The Great Tales refer to three key stories that take place in the early days of Middle-Earth, which Tolkien saw as integral to the overarching narrative of the Silmarils and the One Ring. Versions of the Great Tales can be found in The Silmarillion, but Christopher Tolkien later published a separate volume for each Tale.
The Silmarillion contains Christopher’s edited versions of the Tales, made to fit into a cohesive narrative. In contrast, the separate volumes contain each of Tolkien’s drafts, so readers can see how Tolkien constantly reworked the stories throughout his life, sometimes trying a story in verse, then in prose, and often changing narrative details. There is no truly finished version of any of the Great Tales, only various working manuscripts.
The three Great Tales are The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. Readers may wish to read The Silmarillion before diving into the Great Tales, so that they have the background information necessary to understand the wars that the characters in the Tales are involved in.
Húrin, a Man, is captured by the Dark Lord Morgoth during a battle and held as captive. Morgoth curses Húrin’s children, so that everything they touch comes to ruin. Through the years, Húrin is made to watch as his son Túrin is exiled after a murder and his wife and daughter are forced by enemies to flee into the wilderness. The book raises the question of whether the children of Húrin are truly trapped by fate and Morgoth’s curse, or if Túrin’s pride is the real source of their suffering. It is based on the Finnish legend of Kullervo, a hero whose story is found in the Kalevala.
This is a story of star-crossed lovers whose commitment to each other is so great that they can defeat even death. The Man Beren falls in love with the immortal Elf maiden Lúthien. Lúthien’s father agrees the two can be together, but only if Beren can wrest a Silmaril, a magical jewel, from the crown of the Dark Lord Morgoth. But even if he succeeds, in agreeing to marry Beren, Lúthien will have to give up her immortality. Tolkien had the names of Beren and Lúthien inscribed on the gravestones of himself and his wife Edith, thereby linking the couple with Tolkien’s greatest love story.
In the First Age, the Elves built a secret city, safe from the power of Morgoth. But a betrayal reveals their location to him, causing the city to fall and the inhabitants to flee into the wild. This story introduces Tuor and Idril, the parents of Eärendil the Mariner. Tolkien links this story to LotR by having Bilbo sing about Eärendil in The Lord of the Rings when he is in the house of Elrond (Eärendil’s son).
This volume contains a number of manuscripts compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher after Tolkien’s death. Unlike The Silmarillion, the book does not try to present a cohesive narrative, but simply presents Tolkien’s writings in their unfinished state. This volume is best enjoyed by avid fans who have already read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, as it contains more information about characters and events from those works.