Month: December 2008

Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

Date of Publication: 1980, Houghton-Mifflin

Number of Pages: 472, including appendices and index

Synopsis (from back cover): A New York Times bestseller for twenty-one weeks upon publication, Unfinished Tales is a collection of narratives ranging in time from the Elder Days of Middle-earth to the end of the War of the Ring, and further relates events as told in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

The book concentrates on the lands of Middle-earth and comprises Gandalf’s lively account of how he came to send the Dwarves to the celebrated party at Bag End, the story of the emergence of the sea-god Ulmo before the eyes of Tuor on the coast of Beleriand, and an exact description of the military organization of the Riders of Rohan and the journey of the Black Riders during the hunt for the Ring.

Unfinished Tales also contains the only surviving story about the long ages of Númenor before its downfall, and all that is known about the Five Wizards sent to Middle-earth as emissaries of the Valar, about the Seeing Stones known as the Palantiri, and about the legend of Amroth.

Review: For fans of Tolkien and his mythology, this is an indispensable work. Unfinished Tales provides incredible details about many aspects of The Lord of the Rings, such as the hunt for the One Ring and how the Ringwraiths got to the Shire. There is also a history of Galadriel and Celeborn, a full account of Tuor’s journey to Gondolin, the history of the Wizards, and the history of the long friendship between Gondor and Rohan, as told in “Cirion and Eorl”. All readers of Tolkien must read this collection if they are going to understand Middle-earth and its history and people.

One can read this book as a companion to The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or The Hobbit, but it can also be read on its own. There are notes from Christopher Tolkien which explain the progress of each story, and the different versions of them. The only complaint I have is that my edition only provides a general map of Middle-earth, after the breaking of the West. There is no map of Beleriand. But there is a map of Númenor, and it’s a great help as a reference when reading “A Description of the Island of Númenor”. I had a lot of fun reading this again, and I found the stories, which are found almost nowhere else (with the exception of the “Narn I Hîn Húrin”, the history of Turin Turumbar). I would recommend this not only to hard-core readers of Tolkien, but also those who are simply curious about the history of Middle-earth.

Rating: 10/10

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Date of Publication: 1848 (my edition, 2001, W.W. Norton & Co.)

Number of Pages: 385

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): Having grown up an orphan in the home of her cruel aunt and at a harsh charity school, Jane Eyre becomes an independent and spirited survivor—qualities that serve her well as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice. Should she stay with him whatever the consequences or follow her convictions, even if it means leaving her beloved?

Review: Charlotte Brontë skillfully weaves together a memorable study of a woman’s life, from childhood to adulthood, and of the unique challenges she faces. Jane Eyre is a wholly unprotected young woman, forced to make her way in the world in the only position she can respectfully acquire: that of a governess. Brontë herself was a governess and understood the distinct misery such a situation can cause. A governess in the Victorian age was a woman in social limbo: she was held to be above the station of the servants, meaning she was not accepted into their society (it would appear insultingly condescending on her part), and yet underneath the status of the family, who would shun her. A governess was one of the loneliest women in the world. Luckily for Jane Eyre, she is welcomed into the limited society at Thornfield and is even held in affection by her young French pupil. However, her world is turned upside-down upon the return of Mr. Rochester to his home. The bond between the tortured master and his young, inexperienced governess is strong and immediate, and the passion that grows between them is inevitable and consuming.

I would not dream of spoiling the delicious mystery and dramatic plot by saying much more. One can easily get carried away when discussing this book. I will say, however, that the book is beautifully written, if somewhat preachy, and the characters themselves are remarkably believable. No one is perfect in this book. Mr. Rochester is domineering, Jane herself is a little too morally strict for modern tastes, and many of the other characters, most notably St. John Rivers, have obvious flaws. This all combines to make the story, which is fiercely romantic, much more accessible than it otherwise could have been. I believe that any reader of both Victorian literature and modern romances and mysteries will enjoy this enduring classic.

Rating: 10/10

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Date of Publication: 1850 (my edition: 1959, Grosset & Dunlap)

Number of Pages: 850

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): David Copperfield is the story of a young man’s adventures on his journey from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr. Murdstone; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora; and the magnificently impecunious Micawber, one of literature’s great comic creations. In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his “favorite child”—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of his most exuberant and enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

Review: This is, by far, my favorite Dickens novel. But it’s not the hero so much that I love, although David is an extraordinary hero, it’s the myriad other characters that drift in and out of his life. This is the true magic of this book. David himself is steady, upright, passionate, proud, and sincere; all qualities a good hero needs. He fulfills his duty admirably. But the secondary characters are the ones that shine through. There is the tyrannical Murdstone, David’s domineering stepfather; Uriah Heep, a fawning law clerk who professes his own “‘umbleness”, but who really seeks to attain power over all others; the relentlessly ruined and cheerful Mr. Micawber, who is one of the greatest comedic characters in all of literature; Agnes, the angel who watches over David with sincere disinterestedness; and Traddles, the constant and steady companion who thinks nothing of himself and everything of his friends. These are only a few of the memorable cast of characters that David encounters throughout his eventful life.

This is truly one of the great classics of the Victorian age. Besides these entertaining characters, the story delves into some of the most disturbing social issues of the nineteenth century: child labor, debt, emigration, crime, debauchery, and class struggles. Woven within the complex story is an evocative landscape which ranges from the quiet countryside, to the bustle of London, and even to a wild and rugged seaport. Dickens succeeded in all aspects of storytelling: plot, characters, and setting are all developed to perfection. It’s hard to praise this book too highly, and it deserves its place among the great classics. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone…and, indeed, I have!

Rating: 10/10