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Literature / Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth

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Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth by J. R. R. Tolkien, or Unfinished Tales for short, was the first posthumous publication of unfinished and fragmentary material that forms part of the Backstory of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth. It was compiled and edited by the author's son Christopher Tolkien, who had also assembled The Silmarillion from such material (with the help of Guy Gavriel Kay). It was first published in 1980.

The stories take various formats: Some are pseudo-history written in a scholarly manner while others are actual narratives. They can be entertaining in their own right and give interesting details like the political organization of Gondor and Rohan, details about the ancient realm of Númenor, and a rough draft of The Children of Húrin, among other things. A gift for any true Tolkien-geek. Much more material of the same type would later be collected and published, more systematically, in The History of Middle-earth.

The following tropes can be found within:

  • Action Girl:
    • In some versions Galadriel wielded a sword at the Kinslaying at Alqualondë on the part of the Teleri, her mother's people.
    • Two cultures of Men are known to have trained women to fight, the People of Haleth and the Wainriders. Tolkien referred to such fighting women as "Amazonian."
  • Altar Diplomacy: Ancalimë initially likes the shepherd boy Mámandil, but he scotches it when she demurs from his proposal and he reveals that he's actually the son of a nobleman to make himself more suitable. She instead becomes angry that he's been lying to her, but she eventually marries him anyway so she can keep the throne away from her cousin (as, had she not had a heir, the throne would pass to her cousin, who she hated).
  • Anti-True Sight: There is a brief reference to 'shrouding' objects from the vision of a palantír.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Aldarion and Erendis end up so unhappy that Erendis abandons the marriage entirely to live in the country. This bleeds down to their daughter Ancalimë's life. Because she was raised alternately by two people who hated each other, her own eventual marriage was troubled and loveless.
  • Batman Gambit: It's clarified that Sauron released Gollum because he sensed that Gollum would go searching for the Ring himself, and he hoped that Gollum would unwittingly lead him to it.
  • Characterization Marches On: Christopher notes that the prior accounts of Isildur's death at the Gladden Fields were very brief, but portrayed it as him being so assured after Sauron's death that he didn't bother to set a watch and was caught by surprise—suggesting Tolkien saw Isildur then as being complacent or drunk on victory. The account in Unfinished Tales, meanwhile, portrays Isildur as a competent commander who actually managed to repulse the orcs at first, and only lost the battle because he was outnumbered ten to one and underestimated how determined and well-commanded the orcs were (and, it's suggested, the Ring was somehow reinforcing them further).
  • The Chessmaster: In "The Quest of Erebor" (a "special feature" of The Hobbit) when Gandalf and the dwarves met at Bree before visiting Bilbo, Thorin accuses Gandalf of having more in his mind than Thorin's troubles. Gandalf replies that of course he did - he was a chessmaster and that was why his advice was so good.
  • City of Adventure: Bree in "The Quest of Erebor" and "The Hunt for the Ring."
  • City of Spies: Bree in "The Hunt for the Ring."
  • Continuity Snarl: Christopher notes that "The History of Celeborn and Galadriel" is a truly unfinished tale that never received a definitive form. Depending on the version, Galadriel joined Fëanor and his sons in revoltnote , joined them in revolt but fought for the Teleri at the Kinslaying, or made her way to Middle-earth independently at the same time and therefore fell under the Doom of Mandos for reasons unrelated to Fëanor. And she either met Celeborn when she got to Doriathnote  or in Aman before she ever left. Celeborn was also variously a Sindar and a Teleri, the latter of which would have made him Galadriel's cousin, which conflicted with the fact that Elves never married so closely. Tolkien was still trying to disentangle their history and find a form he liked in the final months his life - Christopher reckons part of their history was his very last writing on Middle-earth.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Gandalf's revisions to Thorin's plan takes it, in his own words, from impossibly difficult to absurdly difficult.
  • Cultural Posturing: Thorin's company, who have been living near the Shire in the Blue Mountains, largely dismiss the hobbits of the Shire as simple-minded farmers because the hobbits don't haggle and buy no weapons from the dwarves (though they do engage in other trade). Gandalf tries to explain the injustice of this assessment to no avail.
