedicates a section to go through and compare his father's work to two main sources. This is a scholarly read, definitely closer to a term paper in feel than a conversational piece. I love Arthur and the legends, but even for me it bordered on a little much at times.
The next section I was totally on board with, though. This third section of the book is on how this unfinished work of Tolkien connects to the Simarillion. I suspected there was a connection early in reading the poem, and Christopher fleshes that out a bit, though there are a lot of questions still left unanswered like: Why, Tolkien, why?!?! Why did you have to leave this work unfinished?! It could've been brilliant! Arthur tying in to Middle Earth is just what I would expect from you, now I just have a tantalizing foretaste with nothing to satisfy! I can take guesswork connections, but we will never know what you had planned because it wasn't written down. ::sob:: < /lament >
The fourth section of the book, on the evolution of this poem, is also interesting, and, not being in poem form, easier to understand upon initial reading. Since it's just Christopher largely interacting with his father's notes the tone is different and easier to follow than some of the more technical bits of section 2 and even parts of 3.
The book ends with a brief appendix about Old English verse, which I found informative and interesting. This is the kind of thing that got Tolkien excited, and it's nice to understand a little more about that along with seeing his attempt at reviving it in modern times.
Anyone who is a Tolkien completest should definitely read this book. Anyone who is a lover of Arthurian legend should read this book. Tolkien's poem is most assuredly incomplete, and the majority of the book is spent analyzing this incomplete poem. This is definitely not a book to appeal to the masses. While mass appeal is not an indication of worth or talent, only a small dedicated group of people will actually find it worth their while to read the entire book.
Unfinished Poem: 4 stars
Comparison of Arthurian texts: 3 stars
How it connects to the Simarillion: 5 stars
Evolution of the poem: 4 stars
Appendix: 5 stars
Average: 4 stars
This review appears as a part of the Reading Challenge 2016. To see other books in the challenge, click here.