Review: The Book of Lost Tales I

LostTales1Title: The Book of Lost Tales 1
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien
Year Published: 1983


The Book of Lost Tales 1 is the first in the History of Middle-earth series, which chronicles the history of the writing of Middle-earth. The whole series is edited by Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.’s son. During his lifetime, Christopher was one of Tolkien’s primary confidants, making Christopher the perfect person to gather, edit, and comment on Tolkien’s many unpublished writings.

The Book of Lost Tales 1 covers Tolkien’s initial stories about the beginning of Middle-earth (before it was even called that!) and the rest of Arda. Unlike the later Silmarillion, BoLT has a frame narrative. All of the historical stories presented are tales told by Elves to a man. Once the frame narrative picks up, the historical stories begin with the Music of the Ainur. BoLT 1 ends with the coming of the Noldoli (the name previously given to the Noldor) to Middle-earth and the coming of men.

There is much detail in BoLT 1 that simply isn’t in The Silmarillion. There is also a great deal of commentary from Christopher. In particular, Christopher does an excellent job pointing out the shifts from the original conception to the published Silmarillion. He provides as much evidence as he can for when each story (and revision) was written, which makes for an interesting perspective.

Good and Bad

The Book of Lost Tales, even more than the other books in the History of Middle-earth series, is not for the faint of heart. While it provides a wealth of sometimes charming, sometimes puzzling (but always fascinating) detail, the style and tone is extremely archaic. Christopher Tolkien’s commentary, while valuable, can be very dry, especially when he gets into the details of how he traced the order in which each story was written. When I first read this book in high school, it would put me to sleep within ten minutes of me picking it up. (Of course, it didn’t help that I hadn’t read The Silmarillion yet.)

Once you adjust to the different tone and style, The Book of Lost Tales is wonderfully interesting. The level of detail is unlike that of any of Tolkien’s later writings. From the doings and discussions of the Valar to the recipe for the silmarils, Tolkien was not shy about explaining his world.

The frame narrative provides a context that The Silmarillion lacks, which makes for a very different tone. In some ways, the frame narrative brings BoLT closer to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We’re given a character who, just like the reader, is reacting to and marveling at the wonders of creation, the horrors of Melko (the original name of Melkor Morgoth), and the travails of the Elves.

Some of the differences will be startling to readers who are familiar with The Silmarillion, particularly when it comes to the Valar. They are, in a sense, much more human–that is, they are much more prone to mistakes and foibles, even downright wrongs, than are the Valar of Tolkien’s later years. They feel much more like the gods of ancient mythologies than like the angelic Ainur come to do the will of Ilúvatar.

The Elves, too, are much more approachable, particularly the tellers of the tales. They have their own characters and personalities. They laugh and joke with each other. They eat meals together. They are less distant and tragic than the Elves of LotR.

Should You Buy It?

Those who are serious about learning more of Tolkien’s Middle-earth have to read The Book of Lost Tales 1 eventually, at least if they’re interested in the First Age. A strong familiarity with The Silmarillion is very helpful, although not necessary. If you remember the general outline of the events in the Silm, you’re less likely to get mixed up by the archaic and sometimes difficult to understand language.

If you didn’t enjoy The Silmarillion or you haven’t read it, this probably isn’t a good place for you to start. (If you really want to read more Tolkien, but The Silmarillion just isn’t your thing, I wrote another post on what to read after you finish Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.)

Regardless of whether you’ve read BoLT dozens of times or this is your first time, I highly recommend reading it along with the Mythgard Academy course. Corey Olsen has an infectious love of Tolkien that makes reading any book that much more exciting. His insight and reflections on the book–from the descriptions, to the dialogue, to Christopher’s commentary–will deepen your appreciation and understanding. Best of all, the course is free!

In summary, The Book of Lost Tales 1 isn’t an easy read. It is well worth the effort for those who want to delve deeper into Tolkien’s world.

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Photo Credit: Taylor Leopold

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