I’m not the biggest fan of Tolkien. To me, his legendarium is so self-indulgently comprehensive that the needs of the reader are completely ignored. So why did I buy the first half of his Book of Lost Tales? Curiosity, and the low, low price of two dollars.
In all fairness, this book consists of several unpublished drafts cobbled together by his son. Tolkien was clearly writing this material as a hobby, and I seriously doubt that your hobby would distort an entire genre. I have a grudge against Middle Earth for being the prototype that every fantasy author copies, but you can’t blame that on Tolkien.
The Book of Lost Tales is a series of creation myths and ancient history lessons told to an old English mariner Eriol by a bunch of elves, who hang out in a cottage where children play in their sleep. Their house reminds me of that monstrous trap in Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always, but these elves seem like nice hosts, so far. I’ve only read the first half mind you, maybe they eat him in the end.
I’d describe Tolkien’s cosmology as somewhere between Zoroastrian and Norse, with a hint of Abrahamic platonism at the creation. Eru Illuvatar is an abstract demiurge who creates the material world by leading his children, the Valar, in song. Some of the Valar are so entranced by their creation they enter it and become gods. (That’s the Zoroastrian part, you’ve got a chief super deity and his helper angels, who are effectively gods. The abstract creator, that says Abrahamic platonism to me.) The gods have specific portfolios and cool names and they’ve even got a Loki/Satan figure, Morgoth. The Norse influence can be seem in that nod towards polytheism, as well as the appearance of elves, dwarves and the use of the rainbow as transportation.
Some of the titles, though, are pure Lady Gregory. She was an aristocratic Irish lady at the turn of the last century who translated Celtic myths into English, albeit into tortured prose. You can see her influence in his titles. Compare ‘The Coming of the Valar’ to ‘The Coming of Lugh’. If Tolkien hadn’t seen a copy of Gods and Fighting Men, I’ll turn in my fantasy fan card.
Tolkien’s most genius moment was having the sun created after the elves. Coming from a Christian background and being familiar with a few creation myths, as well as actual science, the idea of human-like life preceding major heavenly bodies is completely counterintuitive to me. In Tolkien’s revised Silmarillion, the sun first rose during an Elvish battle, and here it makes its debut in similarly distressing circumstances. Take a look at the sun on the cover above, and you’ll see a nifty little boat around it. Now that’s imagination.
His poetry, however, is dire. Tolkien is like the exact opposite of Thomas Pynchon, every time his characters open their mouths to sing, I skip to the next prose paragraph.
The tortured prose makes this book worthwhile only for Tolkien tragics. If you want to see mind-blowingly imaginative creation myths written in a way that’s accessible for everyone, I strongly recommend Rabbi Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews.