Saturday, April 07, 2012

On Tolkien's Unfinished Tales: The Platypus Reads Part CXLIV

Tolkien's Unfinished Tales are just that: unfinished.  They represent efforts down to the end of his life to harmonize and further explore the sub-created world of Middle Earth.  A perfectionist by habit (or by Hobbit), Tolkien was drawn to minor inconsistencies or details of place and person that could be filled in.  He describes this tendency in his semi-autobiographical, semi-allegorical Leaf by Niggle as being an artist who could paint leaves better than trees.  According to Shippey, Carpenter, and others, it was this penchant for niggling that kept Tolkien from finishing The Silmarillion and a great many other minor works in his lifetime; he kept trying to get all the details right.  With a world as vast and sweeping as Middle Earth, "getting all the details right" was an impossible task for one man.

If the task was impossible for one man, however, why not two?  Christopher Tolkien's great achievement has been to be that second man, and to place his father's work into a coherent, over-arching context.  Among his chief triumphs, from a literary rather than a critical perspective, have been presenting us with The Silmarillion, The Lays of Beleriand, and The Children of Hurin (not to mention such non-Middle Earth related gems as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun).  The question, then, when reading The Unfinished Tales is how they fit into the greater context created by Christopher Tolkien for his father's post-humus works.

Following Shippey in his Road to Middle Earth, I'd like to suggest that The Unfinished Tales ought not to be read as "authoritative" answers to various problems and overlooked details in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, but rather as Tolkien's tentative, unfinished attempts at harmonizing and expanding the vast body of literature he had created.  Christopher himself points us in this direction with his sections of critical commentary offering variant stories and explaining where his father seemed to be toying with abandoning one explanation or another (see the Nazgul's fear of water in The Hunt for the Ring).  This view of the book, however, makes it a bit unsatisfying if the reader is looking for "more Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion.  Readers of The Unfinished Tales need to adjust their expectations and instead view the work, as it seems to have been intended, as an insight into Tolkien's ongoing creative process; not a set of definitive answers.  

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