  • Curse: The children of Hurin are cursed to awful fates, and Hurin is cursed to watch them.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You: Turns out all those years Aldarion was missing from home (time his own wife spent instructing their daughter to hate both him and men in general), he was helping the Elves and Men of Middle-earth prepare against the upcoming threat of Morgoth's former servant: Sauron. He's so annoyed at getting flak for coming home late that he pridefully refuses to give the reason.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: One chapter details some reasons why the palantíi are dangerous forbidden technology. A palantír causes significant mental strain in inexperienced or untrained users, and the art of their proper use was long forgotten. Denethor had been showing signs of "grimness" and premature aging even before he bumped into Sauron looking from the other side. Another is that it matters whether or not the palantír is "yours" or not—they had been officially granted to the line of Elendil and only they had a legitimate right to use them. "Unlicensed" users like Saruman and Pippin found them much less biddable, and Sauron was more easily able to dominate them, whilst Denethor had much more success because he was the legally-appointed representative of Gondor's kings.
  • Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: It's revealed that Gollum lied to Sauron under torture regarding the Shire's location. He gets away with it because Sauron doesn't consider why Gollum would be motivated to do so.
  • Dirty Coward: In two different drafts, one of Saruman's men (either Wormtongue or the "squint-eyed southerner") betrays him to the Witch-king under threat of torture, and reveals that Saruman had been lying about not knowing where the Shire was.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Curse on Túrin was given by Morgoth because he was angry at Húrin for defying him. This would also be Revenge by Proxy and perhaps Sins of Our Fathers. Morgoth, of course, was not normally known for being nice anyway.
  • The Gadfly: One reason Gandalf insisted on Bilbo is because he knew Thorin's low opinion of hobbits and wanted to annoy him by forcing him to add one to his Company (and to teach him a lesson about their value).
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: Not the Trope Namer, yet the original, which resulted in the creation of Rohan. While losing badly in a war with Easterlings, Gondor made a last-ditch hopeless call for help to the northern horse-lords (known then as the Éothéod), with whom they were friendly but had no formal relations. Eorl didn't send an answer back, which made the Gondorians despair even more, but that was because Eorl was coming himself with all of his warriors. The ruling Steward of the time granted Eorl the mostly-uninhabited lands to the north, turning the Éothéod into the Rohirrim.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: "Aldarion and Erendis" is one of the few cases in Tolkien where there truly isn't a "good" or "bad" side in the main conflict (with Sauron being firmly a distant Greater-Scope Villain). Aldarion's actions to save the elves were righteous, but he also neglects his family and his duties as prince, repeatedly breaks his promises to his wife, and keeps the truth of his actions secret more out of pride than anything. Erendis is a vindictive Woman Scorned who can frequently be irrational, but she's also reacting to Aldarion's lack of care for her and the very real possibility that he's doing what he does for selfish reasons, and gives him multiple chances to prove her wrong that sees her suspicions vindicated every time.
  • The Handler: In "The Hunt for the Ring" the Witch-king captures an agent of Saruman's and intimidates him into serving Sauron.
  • Hero of Another Story: One of the several ideas that Tolkien had about the Blue Wizards was that they were actively engaged in stirring up rebellions among the Easterlings against their Sauron-worshipping rulers, and that without these efforts, the size of Sauron's armies would have been impossible to overcome and the destruction of the Ring would have been a Pyrrhic Victory.
