Review: The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

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The Fall of Gondolin brings Tolkien’s mythos full circle. It was the first story of his secondary world to be written, the earliest version dating from 1917 – and it is the last posthumous story to be released by his son, Christopher, just over a century later. Before I get to the book itself, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Christopher for his forty-five years’ worth of work in managing and editing his father’s creation (one can imagine a less scrupulous heir taking advantage of the situation, in order to push his own “original” work. Not so Christopher Tolkien, who at 93 has now earned his retirement).

So what to make of The Fall of Gondolin, the new book? In one sense, it is a disappointment. There is no new material here – my hopeful hypothesis from April, which attempted a page-count analysis of existing material, and concluded there might be something new, has been thwarted by font and commentary. In fact, it is an even bigger disappointment than I had expected – I had at least assumed that we would see the hitherto unpublished Lay of the Fall of Gondolin included, on the basis that this (short, incomplete) poem would help pad out the length. However, it seems Christopher’s views on it haven’t changed since he made the following comment in The Lays of Beleriand:

I do not give this poem in extenso here, since it does not, so far as the main narrative is concerned, add anything to the Tale; and my father found, as I think, the metrical form unsuitable to the purpose.

Which is a shame, even if it is considered surplus to requirements – it is still Gondolin material, as written by Tolkien Senior.

But enough about what isn’t in there. What is, and what can we make of it?

Apart from Christopher’s notes and commentary, the book contains the following:

  • The complete 1917 original version.
  • The unfinished 1951 rewrite.
  • Another brief re-write of the 1917 version (Turlin and the Exiles of Gondolin).
  • A very brief pre-emptive note leading up to 1917.
  • The 1926 condensed version (Sketch of the Mythology).
  • The 1930 condensed version (Quenta)

Think Beren and Lúthien (minus the poetry), rather than a coherent narrative in the vein of The Children of Húrin.

The heart of this volume is therefore 1917 (previously featured in The Book of Lost Tales Volume II) and 1951 (previously featured in Unfinished Tales). For people who are hesitant about dipping into the twelve volumes of The History of Middle-earth, The Fall of Gondolin is a godsend in terms of making the original story more accessible.

1917 is the (slightly whimsical) version with mechanical dragons, underpowered Balrogs, and a cowardly overweight Elf called Salgant – Maeglin’s lackey. It also features a throwaway hypothesis that Maeglin has Orc blood (it promptly dismisses the idea), and a certain minor character named Legolas Greenleaf, a re-used name that would have been altered had the thing been re-written in full. As I have said, the piece has a strange whimsy to it – but it is also complete. In fact, it is the most thorough treatment of a Tolkienian battle you will see outside Helm’s Deep and Pelennor Fields, culminating in Glorfindel’s duel with the Balrog, and given that it is written in a higher style than Rings, the only comparison I can give is E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (which The Fall of Gondolin pre-dates!).

1951 is the darker, more detailed, and more polished re-write, that, alas, remains unfinished. Already featured in Unfinished Tales, this is the story of Tuor from his boyhood, to his adventures in Nevrast, to his encounter with Ulmo, to his winter trek to Gondolin with Voronwe, and then finally his (frosty) initial reception at the seven gates of the city – the story cuts off just as Tuor looks down upon Tumladen for the first time. Tuor the character does not change much from the 1917 version – he is still the pious, decent protagonist of the piece, and everything his darker cousin is not (aforementioned cousin has a cameo). The Elves of Gondolin, however, have more than a bit of paranoia about them when first encountered, which in conjunction with the imagery of the Fell Winter, creates a quite foreboding atmosphere. Excellent stuff – and a literary tragedy that Tolkien abandoned it when he did.

Also included in the book:

  • A follow-up account, following Tuor’s son Eärendil on his pilgrimage across the Sea, and his role in the defeat of Morgoth – which serves to give a sense of closure to the mythology. It’s, alas, a thin account, since whereas at least Gondolin proper has a complete story to go with it, Eärendil’s tale is a matter of notes and sketches.
  • A glossary of names, and a fold-out map of Beleriand.
  • Eight gorgeous colour illustrations from Alan Lee.

So is the book worth getting? Rather depends on who you are. As I have said, this book is really aimed at people who have read The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin, and have at least toyed with Unfinished Tales, but who haven’t read The History of Middle-earth. If you are after a coherent narrative (which we were never going to get) or new material, you are going to be disappointed – for people who have read The Book of Lost Tales, the only real selling point is completeness (this is Christopher’s last hurrah), and Lee’s excellent artwork.

**

(This review is a tad delayed, because I had to wait for the book to be shipped from the UK. It turned out it was significantly cheaper to ship from the other side of the world than get it ordered via a local bookshop).

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