The History of Middle-earth series: a Quick and Dirty Guide
I’ve been asked by a number of people over the years whether The History of Middle-earth series is worth getting. The answer is “it depends” – both in terms of your area of Tolkienian interest, and in terms of the actual volumes you are talking about.
As a background, the twelve volumes of the series represent Christopher Tolkien’s monumental attempt to trace the 1917-1973 evolution of his father’s fictional mythos. We are not talking original creation from Christopher – just John Ronald’s manuscripts, with his son’s extensive scholarly notes and commentary. As such, reading the series involves a lot of wading through dry academic-style material to get to the good bits, but make no mistake: there certainly are good bits. The fortunate thing is that there is no need to read the entire series beginning to end (unless you are that way inclined), since different books focus on different material and different periods of writing.
In the interests of trying to make things less opaque, here is a quick and dirty rundown on what to expect from each volume. It goes without saying that you must be familiar with The Silmarillion to make any sense of The History of Middle-earth series, and reading Unfinished Tales beforehand is strongly advised. Unfinished Tales gives a good idea of the structure: incomplete manuscripts with notes and commentary, rather than a complete narrative like The Lord of the Rings or the 1977 published Silmarillion.
The twelve volumes:
1-2 (The Book of Lost Tales): Tolkien’s earliest attempt at a Mythology for England. Essentially, an Anglo-Saxon mariner washes up on a strange island and hears a bunch of stories from the local Elves – the stories that would eventually become The Silmarillion. These earliest manuscripts feature some incredibly archaic language (think the early bits of The Silmarillion are tough? You haven’t seen anything yet), and there is some very odd stuff in there: the original story of Beren and Lúthien battling Tevildo the Giant Cat being the classic example, though there are others (Morgoth is chased up a pine tree, which is then cut down). Don’t let the absurd playfulness mislead you though – stylistically, this isn’t light reading. That said, the second volume contains the only complete account of the Fall of Gondolin Tolkien ever wrote, so you don’t want to skip it altogether.
3. (The Lays of Beleriand): A couple of lengthy and unfinished poems from the 1920s, being accounts of Beren and Lúthien (in heroic rhyming couplets) and Túrin (in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse). Unless you have special interest in these stories, or in Tolkien as a poet, this isn’t a particularly important volume.
4. (The Shaping of Middle-earth). This one is notable for covering the geography of Arda – it features some neat First Age maps and diagrams (whether that is enough to justify getting the book is up to you). The volume also traces the developing Silmarillion up until the early 1930s – including the Annals of Valinor and Beleriand, which is Tolkien’s attempt to summarise the chronology of the First Age in the style of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (there are entries in actual Anglo-Saxon).
5. (The Lost Road). Tolkien and C.S. Lewis made an agreement – the former would write a time-travel story, the latter a space-travel story. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet accordingly became famous, but Tolkien’s time-travel narrative remained unfinished and forgotten – until included in this book. It’s not that exciting though: it’s simply the earliest version of the Downfall of Númenor story, with some odd little features that hint at industrialised warfare (steampunk Númenor!). The volume also traces the developing Silmarillion up until the mid-to-late 1930s – we now see the stories as they were when Tolkien started work on The Lord of the Rings. There is also a whole boatload of Elven linguistic stuff, so if you want to teach yourself Quenya, this is an incredibly important book. Otherwise not so much.
6-8. (The Return of the Shadow; The Treason of Isengard; The War of the Ring). These three books break from The Silmarillion discussion, and focus on the drafts for The Lord of the Rings. Given that The Lord of the Rings (unlike The Silmarillion) was completed in Tolkien’s lifetime, this is basically all about seeing how Tolkien came to the end-point he did – and pondering some of the more bizarre starting points (Frodo’s original name was Bingo Bolger-Baggins, Strider was a hobbit called Trotter, and Treebeard was an evil giant).
9. (Sauron Defeated). This volume finishes the analysis of the Rings drafts, including the unpublished epilogue to the book (yes, The Lord of the Rings had an epilogue taken out by the publisher. It’s been called a bit twee, and it probably is: the published ending preserves the appropriate level of melancholy). The volume also features more Númenorean material – the Downfall as we know it takes shape.
10. (Morgoth’s Ring). If you only read a single volume of this series, read this one. Morgoth’s Ring contains Tolkien’s post-1950s attempts at making The Silmarillion fit with The Lord of the Rings – attempts that were ultimately unsuccessful, but which contain some breathtaking departures from the existing mythos. These departures generally did not make it into the published Silmarillion of 1977 – Tolkien simply did not construct a sufficiently developed replacement narrative (the published 1977 version understandably fell back on older “rejected” concepts, because at least they were coherent). As such, this book is a look at how The Silmarillion “might have been”. Even more importantly, it also contains the essays he wrote about his world, revealing his contortions over the origin of the Orcs, et cetera, together with Laws and Customs of the Eldar.
11. (The War of the Jewels). A continuation of the previous volume, focused on the Beleriand-setting stories. Most notable for
the lengthy debate between (female) human and (male) Elf on their respective conditions*, and a much more extensive fleshing-out of the story of Húrin (which did not actually make it into The Children of Húrin).
12. (The Peoples of Middle-earth). The other big one. This volume contains the drafts for the Rings appendices – more interesting than the drafts for Rings proper, since it turns out a fair bit was cut from the published version. There are also some other priceless Middle-earth gems – The New Shadow (the unfinished sequel to Rings, abandoned after one chapter), and Tal-Elmar (the abandoned story of Númenorean imperialism from the point of view of the existing inhabitants). This volume has some fascinating material on the dwarves and elves too (ever wondered why artists and fanfiction writers have Maedhros as a red-head? This book is the reason). All in all, a must read for any Tolkien geek.
In summary I think the key volumes are 10-12 (Morgoth’s Ring, The War of the Jewels, and The Peoples of Middle-earth). You can safely read those without worrying about the rest – though I would also recommend getting The Book of Lost Tales volume 2 for The Fall of Gondolin. The rest isn’t so important, unless you have a special interest in poetry, languages, or seeing how Tolkien constructed The Lord of the Rings.
Note – The History of Middle-earth does not contain the drafts of The Hobbit. They are dealt with separately, in John Rateliff’s History of the Hobbit duology.
*My error – Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth is in Morgoth’s Ring, not The War of the Jewels.