`The Shaping of Middle-Earth' is the fourth volume of Christopher Tolkien's exegesis of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien's unpublished writings which were done before, during, and after the writing of `The Hobbit' and `The Lord of the Rings'. It is important to realize that beginning with Volume III, `The Lays of Beleriand', these volumes are prepared according to the date on which the elder Tolkien wrote the documents. That this `real world' chronology is roughly parallel to the great ages of middle earth is simply a happy coincidence.
One little niggle I have about the emphasis of `Middle Earth' in the title of both this volume and the series as a whole is that the land, middle earth, is just one part of the whole world in which this mythology is played out. It is basically a great continent, roughly similar to Eurasia in size, surrounded by a single great ocean which is, in turn, bounded by the undying lands. This fact is eminantly clear in the crude maps by Tolkien senior presented in this volume.
What is also eminantly clear in most of these fragments is the great difference in both geography and physics between our world and the world in which middle earth is embedded. There is no sun and no stars, until the stars are created by some of the `gods', the Valar, who are in turn created by `the one', Iluvatar.
The fragments in this volume are mostly early versions of the mythology which was to become the postumously published `The Silmarillion'. As such, it deals with my very favorite character outside of `The Lord of the Rings', the elven lord Feanor who, in a rough parallel to both Adam and Prometheus, disobeys the Valar based on the promptings of the ultimate bad guy in these stories, Morgoth.
Even if one buys the unique physics, cosmology, and pantheon of gods and demigods, the hardest part of this and similar writings is how to deal with Tolkien's handling of evil. How, one wonders, are eight `good' Valar duped by the ninth evil one, who is left to subvert the Valar's most favored creations, the elves, and create all sorts of mayhem in Middle Earth. Even if one introduces the arguments about `free will', one wonders how, if you posit a very real supreme being, Iluvatar (Eru), plus eight comparably powerful beings, such beings would let Morgoth get away with being the cause of all this suffering.
On a ligher note, I find this book an amazing source of poetic inspiration, even more poetic, sometimes than the overtly poetic `The Lays of Beleriand'. There are phrases and paragraphs here and there which sound like they are straight out of a song by Donoven Leitch or The Incredible String Band.
Like almost all the twelve volumes in this series, this is much more a study of fragments than a complete work. Many of the fragments rework the same material, so you find yourself reading the same story over again, in slightly different words. And yet, the power of the created world holds up through the scholarly framework. As with other volumes, there is an excellent index of names at the end of the book and the aforementioned maps are invaluable in understanding the very odd geography of this invented world.