  • Hidden Depths: The Quest of Erebor reveals that Thorin was far more conflicted and doubtful than his proud and egotistical behaviour in The Hobbit lets on, to the point where he almost called the whole thing off in Bag End. Indeed, Gandalf says that his version of "An Unexpected Party" would look extremely different than what Bilbo wrote down.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: At one point in Aldarion and Erendis, Erendis gives her daughter a lecture on why she dislikes the men of Númenor. Though Erendis is far from a good person by this point, and it's clear most of her attitudes come down to her growing disdain for her old husband, the points she makes—the men of Númenor have no respect for natural beauty except that it can be turned into workable resources, they claim to love their children but offload all the hard work of raising them onto their wives, they preach peace but seem all too eager to jump into the next war, they talk about kindness but immediately bristle when someone challenges their worldview—all have at least a pretty hefty grain of truth to them. Her prediction that these attitudes will ultimately ruin Númenor and they need to cherish it while they can turns out to be dead-on. She even at one point attacks the patriarchal power structures and histories of her people, noting that though their tales have many accounts of heroic men, women feature far less, and most often only to weep for their men dying, something that is, frankly, pretty accurate to those who have read The Silmarillion (and considering that Tolkien wrote most of those histories, one gets a sense of Self-Deprecation there).
  • Killed Offscreen: Well, more like "Killed Off-Existence", since Tolkien never actually wrote what happened to her, but Erendis's death is only written as "perished in the water in 985." We do know this apparently occurred at Romenna, the harbor and drydock of Númenor, but whether this was accident, suicide, or something else entirely is uncertain. Erendis did mention at one point that she felt the sea would be her death...
  • Last Stand: "Disaster of the Gladden Fields."
  • Lost Technology: "The Palantíri" goes into detail about how the palantíri were once used, how they fell out of use, and some proposed explanations of how they worked. For example, the spheres had a proper orientation with a top and bottom "pole", and their hemispheres were aligned to look in certain directions—e.g. trying to look westwards from the west side wouldn't work. Pippin got lucky in Lord of the Rings and just happened to plonk it down in the right orientation to look through. The stone of Elendil was permanently aligned towards Númenor, or rather the spot in the ocean Númenor had once been. Also, the proper technique for their use had been lost by the time of the Third Age, which put a strain on anyone trying to use them regularly.
  • Master Archer: Duilin of Gondolin is referred to as the "swiftest of all men to run and leap and surest of archers at a mark."
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The Drúedain, aka the Woses or Wild-men. The Haledin believed them to have mystical powers and one of their stories is recorded wherein a Drúedain left a statue to guard a Haledin he lived with. The statue came to life and killed Orcs who came to burn the family's home and then stamped out the fire; when the Drúedain returns, he has burn blisters on his legs. However, it's left deliberately ambiguous whether they actually had such powers or whether their strong woodcraft, reclusiveness, and unusual language simply made it easy to believe they did.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Aldarion and Erendis on Númenor. Aldarion as a member of the royal house of Númenor lived 398 years; Erendis lived only 214 years. Making matters worse, Aldarion spent many of those years on long voyages to Middle-earth. Erendis was not happy; their daughter, the future queen Tar-Ancalimë was severely scarred.
  • Meta Fiction: "The Quest for Erebor" is told by Gandalf to the Hobbits and Gimli at Minas Tirith.
  • Missing Steps Plan: Thorin's initial plan to deal with Smaug is actually a lot worse than the Missing Steps Plan he actually implemented because it was essentially to tackle the dragon head-on in battle. Gandalf talks him into trying a stealth mission instead.
  • Mood Whiplash: Most of the Unfinished Tales are far from cheerful, featuring events such as Isildur's death, the endless tragedy of Húrin's family, and the bitter relationship between a king and queen of Númenor. "The Quest of Erebor" deals with Gandalf's hilarious trials and tribulations in getting Bilbo added to Thorin's company.
  • My Girl Back Home: "Aldarion and Erendis" is about a Númenórean prince who ruins his marriage because of his love for the sea.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: As Gandalf admits not visiting Bilbo before he enacted his plan almost undid everything, as Bilbo had changed considerably from the adventurous lad he was in his youth and made a complete fool of himself. Gandalf had to do a lot of fast talking to convince Thorin not to call the whole thing off.
  • Noble Fugitive: Túrin.
  • Noble Savage: The Drúedain, also known as Wild Men and Woodwoses, who are somewhat like Neanderthals in appearance. They may have magic powers.
  • No Ending: Due to the stories involved being literally incomplete, several of them simply... stop, being only followed by an explanation by what presumably would have happened next.
