For all of you Middle Earth fans, the appendices in "The Lord of the Rings" were just games. This is the real thing.
Tolkien was a heavyweight scholar before he published a word of fiction. In his admittedly narrow academic circle, he was a famous man before ever there was a Hobbit. This book is based on lectures delivered by Tolkien over a period of years. Tolkien being Tolkien, he never got around to publishing them and he never stayed his hand from making changes. They have been deciphered, collated and edited into coherent form by a younger man, Alan Bliss, no mean feat of scholarship in itself.
The Dark Age was not entirely dark, nor were the Germanic barbarians wholly devoid of culture. Beyond a shadow of doubt, they possessed full-scale epics and many shorter heroic songs and lays. Many were gathered together by Alcuin, the great Anglo-Saxon scholar imported into the court of Charlemagne. When the mighty emperor died, he was succeeded by his son, then known as Louis the Debonaire, but more accurately called Louis the Pious by later generations. When Louis came in, out went his father's mistresses and his secular books. "What has Ingeld [an epic hero mentioned in Beowulf] to do with Christ?" asked Alcuin, now an enthusiastic book burner.
In our time, just one full-scale Germanic epic survives, Beowulf--and that clung to life in only a single copy. A pitifully few fragments of another large-scale poem, Waldhere, the epic of Walter of Aquitaine's conflict with his best friend and direst enemy, Hagen the Niblung, were found in the binding of an old book. Tolkien's book deals with a third epic story, the tale of Hengest, a hero who is caught in a particularly nasty moral dilemma. He had not only survived the death in battle of Hnaef, his prince, a dicey enough thing by the standards of his heroic age, but he had reached a truce with the foreign king who had killed Hnaef. The epic question was "What does a noble warrior do next?" The question was so interesting to the warrior society of Germanic barbarism, that two versions of the tale survive. One is a longish poem-within-a-poem quoted in Beowulf and the other is a tiny fragment of the whole epic, the episode that leads up to death of Prince Hnaef.
The tale was obviously so well known that neither the Beowulf poet nor the unknown skald of the Fragment felt it necessary to explain anything. Tolkien's literary goal was to extract as much sense out of his intractable materials as he could and to attempt reconstruction of the original story.
In addition to that, there is a historic question. Heroic epics are not necessarily tall tales of pure fiction. Hygelac, Beowulf's king, is a quite historical character. A contemporary monkish chronicler in Latin fully agrees with the Anglo-Saxon epic poet that Hygelac died in a disastrous raid on the Frisian Islands fairly close to 520 A.D. Beowulf, Hygelac's henchman and successor, heard of Hengest's dilemma as an old story, something from at least two or three generation earlier. Now, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that one Hengest, who led the wave of Anglo-Saxon invaders and died as King of Kent, landed on British soil in 449 A.D. Were the two Hengests the same man? The times seem to coincide, and there is no other Hengest on surviving record. Could a warrior named Hengest, likely an Angle, so thoroughly have blotted his copybook by outliving his prince that there was no place left for him in German lands? Was he forced to carve out his own new kingdom in Britain?
Read this book and then return to Middle Earth. Compare Tolkien's warrior princes with the originals on whom they were based. Revisit those appendices to "The Lord of the Rings" and compare the caricature of scholarship with the real thing.
For those who can brave the trip, five stars.