  • No Hero to His Valet: During his lengthy sea voyages, Aldarion wins the respect and love of the Elven and human lords of Middle-earth for his wise counsel and assistance in shoring up their defenses against a new post-Morgoth threat. Meanwhile, his parents, his wife, and popular opinion turns against him on Númenor because to them it looks like he's neglecting his heirdom because he likes sailing.
  • Not So Above It All: Saruman dismisses Gandalf's interest in the Shire, but he snoops around there to find out what Gandalf sees in the hobbits—secretly, except that many of the hobbits spot him in the woods and later ask Gandalf why "he" was there. Later, he derides Gandalf's newfound hobby of smoking pipe-weed, then gets his hands on it through his agents in the Shire. He ends up loving the stuff, but he's so mortified at the thought of actually admitting that to Gandalf that he keeps his smoking as secret as his scheming for the Ring.
  • Oh, Crap!: Sauron's reaction when he learns that Gandalf has had access to Gollum. He immediately orders an attack on Thranduil in the hope of killing Gollum or at least preventing his enemies from getting any information from him.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Many of Saruman and Gandalf's interactions in "The Hunt For the Ring". Sauruman, who believes Gandalf to be as plotting and politic as himself, keeps seeing hidden meanings that aren't there when they talk. Gandalf, though annoyed at Saruman's obstructionism, genuinely has no idea that Saruman suspects him of running some deep plot against him. Particularly when Gandalf sarcastically blows some smoke rings, which Saruman takes as "proof" that Gandalf knows about Saruman's desire for the One Ring—the narrator points out that if Gandalf had any idea, he wouldn't have made such a gesture.
  • Perspective Flip: "The Quest for Erebor" is the events of The Hobbit (and preceding it) from Gandalf's perspective, showing just how much scheming went into setting everything up to deal with Smaug.
  • Plot Hole: One draft of the story noted that the Witch-king knew the location of Bree and the surrounding area, which makes it odd that he didn't know where the Shire was.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Aldarion could have avoided his father's and possibly his wife's anger if he'd ever considered telling them that the reason his voyages always lasted longer than he promised was because there was a new threat to their Middle-earth kin that he was helping them prepare for. Meneldur doesn't learn this until Aldarion huffily tosses him a letter from Gil-galad.
  • Pride: If everyone in "Aldarion and Erendis" had been slightly less stiff-necked about their respective positions, they would have been a much happier family. (Aldarion even confesses that he was trying to provoke Meneldur into an argument after one of many late returns.)
  • The Spymaster: The Witch-king in "The Hunt for the Ring."
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: When Gandalf attempts to raise Bilbo's credibility by describing him as a prosperous hobbit, the dwarves jump to the conclusion that Bilbo is a professional thief (because how else could a non-dwarf be rich and in possession of finery). This was not the line of reasoning Gandalf intended, but he rolls with it because a) it seems like the only way forward and b) he's reached the end of his tether, so he's essentially throwing his hands in the air.
  • Undying Loyalty: Gandalf warns that his strong attachment to Bilbo means he won't tolerate Bilbo being left out or misused. This helps Thorin to accept him more than Gandalf's other arguments; dwarves hold bonds of kinship and friendship as absolutely ironclad, so if Gandalf is displaying that level of feeling, it must be justified.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Lamented in "Aldarion and Erendis" by Aldarion after their relationship becomes unsalvageable. After his return from yet another overlong sea voyage, he is deeply disappointed that Erendis went to the countryside to avoid him completely, rather than putting on a big public show of her contempt for him. That, Aldarion would have respected (and perhaps it would have gratified his sense of Pride, as opposed to her absence showing she doesn't consider him worth the bother).
    • In "Cirion and Eorl," an ancient campaign between Gondor and its allies against the Wainriders is opened by Gondorian agents engineering a slave revolt in the Wainriders' country while the men were away at war. The Wainrider women defend their homes against the rebels and are praised for their valor. Interestingly this is one of the few times Tolkien uses this trope in detail, although it is implied elsewhere that Easterlings and Haradrim have Worthy Opponents among them.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: "The Quest of Erebor."

Alternative Title(s): The Unfinished Tales, Unfinished Tales